Emmanuel Macron recently cosplayed as Volodymyr Zelensky. The normally well-coiffed president of France let his facial hair grow out and wore a military hoodie like his Ukrainian counterpart. The whole event was a photo-op, a sort of cosplay (costume play) because Macron wants to be viewed like the courageous Zelensky.
We can at least understand the performative act here. Maybe it was even well-intentioned. After all, Macron may have desired to mimic Zelensky in a show of support, but it missed the mark.
Political leaders are not alone in their pursuit of performative cosplay. Sigma males, Christian masculinity gurus, and more besides present themselves as being at the top of the male hierarchy and invite others to grow under them.
I suppose I would not call this cosplay. LARPing is the right term. LARPing or live-action role-playing refers to the act of dressing up like a character, usually to play a game (see here). As the name indicates, these characters play roles in the game.
Masculinity promoters often play a game, wear a mask, and take on a role. They cast the double-sided die. It’s often (not always) a lark, but one with at least one underlying problem. They LARP to get attention.
The reason why women Instagram influencers post images for likes is similar to why manliness gurus tweet or produce YouTube videos. It begins as a digital playground but later becomes real life.
After Russia said they’d pull the plug on Instagram, Karina Nigay, a fashion influencer in Russia, said, “This [Instagram] is my life, this is my soul. This is what I have been waking up to and falling asleep with for the last five years.”
Her life, her income, her experience of the world comes from Instagram. There, she gets clicks, validation, income, and other desirable outcomes. I am not here criticizing anyone’s chosen vocation.
Social media can be a very good thing. But we can at least admit that the place of validation—from personal affirmation to digital likes—has brought with it drastic changes to the social order.
Karina Nigay eventually identified her life on Instagram as “my soul.” I suspect the guys who regularly promote their masculinity slogans on social media have found themselves in a similar place. They cease at one point from being LARPers, and they become the role. They wear the mask, they cannot take it off.
If you have placed your whole self-worth into your online brand, how else can you make money, get validation, sell books, sell conference tickets, and feel empowered and successful?
The masculinity gurus need to remain in their zone for likes, influence, and marketing. But the mask they wear often—but not always—veils true courage.
Some LARP courage and in so doing obscure true courage.
As Christians and others have recognized over the years, courage or fortitude names our ability to face hardship. Courage, however, requires vulnerability, since courage overcomes or endures something genuinely dangerous or difficult.
For Christians, courage in its final form is martyrdom since laying down one’s life while enduring hardship amounts to the greatest possible sacrifice.
Obviously, courage cannot mean reckless pseudo-bravery like walking at the edge of a dangerous cliff or speeding recklessly. It requires that the thing for which we endure hardship be good. It requires prudence, the ability “to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14).
Jesus endured the cross because it was good and right to lay down his life for the sin of the world. That means he endured the shame of the cross because it was just.
So courage requires prudence (the ability to discern right from wrong) and justice (actually doing what you know is right). If I walked on a tight rope over a great height, it might mean that I endure or overcome the rope. But I needlessly put myself at risk, and I am obligated to care for my family—my wife and children. It would be imprudent to choose, and unjust to do so.
Masculine Men, Or Just Quarrelsome Men?
Masculinity gurus make big claims, often proclaiming victory before the time or needlessly calling out people for the sake of appearing manly, courageous. Yet as pastor Paul Martin recently wrote:
The apostle Paul says “an overseer must be . . . not quarrelsome” (1 Tim. 3:2–3). Yet in my experience, quarrelsome people often hide behind the excuse, “I’m just principled” or “I’m standing up for the truth when no one else will.”
Manliness or courage as defined above does not look like bold words, without gentleness and kindness. Courage does not look likely merely saying the hardest truths.
It looks like “speaking the truth lovingly” (Eph 4:15). It looks like “patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:24–15). It looks like Jesus who spent years with the disciples who never really got it until after the resurrection.
Now, someone will say, “Jesus turned over tables in the temple!” Oh sure, and when you are the Son of God who cleans out the temple, which belongs to Jesus as Son of God whose temple it is; which also symbolically portrays his own body which would soon include the church by the Spirit as a renewed people; and when you can know inherently the hearts of all people due to your divine power (John 2:25), then, yes, we may go and do likewise.
Since we are not Jesus in his particular mission of redemption which included the renovation of the temple to symbolically portray what he would do for those in Christ (1 Cor 6:17, 19), we are obligated to love, and love prevents us from acting too harshly:
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4–6).
I admit. None of us can know what is in the heart of someone like God can (1 Sam 16:7). But as Calvin notes in his commentary on Romans 14, we can know how someone acts. So if we act sinfully, someone can judge our acts as sinful or righteous according to the word of God.
But they’d probably go too far if they too readily judged our heart—something that can happen only after a long process in church discipline. Even then, the church judges that someone will not cease sinning. Hope always remains that God will save such a one, or that such a person will turn back to God.
So, I believe we can spot the difference between LARPing courage and the real thing, but we should not take the next step of judging one’s total intention and heart. Love always hopes, even though justice discriminates and judges external acts according to the Word of God.
When we see quarrelsome people, when we see anger masked as manliness, when we see cruelty excused since they just told the truth, then call it for what it is: sin.
Remember, Courage Requires Prudence and Justice
Words are not courageous unless they come out of a place of vulnerability—if they don’t, they cannot be courageous. Courage requires doing something hard at the risk of real loss. Sitting in a position in which everyone affirms your words just means we have a fan club.
Courage too requires prudence, which means discerning “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2) as well as having a “discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14).
Knowing good from evil is not enough. So doing what you know is right is necessary. Hence, speaking the truth is not sufficient. We must speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), or speak the truth lovingly, as the adverbial preposition phrase indicates.
Tough words then are not enough. True courage needs more. It needs love. It needs prudence and justice. Only then, ought we to warrant the designation justice.
Who Is Courageous?
I cannot comment on the whole life of President Zelensky. But I can say that he now defends his nation at great personal and national risk, even putting his life on the line. Death is the ultimate vulnerability.
He does so because he has rightly discerned it is right for him to defend his homeland from an invasion. He has, so far, acted according to basic notions of justice in doing so. We can see, as imperfect his and all of our lives might be, real courage.
So look there.
And look finally to Jesus “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).
Ignore the pretenders. They lack the very courage their platforms are built on. It is role-playing, costume play, dress-up. Jesus is the real thing.