Human Sexuality

 

Today offers the opportunity to consider three more of Matthew Fox’s Articles of Faith:

23 “Sexuality is a sacred act and a spiritual experience, a theophany [revelation of the Divine], a mystical experience. It is holy and deserves to be honored as such.”
68 “Pedophilia is a terrible wrong, but its cover-up by hierarchy is even more despicable.”
71 “A church that is more preoccupied with sexual wrongs than with wrongs of injustice is itself sick.”

This Permission to Speak offering is not a sermon as I have no preaching appointment today. Even if I had the opportunity to preach this I would not do so in a worship service. However, when the opportunity comes, I will discuss the content of today’s www posting within small groups that are concerned about contemporary sexuality and justice issues within the context of the world today, biblical interpretation and Church tradition.

I am not a theological conservative, nor am I a libertarian in which anything goes. From the outset I declare unequivocally that paedophilia is and will always be both morally wrong and indefensible. It is the result of adult sick minds commercially exploiting adult sick minds. The life-long impact upon the children involved is appalling. It ruins whole lives. It is wrong and has no place in normal society. As Matthew Fox’s Article of Faith 68 states, “Pedophilia is a terrible wrong, but its cover-up by hierarchy is even more despicable.”

My concern is for equality and justice for all, and not just in matters of human sexuality. Today’s content comes from some research that I commenced a couple of years ago that I hoped would be published in a progressive Christianity series of short discussion booklets. However, the amount of published material on the subject of human sexuality, including the impact of pornography upon young children, teenagers and adults alike, quickly began to accumulate information far too much for a 30 page booklet. The volumes of available academic research and media reports would have given sufficient scholarly material for me to undertake a doctoral thesis!

What became clear to me was that the more I investigated the published material the more I realised that I was naive in my understanding of the extent of the sexual commercialisation of society. As I read into the problem I became aware of a far wider challenge to us all. For example, having previously not watched any of the contemporary music channels on television I had no idea just how salacious many of the videos are, and children from a very young age [some research indicates even pre-school age children] now watch and absorb material as normal that many older adults would consider obscene or abnormal for a healthy society.

In response to the sexualisation of children and young people in particular, Freedom Church based in Hereford [UK] emphasises on its web site that the main users of pornography are males between the ages of 12-17. It goes on to comment, “However, we are aware that porn addiction is no distinguisher of age, race, or gender. Within this church we believe that sex was created by God to be within a marriage relationship only. We believe that sex outside of marriage, sex before marriage, adultery, or pornography is not God’s best for our lives.” Freedom Church offers ‘Porn Scar’ courses to local churches.

Like Freedom Church, there are many churches and Christian organisations that teach the benefits of “chastity outside marriage and fidelity within marriage” but almost always restrict the concept of ‘marriage’ to heterosexual relationships. Some churches take a very clear traditional stance that chastity is the best preparation for marriage and that sex is only for married couples. However, does such a stance run the risk of alienating and ultimately losing even more young people – or many of the increasingly long term, older co-habiting members of local church congregations?

There has always been teenage sexual experimentation but it seems to me that, owing to peer-group pressure and the impact of sexual images on television and the internet, young children and those in their early teenage years are being forced into adulthood far too early in life. Am I the only Christian minister who knows that a problem exists but still unaware of the extent of its seductive impact creeping into every part and stage of life?

As far as I am concerned, healthy sexuality occurs between two adult people committed to a life long, loving and listening monogamous relationship, be that male and female, or female and female or male and male. Such healthy sexuality is a gift of God, affirming and offering both hope and enjoyment between loving partners. Healthy sexuality can never be about abuse of one partner by the other.

So, at what point does a healthy sexuality turn unhealthy? Or, in more traditional Christian terminology, “Where do we draw the line between good God-given sex and sinful sex?” In my considered opinion, unhealthy sexuality is exploitative, demeaning and concerned with selfish gratification at another’s expense. It is ultimately destructive of people and of relationships. Unhealthy sexuality has nothing to do with the status of being married or co-habiting, but it is everything to do with impoverished relationships – and these can occur both within formal marriages and unmarried cohabitation.

Surely, the time has come for local churches and national denominations to take a much more liberal and compassionate view and celebrate all healthy sexual relationships that have been developed between married or unmarried adult couples who are committed to living within loving monogamous relationships? Churches now need to go beyond the pretence of the turning of a blind eye to any long term supportive, loving unmarried co-habiting relationships and openly acknowledge that these are healthy relationships to be celebrated rather than to be condemned.

