[Y]ou are not ashamed of your sin [in committing adultery] because so many men commit it. Man’s wickedness is now such that men are more ashamed of chastity than of lechery. Murderers, thieves, perjurers, false witnesses, plunderers and fraudsters are detested and hated by people generally, but whoever will sleep with his servant girl in brazen lechery is liked and admired for it, and people make light of the damage to his soul. And if any man has the nerve to say that he is chaste and faithful to his wife and this gets known, he is ashamed to mix with other men, whose behaviour is not like his, for they will mock him and despise him and say he’s not a real man; for man’s wickedness is now of such proportions that no one is considered a man unless he is overcome by lechery, while one who overcomes lechery and stays chaste is considered unmanly. – St. Augustine
Does a rake deserve to possess anything of worth, since he chases everything in skirts and then imagines he can successfully hide his shame by slandering [women in general]? – Christine de Pizan,
I think it’s important to begin with, well, a little confession of sorts. Like pretty much most adolescent males of my generation (late baby-boomer), the high school locker room was a place for bragging, usually making up stories to make oneself look a better “guy” than you actually were. I participated in that no less than any other adolescent, and truth be told I wish I’d had a better sense of who I was and what it meant to be a real man, rather than “a guy”. I don’t carry this around as a huge weight, because, let’s be honest about something else: I was a stupid kid, with marginal self-esteem at best like most of my peers.
The point of this little confession isn’t so much about my own stupidity as it is the ease we all felt when speaking casually about girls and young women, sexualizing their every act, their dress, congratulating one another when one or another of us reported sexual success. This nonchalance regarding the humanity of the young women around us shocks me now. It’s difficult, I think, for those who may not have gone through such rites of passage – and I’m guessing there are some men, at least, who did not act this way – to understand just how little we thought of the young women in our lives.
I got thinking about this when I read a story about one man who defended Trump’s “Grab them by the pussy,” comment by calling it “guy talk”. Because, dear men everywhere, can we all be honest enough to admit that even if we were never as brazen as Trump to talk like this outside the safe-spaces of a man’s only world, whether or not we said such things, we heard them said and didn’t attack the person who said it? This is so because, yes, this is indeed “guy talk”. It is, however, “guy talk” of insecure, immature adolescents who, afraid both of women and their own inability to act properly and appropriately around them, create scenarios that make them look both far more sophisticated and experienced than they are. It is indeed locker room banter. And it’s banter like this that deserves to stay precisely where it originates: in junior high and high school boys’ locker rooms, providing object lessons in how not to speak or think about women.
In 2005, the World Health Organization conducted a multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women, following on the United Nation’s adoption both of particular definitions of violence against women and creating guidelines for member states to use when combating the problem. Among the findings highlighted at the link above:
- between 15% of women in Japan and 71% of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime;
- between 10.3–11.5% of women reported sexual violence by someone other than a partner since the age of 15 years
- the first sexual experience for many women was reported as forced – 17% of women in rural Tanzania, 24% in rural Peru, and 30% in rural Bangladesh reported that their first sexual experience was forced.
A fact sheet on the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) website offers some sad, sobering numbers on violence against women in the United States.
- In 2005, 1,181 women were murdered by an intimate partner.1 That’s an average of three women every day. Of all the women murdered in the U.S., about one-third were killed by an intimate partner.
- According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.4
- According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day.6
According to The Gale Group, while all states had outlawed “wife beating” by 1920, it was only in the 1970’s that domestic violence became a category in criminal law in the United States. According to a March 2014 article in the UK edition of Cosmopolitan, “domestic violence” is not specifically outlawed either in England or Wales; all the police and prosecutors can do is act against specific acts of violence rather than patterns of behavior. Considering just the stories and experiences from my own life, I cannot think of a single woman I know who has not in one way or another, experienced everything from lewd and harassing comments through some kind of unwanted physical attention to rape. I think it’s important to remember these facts and figures going forward.
