The Orwellian Christianese of “Love”

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Too many Christians confuse pity and paternalism with love.

Actually, “confuse” may be too generous a word. For some it can be Orwellian Christianese, where “love” or “forgiveness” is simply used as a tool to demand submission, or to silence complaints. One of the most common negative responses to prophetic language is Christian tone-policing—saying that it is “unloving” or “hateful” to use oppressors’ own rhetoric to disarm their religious weaponry, or to criticize those in power who use religious language as a political tool of domination. In this reading, much of what Jesus himself said is unloving and hateful.

It is a kind of weak rhetorical ju-jitsu to take the words of the prophets* and the complaints of those who are oppressed and describe them as “hate.” As if protesting the disproportionate slaying and imprisonment of black children is “hate.” As if objecting to for-profit sick-care is “hate.” As if decrying Christianese support of militarism and fascism is “hate.” As if championing the rights of “widows, orphans, and aliens” against the abuse of political leaders is “hate.”

There is something I gladly admit to hating: this kind of language. This condescending, paternalistic, bullying and bully-enabling language that uses the words of Christ for cover. (There is a difference between hating the sin and the sinner, right? Or does that only apply to gay folks?)

Rather than get tangled in endless psychologizing or spiritualizing about the inward state of debate partners, I’m much more interested in the effect of our language, practices, and policy. Where do we see the oppressed being freed? Where do we see widows, orphans, and aliens valued as fully human and made in the image of God?

That’s where love is.

I appreciate that Christ loves me, and I have full assurance of salvation through the Holy Spirit. I appreciate that Christ also loves the bullies and fascists of the world, the Torquemadas and Roy Moores and Bull Connors, and that where I’m unable to love I can intercede that Christ love for me while shaping me into someone more loving. I can acknowledge my own failure to love.

But I have no interest in a “love” that does not rejoice in the truth. Nor do I have interest in a religion that can only speak of “good news” if the oppressed are silenced.

There is difference between paternalism, pity, and love.

*(Of course, there is a critique of the less-than-loving attitude of the prophets in the Bible itself. It’s called the Book of Jonah.)

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Reading a Pro-slavery Sermon from 1863

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Family on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and learnnc.org

This is an excerpt from a sermon given at Christ Church in Savannah in 1863. It is a pro-slavery, pro-Confederacy sermon. I’m sharing it, with my commentary, because I think it illumines contemporary rhetoric about race, history, war, international politics, and the South. I’ve added emphasis where I think the rhetoric is particularly interesting.

Preachers need to understand preaching history because we often replicate the rhetoric of pundits and politicians in sermons. Churches soothe the moral conscience of parishioners by repeating the talking points of our dominant culture. But how do you know when you are preaching the gospel, and when you are preaching Empire? How can you determine when you are preaching prophetically, and when you are accommodating the culture?

It’s important to learn from the past, to watch the dance of rhetoric and ethics that preachers have done every Sunday for centuries. It isn’t surprising that white Southern Christian preachers justified both slavery and war. Some of their talking points sound awfully familiar.

This preacher (Stephen Ellis) preaches a sermon to encourage the young Confederacy. At 24 pages, it was probably at least an hour long. It is verbose, in the way of 19th-century homileticians, who were well-educated and thought it important to speak in a way that fit their class. He quotes Greek philosophers, contemporary statesmen, and news reports. He refers to the Greek language. He comes off as smart and well-spoken.

The scripture is the story of Samson getting honey from the corpse of a lion he killed. There is no exegesis of the text. It’s simply a jumping-off point for the speech that follows. Out of a strong conflict will come something sweet.

He touches on some familiar themes: the danger of appeasement, the difference between a just peace and an unjust peace, the horrors of war, and endurance through trying times. He uses flowery language and long, image-heavy descriptions.

But delightful as is the word [peace], and attractive as are its associations, we should not be seduced by them to yield up either right or truth or justice for its attainment. It would indeed be a great burden rolled from our hearts if we could take our children to our bosoms, and feel that they indeed had a country–if we could look upon our noble sons and rejoice that they were freed with honour from any further conflict with foemen so unworthy of their steel–if we could glance around our hearthstones and be satisfied that no rude trumpet would again disturb their peace, no roar of cannon drive us from their shadow–if we could enter the temples of God and sing the angels song of peace on earth, good will towards men.

White men, that is.

The preacher has done a good job setting up the siren song of peace. He indicated early on that he is crafting this image simply to undo it. This illusion is no real peace, he says.

Missing, of course, is any reference to the lives of slaves. (Presumably, the life of a slave is all peace.)

But until we can do so with honor and with security, let us banish the idea from our thoughts. Let there be no making haste to find Peace. It will come when God sees that war has accomplished his purposes, and it ought to come no sooner. Unless we follow his guidance in this matter, we shall fall into temptation and a snare, and in grasping at a shadow, lose the substance which we have already gained at the cost of so much precious blood.

In other words, dreams of peace must be put aside, for now, or else all the troops will have died in vain. This is a common pro-war talking point in any conflict.

“Precious blood,” of course, has theological overtones—it’s Jesus’ precious blood that saves us from hell and punishment, according to penal substitutionary atonement theory.

I believe this atonement theory is especially prevalent in the South because it helped justify slavery. If you want to exterminate indigenous people and base an economy on slavery, it helps to frame sin as “rebellion,” and God’s justice as physical, painful retribution—in this life or the next. The requirement of justice is the violent death of someone—and the unjust death of an innocent man, a lynching, helps restore equilibrium. Any violence you then use to enforce social order and compliance is infinitely more merciful than social anarchy or the eternal flames of hell. For the good of the nation, the powerless must die. But their deaths are noble. Preserving social order, the Great Chain of Being ordained by God, is necessary to prevent a slide down the slippery slope into the anarchy of the savages.

The preacher also establishes that the war, a historical necessity, must be the will of God. War is a refining, purifying fire, in which the mettle of their (manly) resolve is tested.

Now the preacher turns to the political part of his sermon, justifying secession and portraying the Northern aggressors in negative terms:

We seceded from the Government of which we were once a part, because we felt that under it we no longer had a country. For what is our country? Our country is in its constitution, and its provisions were openly and shamefully violated–our country is in its religion, and its altars were desecrated by infidelity and the vilest fanaticism–our country is in its institutions, and they were threatened with total subversion –our country is in its social life, and that was covered all over with rude abuse and malignant defamation. And shall we, for peace sake, think for a moment of returning to the embrace of such an Union? God forbid! Let us learn at once the stern truth that we have no country until we make one. We can never go back to that whence we came out. We should not recognize it in its present garb of tyranny. We should not discern that once proud Republic under the mask which it now wears, with the oriental despotism that rules over it, and the oriental submission that kisses its feet. In its delirium it has lost all sense of regulated liberty–it remembers only passion and vengeance. Closing its eyes against all truth, and shutting its ears against all wisdom, it is striking at man madly in its rage, and it is cursing God who has placed the bit in its mouth, and is saying to it, “Thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

Abraham Lincoln? He’s no Christian. He’s an “oriental despot.” (Today, he might be called a Muslim tyrant.) He’s no Western statesman who believes in representative government (for white men).

The preacher describes four kinds of federal overreach—constitutional, religious, institutional (the unnamed institution being slavery), and social. In all of these ways, he says, the South was a victim. Abolitionists and the North have closed their eyes “against all truth” and shut their ears “against all wisdom.” They are examples of the “vilest fanaticism,” impugning the character of honest Southerners.

When activists recently advocated for marriage equality, they were likewise shaking their fist at God, according to Franklin Graham, and undermining the institution of marriage. They subjected their opponents to “malignant defamation” by calling them bigots, or worse.

People who support status quo inequality between white and black folks, who object to discussion of white supremacy and systemic racism, continue to complain about the “malignant defamation” that white people or police officers or America receives at the hands of activists. Advocating for justice is perceived as “vile fanaticism,” an attack upon our country and our way of life.

Yet the preacher offers patriarchal hope to his congregation:

In quietness and confidence is our strength. Manly fortitude and heroic patience will accomplish for us in due time all that we are contending for. We did not enter upon this conflict in the temper of children, who were quarrelling for some mere point of pique, but with the resolution of men who perceived that every thing which made life tolerable was trembling in the balance. Let peace come to us, and let us not forget our manhood and go in search of peace.

The preacher moves on to mourn the fact that the international community has not come to the aid of the South. He only gets around to mentioning slavery toward the end, but it forms the background of everything he says. At first, it’s only an oblique reference: “the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.”

At the commencement of our revolution… we believed very sincerely that the cotton interest constituted so large a portion of [England and France’s] manufacturing and commercial wealth, that any serious interruption of the supply would create not only great distress in those countries, but would perhaps produce revolution. Under this delusion we continued for eighteen months after our movement began, and it is not yet entirely dissipated. It will require at least two years more of British endurance to convince us of our mistake, but we are, nevertheless, learning our lesson by degrees. We are finding out that God does not permit, under his Providential arrangements, any one nation to hold in its hand the fate, or even the destiny of other nations, but that climate, soil, labor, staples, are so distributed throughout the world, that if a supply of any necessary article is dried up in one direction, its production can be forced in some other direction.

