[image description: a cartoon chalkboard that reads “Let’s Talk Sex”]
For anyone who denies that God has a sense of humour, I wish they could be privy to the dialogue I have with the divine about the increasing opportunities I have to speak on the topic of sexual ethics. While I protest in Moses-esque questioning of my aptitude for the job, God, it seems, simply busts a gut and roars with laughter. Not in an unkind way. But in a way that I can’t help but sort of chuckle along as I watch my resistance melt like once dangerous icicles now in playful puddles. But it is true that I am an unlikely candidate. (Though perhaps not as unlikely as giant in the field, Margaret Farley, author of, “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” who is a Catholic nun.) I, at least, have had sex. With one person. In what appears to be a very typical heteronormative 25 year monogamous marriage. I grew up with next-to-no sexual education and the overarching expectation that I would save myself for marriage. Which I did…. well, depending on how you define sex. I saved myself for penile-penetrative-into-the-vagina sex. Sex was an embarrassing, difficult topic of conversation for me and I brought lots of shame, insecurity, and uncertainty into my marriage covenant.
Fast-forward and now I find myself receiving emails like this one, “I’m the person who told you that your talk on Saturday was the highlight of the conference for me. Are you writing a book or blog or considering some other way to get your vital take on sexual ethics out to the global LGBTQ+ community?” This from a professor connected with their campus’ Center on Sexuality. Truth-be-told, I’m a little gobsmacked. How did this happen? How did I go from being that naïve, ashamed, “can barely talk to my spouse about this” person to someone who has encouraged the shift from rules-based to values-centered sexual ethics in two of the most influential LGBTQ+ Christian ministries in North America?
See why God is laughing?
To keep this blog post from becoming a book, let me say that you can read more about my theological journey in my first book, “Generous Spaciousness” and the impact of my doctoral studies on my reflections on sexual ethics in my e-book based on my thesis, “Cultivating Generous Space.” (Yup – not so creative with my book titles.)
What I want to say in this post is that my ongoing “yes” to God’s hilarious invitation for me to lean into this arena has everything to do with my conviction that if any part of the Body of Christ is missing, the entire Body of Christ is impoverished. Through all the evolution of my journey, this has been a consistent and core conviction. What I might articulate more clearly today than earlier in my journey is the accompanying conviction that God, through Christ, has, is, and will reconcile all things and therefore I cannot look at anyone and make the determination that they are outside of the Body of Christ. Rather, I must cultivate generous space within myself to recognize the other as an image-bearer of God, one who is Beloved and one who Belongs. My response to the other will either contribute to or detract from this affirmation. And so I determine to contribute positively to affirming the Belovedness and the Belonging of each one I encounter. As I find myself having been called to serve and stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, this means that I not only encounter folks, but consider to be dear friends, those who steward their sexual lives in ways that earlier in my journey would have shocked and likely terrified me. And while some will presume that my evolution is merely another casualty of the slippery slope of moral relativism, my testimony is that of encountering God in unexpected places and in unexpected ways – ways that have been profoundly transformative for me in my very vanilla, predictable 25 year monogamous heterosexual marriage. Perhaps that is part of God’s plan in inviting my participation. I’m a rather innocuous conversation partner.
The notion, however, that deconstructing shame-energized, rules-based sexual ethics can be life-giving for one that continues to live within the commitment of a one-man, one-woman monogamous marriage, will perhaps be a surprise to the majority of church-going people doing life in similar circumstances to mine. What has so often been warned as the destruction of the family and downfall of civilization as we know it, I have experienced as deeply liberating. As one who is seeking to articulate the shift from rules-based to values-centered sexual ethics, I have found such liberation to be deeply spiritual, deeply hopeful, and deeply non-dualistic in its embrace of both the autonomy of the individual and the call into authentic community where the notion of our interconnectedness enlivens accountability in a way that purity culture never could. In this cultural moment of #metoo, #timesup, and #churchtoo, it would seem clear that traditional systems of maintaining sexual controls within faith communities aren’t working. And while the alternative can seem scary, chaotic, and perhaps even flagrantly sinful to some, what I am finding is that cultivating conversations that are honest, open to both individual and communal interpretation and discernment, generous enough to make space for difference, and focused on prioritizing what is life-giving and will contribute to human flourishing, is revealing a new wineskin that I believe has the potential to serve not only the church, but the common good.