Compared to other industrialized nations, the United States is a uniquely violent place. Our history of the casual acceptance of violence as part and parcel of life is something we are only now, early in the 21st century, trying to change. That change is achingly, painfully slow. State-sanctioned violence against women and minorities continues to be routine, with police departments refusing to consider changing either oversight regimens or even to hear criticisms of entrenched bias. While the military services are sexually integrated, sexual harassment and violence within the ranks of service-members is both rampant and a scandal civilian leaders of our military continue to struggle both to understand and control. Even the casual sexism we read and hear through the media, such as attacking women (both prominent and not) for their looks or dress; rape victims continually harassed by attorneys and even judges for their dress and actions before, during, and after rapes to insist what occurred was consensual in some fashion; various online scandals involving the harassment of women, from this past summer’s attack on actress Leslie Jones by Breitbart.com tech editor, serial fat-shamer, and all-around young-sociopath-about-town Milo Yiannopoulos to the long-running GamerGate; all this shows that far too many men still believe it more than acceptable to treat women as less than human.
All of this is to suggest both that there is little that’s surprising about Trump’s actual comment and I’m bemused by the Capt. Renault-like shock, shock! that a powerful man whose entire Presidential campaign is rooted in a kind of barely repressed violent hatred of the Other, and whose every unscripted comment seems to be the bragging of a deeply insecure, frightened, immature boy, would say that he feels it acceptable for him to commit sexual violence. Ours is a nation whose misogyny is deep, institutionalized, supported by legal statute and custom, and rampant. As the quote from a sermon by St. Augustine shows, the prerogative powerful men have always felt toward women is both ancient and not limited to the United States. Hearing yet another powerful man casually endorse violence against women, and a obsequious younger man remain both passive, endorsing such behavior by silent consent is neither surprising nor worth so many acting so “shocked”.
I know there are pundits and political commentators who are so upset that the Trump campaign has seemingly “mainstreamed” some of the worst attitudes and behaviors in our land. I disagree for this simple reason: To me it almost feels like a wound is being cleansed, as if all this horrible ichor from deep within our national psyche is being purged. That some, including the otherwise insightful Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, insist there is something new about Trump’s mainstreaming racist and misogynyst language and violence, I think it’s important to remember that our founding document was only considered acceptable when it endorsed chattel slavery and reduced the human worth of African-Americans to 3/5ths that of a white man; that on the eve of the Civil War, Chief Justice of the United States Roger Taney declared that even free blacks had no rights in the United States; that women not only couldn’t vote until 1920, but for the majority of our country’s history couldn’t own property in their names, sue for divorce even for adultery, couldn’t attend colleges, couldn’t enter professions, and that many faced horrific violence at the hands of family members knowing there was neither recourse to the law nor to the churches, who endorsed such violence. Unless we somehow manage to forget our entire social, legal, and political history, there is nothing that surprising about Donald Trump endorsing violence against women. The difference now, however, is that the (public) expression of such attitudes is no longer acceptable; while there continue to be (and always will be) supporters who dismiss Trump’s words, the vast majority seem to be running from him as fast as their little legs can carry them; those whose support for Trump in the midst of all the hubbub are no longer offered any safe space or time from which to defend either Trump or his particular remarks. That is to say, like Trump’s statements regarding Mexicans being rapists and African-Americans all living in poverty and under conditions that are worse than war zones in Afghanistan, his casual misogyny is no longer acceptable rhetoric; those who support and defend racism, white nationalism, and violent misogyny are being both exposed and shunned.
Our history is violent. Our attitudes and our words and our actions and our institutions and our public policy are all deeply rooted in a bias against women and people of color. Trump’s campaign, for all its small-minded vulgarity, is showing us and the world that we actually are a better people than we might otherwise believe. We are struggling to be better neighbors to our Latino immigrants; we are struggling to push forward for better relations with African-Americans, including defending their rights; we are struggling to end our culture of violence against women. Trump and his campaign and its most heinous and vocal supporters are the shadow side of America, a shadow that, when inspected closely enough, seems to be receding much further and much faster than we previously thought. These are good things.
