Wanted: A Healthy Sexual Ethic
One of the reasons I have been wanting to shift our discussion of the place of sexual minorities in the United Methodist Church to a context of a broader discussion of what it means to be a sexual being as a Christian is that we Americans, particularly American Christians, are so screwed up when it comes to sex. A few years ago, I heard, and subsequently wrote about Purity Balls, an event where daughters pledge to their fathers to remain chaste until marriage, and fathers pledge to protect their daughters’s purity. Then, they dance. Seriously.
As a father of a nearly 17-year-old young woman, if I EVER danced with my daughter like this, I would want to be hauled away. The entire thing, from conception to execution, is a creep-fest beyond words.
Then there’s the recent story of the young woman asked to leave a prom organized for students who are home schooled because, apparently, some of the chaperoning fathers were a bit . . . upset . . . with her dress.
We were also a little grossed out by all the dads on the balcony above the dance floor, ogling and talking amongst themselves. We weren’t dancing, but swaying with the music and talking and enjoying ourselves, when Mrs. D again approached me, and gestured me off the dance floor. She took me into a corner in the hall way, with another woman, (who I’m assuming was a parent/chaperone) and told me that some of the dads who were chaperoning had complained that my dancing was too provocative, and that I was going to cause the young men at the prom to think impure thoughts.
Yeah, it must have been the impure thoughts from all those high school age boys those creepy men my age were worried about.
It’s often been noted that, in a society and culture saturated with sexual imagery and popular art forms, we just don’t talk about sex. And we don’t want to talk about it, either. What’s the most controversial subject at any public school? Sex education. Some parent somewhere believes it isn’t about teaching adolescents about their changing bodies, why they can’t seem NOT to think about sex, the mechanics of it, the psychology of it, and the necessity for conception control as well as disease control. No, it isn’t that, these parents insist. It’s about teaching our kids, who otherwise wouldn’t have a sexual thought, how to do it, and how to do all sorts of unnatural things like petting and oral sex. It’s actually close to being clinically insane; our refusal to face the reality of our sexuality creates a supersaturation of sexual imagery while a denial both of the reality of our sex drive and ways to be sexually healthy.
I’ve said for years that our churches should teach sex education, for parents and youth. We need to remind parents what their kids are going through, how the emergence of the sex drive, mixed with all the other bodily changes of adolescence, creates perfect storms of confusion and poor decision-making. We need to teach our youth that, yes, you are probably feeling strong urges to act out sexually. This is both normal and healthy. Then we need to get down to basic biology, developmental psychology, all within a framework wherein sex isn’t dirty, or bad, or a sin, but a normal, healthy part of being human. How we live out our lives as sexual beings, however, as those whose lives are now hidden in God through the risen Christ (as we noted the other day), is a life-long project of disciplined thought, prayer, mutual accountability, and an appreciation both for the joys and perils of sexual love.
The United Methodist Church has a good start, I think, on creating a healthy, well-rounded sexual ethic. With our affirmation that sex is a good gift from a good God, we affirm that our creation includes sex as part of who we are. It was St. Augustine, in his doctrine of the Trinity, who said that the Holy Spirit was the mutual love that bound the Father and Son together. In this way, too, analogously, we can see how this imago Trinitatis, is lived out, in part, in the sexual expression of love between two persons who are committed to one another. Warped and dangerous as our sexuality can be, thanks to sin, I believe there is something to this notion that our creation in God’s image includes physical love for those with whom we share our lives.
Yet, because our Church is broken, as all human institutions are, our sexual ethic is seriously flawed. We view certain expressions of human sexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching”. We insist that some people, simply being who they are, cannot be bearers of this imago Trinitatis. We have not only dehumanized same-sex love and sexuality; we have claimed it is outside the bounds of Divine Grace. How can we teach our people that God has granted us this beautiful gift of sexual love, while at the same time tell some of our members they cannot share that gift with those they love because it is “incompatible with Christian teaching”?
Our country, and of course our churches, are screwed up when it comes to sex. Because we are unwilling to talk about it, we create enormous empty spaces filled with rumor, peer pressure, and all kinds of false information. Not to mention weird, creepy things like Purity Balls and grown men ogling teenage girls whom they’re supposed to be chaperoning. We should be better than this. We need to get over our attraction-repulsion with regard to human sexuality and start dealing with it in healthy, constructive, positive ways. Our churches can help fill this gap in many ways. But we need to be willing to face our own failures first. We need to make clear that human sexuality, a good gift from a good God, is something all of us – straight, gay, lesbian, and bisexual – have been given, to share with those we love. While its physical, biological purpose is the continuation of the species, we should also make clear how sexual love within committed relationships binds the couple together as they express their love for one another physically. We should be unafraid to make clear that this, too, is part of God’s creation, called very good once it was complete. Despite the fall, despite the pervasiveness of sin, we who are Christian, whose lives are committed to working to transform the world, include transforming sex from something dirty and secret to what it should be – something beautiful, something we are willing to discuss in frank, honest, yet always loving and appreciative terms.