Share |

Discerning Culture,Truth, & Christian Sexual Ethics

As King Solomon asked God for the ability to discern what is right, so we are called to discern how much of our Christian beliefs are based in culture and how much is universal truth for our spiritual journey. In hindsight we can easily tell that biblical characters struggle through the restrictions of their culture and its rules, but it is not so easy to see our own. Thank Goodness, nothing separates us from God's love.

  The first seven chapters of Romans is defining sin (or the flesh of the world.) Sin for Jews sin is NOT reductionist as Christians have made it. Sin is NOT about specific bad things we do or say or the good things we don’t do or say but rather, sin is our bent towards unrighteousness. It is our tendency to follow our own ego and to drift along compliantly with the standards of the world. And, what are the standards? I heard Andy Llamas, a Penn professor say to a group of justice-minded people, “the rest of the world does not value human life.

I agree except I would add that the world values some of us more than others. For my purpose today I will make that statement explicit: the world values some bodies more than other bodies and does not value life. This is the way of the world where most bodies are unimportant and not valued…perhaps like 260 Nigerian school girls, or 57,000 adolescents from Central America, or the imprisoned brown and black male bodies for only marijuana possession, or people who don’t fit neatly into categories of male or female, or those who are not heterosexual or sex workers. And this separation of people into categories of acceptable and not is based on the dangerous promise that we can win status and acceptance if we obey the rules and tow the line.  

Now as Paul transitions away from sin in chapter 8 let’s remember that Paul, who was first Saul, had been in a position of power and a part of this system that valued some more than others. He had used his power to imprison, punish, and even murder those who were not compliant with the rules; ie. Christians. (See the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7.) As a former persecutor of Christians he writes that in spite of it all -- in spite of the sin of the world, in spite of being complicit in murder itself-- he asks, (8:34) “Who is to condemn?...” 8:35 “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”

And his answer that still thunders down through the ages: 8:37 “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 8:38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 8:39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

             Nothing can separate us. Do we believe it? Oh no. We do not. I suggest that it is precisely because we do NOT believe God’s grace is sufficient that we, the church, do not teach sexual freedom. It is precisely because we do NOT trust in God’s love that we are skittish about sexual diversity. So we keep focused on sex sin as specific acts, specific things that we should not do. The culture teaches us to be afraid of the body and to mistrust pleasure as well so perhaps we rely on obedience to those rules of our sex-phobic culture to convince us we are good people.

But, these sexual rules have little to do with Jesus’ teaching, his life, or the ethics of the early church. As a result, we are failing to theologically address the main feature of humanity; our physicality. And, too often, we fail to teach grace, that nothing separates us from God’s love.

There is a scene in the movie “The Poseidon Adventure” that explains the state of sexuality and the church. After the cruise ship the Poseidon is hit by a tsunami and capsizes a small band of people realize that the ship is upside down and begin to walk toward the bottom of the ship to be rescued. They walk on the ceilings toward the engine room and meet a very large group of people going in the opposite way. They argue over which is correct. Finally, the smaller group steps aside and the camera’s eye slowly follows as the large group of compliant people confidently march forward to their doom oblivious to the danger. Believing they are ascending to the top of the ship, they walk straight to the bottom of the ocean and to certain death.

This scene depicts spiritual sleepwalking. That is what the Buddhists call “dreaming.” This is what Christians call yielding to the power of “sin.” It is the result of not being awake to the reality around us, to the present moment, to the significance of that which we can see, touch, and feel – and know. Our eyes must be open to distinguish between culture and what is spiritual truth. How we do this is a topic for another day. For now I am making the case that we simply need to be doing it.

Discernment as a difficult process

Remember King Solomon asks of God in a dream, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil;” and God’s response is “Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind;” (I Kings 3:5-11) So how shall we, as the church, become wise? How shall we discern the truth about the body, intimacy, sexual morality?

       First, obedience is passive but discerning is active. The Poseidon survivors had to actively stand their ground for their own truth and to work hard to find their way while the others were simply being compliant and following along. Discernment is work and it is hard to do. In the gospel reading today (Matthew 13:31-33) Jesus compares the realm of God to a mustard seed. (We know Jesus wanted us to pray for this realm of God “on earth as it is in heaven”) Yet the realm of God, or life of the spirit, is like the smallest of mustard seeds. Discerning our spiritual truth is like finding a treasure in a field and then selling everything to possess it. It is like the pearl of great price. Yet it can often be experienced like the unseen yeast in the bread.

So, discernment is a process and just as the doomed Poseidon group needed to open their eyes so we must recognize the world of domination and hierarchy as it squeezes us into conformity to its sexual rules. Spiritual truth about intimacy, relationships, and body justice is difficult to see in a culture littered with rules. It is like the treasure in the field – for, just as the soil covers the treasure, so the sexual rules of our culture shape and cloud our vision.

A Rule-Based Moral Code

Theologian Marvin Ellison in his book Making Love Just points out two distinctly different sexual moral codes. The first is what the culture (and usually church members) abide by; a rule-based morality. This moral code with its hierarchy and domination is held together with judgment and threats (or actual) punishment.