England can replace the slave labor of the South with India. Such is the law of the marketplace.

That we hold great advantages over any other portion of the earth in the growth of our great staples, no one can deny. We can defy competition, because of the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate, but we cannot rule the world as we once conceived that we could.

This line gets me every time I read it: “The peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.” Wow.

The limits of Confederate exceptionalism have become clear to the preacher. But slavery? It’s still hunky-dory:

Until within a year after our war began, many of our own people, and almost all the nations outside of us, considered the institution of slavery as resting upon a very insecure basis. They almost universally believed that domestic insurrection would accompany foreign war, and that we should find our slaves rising “en masse,” and distracting all our efforts. Those who had studied this question most thoroughly, and looked at it in the light of philosophy, and especially of the Scriptures, did not fall into this error, and were satisfied from the beginning that the institution would come out of the war stronger than it went into it. Two years of the war have rid every one of any evil anticipations upon this head, and have satisfied the United States government that if these people are to change their condition, it must be changed for them by external force. And while this quiescence on the part of our servants vindicates us from the charges of cruelty and barbarity which have been so industriously circulated against us, it is also teaching us that we can, hereafter, with entire safety, and with most excellent results to ourselves, introduce them gradually to a higher moral and religious life. They know all that is going on. They are well informed about the proceedings of our enemies, and about their pretended philanthropy, and yet what advantage have they taken of it?

One of the favorite tropes of white-privilege apologists is that anyone who stirs up conversation of racial inequality is not really interested in racism, but simply exploiting racial tension for political gain. It is pretended philanthropy. But our black folks are happy just the way they are.

Dang, this strategy is old.

When were they ever more quiet, more civil, more useful, more contented than they now are? Ignorance is really our worst enemy amongst them, and I sincerely hope that when this war is over, we shall, in token of their fidelity and good will, render their domestic relations more permanent, and consult more closely their feelings and affections…

Wow. We’ll let them keep their families together.

Of course, you could also read “domestic relations” as perpetual servanthood. And they didn’t need slavery to do that. They had Jim Crow.

Take a look at this logic:
1. Our slaves (black folks) are fine and happy.
2. If they wanted to change their condition, they would do so themselves.
3. It’s wrong for outsiders to come in and stir them up toward rebellion
4. We’ll help them improve their condition when other conditions are met.

See, it’s all benevolent. Heritage, not hate.

It belies the fact that the Southern elite were terrified of slave revolt, and had spent a century passing more and more restrictive laws to keep poor whites and black slaves from working together or colluding to overthrow the institution of slavery. The preacher himself mentions Harpers Ferry early in the sermon.

Toward the end, the preacher swells to a crescendo praising the Confederacy:

But at the war-cry of her children, “Sic semper Tyrannis,” how her rich blood has rushed back upon her heart, and startled her into life! The sound of freedom’s cry has disenchanted her, and she has sprung full armed into the arena. Her noble sons have gathered around her from her hills and from her valleys, from all her fields of historic fame, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the dark rushing torrent of the Kanawha–sons worthy of such a mother. All her old energy has come back to her. All her power of self-denial and self-sacrifice has revived within her. Proud, fearless, indomitable, she looks into the very eye of tyranny, and makes it quail before her majesty of right and truth! The mother of States, she bares her bosom to receive upon it the strokes which are aimed at her children. Hurling defiance in the teeth of her oppressors, she prepares herself to conquer or to die. She hopes, she prays, she struggles for victory, but knowing that everything is in the hands of God, she presses on, uttering the noble words of DeRanville–“If the genius of evil is to prove triumphant, if legitimate government is again to fall, let it at least fall with honor; shame alone has no future.”

And thus white supremacy held onto the notion that it would be justified by God and history well after the war’s end. It wed notions of Christian destiny, feudal honor, patriarchy, slavery, and violent atonement theory.

White patriarchy continues to use this same rhetoric. It appropriates the language of oppression and justice, hoping to turn the tables on activists by pointing out their “vile fanaticism” as a cowardly mask for political or financial gain. People who advocate for equality are “tyrants” who will oppress the majority, if they ever get their hands on political power. We fear our own sin so much that we project it onto our enemies, imagining that they will be just as oppressive as we are—while denying that oppression even exists.

We are such gentle rulers. They will be such harsh ones. That is why they must be kept in their place.

Same song. Different verse. White supremacy did not need to rise again; it was never defeated. It has been hiding in plain sight (from white Christians, anyway) for a long, long time.

I like to imagine how someone in 200 years will read my sermons. I cannot imagine what my blind spots are—that’s why they are blind spots. But if we do not study preaching history, our cosmic vision of what God is up to in the world is limited to our immediate pastoral, ecclesial, political, and social concerns. We will miss the ways that God is working with the church—and in spite of the church—to bend the arc of history toward justice.

What Good is Monogamy?

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Library of Congress Photo – Mr. Allisson’s Wedding

 

Imagine my shock at learning that I support polyamory.*

These are the perils of trying to shift discussion away from slippery slope fallacies and sound bites from people who are firmly committed to them. I wish I could say that I was misconstrued in my previous article, but I assumed that people would want to come along for the ride when I tried to establish some positive claims for monogamy beyond “one man, one woman” or “what the Bible says.” But apparently when I wrote the sentence “I’m not ruling out multiple-partner marriages,” some people got off the train.

Here is one of the most important points that I hoped to make in my previous article:

If there are good reasons to prefer monogamy for straight people…
then those same reasons apply to LGBTQ people.

Not “one man, one woman.” That slogan does not establish good reasons for monogamy.

Not “the Bible says.” It is not true, and it does not describe good reasons for monogamy.

Not “polygamy is icky.” That does not describe good reasons for monogamy.

If one can’t come up with good reasons for monogamy, one can’t rule out other arrangements. In other words, the “slippery slope” is only a problem for those who can’t give good reasons for monogamy, or who think the slogan “one man, one woman” is a convincing reason to support it. Naturally, if this is your main criterion for sexual ethics, and someone threatens to take it away from you, then you don’t have a way to make judgments about other sexual behavior.

Which, honestly, is both sad and scary.

There are a variety of ways we think about ethical questions. There is rule-based (deontological) ethics: Don’t tell lies. There is outcome-based (consequentialist) ethics: Lies have these kinds of consequences. And there is virtue ethics: We want to be people of integrity, who express honesty.

In real life, we use a variety of approaches.

Some Christians, having been so programmed to think in terms of the Ten Commandments, never grow beyond thinking of simple rule-based ethics: Don’t kill. Honor the sabbath. Don’t make idols. The sad thing is, they never have the joy of understanding what those rules do or the concepts they embody.

Imagine how much stronger we would be if we understood them: Every person bears the image of God, every person is a universe of subjectivity, so don’t kill. Every person, rich and poor, every animal and even the land deserve rest, so observe the sabbath—and pay laborers enough that they can, too! Don’t make idols that look like kings or celebrities because the image of God is already found in the poorest among you, in your neighbor, and in your enemy.

This is a very different way of doing ethics from rule based “don’t do this” lists. It asks us to think like grown-ups.

Naturally, we still have rules—society could not function without them. And we can still say don’t kill, don’t make idols, observe the sabbath. Sometimes we examine ethical dilemmas and come away with different or modified rules or norms. “Act justly” is a better norm than “don’t lie,” because if you’re hiding Jews from the Gestapo or Christians from ISIL, it may be good to lie. If you’re hiding money from the IRS, it probably isn’t.

When it comes to certain biblical regulations—don’t sleep with a woman while she’s having her period; if you have sex, take a bath in the evening and wait a day before going to temple; don’t wear clothes made of two kinds of fabric—when we search for reasons, we may have to think historically and anthropologically.

Christians often don’t think in these terms. But they know that we do actually have to disregard some biblical rules while following others. Rather than think in terms of ethics, they think in terms of covenant: New vs. Old. And even though which rules we observe and which we don’t are arbitrary from that perspective, if certain rules preserve sexism or heterosexism… well, that’s better than making God angry.

The other problem with thinking in terms of New vs. Old Covenant is that it is inherently anti-Jewish. Liberal Christians make this same mistake when they characterize the Hebrew Bible as being legalistic or the Hebrew God as being angry. Jews don’t see it that way at all, because they’ve been doing advanced ethics for thousands of years.

It’s time Christians grew up, too.

Good Reasons for Monogamy

I provided several good reasons in my article supporting the virtues of monogamy: equity, respect, mutuality, social stability, clear parental responsibility, clear legal rights, preventing the spread of STDs, and creating intimacy. If there is something good about monogamous exclusivity, if it makes us more human, if it helps us understand the concept of commitment, if it builds character, if it necessitates creativity, if it teaches us something important about covenant love and the nature of God, all of those good things should be available to all people. But if it’s just about a single penis being used in a single vagina, then that’s not a good way to do Christian ethics, nor is it a good witness to non-Christians that we have anything interesting to say about sexual ethics in the public sphere.