Trump is a horrible person. Of that there can be no doubt. Because of that very horribleness, however, we can see just how much better the vast majority of us and our fellow Americans really are.
And the election is now less than a month away, so it will all be over soon.
You were within, but I was without. You were with me, but I was not with you. So you called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flared, blazed, and banished my blindness, you lavished your fragrance, and I gasped. – St. Augustine, Confessions
I’ve spent quite a bit of time writing about transcendence, its limits, and the place of mystery and ecstasy in Christian worship and our common life. In fact, looking back I was amazed at how much I’d written, including a narrative of my own ecstatic experience. I’m left with the odd sense that much of this contradicts itself, that I’m offering both the insistence on personal and communal transcendence as well as the impossibility and limitations both on the event itself as well as how far we can interpret and understand it. I think that’s due in part to my own sense that, unless we as a church understand transcendence not so much as “a thing” or even “an event”, but a part of our corporate life that is available through the Holy Spirit, we are stuck in an individualistic mode of thought, unable to communicate these realities to others. We need not be Pentecostal to live and experience this going beyond, to feel together the overwhelming power of God in our corporate worship. Indeed, it can be that still small voice during the sharing of the elements in the Sacrament; perhaps it will be that collective, “Yes!” the congregation offers when the Word is proclaimed both in power and in Truth. Ecstasy comes in many forms, mystery is the hope with which we live as Christians that, gathered to offer God the praise due the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we shall encounter in the here and now a glimpse of what is to come.
The chancel at Christ UMC has the altar, with a cross on top, surrounded by an oval of kneelers (I think it’s oval rather than circular due to size constraints). Each week when I celebrate the Lord’s Supper and partake in the feast offered by God for all Creation, I go to those kneelers and am reminded of the vision of St. John on Patmos of the Heavenly throne room, in which the Thrones of the Father and the Lamb are surrounded by a circle of flame. Inside the circle are the cherubim who sing eternal praises; outside the witnesses are called to lie down, offering obeisance and praise. Not every time, certainly, but every once in a while, I get this feeling, this frisson, go through me that I am not just in the chancel at Christ UMC on Alpine in Rockford, IL, but that I am also in that heavenly throne room. This opportunity is offered not just to me, but to all of us, through the gift of the Sacrament shared and the power of the Holy Spirit.
One of the things that stands out in Roy Hattersley’s biography of John Wesley is the constant need to find new class leaders and lay preachers because those appointed by John had fallen away, some rather quickly, from the faith they proclaimed that moved them to become a part of the Methodist movement. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. I think we’re all familiar with what are called “mountaintop experiences”, and what happens when we come back down from the mountain. While I believe that Wesley was always a fan of the disciplined approach to the Christian life, I think his experience of high turnover, constantly searching out new leaders from among those who claimed the faith pushed him to become even more insistent on the necessity for believers to follow particular practices. Not as an authoritarian, at least as we contemporaries might understand the term. Rather, it became necessary to inculcate the practice of a disciplined life in order to maintain that faith that first grasped them on that mountain top. Only by meeting with fellow believers, celebrating and mourning together in prayer and praise, and following the lead of John Wesley, who understood many of his own faults and failings and his own need for disciplining the faith and channeling that initial “WOW” moment in to the productive life of spreading the Gospel to all who wished to flee to wrath to come.