Cultural rules dictate who can be intimate with whom -- (adult males with adult females as long as the males have more authority) when --(only if legally married for life, if it is in private and not as a top priority), how -- (not too raunchy, outlandish…or, in short, not too much fun) and for what purpose.-- (to make babies). According to Ellison a rule-based moral code is ethics by taboo. And taboos are not spiritual but cultural. They do not go through the discernment process. And, remember that, unfortunately, taboos that control sexuality get enacted into laws to control those who do not obey the rules.

But ethics by taboo does not address pleasure, intimacy, and a whole lot of other things that a church should be interested in. Taboos also reduce sexuality to body parts rather than to the heart, the soul, or the quality of a relationship, matters the church is interested in. What to do?

In the gospels we discover Jesus did not always obey the rules that said some bodies are more important (i.e. more pure). In fact, he sided with those who were marginalized by the domination system. He did not conform mindlessly to his culture but discerned which rules were interfering with relationships? Which rules were preventing healing? Which rules were unfair and unjust? As his followers we are not to conform to this world but transform our minds, and our world (Romans 12:2). We proclaim a different moral system that reflects our theology of incarnation, or God-in-the-flesh, a theology of grace and of freedom, a theology of justice.

A Justice-centered Morality

          Progressive churches have critiqued a rule-based system most recently in the struggles of the sexual minority communities. Rather than following a rule about who is “normal” and “abnormal” we use a different criteria, “What is fair?” We don’t judge people by the basis of the cultural homophobic rule.

This is consistent with the second framework that Ellison identifies. He calls it a justice-centered morality. An egalitarian perspective it assumes no adult intrinsically has more power than another, such as males over females. For example, progressive Christian churches that seek to be egalitarian do not frame God as male because this reinforces a male hierarchy in our marriages and it disempowers and trivializes the spirituality of the feminine.

A justice-centered morality acknowledges the injustice of some bodies being valued less than others; sex workers, prisoners, lgbt people, poor or darker skinned people. Because of this level playing field, a justice-centered morality understands sexual diversity is a given -- whether it is gender, identity, orientation, behaviors, or living arrangements. The focus is NEVER on rules. It is on justice…without judgment. The church is not an enforcer of rules but a conveyor of grace.

But while we apply a justice-centered morality to sexual diversity -- a little -- the progressive Protestant church does not apply it to freedom in our sexual and intimate lives even though we know it operates in our own individual spirituality. But if we have a justice-centered moral frame we understand that sexual freedom is also a given. Christianity is not about limitation but freedom.

Impediments to Change

But there are reasons we don’t have more sexual freedom in this culture. Think about it:

·                    We can’t have people happily living intimately together in multiples as threesomes or several couples who share their lives because there will be fewer houses sold or lawn mowers, refrigerators. The capitalists would not be happy. Another idea:

·                    39% of us are already working more than 40 hours a week (American Psychological Association in “14 Signs That Americans Are Ridiculously Overworked” in Business Insider) And our average vacation days per year has shrunk to 3.85 (in 2010) down from 7 days in 1975. (New York Times, reported in The Week, August 1, 2014) So we can’t have people having more pleasure because they might not be willing to work that hard. Employers would not be happy. Another thought;

·                     We can’t have women loving their bodies just as they are because that would crash the $35 billion* diet industry,

·                     the $28 million cosmetic industry,* and, what would happen to those who make lots of money

·                        in the $1.16 billion* botox industry? (*Lisa Isherwood, The Fat Jesus, Christianity and Body Image)

·                        If sensual and sexual pleasure were more accessible what would happen to the $10 billion of the porn industry? (Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth, How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women)Over 80% of which is made in the US. And I wonder why that is?

·                     We can’t have sensual and sexual pleasure readily available for we would be so mellow how would we staff 856 military bases across the globe (Anita Danes, “The Cost of the Global US Military presence,” by FPIF a project of the Institute for Policy Studies, July3, 2009) and how could we keep our place as the military policeman of the world if we embraced pleasure instead?

    In a rule-based, taboo moral code with pleasure controlled and sexuality repressed things move along nicely for those with access to wealth (who, by the way, never abide by the rules the rest of us are expected to obey.) But here are some equally disturbing statistics:

·                     There is a direct correlation between sexuality and violence.  Physically affectionate human societies are highly unlikely to be physically violent. Actually, the chances of a violent society (such as ours) not being sexually repressive is a 100,000 chances to 1 according to research done on over 400 of the world’s societies. (Prescott, James W., “Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Nov. 1975) Listen to another finding-

·                       Those who abuse their children are themselves more likely to be deprived sensually or sexually of pleasure. The idea is that without pleasure and sexual expression of some form in our lives we will turn aggressive. (“Child Abuse, Slaughter of the Innocents,” James Prescott, Hustler, October 1977)