Let’s observe something about the way humans actually behave (which is an important part of descriptive ethics): It’s interesting that we celebrate not only marriage, but anniversaries. When people have been together for 25 or 50 years, we say “Congratulations! Good job!” because they have accomplished something: they have managed to stay alive and not only avoid resenting each other, but also they have remained committed, grown in love, and (hopefully) thrived. We celebrate these monogamous unions in a way that we don’t celebrate random hook-ups.

So what are we celebrating when we celebrate those anniversaries? Presumably, if it were not a real achievement, we would not think of it as a big deal. It would just be the arbitrary passage of time. We celebrate it not because the Bible says to celebrate it, but because we attach certain virtues and social goods to the concept of monogamy.

When I do a wedding, if couples choose to write their own vows, I tell them that their vows need to be parallel. In other words, if they are making a covenant promise to each other, they both need to buy into the same promise. I do this because before I was ordained, I once attended a wedding where the husband made up his vows on the spot. I walked away with the impression that what he had promised was, “Forever is a long time, and I’m not making any promises.” I resolved that if couples wrote their own vows, their vows would have to be parallel—and they would need to be written and approved beforehand! They need to promise to be in it for the long haul, and to be equal partners in the life they are building together, to share their journey of faith and a commitment to their larger church and community.

Not all Christians follow this practice. Some straight couples I know and respect promise to fulfill different roles: the wife to “honor and obey,” and the husband to be “the spiritual head of the household.” I have to concede that although those vows are not to my liking, their marriages can be strong and admirable as well. I believe in a marriage of equals, but I can conceive of other ways of doing marriage.

I could list some of the virtues of my own marriage and the spiritual growth it has worked in me. But although I would wish that experience for everyone, I can’t claim that these are universal virtues of monogamy or that they are exclusively available to married folks. For some people, marriage is an abusive trap, a living hell. This is not the fault of monogamy or marriage. It’s the fault of one partner breaking their vows of faith. But monogamy is not more or less virtuous than polygamy, polyamory, or random hook ups just because it’s monogamy.

Ideally, monogamous marriage means someone has your back. There’s at least one person in the world who will not form a coalition with others against you. You make a vow to “forsake all others” because allowing third parties into the intimate parts of your life means that you are no longer someone’s exclusive concern. This is not about jealousy, but practical social arrangements. Being someone else’s “main thing” is important. Two or more people cannot be a main thing.

After February 9 during the brief window in Alabama when same-sex couples could marry, I talked to more than one couple who said that they had lived together for 10 or more years. They did not think that getting “official” recognition would mean much. Yet all of them said, “It’s different.” Marriage is different from living together. Exchanging vows and becoming “legal” imparts a social value that is difficult to put into words.

But we can measure it: in states where marriage equality has passed, LGBTQ physical and mental health are better.

We put rings on our fingers to signal to the rest of society that we are in a special relationship with another person. We are no longer sexually or romantically “available,” but attached even when we are far away. In a good marriage, this ring becomes a symbol for absolute trust. Having social recognition of this bond of exclusive partnership is important. Denying it is both cruel and costly.

Everything I’ve just said about the social goods of monogamy can be applied to marriage between same-sex partners as well as straight ones.

Criticizing Monogamy

Which brings me to another question: Why do we not celebrate celibacy in the same way as we do heterosexual marriage? Jesus said some people make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God, and Paul considered it a spiritual gift. Why don’t communities gather to say, “Congratulations on your 25th anniversary of celibacy!” Yet in our culture, we either ignore it, denigrate it, or regard it with a kind of pity—even in most Christian communities (outside of Holy Orders). Because of this double standard and discrimination, sometimes people append “asexual” to the already-cumbersome alphabet soup (LGBTQIAP+).**

I suspect if we dig into the whys and wherefores of our attitudes toward our celebration of monogamy, we’ll find that it’s not about the virtues of marriage so much as it is about the support of patriarchy. This is why we do not celebrate celibacy. This is why polyamory or polyandry (one wife with multiple husbands) is so destabilizing—much more so than polygyny (one husband with multiple wives). This is why Christians shrug off Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Elkanah’s and David’s polygamy as being irrelevant to the discussion, or being rendered somehow irrelevant in the “New Covenant.” (Jews have been doing monogamous marriage for thousands of years without the benefit of ascribing to a “New Covenant,” so why do they also consider monogamy praiseworthy? A new covenant has nothing to do with it.)

As I said above, monogamy is not more or less virtuous than polygamy, polyamory, or random hook ups just because it’s monogamy. A monogamous marriage can be just as abusive, exploitive, sexist, and fatal as any other kind of relationship. This kind of exploitive monogamy is not limited to the distant past.

Critics of the institution of marriage have often talked about the sexist roots of “traditional” marriage. We often forget that the process of marriage in the ancient world was simply the act of heterosexual intercourse itself, sometimes with the exchange of money or gifts between a husband and the wife’s family. These marriages were often arranged, and the sex was not always consensual. After the husband tore his virgin wife’s hymen, the bloody sheets were presented to his in-laws so that they might keep “evidence of her virginity:”

Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, ‘I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.’ The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. The father of the young woman shall say to the elders: ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man but he dislikes her; now he has made up charges against her, saying, “I did not find evidence of your daughter’s virginity.” But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. (Deuteronomy 22.13-17, NRSV)

This very process is still practiced today in places like Iran. A story on this American Life contains a reference to this ancient biblical practice, though the events took place just a few decades ago. These practices still exist in our world.***

Library of Congress Photo - Bedouin Wedding Processional

Library of Congress Photo – Bedouin Wedding Processional

But adopting a critical stance toward monogamy is not acceptable in our culture: witness the ginned-up outrage over my blog post on the subject. As I said, some of the criticism is warranted. I could have been clearer in my section on polygamy about what I was driving at. But the argument of the blog “rebutting” my article does not actually address any of my questions or points. The critical response simply implies, “This yokel (or this group) believes in polygamy—he’s a moral degenerate and should not be a pastor. Do not listen to him.” But that is not an argument that supports the virtues of monogamy. If an atheist polyamorist were to raise the question, “What are the virtues of monogamy, and why should they be denied to gay people?” it would still be a reasonable question, and one that Christians should take seriously.

The articles in question gleefully double down on the slippery slope fallacy. For their authors, the slide from interracial marriage to gay marriage to multiple-partner marriages to incest, bestiality, and marriage to mops is inevitable once you remove the cornerstone of Christian sexual ethics:

There are reserved parking spaces for penises.

This norm is the bedrock of traditionalist support for their understanding of marriage. They believe this principle is established in the Bible, and that if you take it away, anything becomes acceptable. What they want is not a set of norms to evaluate sexual behavior, but a list of sexual behaviors that are “inherently sinful,” a set of dos and don’ts.

To be fair, I do not think most straight men think of their wives primarily as places to park their penises. But I do think this idea is implicit in conventional Christian culture, and has everything to do with purity balls, promise rings, and anti-feminist rhetoric.

The widespread acceptance of this principle can be witnessed in the double standards our culture applies to women and men in language about modesty and sexual promiscuity and in victim-blaming rape culture. Our Christian culture’s support of heterosexual marriage has less to do with the value of marriage or the goods it provides. It has more to do with preserving patriarchy. Shame around “sexual purity” is the rhetorical weapon used to reinforce this principle (more on that below.)

In our culture, anxiety about polygamy or polyamory is seldom about one man with multiple wives (polygyny), but about legally-sanctioned threesomes, open marriages, or polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands). The fear is that people might, without shame, have lots of sex in ways of which we disapprove. But while conservatives can often describe this sexual dystopia, they have a difficult time framing those concerns as positive support for monogamy. They prefer to stick with the “one man, one woman” slogan.

There will be quick retribution if we question the virtues of monogamy in our culture or relativize it (by talking about the practices of other cultures). This is the “political correctness” of patriarchy, and it has been around for thousands of years.

No wonder people thought Jesus was possessed by demons when he spoke disparagingly of family ties. Patriarchy is a god and to question it is blasphemy.

What’s missing?

What traditionalists fear is that if we kick away this patriarchal “parking space” norm, we will have nothing left. We will slide down a slippery slope into sexual anarchy. But, in fact, we can come up with several excellent norms, supported both by the Bible and Christian theology and tradition, that are much better for doing sexual ethics. I’m a big fan of Margaret Farley’s norms for Christian ethics from her book Just Love:

1. Do no unjust harm – this is also Wesley’s first principle of discipleship.

2. Free consent – a norm almost completely missing from the Bible, but which we should derive from loving our neighbor as ourselves.

3. Mutuality – both partners give and receive love and physical affection. The relationship is not one-sided.

4. Equality – power and responsibility are equally shared. The humanity of one partner is not denigrated.

5. Commitment – partners treat each other as ends and not means, as human beings instead of sex objects.

6. Fruitfulness – the relationship may not produce children, but produces spiritual and social fruit. The relationship develops other social goods for the larger community beyond the partners.

7. Social justice – partners think not only in terms of what’s good for them, but what’s good for the world, their potential children, and future generations.

