To the left, to the left, to the left….
I guess that’s where you could say I come down on the spectrum of Christians who think about sex. And these days, sadly, many Christians are positively obsessed with sex. Indeed, many Christians these days have made their sexual obsession – especially their obsession with homosexuality – almost a fetish, a fetish that has lost sight entirely of the good news of Jesus Christ.
That good news is that people matter -- not abstractions, but real, live people, and their lovely, messy, complicated relationships and their yearning, passionate desire to know and share the love of God. Classes and categories don’t matter – Jew or Samaritan is irrelevant, man or woman, sick or well, rich or poor, prostitute or wife, tax collector … centurion … servant…. thief.… Everyone matters. Everyone can be in relationship. Everyone can love everyone else as a blessed child of God. In the same way, rigid rules – about what you can or can’t eat, about whom you may or may not touch, about how and when and where to worship God -- just dissolve if they don’t foster dignity, love and relationship, among people and with God. A formal system of purity is set aside in favor of a more intentional purity that asks, “Is this good for people? Does this free people to love one another and God more closely? Does this require that people be intentional about the way their lives and actions affect the human dignity of others?”
It seems to me that if these are the questions that matter to Jesus (and I think they are), then much of Christianity’s current obsession with sex is nothing short of blasphemy. It seems to me that when Christian fundamentalists – whether they purport to be “progressive” or not – build an alter in front of a few passages of scripture, such as the first chapter of Romans, but turn a blind eye and cold heart to the blessed and beautiful desires and relationships and yearning of millions of actual human beings – well, it seems to me that is idolatry piled on top of blasphemy.
The blasphemy of much of Christian thinking about sex is that it starts with a set of formal purity rules of exactly the sort Jesus came to free us from. The Christian Right spews hate and damnation, “progressive” evangelicals kill us bit more softly, but even the liberal church does not really offer a paradigm shift, but merely a “kinder, gentler” set of purity rules.
These rules and how they shift, depending on where you sit on the spectrum from conservative to liberal Christian, remind me of a moralistic game of sexual Clue: definitely everyone is down with Mr. and Mrs. Smith, with candles (and maybe even sex toys?), in the bedroom; and maybe some of us can handle Mr. and Mr. White, also with candles (but please don’t tell us about the sex toys), in the bedroom; and possibly Mr. Brown and Miss Jones (though it’s probably better if they are someone else’s kids), but only with birth control, and only in the bedroom they share only with each other; and most definitely not Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones, with anything at all, anywhere; and obviously not Mr. White and Mr. Jones, even if they use a condom, at the rest stop; and ditto Miss Jones and Mr. Black, with alcohol, at a party where they’ve just hooked up.
Right? Isn’t that how it goes? We start with a formal set of rules – they might be about “the sanctity of marriage,” or they might be about “loving and committed relationships,” but always formal rules about relationships in the abstract – and then we plug in real people, without much thought to their actual relationships with other real people, and rarely with any thought at all about their actual desires or, horror of horror, their physical pleasure. Real relationships and real pleasure always seem subservient, at best, or even irrelevant, to these formal rules about sex.
What if, instead, we started with real relationships and real pleasure and built a sexual ethic from there? I’m no Biblical scholar, but I’m having a difficult time understanding why that would not be pleasing to God.
How would such a sexual ethic change the way we think about sex? Well, first of all, it might problematize a lot of sex that no one ever questions under the current set of formal rules. Isn’t it funny how no one ever worries much about the ethics of sex within a heterosexual marriage? Oh, we hear all the time about the problems (that’s what Viagra’s for, right?) and the wonders (the Obamas are making marriage sexy again!) of such sex, but what about the ethics? So for example, what if Mr. and Mrs. Smith have an emotionally abusive relationship that extends to their bedroom? Is that ethical? Or what if Mrs. Smith has never experienced pleasure in her sexual relationship with Mr. Smith, and he doesn’t really care? Is that ethical?
On the other hand, what if Mr. Smith and Miss Jones really enjoy sex with each other, but they’re not at all romantically attached to one another? What if they’ve taken care to communicate to one another that neither of them is interested in a love match, but that they are both very interested in exploring sexual pleasure as a natural extension of an intimate friendship? Could that be ethical?
And what if Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones are married to other people, and for various reasons that aren’t all that difficult to imagine, all four adults have decided that a sexual relationship between Mr. Smith and Mrs. Jones is worth exploring, and everyone is being a grown-up and communicating, and it’s all pretty emotionally healthy? In a universe where relationship and pleasure are the foundation of sexual ethics, couldn’t that be ethical? It seems to me that such a scenario is inherently complicated – but in my ethics, at least, it is complicated because there are so many relationships to attend to, not because there are some formal rules that require certain behavior within the institution of marriage, everyone’s real relationships and pleasure be damned.
And what about Mr. Smith and Mr. Jones at the rest stop? Or what about Miss Jones and Mr. Black’s drunken hook-up at a party? It seems to me that these are the most ethically problematic. As with any form of conspicuous consumption, these sexual encounters are ethically problematic because they lack any sort of meaningful relationship outside of possibly healthy pleasure, and even healthy pleasure can’t be very meaningfully tended to when two people know nothing at all about one another, and even less so when judgment is impaired. It is difficult for me to affirm these encounters as ethical, but only because they do not seem to me to be intentionally concerned with healthy relationships or pleasure. Moreover, I should note, that much of our culture’s conspicuous consumption is unethical by exactly the same standard and every bit as sinful in my eyes.
A sexual ethic that begins with relationship and pleasure … does this seem complicated? But of course! Being a human being in relationship is complicated. Treating people as though they matter is complicated. Add sex to that mix, and it gets very very complicated, most certainly. A sexual ethic that begins with relationship and pleasure is NOT simply “anything goes” – indeed, it is quite the opposite. It is an ethic that requires intentional and careful tending to real relationships and pleasure, which is never easy, especially when passion is involved. It is not an ethic that promises to solve all the problems that inevitably will arise in sexual relationships. People will still get hurt, and relationships will still end, and even people acting with the most ethical intention they can bring to their sexual relationships will make a big old mess of things. Ethics doesn’t solve the dilemma of being human.
But all the pain and sorrow and alienation and shame that so many people feel about themselves as sexual beings, and all the violence and persecution and hatred that has been visited on so many for so long, all because of the rigid and merciless purity codes that so much of Christianity is obsessed by? None of that is intrinsic to being human. None of that is necessary. It is not good news, and it is not pleasing to God.
Christianity’s obsession with sex, and in particular homoerotic sex, is tearing apart the Body of Christ limb from limb. I would go so far as to say that this obsession is crucifying Christ all over again. May God have mercy on us all.