We are inheritors of a tradition that understood both the promise and perils of mystery and ecstasy. We are the inheritors of a tradition that tried, through a disciplined communal life, to channel not only the emotions but far more importantly that faith to the making of disciples of Jesus Christ. Wesley understood both the beauty and power of ecstasy, that moment when we transcend our normal run of experiences and catch a glimpse of The Eternal, as well as the need to harness that through inculcating a habitus of common sharing of our life of faith. Ecstasy, transcendence, mystery – it’s all there in Wesley’s experiences. How to deal with them constructively in order that the Holy Spirit might use them for the uplifting of the people, the making of disciples, and the transformation of the world – that’s all there, too, in Wesley. There’s no reason not to harness those traditions in new ways, offering our congregations once again the reality of those Spirit-filled moments when we come face to face with the Creator of the Universe, the Savior of Fallen Creation, and the Love that flows from both to all that is. It isn’t just transcendence and ecstasy and mystery that pose a problem for the churches; it is our inability to offer people the opportunity not only to share them, but to use them for uplifting the Body of Christ. We have the tools, as Wesleyan Christians. No reason in the world not to use them.
If Fortuna is what she is said to be, that is, unstable and changing by definition, what good is there in maintaining her worship? – St. Augustine, 5th Century
I was struck dumb with fear when I beheld her great stature and the wondrous form of her body. For she had burning eyes, and it seemed they threatened those who gazed upon her. Fortuna had a cruel and horrible face. She had rough, long hair that hung down from her mouth, and I think she had a hundred hand and as many arms, to give and take away riches from men to cast them down raise them on high. Fortuna’s clothes were of divers colors. For no ma knows her. Her voice was so harsh and so hard that it seemed her mouth was made of iron, so she could threaten all the greatest men of the world and put these threats into action – Boccaccio, De Casibus, 14th century
My summer reading project is Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries by the French historian Jean Delumeau. Reading history is always humbling, especially when it concerns an era about which one knows next to nothing. It reminds me, at least, just how little I know, just how much there is to learn, and just how much I shall never learn, even if I spend the rest of my days doing nothing but reading.
Part I of Delumeau’s work sets the stage for the detailed examination of ideas about sin, fallen humanity, and associated guilt that follow. This is a very long, very dense, work, and Delumeau almost overwhelms the reader with the intricate and interlaced links among ideas such as contemptus mundi, death, the macabre, the Danse Macabre, and the many things that make humanity fragile. A major theme, at least of this part of his work, is that far from the heady, optimistic, humanistic age of Discovery and not-quite-hubris, the Renaissance was an age filled with dread, fear, and uncertainty. This found expression in art, poetry, sermons, treatises, even those fragments of popular song that have made their way through the mists of time. While there were certainly those – Pico dela Mirandola comes to mind; Erasmus had his moments, although he also drank deep of the pessimism of the age; the rulers who saw in the Americas a source of riches and a ripe missionary field for the church – who were optimistic for what was to come, by and large the long shadow of the Late Medieval period – the Schism in the church; the plague; the constant warfare and its depredations upon populations and crops and goods; an air of cruelty bordering on general sadism and lack of empathy that surpasses our own imaginings of the horrors of the 20th century – left very few even learned men and those few women hopeful for the future.
One thing I’ve learned reading this book is that there was a long-running, serious theological discussion over the Person and Role of Fortuna, destiny or fate. As noted in the epigraphs above, St. Augustine was quite sure she was unworthy of worship. Nine hundred years later, however, Boccaccio was quite sure Fortuna was a horrendous Person, a figure of power. While the painting at top comes much later, placing Fortuna in her pagan surroundings, the trappings and details all come from artistic depictions that emerged in the Renaissance: Fortuna balanced on a globe, often depicted as fragile (the one above certainly looks so); with one hand she casts out, with another she blesses; she is blind or blindfolded, so even she is not aware of where her blessings or curses fall. These are all topos that were current over the several centuries during which learned theologians discussed whether Fortuna was a divine being, created by God to dispense the details of Divine Providence. Precisely because there seemed so little rhyme or reason to men’s lives, because the entire notion of “dessert”, that is that people receive their just reward for their correct actions and upright lives and vice-versa, there was at the very least strong empirical evidence that, while God may well be loving and just, the details were in the hands of One far more capricious and less attune to the details of people’s lives. If I didn’t know better, if it hasn’t been done already, there’s a good theological monograph waiting to be written on this topic, filling in the details of the theological disputes of Fortuna and fate over the 10th-16th centuries.