These norms are so, so much better than “one man, one woman.” They give us positive ways for evaluating relationships. They allow us to rule out exploitive, abusive, selfish, or toxic relationships in a way that “the Bible says” does not. Moreover, they are intelligible to people who are not Christians. They give us a common language to talk with those who may not share our faith.

They also give us an opportunity to share what it is about our faith that should appeal to non-Christians. Some people call marriage God’s graduate school: It challenges us to learn how to love God and neighbor in a deeper way. We learn to love our neighbor better when we have another person challenging us to live beyond our own selfish tendencies every day.

These norms also give us language that encompasses both the sexual and non-sexual aspects of a relationship. As same-sex marriage supporters often point out, marriage is about more than sex. The vast majority of time we spend in a marriage is not sexual, but practical: checking calendars to make sure our families don’t have conflicts around school or work, balancing the checkbook, buying groceries, preparing food, enforcing discipline, celebrating birthdays, or supporting each other in crisis. Sexual intimacy can give us the strength to do all of these things better because we know and are known by another person. We trust that person with our lives, because we trust that person with the most intimate parts of ourselves in our “nakedness,” our vulnerability.

Again, all of these norms apply to same-sex marriage as easily as they apply to opposite-sex marriage.

The Problems (and Advantages) of Polygamy

We could also use these norms to critique polygamy or relationships that fall outside of monogamous marriage. Commitment is a problem for non-monogamy, because to value and understand an “other” as a subjective self takes a lifetime of knowing and being known, of sharing goals and dreams. Mutuality and equality are called into question in relationships that include more than a pair.

In my previous article, I mentioned that workplace relationships, like incest, violate equality and free consent norms. As I mentioned above, in places where polygyny is practiced, partners are often not equal, and consent is not free.

A commenter on my previous article asked me to clarify my take on polygamy, and I responded this way:

I suppose my biggest critique of polygamy / polyamory is that it violates a norm of exclusive commitment and calls into question equal power relationships. In classic polygamy (polygyny), women, girls, and even young boys often wind up the “losers” in that kind of social arrangement. It requires an unequal distribution of men and women, and anyone who is not an older male does not have the same level of freedom or power.

…it takes a lifetime of exclusive commitment to truly know another person intimately, [and] adequate respect given to that process doesn’t leave time for anyone else. I think exclusive commitment is one way to protect the idea that people are treated as ends instead of means, that others are not used for their sexual utility only (either for pleasure or reproductive purposes), but are valued as complete subjective selves.

We have to recognize also that these norms may not apply cross-culturally. In some cultures, men and women who marry do not live together. Men continue to live in the “men’s house,” and women live with their extended family. What do we say about monogamy or commitment or equality in this situation? How would people in this culture live out the gospel? Do we force them to live in single-family homes in the suburbs?

This doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize other cultural practices. Cultures that practice polygyny and female genital mutilation violate the norms of equality, mutuality, free consent, and doing no harm.

It also doesn’t mean that Christian marriage is safe from critique. All of these norms are available for critique once they are stated. Is commitment really important? Do we ever really value other people as “subjective selves?” Is that kind of long-term relationship necessary for people to develop mature love, and if so, what are we saying about people who choose to remain celibate, or people who are asexual, or people who are single? Are they not able to love maturely?

I welcome these kinds of questions from folks who have rejected traditional marriage and find our cultural idolization of it oppressive. Their voices need to be heard.

But doing this kind of thoughtful reflection on relationships is more work than just saying “polygamy is bad.” It requires us to examine questions about power, respect, and consent, which patriarchal Christianity cannot abide.

Nor can it abide moral imagination. Part of doing ethics for thousands of years has involved trying to come up with a scenario, no matter how far-fetched, in which something forbidden might become acceptable. The rabbis of ancient Israel asked “under what circumstances does it become okay to violate the sabbath?” Philosophers ask questions about how we make life-and-death decisions when choosing between the good of the many and the good of the few (see the trolley dilemma). So to test our ethical norms, we should ask, “under what circumstances can we imagine polygamy being acceptable?”

This would be a great discussion for a classroom, although by floating it I again risk the ire of right-wing bloggers. If one man and three women are stranded on a desert island without hope of rescue, does polyamory become acceptable? Most straight men will want to say yes—but does it really? What about one woman and three men? In proposing this scenario, do we recognize the danger of rape, the historical precedent of jealous male violence, and the question “How free is consent in this situation?” Can we really talk about any social and sexual agreement the four of them develop as “marriage?”

What if they are not on a desert island, but the last survivors on the planet, and the human race will die out unless they reproduce? Genetic diversity will be important for future generations, so do they have an obligation to sleep around as much as possible? Or do our norms override even the survival of the species?

What if we are colonizing another planet? Sending lots of men on a spaceship is an inefficient use of resources, so would polygyny be acceptable in that situation? Why use men at all, if we have the technology to allow for an all-female crew? Although it sounds like a setup for a sci-fi sexploitation novel, it forces us to clarify what norms we are using when we judge human sexual relationships.

These questions involve an element of storytelling and an openness to uncomfortable answers. This is where philosophy becomes narrative, and the stuff we’re talking about as abstract hypotheticals get incarnated by characters with whom we sympathize. This is why we should read fiction.

Rhetoric and the problem of doing Christian ethics in the public sphere

Unfortunately, my recent experience has shown me that not everyone appreciates this kind of imaginative exploration. Questions and narratives are as threatening to patriarchal Christianity as people who refuse to be shamed.

Conventional patriarchal Christianity is heavily dependent on shame to police behavior. Disgust and shaming are deployed against any who challenge patriarchy. Because these tactics are largely emotional instead of rational, they take advantage of a full range of fallacious logic: slippery slopes, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, straw man arguments, and so on. Both articles attacking me doubled down on the slippery slope fallacy, but they do not address the question, “What good is monogamy?”

I usually prefer to ask questions rather than offer value judgments. I generally don’t repost or retweet moral outrage, because these are the tools of cable news networks. I prefer classroom-style discussion. These styles don’t play well together. Doing Christian ethics in the public sphere requires writing for a potentially hostile audience.

Shame, disgust, and violence are tools of patriarchal Christianity, partly because of its atonement theory (often called “penal substitutionary atonement”—which makes me snicker.) The narrative goes like this: God is going to send us to hell because God is disgusted with our sinfulness. But God chose to take out his (and he is definitely masculine) wrath on Jesus instead of us. If we buy into this narrative through confession and repentance, we can experience cathartic release of all of our guilt and shame, and God will not be violent with us (by sending us to hell).

The advantage of this individualistic atonement theory is that for people who need to be saved from their destructive behavior (especially addictions), who feel burdened by guilt and shame, they can have a cathartic release. God is not against them, but for them. They are freed from their past and can begin again. It can be a liberating story.

The problem is that not everyone feels particularly guilty. What is a Christian evangelist to do with someone who doesn’t feel particularly sinful? The answer is easy: make them feel sinful. Let them know how awful their sin is. Even if their sin isn’t particularly awful, it’s all the same to an infinitely holy God. This approach has worked well in America ever since Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and described us sinners as disgusting spiders held by God over eternal flames.

But increasingly, Christians are becoming aware that being saved from personal sin and hell is not everyone’s prime concern. There are different ways to talk about atonement and what God does for us through Jesus Christ. For many who are ground under the heel of oppression, who are targeted unfairly for violent policing in American cities, who are trapped in abusive marriages, who are denied legal rights because they are gay, the primary thing they need to be saved from is not their own personal sin. Doubling down on shame rhetoric does not make them rush into the arms of the Lord. They have enough shame. We cannot turn the thumbscrews on them any tighter to make them confess. What they need saving from is the sin of injustice, of discrimination, of violence.

This is why conservative reaction against progressive evangelicals has been so vitriolic. If people stop listening to the shame rhetoric of conventional patriarchal Christianity, they won’t come down the Romans road to the altar. We will all go gaily traipsing down the slippery slope to moral anarchy and damnation. It’s why any ambiguous statement will be seized upon as evidence of liberal moral turpitude.

The church of conventional patriarchal Christianity has played the role of disapproving parent to our culture for so long that it doesn’t know what to do when adolescents give it the finger or shrug and say, “Nuts to you and your shame language.”

It’s worth noting here, as many others have pointed out, that Jesus doesn’t use much shame language in the gospels. At least, not with everyday people. The folks Jesus uses shame language with are religious leaders who themselves attempt to shame him by saying he’s abolishing Torah, destroying the traditional family, and turning the world upside-down. The tabloids published articles about him: “Rabbi from Galilee accused of Threatening to Tear Down Temple.”

When we bring up the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, people who want to preserve patriarchal Christianity desperately hang on Jesus’ last “go and sin no more” as a lifeline. “See?” They argue, while picking up more stones. “He’s not letting her off the hook.” Anything to preserve shame as a weapon.

And this is why doing what I do as a pastor at the margins—asking questions, describing history, talking about real (instead of imaginary) social problems, pointing out arguments that biblical authors have with each other, making friends with LGBTQ activists—is dangerous. Using my pastoral authority as a platform to create an open classroom for discipleship, rather than a secure position from which to attack others, involves risk.