Also, it seems to me that traditional Christian denominations tend to have much clearer defined and reasoned debates / reports on the financial implications of their divesting from pension funds and multinational companies that contribute indirectly to the pornographic industry, but where is the engagement of ordinary Christian people with the impact of the sexualisation of society upon children and adults alike?

To its credit, the British Methodist Church is currently inviting its members to discuss all matters related to relationships – and not just about sexuality – in our contemporary world. But I wonder how many church members are participating in these discussions? From my local Circuit example I would suggest less than 10% of British Methodists are engaging with the conversations. However, at the meeting I attended there was an informed debate concerning relationships, including issues such as loneliness, the relationship challenges of living in a post-modern mix and match world, and factors that constitute healthy sexuality from late teens through to the retired and the elderly.

But throughout the 2 hours of discussion I do not recall any mention of the way in which pornography impacts negatively upon personal relationships, its exploitation of women in particular, and the access to pornographic images that ‘teach’ children and teenagers that what many adults in the church would consider to be ‘abnormal’ is now ‘normal’ sexual behaviour. Pornography presents a dangerous image of what sexuality is really like. The whole topic is too important to leave to ‘Christian’ judgements that are based upon gut reaction or the result of narrow and, sometimes, ill-informed pontificating from pulpits. Surely, the time has arrived when church folk should be encouraged and enabled to enter into reasoned theological debates about the wider aspects of the sexualisation of society, not just in the single human sexuality context but within a wider analysis of justice issues? As part of an informed debate I offer some examples of newspaper articles published over the past couple of years.

When analysing the phenomena of the television series Girls, Alex Bilmes stated:

“Each generation thinks it invented sex; each generation is mistaken. The current crop of young people, the Millenials, did not invent sex, and nothing they do hasn’t been done before… If the Millenials’ experiences of sex are in any way distinct from those of previous generations, that is most likely down to a single reason: internet porn. Internet porn ingrains the idea that sex done right is sex done joylessly, mechanically, gymnastically, by dead-eyed automatons…” [published in the Sunday Times, 9th February 2014].

Even more worrying is an article written by Rosamund Irwin in which she said that she had evidence of boys as young as 9 acting out violence towards and degradation of young girls as a result of watching hard core pornography [published in the London Evening Standard, 2nd April 2015].

People texting one another has become a norm across the world. However, parents, teachers, politicians and researchers increasingly have turned their attention to the teenage phenomenon of ‘sexting’, sending inappropriate photographs and videos to one another via mobile phones and internet programs. This has added to the peer group pressures of behaviour expectation placed upon teenage girls in particular by boy friends who have persuaded them into privately ‘performing’ for them. Sadly, some ‘sexting’ of inappropriate self images have ended up on You Tube alongside genuine ‘professional’ internet pornography. Those who submit self images in this way are open to abuse and grooming by Internet voyeurs. There are now illicit DVDs in commercial circulation, captured from You Tube and similar uploads of digital files, without the young people involved being aware.

Lara Karaian, Associate Professor in Criminology at Carleton University, Ottawa, published her research into ‘sexting,’ teenage girls and the law. In her abstract of the research [bepress, 2012] Karaian states, “Recently, national and local media across North America have warned against the risks of ‘sexting’ – the practice of sending, posting or possessing sexually suggestive text messages and images via cell phones or the Internet. In response to this phenomenon, Pennsylvania District Attorney Skumanick threatened to bring child pornography charges against teenagers who had been caught sexting and who refused to attend a gender-based ‘re-education’ program designed to teach them about its dangers. Three girls refused the ultimatum, resulting in Miller v. Mitchell [2010], the first case to challenge the constitutionality of prosecuting teens for their digital sexual expression. This article critically considers dominant and intersecting cultural and legal narratives about sexting and troubles the predominant construction of teenage female sexters as dupes of the ‘pornification’ of a generation and as ‘self-sexually exploiting….’”

As always, it is easier to identify problems than it is to come up with adequate solutions. The starting point for any possible solution must be an acknowledgement that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle. The power of the internet will continue to be abused so rather than simply ignore the situation or wring hands in despair, we need to prepare and educate children and young people to be safe on line. However, I am convinced that any ‘just say no’ strategies are doomed to failure, just as are the hard line theologically conservative attacks upon those relationships that do not fit into the clear black and white judgements of what is right or wrong. “Because the Bible says so” is a poor, out of context analysis of trying to understand human relationships in our contemporary world.