I’m writing this because I find it fascinating how much time and intellectual energy was spent on what seems to my contemporary Protestant ears to be quite silly and inconsequential. For those engaged in the disputes, however, it was far from either. Understanding why it was there seemed no ratio to how human lives flowed; why those who were amoral in their dealings in public and immoral in their private lives were successful while those who practiced piety in private and charity in public very often led anonymous, unsuccessful lives seemed counter intuitive at best. What was worse was the fact that some people, generous, fair-dealing people, could suddenly find their riches and families gone, wiped out in an outbreak of the plague, or the ravages or war. Trying to make sense of the senselessness – this is a human thing, to be sure, and one for which Fortuna as a Divine Being blindly executing the details of God’s Providence makes as much sense as saying, “God works in mysterious ways.”
How will our theological disputes – over the role of humanity in creation; over human sexuality; perhaps even over the status of the deity – look in six hundred years? Will our distant Christian great-great-grandchildren wonder at how silly they all seemed? Will some come to read the theology of the early 21st century and discover things they, in their time, couldn’t imagine being the source of dispute?
And how about all those learned “leaders” who insist we return to some pristine theological and doctrinal past, adhere to the principles and teachings of an earlier age? Should we ask them if we should then embrace Fortuna as, if not a goddess (although she is addressed as such as late as the 15th century; she is also called a “daughter of God”, in contrast to the Son of God), then at the very least a Divine Being worthy of worship and consideration? Should we, perhaps, return to discussions of witches, of demons, of whether or not natural disasters are the result of Divine Wrath? Or should we, perhaps, heed Scriptural advice as well as the teachings of the centuries, and do our theological work for our own time? If that means creating a body of theological literature that later centuries will scratch their collective heads over, so be it. We should also approach the whole task of theology with much more humility, especially should we feel the urge to speak about past theologies and doctrines with authority but without the requisite understanding of the details. Our task is to understand the Living God for our own age; that others did it in ways that are strange, perhaps even a bit, well, heretical to us is neither here nor there for us. They did the best they could, getting as much wrong as they did right. Nothing more or less will be said of us.
On the subject of Fortuna, I would be remiss if I didn’t include a video of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. A series of poems written to Fortune in the 12th century, the first movement is especially famous because it just so over the top. It is also the subject of what may well be the funniest misheard lyric videos on YouTube. And that is appropriate precisely because this entire post is about what we don’t understand, and have still to learn, about the past. The misheard lyrics make as much sense as any introduction to the detailed theology of Lady Fortune. So I say, Laugh, but remember the joke is kind of on us for being so ignorant:
But what are the steps which the Scripture directs us to take, in the working out of our own salvation The Prophet Isaiah gives us a general answer, touching the first steps which we are to take: “Cease to do evil; learn to do well.” If ever you desire that God should work in you that faith whereof cometh both present and eternal salvation, by the grace already given, fly from all sin as from the face of a serpent; carefully avoid every evil word and work; yea, abstain from all appearance of evil. And “learn to do well:” Be zealous of good works, of works of piety, as well as works of mercy; family prayer, and crying to God in secret. Fast in secret, and “your Father which seeth in secret, he will reward you openly.” “Search the Scriptures:” Hear them in public, read them in private, and meditate therein. At every opportunity, be a partaker of the Lord’s Supper. “Do this in remembrance of him: and he will meet you at his own table. Let your conversation be with the children of God; and see that it “be in grace, seasoned with salt.” As ye have time, do good unto all men; to their souls and to their bodies. And herein “be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” It then only remains that ye deny yourselves and take up your cross daily. Deny yourselves every pleasure which does not prepare you for taking pleasure in God, and willingly embrace every means of drawing near to God, though it be a cross, though it be grievous to flesh and blood. Thus when you have redemption in the blood of Christ, you will “go on to perfection;” till “walking in the light as he is in the light,” you are enabled to testify, that “he is faithful and just,” not only to “forgive” your “sins,” but to “cleanse” you from all unrighteousness.” [1 John 1:9] – John Wesley, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, Sermon 85
I write a lot about how John Wesley insisted that the Christian life is one of disciplined practice. That word, “discipline”, has a special place in our United Methodist hearts. It is the title of our book of laws and rules. In some sense, it defines what “United Methodist” is, as opposed, say, to Lutherans, or Presbyterians. We are those people who understand that the Christian life is not just something to which we hand God, then go about our business. Of course, there is always a certain amount of that; I am a firm believer that St. Augustine was correct when he said, “Love, and do what you will.” The reason I believe that is because Wesley’s description, from a sermon on the Philippians’s text about working out our salvation, is perfectly in synch with the Bishop of Hippo. True to his personal character, however, Wesley was a bit more detailed. He was, too, true to his times, as was St. Augustine.