But it also opens up the biblical text and Christian tradition to those who have been marginalized by patriarchal Christianity. It makes doing Christian ethics relevant to people who are not Christians.

 


*The headline is “Major United Methodist Gay Lobby Group Accused of Endorsing Polyamory,” which is a little bit like the headline, “Barack Obama Accused of Being a Socialist.”

**I recognize celibacy and asexuality are not necessarily the same thing, but I think they fall under the same double-standard in terms of cultural prejudice.
***The story on This American Life is about a woman who married a man, moved to America, divorced him, then later remarried. It is a great way to illustrate how personal and social opinions of marriage are different across cultures, and what they mean to the people they affect. It’s also a great piece on marriage in general, and how people can (and do) change over time.
[Edits on 3-17-15 for grammar and clarity]
[Epilogue] – This article is intended to address Christian sexual ethics, not UMC polity or theology. If I were to talk about the quadrilateral (scripture, tradition, reason, experience), this would be an even longer article. Tradition affirms monogamy through our liturgy and theology. There are also arguments to be made for monogamy that are derived from scripture that go beyond “what the Bible says.” Again, that would be another topic, and would require a distinction between the actual words of scripture and the theology we derive from it.

Christian Sexual Ethics for Dummies (Why We Don’t Marry Mops)

1. Prologue

Gay marriage is almost the law of the land, and I’m still reeling from surprise that Alabama was not the last state where it became legal. Some anti-gay folks deployed the usual inflated rhetoric, the most amusing of which was a Birmingham preacher who spoke at a city council meeting. You can watch the video here. Now that men can marry men and women can marry women, he said, humans would soon marrying, among other things, dogs, cats, snakes, brooms, and mops. Some have said that the next thing will be marriages of three or more people, or incestuous marriage.

This kind of argument is known as a “slippery slope” fallacy. A fallacy is a misleading argument. A fallacy may sound reasonable or even convincing, but it’s based on flawed logic. The “slippery slope” fallacy says that one action or claim will lead to a series of others that creates an undesirable result. In this case, if legal marriage rights are granted to gay and lesbian persons, people will soon be marrying their mops.

2. The Question – Inanimate Objects and the Problem of Love

By MOs810 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsSo why don’t we marry our mops?

We could propose several reasons. This is not an exhaustive list:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware or autonomous, and therefore
  3. Mops are not capable of consent, and cannot make vows
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  6. Mops are not capable of sharing an equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship.

Mops, therefore, not only make poor lovers; they make poor people. This is not to say that we may not have some kind of sentimental relationship with a mop. Inanimate objects can have sentimental value. Teddy bears, for instance, are nice to cuddle. But teddy bears, like mops, cannot meet any of the above criteria. Most inanimate objects cannot. (Robots and artificial intelligence may provide and interesting challenge to the above criteria, but they go beyond the scope of this article).

Now, inanimate objects, while they are not capable of consent, have a long history of being used in sexual ways. In this regard they are like other tools which give people pleasure—televisions, radios, scented candles, electric massagers, and hot tubs, for example. The virtues and vices of using these tools can be debated. Still, most people will not be inclined to marry their masturbatory aid for the above reasons: a dildo is a tool and, unless artificial intelligence is involved (again, beyond my scope), not capable of loving anyone back. More significantly for the purposes of marriage, neither dildos nor mops of the non-robotic sort can make breakfast, help carry the groceries, earn a second income, or enter into legal contracts.

Since I am writing from a perspective of Christian sexual ethics, this is an appropriate place to point out that there is no explicit biblical prohibition against masturbation, with or without tools. Some people (both Jewish and Christian) look at Genesis 38 and the story of Onan as a warning against self-pleasure, but most scholars reject that interpretation. Onan’s sin is not masturbation (or coitus interruptus), but theft: he attempts to defraud his late brother of his inheritance by not giving him an heir (38:9). His sister-in-law goes on to seduce her father-in-law by posing as a prostitute (38:15) and is finally called the most righteous of all the characters in the story (38:26). If we accept that Onan’s sin is masturbation, then we’re left with the odd lesson that adultery, cultic prostitution, and non-consensual sex are more acceptable to God than masturbation. Since the Bible does not list masturbation among sexual sins, and since it is probably the sexual practice most easily at hand for a majority of human beings on the planet, it seems reasonable to conclude that biblical authors were not too worried about it.

The Birmingham preacher, in his rant, may have been alluding to masturbation when he expressed frustration at not being able to find batteries, but it is difficult to tell. Only he knows what was going through his mind.

3. Living Things and the Problem of Consent (Dogs, Cats, Alligators, Swans, and Gods)

Cesare da Sesto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Having dealt with inanimate objects, let’s turn to the others Rev. Hatcher mentions. Dogs, cats, and snakes, unlike mops and brooms, are alive. Are they viable marriage partners?

At the risk of offending reptile pet-lovers, I will claim that snakes, whose brains are much more rudimentary than dogs and cats, are not capable of love. Reptiles do not typically form social bonds of the sort that would lead to marriage.

Cats and dogs, while mammals, also do not make suitable marriage partners. Even cat lovers will acknowledge that though their cats may be capable of love, and while they display a high (and often frustrating) degree of autonomy, they are still not able to give consent either to marriage or sexual relations. Moreover, cats’ reciprocity is debatable—do they love their owners, or is it merely (pardon the metaphor) a marriage of convenience? Dogs, likewise, are not able to give consent, although they demonstrate a high degree of loyalty. Since both of these animals lack language, making vows and giving consent are not possibilities. Dogs are still valuable helpers: service dogs illustrate the kind of important bond between dogs and humans.

While the Greek and Roman myths are full of stories of humans cavorting sexually with gods in the form of animals (swans, bulls, and eagles, just to name a few), and while inter-species sexual activity has been documented in real life, these relationships can hardly be said to constitute marriage. In most of the mythological cases, the consent of the human, if not the animal, is ambiguous. At the very least, there was an element of dissembling: Did Leta know the swan was Zeus? We cannot know. Either Leta or the swan or both were violated, which places that sexual act outside the realm of what is proper. This has not kept artists from depicting—quite frequently—these various sexual encounters.

I can imagine, though, that inter-species marriage relationships might be possible if we met a sentient alien race that was similar enough to our own (even though theirs may have multiple genders, or no gender). Could we talk reasonably about “what God intended” in such a circumstance? But who knows? They might find our monkey-like bodies too disgusting to contemplate anything other than a platonic relationship. Like robotic artificial intelligence, this falls outside the scope of this article.

Free consent is vital to the concept of modern Western marriage. It has not always been so. Child marriage, shotgun weddings, and concubinage have all been part of our history. Some ancient biblical authors believed that guaranteeing paternity was more important than consent, so a man who raped a virgin was then obligated to marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). In that culture, such marriages helped secure her future, since her value as “unspoiled merchandise” was diminished. However, other Biblical authors creatively critiqued this social double-standard (see again the story of Tamar in Genesis 38).

Consent also rules out marrying people who are catatonic or mentally impaired to a degree that they cannot give consent. For this reason, pastors will often refuse to marry people who are drunk. Modern anecdotes of couples who get drunk and wake up married in Las Vegas are common, although these are usually cautionary tales of what ought not to be done. One must be sober and in full possession of one’s faculties to get married.

4. Taboo Relationships

What about taboo human relationships? Incestuous marriages? Multiple partners?

Incestuous relationships are problematic for a number of reasons, primarily related to autonomy, consent, equity, and reciprocity. In familial relationships, the primary question becomes “how free is the person to make a choice?”

We can compare it to another common ethical violation: If a boss or a supervisor demands a relationship with a subordinate, it is workplace harassment. Family relationships, which are even more private, contain much greater possibility for abuse. Even if someone gives their consent, we’re left with the question, “How free is their consent?” In the workplace or in the military, a consequence of rejection may be firing, demotion, or loss of pay. The reward for compliance may be promotion, higher compensation, or status and prestige. The consequences may be described explicitly as a threat or reward, or, more deviously, they may be implicit and assumed. These latter cases are the most insidious, as people in power often claim that people under their power were willing partners.

In family relationships, even the loss of esteem of a family member may be coercive, especially in parent-child relationships. In this situation, how can consent be truly free? Even if these consequences are only possibilities, they place partners in very unequal positions of power.

While romance does happen in the workplace, generally supervisors and subordinates must sever their workplace relationship. This is not possible with familial relationships. Because of discrepancies in power and the question of consent, incestuous marriage remains unacceptable.

Bestiality and incest are often used in slippery-slope arguments against gay marriage. But the main reasons we avoid them is not “because the Bible says so.” There are good reasons to avoid such relationships besides the fact that they are prohibited by scripture. These questions are often deployed as fallacies in order to raise the “ick” factor in the listener, to generate sufficient disgust to paint the issue in question in a negative light. This does not mean that we should not consider them as arguments (the “fallacy fallacy.”) I think there is value in doing so because it clarifies how we think about marriage and sexual relationships.