The way forward, as I see it, is to accept that society has changed immensely since the ‘swinging 60s’, the availability of the contraceptive pill that liberated many women, and the advent of the internet with its social media and easily available pornography. I repeat that the best approach to protecting our young people, especially with regard to developing healthy relationships, is to educate and to lovingly support them through these difficult challenges. Condemnation or threats of hell fire are unhelpful [and I suggest unholy] ways to deal with children and adults alike who are faced with the life issues of human sexuality and justice.

The following extracts are taken from “Keeping Your Child Safe Online: Mothers Union Report” based on an original article from Vodafone’s Digital Parenting magazine issue 2 (2012):

In their Digital Parenting magazine Vodafone include a useful age-based advice checklist to help you and your family manage the online world:

Pre-school
Start setting boundaries about online access using time limits for how long a child may use a computer. Mothers’ Union’s parent facilitators always recommend that parents keep the computer and TV in a family room, rather than in a bedroom or separate room, so that parents can be on hand to monitor and assist their children. Keep unrestricted devices such as mobile phones and tablets out of reach and well protected with a pin number.

Ages 5 – 9
As your child becomes more computer aware agree with them which websites they can and can’t use, and talk to your child about why you have these rules. Continue to set time limits and always ensure your computer parental controls are set to fully protect your child. Vodafone recommend setting up a user account for your child on your computer, and setting appropriate parental controls for that user. Ensure sites accessed by older siblings on the computer or on mobile devices are not shared with their younger brothers and sisters.

Ages 9– 11
If you have not given your child much access to a computer at home, you may now find that they begin to need access for homework information. … Continue to review your parental controls. At this age you may feel it is appropriate for your child to have their first mobile phone. Most phones will offer at least some internet access, and restricting access to adult content is much more difficult on mobile devices. Check what options are available on the device you buy for your child.

Ages 11 – 13
Starting high school, or reaching the upper years of middle school, your child may come under increasing pressure to join social networking sites. These sites are restricted to age 13 or over – often the sites contain inappropriate language, imagery or advertising. Talk through the options with your child and consider discussing with them your ability to monitor their accounts in a way which does not feel to them as if you are intruding upon their life, such as having a note of passwords and login names. Also bear in mind that it is at this age when questions may be asked about their changing bodies and emotions. There are lots of websites which you may feel awkward about them accessing, but equally some may help your child during what can be difficult years. It is important to keep talking to your pre-teen and to listen to what they are asking permission for and why. Boys especially may also now come under pressure to play games on their consoles which you may feel are too violent. Ensure you check out the games and be firm about what you will and won’t allow. This age may seem very young for some of the things you need to discuss with your child, but sexting – where teenagers share provocative or naked images online or by mobile phone, usually of their peers – can often begin during these years. It is important your child knows never to allow anyone to take images of them of this nature and that they could be available online forever. Also that they know taking images of another person in this way, who is underage, is illegal and they could be prosecuted for sending images of a person under 18.

Age 13+
Adjust the settings on your computer parental controls in line with your son or daughter’s age and maturity. It is important to teach safe use of the internet at this age rather than to cocoon your child and risk them failing to learn vital skills in content judgement for themselves. Continue to talk to them about how they might be exploring issues such as body image and relationships online, and that you want to continue to protect them from some sites that could harm their well-being. For example ‘pro ana’ sites which promote anorexia or bulimia to young girls, or online games or music sites which have content that is misogynistic, violent or sexually inappropriate for this age. Your teenager will also be using the online environment quite extensively for homework and schoolwork at this stage. It is important to ensure that your child understands about plagiarism and copyright issues on images, music and writing.”

The key to all interaction, no matter what age, context or situation, is the creation and maintaining of a non-condemnatory, open listening / talking environment. Such an approach is just as appropriate for parents helping their children negotiate the increasing challenges of life as it is for thoughtful and supportive pastoral care for children and adults within our churches.

Now is the time for helpful, open discussions of Matthew Fox’s Articles of Faith:

23 “Sexuality is a sacred act and a spiritual experience, a theophany [revelation of the Divine], a mystical experience. It is holy and deserves to be honored as such.”
68 “Pedophilia is a terrible wrong, but its cover-up by hierarchy is even more despicable.”
71 “A church that is more preoccupied with sexual wrongs than with wrongs of injustice is itself sick.”

ADDITIONAL STUDY MATERIAL:

 
So what does the Bible say about human sexuality and social justice?
 
I suggest that the Bible is far less concerned with human sexuality than it is with issues of justice; that society and the media, Christians and the Church, are far more hung up on issues of sexuality and morality than the Bible appears to be. And any attempt to cherry pick verses of scripture need to be understood within the broader context of the times of their original writing – a very different world to the one we inhabit today.
 