So what does “discipline” mean for those of us who live in the particular light shone by John Wesley upon the Gospel? It means what he said, as printed above: to be intentional, conscious, and conscientious about attendance in worship, including our duty to the Table of the Lord. It means reading the Scriptures, together, searching their meaning for how they should shape our lives. It means doing as much good as one can as often as one can, whether individually or as a gathering of the faithful. And, it means always striving toward that perfection in love to which all are called, working out in fear and trembling together how we can best live the Gospel in the world.
This is not the denial of divine grace, particularly what Wesley called “preventing” grace and what we contemporary United Methodists call “prevenient” grace. On the contrary, it is the very affirmation of the reality of prevenient grace, the spark of Divine Love that John Wesley, in this very sermon, insisted was in all persons. It is, rather, the very affirmation that we understand ourselves to be so filled with grace that it is now our duty so to live to show the world the Gospel alive in our actions: in our attendance upon all the ordinances of God, as he said. It is neither the blaring false piety of those Wesley would call Pharisees, nor is it what Luther would insist is “works righteousness”. Rather, it is our lives showing forth the presence of Divine Love, what that means, how that changes lives moreso than just guaranteeing salvation in the next world. Salvation is not just about fleeing the wrath to come, although it is surely that. Salvation is the people of God showing the world, in our acts of faithfulness, of mercy, of prayer and study, and the pursuit of justice by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the lonely that Jesus is indeed alive, never to die again.
It is neither an easy nor clear way, despite how I might make it sound. What these acts of faith mean are always changing with circumstance, with time and place. Faithfulness is both a gift and a duty, to be discerned in communion with others, with, as St. Paul said, fear and trembling. We should never rest so comfortably in the grace that goes before us that we forget our duty to live the Gospel, here and now, for ourselves and for the world.
This is one reason I find Good News so aggravating. Rather than the dynamic life of faith preached and lived by Wesley, “Christian” is some ossified thing, dedicated to certain principles that are, in fact, antithetical both to the letter and Spirit of Wesley’s teachings. We are a living people who embody the living God, the risen Body of Christ. To be alive is always to change with the times, to make the Gospel a living thing for our hurting world. This is never a sure thing; we can, however, trust in the Lord who breathes new life in New Creation, granting our tenuous endeavors the Spirit of Life that transforms our world to be the one created by God, called Very Good. Our Articles of Religion are not where we end. They are where we begin to live out that practice of disciplined, faith-filled piety and mercy and justice and worship to which we are all called. Our doctrine roots our work, it does not limit it. Being disciplined does not mean being restricted. It means, rather, being faithful as the times come and go.
So let us affirm the need always to attend upon all the ordinances of God: to be faithful and regular in our attendance at worship; to search the Scriptures together; to live in prayer – “pray without ceasing”; to never forego an opportunity to act justly and mercifully for others. And always – always always always – be attentive to the times, working out our salvation in fear and trembling, trusting in Divine Grace to lead us always to live the Gospel for the world. This is not just our discipline. This is our hope, for ourselves and for the world for which we live as the Body of Christ.
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.