5. Monogamy and Exclusivity

As for multiple partners, we must observe that the Bible contains many stories about polygamy. People have put households and families together in a variety of innovative ways. Christian missionaries have often struggled with how to address those relationships within the context of spreading Christian values. But for the purposes of talking about marriage and Christian ethics in our American context, we’ll bracket, for the moment, these other cultures and the fact that some people believe that legal marriage is itself a problem or an outdated institution.

Let’s look again at the reasons that marriage to a mop is not appropriate:

  1. Mops are not alive
  2. Mops are not self-aware and do not have autonomy
  3. Mops are not capable of consent
  4. Mops are not capable of loving us back
  5. Mops cannot make vows of marriage
  6. Mops cannot own property or have other legal rights typically granted to spouses
  7. Mops are not capable of sharing the equitable, mutual, or reciprocal relationship that leads to long-term social stability.

These last two reasons for avoiding marriage to mops are, I think, also the best arguments against multiple-partner marriages. (I am not, by the way, ruling out multiple-partner marriages, but illustrating one way to think about it).

Marriage is, essentially, the simplest social arrangement for two non-kin human beings to come together to make a family. Karl Marx observed that the elemental form of human being is not an individual, but a family. A single human being on an island lacks what makes us most distinctively human: our social community. Being in solitary confinement “de-humanizes” us. We are verbal, we can imagine others as subjective selves, we form pair-bonds, we use higher reasoning, all because we have to coordinate social action. Aristotle observed that we are “political animals.” Just as you cannot understand bees without studying a hive, you cannot understand human beings without studying how we organize in social groups. The family is the most elementary social group, and a pair is the smallest unit of human society you can have and still call it “human.” We celebrate the equitable, mutual, reciprocal love of that basic relationship because we recognize something virtuous in this act of family-making. Two have become one.

But for most of human history, equitability, mutuality, and reciprocity have had little to do with family or marriage. In biblical times, men treated women more like chattel than like subjective selves whose consent and autonomy mattered. Of course, there are plenty of scriptures (Samuel 1:8, Song of Songs) that indicate these ancient people were not oblivious to love as the basis for marriage.

Today, though, the willing self-giving of two people to each other to enter into this basic social relationship is considered a praiseworthy thing in our society. Ideally, these arrangements lead to long-term stability that benefits society. Couples can raise children, if they so desire, and support each other by creating networks of enduring relationships that build resilient communities. Divorce and separation, when it happens, hurts the partners, children, and even the fabric of the community as friendship ties are severed.

While it may be possible for more than two people to enter into this kind of relationship, the most basic system is a pair. We must acknowledge that even pairs are seldom alone in how they form households and families: grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, children and grandchildren may all live under one roof. They do not all enter into this kind of covenant relationship, and their presence in the household may be temporary. But in a household with a married couple, all of those relationships are often sustained by the vows and stable relationship of at least one pair.

Sex and reproduction is neither necessary nor sufficient to create a marriage. People marry who cannot have sexual intercourse. Infertile couples marry. Old couples marry. We must also acknowledge that people can, and do, form households or families without marriage. These may be created with any number of sexual or non-sexual relationships. Sex and reproduction are not necessarily part of the relationship.

But part of the traditional vow of marriage is sexual exclusivity, “forsaking all others.” There are several reasons for this exclusivity:

  1. Ensuring paternity and clear parental responsibility for children
  2. Preventing the spread of STDs, especially to the unwitting partner
  3. Ensuring each partner’s energy is focused on the other for stability’s sake
  4. Creating intimacy

Regarding #3 and #4, it should be obvious from divorce statistics that it is difficult enough to create a stable long-term relationship with one other person. Adding more into the mix increases the difficulty level. In cultures which practice other forms of marriage, these reasons might be contested or mitigated by different social arrangements in a village or community. But if having a stable marriage relationship is itself a good to be desired, we can make reasonable arguments for monogamous exclusivity.

Again, this does not rule out the possibility of other marriage arrangements. It does force us to clarify what the social goods are that we believe marriage is supposed to produce. People can, and do, argue that the Bible supports polygamy. If we wish to make arguments about what Christian ethics supports, we will have to do better than just make claims about “what the Bible says.” The long-term work of truly “knowing” another person, coming to terms with our differences, sharing a mission in life together, all may be virtuous goals of monogamous marriage supported by sexual intimacy. But if these are good for straight folks, they are good for LGBTQ folks as well.

6. Further Thoughts about Sexual Ethics and the Bible

Many folks have a good deal of anxiety about the rapid social change that has led to the social acceptance of homosexual relationships. They fear that rejecting one set of moral standards means abandoning all moral standards. But in pursuing this (absurd) question, I’ve illustrated that we have many ways of making ethical judgments. “The Bible says” is only one kind of deontological (rule-based) ethics, and it’s one that not even devout Christians follow completely. We refrain from adultery, murder, or bearing false witness not because the Bible forbids it, but for other very good reasons. That the Bible forbids it gives us interesting theological insight into the ethical nature of God—but it’s not the primary reason we don’t kill.

LGBTQ allies have often noted that the Bible also forbids eating shrimp and endorses the stoning of disobedient children. While dispensationalist Christians sometimes relegate certain regulations to the “old” covenant, it’s pretty clear that even they are not refraining from stoning their disobedient children because one set of regulations (or divine commands) has been superseded by another set.

There are challenges to traditional binary-gender opposite-sex marriage even without the looming inevitability of same sex marriage. Sometimes people are born intersex, with ambiguous genitalia. As Jesus himself observed, “some people are born eunuchs” (Matthew 19:12.) Should intersex people be allowed to marry? Does someone born with ambiguous genitalia have to “decide” which gender they are going to be and marry someone of the opposite gender? In this case, someone may be chromosomally male, but identify and express themselves as female. If this person is also attracted to women, could we reasonably forbid her to be in a same-gender relationship? Or will our society be okay with it if she just changes clothes and acts masculine?

Transgender and queer persons continue to face marginalization because their gender expression or gender identity don’t line up with social expectations, even among gay and lesbian peers. Yet if we were to transport Jesus (as he is popularly depicted) to modern-day Birmingham in his first-century Palestinian dress and long hair, people might assume he was cross-dressing. Jesus never wore trousers. How we interpret the meaning of people’s clothes, makeup, gestures, and vocal characteristics depends not only on their gender, but on our own culture and value systems.

The Bible contains a single line forbidding cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5,) yet many Christian women who claim to be biblical literalists wear pants, vests, and ties. We are forced to ask tough questions about what gender roles have to do with Christian ethics. Is it okay for a man to wear a kilt? A toga? Since fashion changes with the times, is it a Christian virtue to be conventionally fashionable?

I think these are all good questions that challenge us to think more deeply about marriage, sexual ethics, and the things our society considers good and bad. Unfortunately, because a few anti-gay Christians have liberally used fallacious logic and hateful rhetoric, they have undermined the credibility of doing Christian ethics in the public sphere. Those of us who believe that Christian ethics has an important role to play in public life wind up doing damage control. Naturally, plenty of non-religious people have come to believe religion itself is the original sin that plagues our society. As Paul said to the religious leaders of his day, “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:24).

Both Jewish and Christian ethics have a long tradition of reframing and reinterpreting the Bible. Jews have somehow avoided stoning disobedient children and adulterers for thousands of years in spite of the fact that they don’t believe in the Christian “new covenant.” Their history of rabbinical argument and dialogue has been a model for Jewish communities about how to read and interpret sacred scripture. When our faith seeks understanding, we leave behind childish things.

I’ve entertained this question, “Why don’t we marry mops,” because I think it’s important for thinking Christians to recognize and name the fact that we use ethical norms other than “what the Bible says.” Rejecting heterosexist or anti-gay norms does not mean we reject all norms and values, or even Christian ones. In fact, we may emphasize other norms, like consent and personal autonomy, that are more conducive to loving our neighbors as ourselves.

For more reading:

Does the Bible Mean?

A reflection on Margaret Farley’s 7 Norms for Sexual Ethics

Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

How I Became a Feminist

In 1998 my wife discovered a mass in her abdomen. It was about the size of a softball. We scheduled an appointment with an ob-gyn, who told us that it was probably not a cancerous ovarian cyst. It was more likely a uterine fibroid. An ultrasound confirmed that two very large cysts were growing, distorting the shape of her uterus so that their placement was unclear. Were they inside or outside? On her ovaries or not?

We scheduled laparoscopic surgery and a biopsy, and learned that they were, in fact, uterine fibroids. “Very unusual for a white woman to have such large fibroids,” said the doctor, a statement we’d hear more than once in the following years. “I can’t believe you’re not having more pain.” We’d hear that one, too. We scheduled a follow-up appointment and spent a couple of weeks in a haze of mild anxiety.

