Have you ever wondered where we get our sexual ethics from - what is and is not healthy? I'm sure a lot of people have and in the christian world there is always a tension running between what people think of as sexually permissible from the bible [2 people of the opposite sex in married union, lights on optional ;)] and what might currently be permissible in society [everything else you can imagine and a lot you can't - maybe ;)]. I use crude stereo types with a wink to highlight that a lot of our own sexual morality is our own judgement, or as a result of our history/culture/exposure/values/experiences etc which is where a lot of sexual tension/problems can arise when different value systems collide and what is disgusting to one person is a permissible pleasure to another.
Of course that is not to say that within christian world shaped as it is by the culture of the bible there is not a sexual ethic present - but then again within the text there is also that sexual ethics/world view of their time being reflected as well - so when are we today reflecting God's ideal and when are we just trying to apply ancient cultural practises/sexual world view into are time when the ancient may be no better or perhaps even worse from our own ethical standing. What are we left with - that everything that happens between two consenting adults in private is ok? That everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial? Some return to OT law and Ancient Near East Hebraic practises?
Sexual mores not sexual commands:
Walter Wink highlights this discussion very well - looking at sexuality in the bible and highlights 14 cultural areas of Hebrew sexual practises in detail where we might differ culturally today. In his conclusion on them he raises this dilemma of what is cultural based vs what is ethically based:
"....virtually all modern readers would agree with the Bible in rejecting: incest, rape, adultery, and intercourse with animals. But we disagree with the Bible on most other sexual mores. The Bible condemned the following behaviours which we generally allow: intercourse during menstruation, celibacy, exogamy (marriage with non-Jews), naming sexual organs, nudity (under certain conditions), masturbation (some Christians still condemn this), birth control (some Christians still forbid this).
And the Bible regarded semen and menstrual blood as unclean, which most of us do not. Likewise, the Bible permitted behaviours that we today condemn: prostitution, polygamy, levirate marriage, sex with slaves, concubinage, treatment of women as property, and very early marriage (for the girl, age 11-13).
And while the Old Testament accepted divorce, Jesus forbade it. In short, of the sexual mores mentioned here, we only agree with the Bible on four of them, and disagree with it on sixteen!
Surely no one today would recommend reviving the levirate marriage. So why do we appeal to proof texts in Scripture in the case of homosexuality alone, when we feel perfectly free to disagree with Scripture regarding most other sexual practises? Obviously many of our choices in these matters are arbitrary. Mormon polygamy was outlawed in this country [USA], despite the constitutional protection of freedom of religion, because it violated the sensibilities of the dominant Christian culture. Yet no explicit biblical prohibition against polygamy exists.
If we insist on placing ourselves under the old law, as Paul reminds us, we are obligated to keep every commandment of the law (Gal. 5:3). But if Christ is the end of the law (Rom. 10:4), if we have been discharged from the law to serve, not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit (Rom. 7:6), then all of these biblical sexual mores come under the authority of the Spirit. We cannot then take even what Paul himself says as a new Law. Christians reserve the right to pick and choose which sexual mores they will observe, though they seldom admit to doing just that. And this is as true of evangelicals and fundamentalists as it is of liberals and mainliners."
A free love ethic...
Once we begin untangling ourselves from a law based system of sexual dominated thought where we control what practise is or is not acceptable - what are left with. Some people may suddenly love the freedom that comes with the liberation from sexual rule keeping, imposed sexual ideas, shame, guilt, fear etc that comes with them. Other people may be panicking and seeing the thin end of the wedge for a panoply of perversions to break out into our culture - if christians aren't gonna be the chastity belt on society anymore who is?
Does focusing on a practise that we might see as a perversion really help - is it me trying to exercise control over you based on my understanding of "right" sexual mores, maybe using the divine to back me up? Does it open me up to charges of hypocrisy [why highlight that aspect of OT sexual practise and not another?]? Does it actually end up with me lessoning your humanity whilst trying to make mine look bigger? Does it make me feel arrogant, prideful, self-righteous and at the same time you more ashamed, angry, afraid, agitated etc?
What if the ethic we need is not so much of "right" behaviour and managing that but an ethic of love that gives humanity and dignity back to people rather than seeks to oppress it or hide it? What if the love ethic starts with me and my sexual weaknesses, hang ups, screw ups? So when I see an attractive woman and my humanity kicks in, instead of taking her for a lust object in my mind, cheapening her humanity by making her an object of sexual gratification for me to consume, i find ways to give her back her humanity? Instead of exploiting, using or manipulating people for my own sexual release i find ways to live in commitment, where i learn about giving rather than just taking. As Walter goes on in his article to say:
"I agree that rules and norms are necessary; that is what sexual mores are. But rules and norms also tend to be impressed into the service of the Domination System, and to serve as a form of crowd control rather than to enhance the fullness of human potential. So we must critique the sexual mores of any given time and clime by the love ethic exemplified by Jesus. Defining such a love ethic is not complicated. It is non-exploitative (hence no sexual exploitation of children, no using of another to their loss), it does not dominate (hence no patriarchal treatment of women as chattel), it is responsible, mutual, caring, and loving. Augustine already dealt with this in his inspired phrase, "Love God, and do as you please."
Our moral task, then, is to apply Jesus' love ethic to whatever sexual mores are prevalent in a given culture. This doesn't mean everything goes. It means that everything is to be critiqued by Jesus' love commandment. We might address younger teens, not with laws and commandments whose violation is a sin, but rather with the sad experiences of so many of our own children who find too much early sexual intimacy overwhelming, and who react by voluntary celibacy and even the refusal to date. We can offer reasons, not empty and unenforceable orders. We can challenge both gays and straights to question their behaviours in the light of love and the requirements of fidelity, honesty, responsibility, and genuine concern for the best interests of the other and of society as a whole.
Christian morality, after all, is not a iron chastity belt for repressing urges, but a way of expressing the integrity of our relationship with God. It is the attempt to discover a manner of living that is consistent with who God created us to be. For those of same-sex orientation, as for heterosexuals, being moral means rejecting sexual mores that violate their own integrity and that of others, and attempting to discover what it would mean to live by the love ethic of Jesus."
What do you think?
I'd be interested to hear what you think/feel wherever you are on the liberated/terrified scale. Do you agree with Walter? Is it about ethics rather than sexual mores? If so, how do you feel with Walter's proposition that the question is not:
- "What is permitted?" but rather "What does it mean to love my different practising sexual neighbour [whether that is homosexual or some other practise]?"
- "What constitutes a breach of divine law in the sexual realm?" and becomes instead "What constitutes integrity before the God revealed in the cosmic lover, Jesus Christ?"
- "What does Scripture command?" and becomes "What is the Word that the Spirit speaks to the churches now, in the light of Scripture, tradition, theology, and, yes, psychology, genetics, anthropology, and biology?