Six years ago, at our first Generous Space Retreat I gave a keynote presentation that I entitled, “Embodiment.” As someone who has struggled for years with body shame, I was again, an unlikely candidate to deliver this message. A seminary professor once told me that preachers need to preach larger than their own life, that preachers are simultaneously part of the congregation receiving the word even as they are proclaiming it. During this talk, many were weeping, and I knew in my spirit that we were embarking on an important communal journey to reimagine our sexual lives as followers of Jesus. Breaking down the dualism that has taught us that our bodies, our desires, and our experiences of pleasure are suspect and not to be trusted was a powerful beginning.
But the deconstruction of shame messages proves to be a complex excavation. One of the strange consequences of a Christian culture obsessed with sexual sin is the twisted way many see the power of repentance. Tying repentance to salvation necessitates up-to-the-minute confession of infractions. And somehow, premeditated sinful actions are viewed as significantly more heinous than the “oops” moments that sneak up on you. The attempt to refrain from sexual sin translates into people ignoring birth control, safe sex practices, and preventative measures like taking PreP. This hyper-focus on confession/repentance cycles has also commonly resulted in reactive compartmentalization akin to throwing one’s hands in the air with a resignation that often spirals into out-of-control behaviours in opposition to the expected standards. The accompanying self-loathing, internalized shame, and disconnection following sexual behaviour has caused profound harm to the spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being of countless raised-in-the-church-and-purity-movement folks. The kind of pain that I experienced in the decade plus pattern of binge and purge when I was bulimic, I have heard time and again from those trapped in shame about their sexuality.
One of the ways that many have attempted to assuage their own sense of sexual shame is to scapegoat the one caricatured as a worse-sexual-sinner-than-I-am. Unwed mothers and divorcees were the sexual pariahs of earlier generations. Today, so many LGBTQ+ people of faith know this kind of scapegoating intimately. Gradually, with enough exposure and experience, parts of the church, often begrudgingly, recognize that perhaps God’s grace does extend into this realm of sexual and relational difference.
In my experience, it is true that there is a sea-change on the horizon. Mainline churches have led the way with intentional affirmation of LGBTQ+ folks in both policy and practice. Though before you pat yourself on the back too quickly, you might want to read this reflection on “7 Reasons Why LGBTQ+ People Don’t Want to Go to Your LGBTQ+ Inclusive Church”. Privately, I know that many, many pastors and parishioners in non-affirming churches have personally come to the conviction that God’s love and grace enfold the lives, loves, and families of LGBTQ+ people as surely as straight, cisgender folks and their families. So yes, things are changing.
But I submit to you that our scapegoating of those labelled sexual sinners is alive and well. We just tend to project it on groups that we know less about, that we consider more strange, or whose behaviours we assume are damaging. As those in the LGBTQ+ Christian community, as those doing the work of communal theology and ethical reflection beyond heteronormative controls, we have the opportunity to be those who keep on asking, “Whose voices are missing? Who is falsely burdened with a message that somehow God’s love cannot reach them because of the manner in which they steward their sexual life?” As those who are working for justice, particularly in the arenas of gender and sexuality, let us lead the way in embodying God’s radical and inclusive love and carry it to those who have been excluded, proclaiming, “You are Beloved and you Belong!” For indeed, if we are to experience the kind of flourishing that God dreams for us, we will need to begin there.
Tune in tomorrow for the rest of this post ….. in the meantime, reflect on the following questions:
- What rules about sexual behaviour did you grow up hearing? Do you still hold to these rules? Why or why not?
- I have appreciated this definition of sexuality: It is our drive to overcome our aloneness. With this in mind, how are you flourishing in your sexuality (whether you are or are not currently engaged in a sexual relationship)? What, if any, barriers are preventing you from flourishing?
Then look for two videos to be released next week:
- Wendy’s teaching on Centered Set Sexual Ethics
- Evan Smith’s keynote address from our last Ontario Generous Space Retreat
If the topic of sexual ethics is new to you, don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions you might have: firstname.lastname@example.org