This was just as Google was becoming a household word, but internet searches didn’t turn up much about uterine fibroids. I was a seminary student at Vanderbilt University, and there was a fabulous medical library on campus. We spent several hours looking through journals and learned that although fibroids are very common, they are not typically dangerous. There were a variety of possible treatments, from embolization (killing the fibroids’ blood supply) to myomectomy (cutting them out), but cutting out such large cysts increased the risk that scar tissue would complicate pregnancy—if we could even get pregnant. We learned that a majority of women have fibroids, and they are the main reason women have hysterectomies.

I was surprised that neither of us had ever learned about this common problem, and frustrated that every article we read said that nobody really knows why fibroids happen. In addition to creating fertility problems, we learned that fibroids might sometimes be responsible for dangerous ectopic pregnancies. Everything we learned about them only increased our uncertainty. My wife had been taking birth control pills for years to control painful periods. Did that contribute to the growth of fibroids? There was no consensus. Some said yes, others said no.

When we went in for our follow-up appointment, we brought all of our questions. Would we be able to get pregnant? Would it be safe to do so? Would insurance cover some kind of surgery or treatment? The doctor listened to our questions and was impressed with our research, but he couldn’t really tell us much more. He referred us to a specialist.

The specialist wasn’t much help, either. Our biggest concern was a dangerous pregnancy. He basically shrugged and said, “Whatever your plans for having children, you should probably do it sooner rather than later. These things tend to grow. It may grow a little, or it may grow a lot. If it grows a lot, you could have a complicated pregnancy.”

As a student, I was required to buy health insurance. We seldom used or needed it. Every August as the semester began, I had to scrape together enough money to buy our coverage. Most of our doctor visits happened at the university, and we never had trouble with insurance.

The following month we got a statement from our insurance company saying that we owed $260 for an uncovered doctor’s appointment. We were school-poor. We budgeted each month down to pennies. Our entertainment was whatever was free on campus. We had $100 in a savings account. The bill might as well have been for $1000—there was no way we could pay it.

I called the number on the back of my insurance card. The customer service representative on the other end of the line was a young guy—probably my age. I asked him why our insurance was refusing to pay. He looked up something on his computer.

“Ummmmm… oh, here it is. Yeah, we don’t cover contraceptive charges.”

“What? No, this isn’t a contraceptive charge. This was a consultation about tumors on my wife’s uterus.”

“This doesn’t say anything about tumors,” he said.

“They are fibroids. A kind of cyst. We were just thankful it wasn’t cancerous, but we were worried about complications. So that’s why we had the consultation.”

“So, were you asking about getting pregnant?”

I didn’t like where this was going. “Yes—I mean, no, not really. Getting pregnant is part of it, we just want to make sure there wasn’t any danger. This is about her health.”

“Well, if you were talking about getting pregnant, then it’s a contraceptive charge. Or a fertility charge, and we don’t cover fertility consultations, either.”

“No, listen, you’re not hearing me.” I had tangled the cord around my fingers. “I want to make sure my wife is safe. This is about her health. I wanted to know if she gets pregnant, would it put her life in danger.”

“If you were talking about preventing pregnancy, then it’s a contraceptive charge.”

“What the hell? Look, if I had a tumor the size of a softball on my testicle, would that be covered?”

The cubicle jockey on the other end laughed, “Sir, men can’t get pregnant.”

I’d always heard of sentences being felt “like a punch in the gut,” but had dismissed them as cliche. But that’s where I felt his words: a physical pain, a cold, hollow place in my abdomen. Then I felt the rage. I started cussing.

I asked to speak to a manager, and I was referred to another man with whom I had the same conversation. They informed me of an appeal process, but said they doubted it would change anything. If I couldn’t pay the $260 at once, I could probably work out an arrangement with the doctor’s office to pay in installments.

When I hung up the phone, my wife and I were both shaking and crying, the frustration and helplessness we felt having no other outlet. I do not believe violence is the answer to problems, but in that moment, I wanted to reach through the phone and throttle the idiot on the other end. He was probably just a student, like me, working a call center to pay his way. He spoke out of his ignorance. But my wife and I had scraped together what little money we had to buy this insurance, only to hear them laugh at our physical and financial distress. They laughed at my protest of unfairness. HIs words echoed in my mind: “Sir, men can’t get pregnant. Men can’t get pregnant.” As if it explained everything in the world.

I had never experienced the dehumanizing effects of sexism myself, the devaluation of half of humanity’s fundamental life concerns: health, freedom, and responsibility. For the first time, I felt was on the receiving end of systemic misogyny. At least, I felt it financially. My own health problems were classified as health problems, but my wife’s health problems were contraceptive or fertility problems—convenient labels that allowed our insurance company to refuse to give us the money we had already paid to them for our health care. The fact that I was concerned about her life and well-being was irrelevant. The minute we started talking about her lady-parts, her identity as a human being ceased to matter.

I would never stand for an insurance company or an employer telling me what kind of medical care I could get for my man parts. The only person who can make educated decisions about my body is me. And if part of the compensation of my employment is health insurance, then I’d better get the care that I’ve already paid for.

Of course, I was worried about our family planning, too. But getting any kind of financial help with such things had never crossed my mind. We had been paying for her pills for ages. It never occurred to us that we were actually saving the insurance company money. We were not trying to freeload birth control from a corporation. We just wanted the money we had already paid.

This was also the first time I had seen first-hand the banal dismissiveness of men who fail to see the sexism present in the medical system, or their complicity in it. My attempt to point out that my wife and I were treated differently was laughed off.

I’m a bit ashamed that I had to be hit where it really matters—in the wallet—for me to understand the demeaning way our society treats women every single day. If I had been wealthier, the bill would have been a minor annoyance. Why not just pay it? Instead, I had felt the physical threat to our existence those policies represent because we were riding the edge of poverty. Of course, the worst thing that would have happened is that I would have had to drop out of school and get a job. But I was suddenly much more sympathetic to people in real poverty.

Now, when I hear someone use cowardly rhetoric to talk about birth control, or of “being a slut on someone else’s dime,” I think about all the dimes I collected to pay an insurance company for nothing. I think about the corporate jets their executives fly. I think about the very tall buildings on Wall Street that I helped finance. And I think about the sluts in congress who sell their morals to healthcare industries, and the pimps in corporate boardrooms who control them.

We did manage to have a child, eventually, though we don’t know whether or not to blame the fibroids for her two miscarriages—they still don’t know much about them, you see. And they don’t know why black women get them more often than white. If white men got fibroids on their testicles, and it required castrations, you can be damn sure we’d know what causes fibroids and how to treat them. And you know insurance would pay every cent.

When she delivered by caesarian, the ob-gyn said the largest fibroid was the size of a basketball. It had shrunk by the time she had a hysterectomy. At that point, it weighed only six pounds. By that time in our lives we had decent insurance that treated her like a human being. We only had to pay a few thousand dollars for the surgery—still far out of reach of most of America’s poor.

So, that’s how I became a feminist. That’s when I claimed the label and decided that I would work hard to be a better ally, because being on the losing side of a double standard really sucks. When defenders of that double standard accuse you of being morally deficient, it adds insult to injury. When they laugh at your distress, it makes you fighting mad. Militant, even. I am thankful for the epiphany.

While nobody ever took our medical choices completely away, we were jerked around financially and emotionally by an insurance company, and we paid for the privilege. I wished at the time that we either had no insurance or a public option. Either would have given my wife more autonomy over her own body. If we had not had the financial and moral support of our extended family, I can easily see how this kind of uncaring “care” could cost us the ability to have children… or worse.

Jesus described his problem with the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23:4: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” The concept of universalizability is one of the bedrock fundamentals of ethics: what applies to one, applies to all. Yet we continue to place a heavier burden on one half of humanity than the other in so many ways.

As I said, I’m grateful for the experience. It’s not the only one that has helped me to see my own privilege, and look past it, even when I thought I’d already dealt with it. I hope that our descendants can inherit a world in which the burdens of the world are shared equally between rich and poor, all genders, and where access to healthcare is no longer used as a tool of oppression.

 

Why We Need Unbiblical Ethics

Most modern Christians do not get their norms for ethics from the Bible, and this is a good thing.

For example, as many critics of Christianity point out, nowhere do biblical authors explicitly condemn slavery. There is, of course, the whole Exodus story, and we can read it and retell it in such a way that we hear God’s sympathy with oppressed people. We can say that even ancient authors looked forward to a day of equality and freedom, when “everyone will sit under the shade of their own fig tree.” But Christian slaveowners pointed out that some scriptures told slaves to be obedient to their masters. To be obedient to God, they argued, you were supposed to accept the status quo.

The same is true for sexual ethics. Even though I really like Margaret Farley’s 7 norms for Christian sexual ethics (which are necessary for “minimal” justice), I have to admit that they are not found in the Bible: doing no harm, mutuality, commitment, none are explicitly named. Even consent is questionable. The social rules governing sexual behavior in the Hebrew Bible are all geared toward fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham: produce lots of descendents and possess the land. Even if you take “love your neighbor as yourself” as an important principle, it’s not specific enough to tell you what kind of behaviors are good or bad. (Even hate groups claim that they are motivated by love).