·                     Rhode Island accidently made indoor sex work legal for six years (2003-2009) when they took prostitution off the streets. The result of this legal fluke was that rape statistics declined by 31% and sexually transmitted diseases for women declined by 39%. Women were healthier and they were all safer --so they rescinded the law criminalizing sex work again. Another finding  …

·                           There is recent research by the University of Melbourne in Australia that found that children reared by two same gendered parents are actually more well-adjusted than those with opposite gender parents. (July 7, 2014 “Gay Parents Raise Happier Kids” guardianlv.com/2014/07/gay-parents-raise-happier-kids/)

·                         There is research that those who have multiple intimate partners handle certain relationship issues better than monogamous couples. (“Sounds Bites on Polyamory” from National Coalition for Sexual freedom website)

           What should we do about these findings and these statistics? Clearly the rule-based culture about sexuality is not working and there are good reasons to challenge it. Just who is being served here? If we, as progressive Christians, care about preventing violence, providing the best world for our children where they are safer, creating more freedom for individual discernment of intimate lives, and helping women love their bodies, and supporting those who choose to use their bodies economically, then we better start teaching spiritual discernment as it relates to sexual morality. There is much at stake. No more ethics by taboo.

Who can help us discern?

Some of this may be disturbing you (at least I hope it is) for we need to be talking about these issues in church, through the lens of the gospel. We need to do the hard work of digging for the treasure in the field. We need a rigorous and faithful discernment of what really constitutes body justice that values diversity and grants freedom. What does the individual conscience have to do with sexual freedom? Why does intimacy have to be controlled? What are we afraid of? But I am not done: There are those unexpected people who can teach the church about morality.

a)      The non-monogamous communities teach us that there is plenty of love to go around, that intimate love is not a zero sum game, and jealousy is learned behavior. Can the church accept their experiences and learn from it?

b)      The kink community – those who let go of the rules in order to explore sexually-- teaches us that pleasure is about play in a broad range of activities, anything that can be imagined-- when responsibly and mutually negotiated. They tend to develop very good communication skills and negotiate far better than others. Can the church learn from them?

c)       The gay, lesbian and bisexual communities teach us to decouple sexuality from procreation. Can we, as the church, support pleasure as part of the gospel and critique a theology based on procreationism?

d)      The trans communities teach us the deficiency of a gender binary system. Can the church let go of old thought patterns and listen to what these people know to be true  in their own bodies?

e)      Children teach us that the body feels good, that playful abandon gives energy, and that imagination gives life. Can we allow playful abandon and freedom into a justice centered moral code?

f)       Sex workers will tell us that sex-for-hire can be deeply fulfilling by “ministering” (my word) to lonely or alienated people, that their work is a way of connecting human-to-human. Can we respond with advocacy rather than judgment- with open mindedness rather than intolerance?

g)      Poor people and immigrants teach us that in their worlds their bodies are less safe and in fact, are often targeted by predators, landlords, and employers. Can we confess that our discomfort with sexuality prevents us from recognizing the violation of their bodies?

h)      People of color remind white people of the common humanity of us all -- that no one is free while some of us are still enslaved to stereotypes about skin color. Can we confess our own participation in valuing some bodies more than others?

We need a wise church and wisdom only comes through discernment of the Spirit -- never through obedience to culture. Wisdom joins hands to stop the body injustice. It joins hands to ‘circle round for freedom’ as the song says -- and to do so joyfully.  

We are in the business of proclaiming that nothing separates us from the love of God through Christ Jesus, NOTHING! And certainly not disobedience to cultural rules. Do we believe it? Do we honestly think God loves all of us, our feelings? Our fantasies? Our desires for freedom? Our need to dance and move in intimacy in these bodies? We are free when we believe there is no separation from God’s love and this heals the disconnect between our flesh and our spirit.

The Christian journey is not about being good little boys and girls. Rather, it is to live as incarnated followers of Jesus. We are to do what he did: obey some rules, disobey others. We do what King Solomon did, we ask for the wisdom to discern what is right and what is wrong. And we trust that God will lead us to the path that is right for us. For, according to the poet, Mary Oliver,

We “do not have to be good.”

We “do not have to walk on (our) knees

for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.”

We “only have to let the soft animal of (our) body

love what it loves....”

We only have to listen to our imagination that

“calls to (us) like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –

over and over announcing (our) place

in the family of things.”

(excerpts from “Wild Geese," by Mary Oliver from New & Selected Poems)

      For, in these wonderfully exquisite, pleasurable animal bodies we desire intimacy and connection, we love to be touched, we give and receive caresses. In these bodies there is nothing – nothing-- that “can separate us from the love of God.” May we believe it this is so.


If this sermon is helpful to you please consider a tax deductible donation to this ministry that teaches an inclusive, science-based, sex-positive Christianity. www.incarnationinstitute.org


After preaching this sermon it was brought to my attention that Paul’s argument actually evolves very much like mine in chapter 12 of Romans. BD

 It reads, I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters,[a] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual[b] worship. Do not be conformed to this world,[c] but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.[“

No comments

Add comment

* - required field