The other day a distant acquaintance accused our church of not talking about sex enough (in the neighborhood gossip column, at least). It was right after we enjoyed an open forum about our theology of sexuality attended by over 100 people! It never ceases to surprise me that the more one does something, the more excuse it gives a few people to criticize you for not doing it!
If anything, Circle of Hope has been a good place to work through the trauma of our over-sexualized society. As our forum uncovered, a lot of people have had painful sexual experiences, and not just because the powers that be limit their sexual expression (since they don’t really do that anymore). Sex is painful because they are confused. And it is painful because they get run over by the wave of immorality that is surging through the culture. (Maybe using the word immorality even made you uneasy, since who could say what that is?). It is painful because sex has become an incessant demand and a constant source of scientific study. And it is painful because a lot of people can’t figure out what Jesus says about it.
Listening to people lately has helped me collect a few of the assumptions I often share when people want some spiritual direction about what to do with what they feel and how they are acting. When you only have your own impulses and a lot of societal pressure to work with, things can get confusing – and painful. So here are five things about Jesus that I think should inform how we have a dialogue about sexual behavior (among other things, of course). These five things will not solve everyone’s problems, and I’m not speaking from a place that has been processed by the leaders of the church, but I hope to name some basic things that guide life in Jesus and that apply to how we continue the dialogue about sexuality.
1) Jesus was not organized by sex.
We tend to be. I am often loathe to say it when I am listening to someone struggling with how they are going to have sex, but it has to be part of the process: I don’t think Jesus cares that much whether we have sex at all. He obviously thinks there are more important things in life. Paul’s logic leans toward seeing sex as a distraction to joy; it certainly is not the source of all joy. Some people take that fact to be a prescription. I just see it as a reality that should inform my reality.
2) Jesus did not exercise his rights, much the contrary.
We are tempted to think gaining and asserting our rights is a solution for most things. In this era, feeling justified about where one falls on the spectrum of sexual orientation, or justified about indentifying as, for instance, queer or pansexual is something of a crisis for a lot of people. But human rights are not a basis for salvation. God did not exercise God’s rights, quite pointedly, when submitting to being a human and then a slave to humans. Paul boasts of giving up his rights so he can have the experience of being free from them and having a larger purpose. Rights are important within oppressive contexts, which are most contexts. But having freedom in Christ is more important than having it granted by the powers that don’t follow Jesus.
3) Jesus’ resurrection proved that he was, surprisingly, on the right side of history.
We are tempted to suspect that Jesus might be old-fashioned. But being on the right side of human history is not a Christian concern. If there is anything we have always been on, it’s the wrong side of history – at least a view of history based on humankind’s capacity to get it all right in the end. We’re participants with everyone else, but our view is based on God’s capacity to bring it all to right in the end. Jesus showed up the foolishness of human understanding concerning how one’s personal history works out by rising from the dead. Paul clearly teaches that we are already living in the first days of our eternity. Our participation in history will not define us, but God’s participation in it already has. The world may be evolving in a certain direction without God, but we are moving in another with Jesus.
4) Jesus is an outcast; he is not just kind to outcasts.
We tend to think love is being nice to people others are not nice to, since that is certainly part of it. But people who see the world from a position of power often feel that their best love is shown by their kindness to outcasts. They want to include people in the empire where everyone has a bit of the police and rescue squad embedded in their character. Their empire will save the world (like the U.S. did in Iraq). Having that outlook makes it difficult to follow Jesus — because Jesus is not just kind to outcasts, he actually is one. We are enjoined by Paul and the writer of Hebrews to embrace being the “scum of the earth” so we can embrace our dependence on God, not rely on our own power or the power the godless domination system deigns to give us. This condition does not mean we are not kind to outcasts but it does change what we think kindness is: more solidarity than inclusion.
5) Jesus offered an open, positive approach and got killed.
We tend to save ourselves with avoidance. Even so, I think we, and many other believers, have overcome that and have been practicing an open, positive approach to the dialogue on sexuality (and sexual morality). That openness may not be noticed or even welcomed by someone bent on making us look bad. But take heart, a quick scan of the gospels will show Jesus offering the bread of life and people accusing him of being demon possessed and of trying to overthrow the government. Paul and John appear to feel they are getting treated the same way. If you are doing the best you can to not let truth kill or love lie, it still may not be enough to satisfy some people. I think we should suffer not being enough, not write unsatisfied people off, and keep serving. Our imperfection is no surprise. If we have trouble dealing with each other that seems normal — it can’t be easy for Jesus to deal with me, either. Besides, none of us knows everything we think we know, so someone’s dissatisfaction with us may have something to teach us.
Summing up big thoughts in little paragraphs is never enough. Each of the five things above probably deserves the question, “But what about…?” I am just going for underlying assumptions, not trying to figure out all their applications. But we need starting points for making decisions. In all the dialogue about sexuality and morality, there are a lot of “”But what abouts…?” to work though. I pray that we continue to be a safe place in Christ to explore them.