While the scriptures may contain all things necessary for salvation, they do not always spell out explicitly what “things” we are supposed to learn or how to apply those things to our lives. One of my favorite stories from Genesis 38 (Judah and Tamar) points out the hypocrisy of our sexual double standards, and highlights all kinds of issues that make for really good discussion of sexual ethics. But it doesn’t say, “go and do likewise.” I believe this is why we may use the Bible as a starting point for discussions of Christian ethics, but we can only find the end in the person of Jesus Christ.

This is also why when it comes to women’s rights, or children’s rights, or economic justice, or LGBTQ rights, or church management and polity, or payday loan sharks, or immigration reform, I have little patience for my clergy colleagues who either a) dismiss these things as divisive “issues” that are somehow less important than “preaching the gospel,” or b) say “the Bible clearly says,” as if they aren’t already engaged in the act of interpretation, reading things into the text that aren’t there. Again, it’s not bad to read things into the text—it’s just important to know what those things are.

When Christians deny the possibility of marital rape, or speculate that slavery wasn’t so bad, really, they are not violating norms of biblical ethics. They are living out exactly what they’ve been taught by pastors and Sunday school curricula throughout Christendom: the Bible is all they need. We mainline clergy enable this kind of thinking unless we are clearer about our sources for Christian ethics.

For Christian ethics, what the Bible doesn’t say is as important as what it does. This is why when people say, “Just stick to the scriptures,” I cringe inside. They either do not know the scriptures as well as they think they do, or they are operating on a false premise that all of our Christian ethics come from the Bible. The Bible gives us a form and a model for doing theology and ethics, but it does not do the work of theology and ethics for us.

Three Axioms and an Apology

1. All theology is political.

2. Theology which claims it is not political is both political and dishonest.

3. Theological language which attempts to transcend politics, casts aspersions on “both sides” of an issue, or is deployed to make its users feel better about their privilege is political, dishonest, and condescending.

4. I’ve definitely been guilty of #3.

Understanding a “Sacred Covenant”

One of the favorite commonplace arguments of the Good News crowd has unfortunately been taken up by the Council of Bishops: that performing the wedding of a same-sex couple is “breaking a sacred covenant” made at an elder’s ordination. But is it? Here is the relevant section of the ordination service. Read it through, and consider carefully what kind of covenant an elder is making at his or her ordination. I’ve put some possibly relevant sections in bold. At the end, I’ve appended some questions for your consideration.

Ordination is a gift from God to the church, and is exercised in covenant with the whole church and within the covenant of the order.

…As elders, you are to be coworkers with the bishops, deacons, diaconal ministers, deaconesses, home missioners, commissioned ministers, local pastors, and other elders.

Remember that you are called to serve rather than to be served, to proclaim the faith of the church and no other, to look after the concerns of God above all.

An elder is called to share in the ministry of Christ and of the whole church: to preach and teach the Word of God, and faithfully administer the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; to lead the people of God in worship and prayer; to lead people to faith in Jesus Christ; to exercise pastoral supervision, order the life of the congregation, counsel the troubled, and declare the forgiveness of sin; to lead the people of God in obedience to Christ’s mission in the world; to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people; and to take a responsible place in the government of the Church and in service in and to the community.These are the duties of an elder.

Do you believe in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?

Are you persuaded that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?

Will you be faithful in prayer, in the study of the Holy Scriptures, and with the help of the Holy Spirit continually rekindle the gift of God that is in you?

Will you do your best to pattern your life in accordance with the teachings of Christ?

Will you, in the exercise of your ministry, lead the people of God to faith in Jesus Christ, to participate in the life and work of the community, and to seek peace, justice, and freedom for all people? [note that this is the second occurrence of this phrase].

Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

Will you, for the sake of the church’s life and mission, covenant to participate in the order of elders? Will you give yourself to God through the order of elders in order to sustain and build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?

May God, who has given you the will to do these things, give you grace to perform them, that the work begun in you may be brought to perfection.

After reading the above language from the ordination service, what is the covenant that is broken by officiating a same-gender wedding? Is it:

  1. The covenant to seek justice, peace, and freedom for all people?
  2. The covenant to teach the Bible as the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life?
  3. The covenant to accept the order of the United Methodist Church? The liturgy? The (small “d”) discipline? The doctrines?
  4. The covenant to participate in the order of elders, and to build each other up through study, worship, and service?
  5. The covenant to defend the United Methodist Church from “all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word?” The belief that the scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s’ faith and life?

Here are some follow-up questions:

  1. What in the above oath might suggest to you that covenant means accepting the incompatibility clause and subsequent prohibitions because they are in the (large “D”) Discipline?
  2. Given the oath to seek peace, justice and freedom for all people, what is an ordained clergy’s covenantal responsibility toward gay and lesbian persons who wish to marry?
  3. When the incompatibility clause was approved in 1972, did its authors violate any part of the above covenant toward their ordained gay and lesbian clergy peers? What about when additional punitive language was added regarding ordination and same-gender marriage?
  4. The Discipline rejects ordination for “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals,” which has often been called “don’t ask, don’t tell” for clergy. It implies you can be self-avowed, but not practicing (i.e. celibate), or practicing but not self-avowed (i.e. “in the closet). What does this language do to a covenant of mutual accountability among clergy?
  5. Since every General Conference committee that has “studied” the issue of homosexuality has recommended removing the incompatibility language, yet the General Conference has voted to retain it, what does that do to our covenant to “build each other up in prayer, study, worship, and service?”
  6. Finally, when only 67% of General Conference votes to uphold the idea that “God’s grace is available to all, [and] that nothing can separate us from the love of God,” language borrowed from both John Wesley and Saint Paul, how qualified is that body to address what is or is not compatible with “Christian teaching?” What percentage needs to vote on something for it to be a clear sign of the witness of the Holy Spirit? 51%? 100%?

Growing up in the church, I learned that “covenant” was different from a “contract.” A contract is a legal agreement that says, “if you break this, such and such happens.” A covenant, though, is based on the character of the participants and the shalom of the community. God was faithful to God’s covenant with Israel even when Israel was not faithful, because God’s character was one of “steadfast love.” Opponents of LGBTQ rights would have everyone believe that the covenant to uphold the order, liturgy, discipline, and doctrine of the church is actually a contract. It legitimizes homophobia, heterosexism, and a culture of ecclesiastical coercion using the language of sacred covenant. Using the language of “sacred covenant” to mask thin Biblical interpretation, bad theology, and lousy ethics is itself more harmful to that covenant than any alleged violation of the incompatibility clause.

Before You Say “Happy Anniversary,” Think About This

I wrote a bit about our anniversary last month, and then decided, for a variety of reasons, not to post it. I’m posting it today:

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We just celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary. As people always say on such occasions, it is hard to believe it has been that long.

We went out to eat. I told our server that it was our anniversary, and he pretended that it was the best news he had heard all day. I told both friends and strangers that it was our anniversary. They said complimentary things. Sometimes I overshared and got sentimental, but people still smiled and politely congratulated me.

This is the point where I should post a picture, along with some words about how she is an awesome, wonderful, talented, beautiful human being, that she has helped me grow in emotional and spiritual maturity, that she is an example as well as a friend. I should say that I am proud that she is the mother of our son, her love helps me understand how God loves me in spite of my flaws, and so on. All of this is true.

And, if you are my friend, you should probably say “Congratulations!” People will “like” the status on Facebook. If I were to post a wedding picture, you would notice that I have less hair and a higher BMI than I did then. We look so young in our picture, you might say.

The wedding was good, but I’m posting a travel picture instead. Part of our marriage is actively working toward God’s kingdom: planting churches, promoting justice, helping people who need help. We share a mission.

Bolivia, 2007

Bolivia, 2007

Now, before you click like or make a comment, just let me make an observation:

Nobody — not one — will tell me that I SHOULDN’T talk about it. No one will tell me that my love for her isn’t really love, that it is really sexual perversion, that my attraction for my wife is a character flaw or an addiction like alcoholism. Nobody will tell me that we are an abomination, or that I should try not to love her. Nobody will criticize me for having the audacity to be PROUD of my spouse, or for wanting to shout from the rooftops that I am the luckiest guy in the world. In fact, they will praise my devotion because, even if they secretly gag on my saccharine words, they believe that I SHOULD say these things. That is part of what healthy couples do.

(I imagine that if someone did respond with contempt, or tell me to be silent on my anniversary, I would invite them to go and do something anatomically impossible to themselves.)

Some of my traditionalist friends might accuse me of turning our anniversary into a political statement. But the fact is, EVERY anniversary, every single year, every card and restaurant date and bouquet is a political statement, because we have historically given privileges to some people that we do not give to others. Every time you participate in the anniversary ritual and say “congratulations!” you are making a social and political statement: marriage is good, and we should be proud of it. This set of people has a right to be acknowledged, affirmed, celebrated… and these do not.

I am proud that I am married to a woman who will let, even encourage me to say these things that I believe to be true. I am thankful to have such a partner in life, love, and ministry. And I hope, both for our own church and for our denomination, we will become the kind of church that says congratulations to everyone who shares news of their anniversary.