On the subject of homosexuality I suggest that the following are direct references:
 
Genesis 19:1-11
Leviticus 18:22
Leviticus 20:13
Judges 19:16-24
1 Kings 14:24
1 Kings 15:12
2 Kings 23:7
Romans 1:18-32
1 Corinthians 6:9-11
1 Timothy 1:8-10
Jude 7
 
What’s that, around 50 verses in the whole of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments? And then on sexual immorality:
 
1 Corinthians 5:1–5
1 Corinthians 5:9–11
1 Corinthians 6:9–11
1 Corinthians 10:8
Galatians 5:19
Ephesians 4:19
Ephesians 5:3
1 Thessalonians 4:3–7
1 Peter 4:1–3
Revelation 2:14–16
Revelation 2:20
Revelation 2:21–23
 
What’s that, around 25 verses in the whole of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments? And what of pre-marital sex?
 
Deuteronomy 22:13–21
1 Corinthians 7:9

What’s that, 9 verses in the whole of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments? And the Deuteronomy reference is an appalling intrusion into the life of a young woman especially in today’s western culture. Rape is also mentioned in the Bible: Deuteronomy 22:25–29 [note, only 4 verses in the whole of Bible].
 
And then what about prostitution?
 
Leviticus 19:29
Leviticus 21:9
Deuteronomy 23:17–18
1 Corinthians 6:15–16

What’s that, 6 verses in the whole of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments? In total, less than 100 verses concerned with sexual immorality. And for specific personal examples, let us consider Abraham, father of all three religions of the Book, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Abraham had sons by at least two different women [the root cause of today’s Israeli – Palestinian fight over who the land belongs to?]. Nor were David and Solomon short of wives and concubines – no monogamous commitments there. And let us not miss the point that the Bible’s Song of Solomon is a glorious celebration of love and sexuality. Also, how close was the relationship between David and Jonathan? Nor should we ignore the attitude of Jesus towards prostitutes and other people considered by the norms of the day to be sinners – Jesus had no condemnation for those censured by the ‘good’ people of society but was harsh on those ‘good’ people who judged others.
 
But what about social justice? [NB: I am not concerned here with references to ‘the justice of God’ in respect of hell fire or substitutionary atonement theologies]. There are further comments at the end of this very long list!
 
2 Samuel 8:1-15:37

Amos 5:11-15
Amos 5:21-24
Amos 8:1-9:15
Exodus 21:21
Exodus 23:3
Exodus 23:9
Leviticus 19:10-16
Leviticus 23:22
Leviticus 24:22
Deuteronomy 1:16-17
Deuteronomy 12:1-18:22
Deuteronomy 15:7-11
Deuteronomy 16:20
Deuteronomy 27:1-26
Ezekiel 16:49-50
Ezekiel 22:29
Isaiah 1:17
Isaiah 2:3-4
Isaiah 3:5-7
Isaiah 10:1-34
Isaiah 13:12
Isaiah 42:3
Isaiah 56:1
Isaiah 58:6-12
Isaiah 61:1-11
Jeremiah 21:12
Jeremiah 22:3
Jeremiah 22:13-17
Joel 3:1-21
Job 5:15-17
Malachi 3:5
Micah 6:6-8
Psalm 34:1-22
Psalm 72:12-14
Psalm 82:3
Psalm 94:1-23
Psalm 139:13-14
Psalm 143:1-12
Psalm 146:5-9
Proverbs 1:1-17
Proverbs 6:16-19
Proverbs 14:31
Proverbs 19:17
Proverbs 22:16
Proverbs 24:1-28
Proverbs 28:27
Proverbs 29:7
Proverbs 31:4-9
Zechariah 7:9-10

1 John 3:17-18
1 Timothy 5:1-25
Acts 2:45
Acts 6:2
Galatians 3:28
Galatians 5:22-24
James 1:27
James 2:1-7
James 4:1-3
James 5:1-5
John 2:13-16
John 13:1-38
Luke 4:18-19
Luke 10:30-42
Luke 11:39-42
Luke 12:48
Luke 18:1-8
Luke 19:45-46
Mark 10:21-25
Mark 10:42-45
Mark 11:15-17
Matthew 5:3
Matthew 5:38-47
Matthew 7:4
Matthew 7:12
Matthew 9:11-13
Matthew 11:28
Matthew 19:21-24
Matthew 21:12-13
Matthew 25:31-46
Matthew 27:32-56
Romans 10:12
Romans 12:15-18

There may be more verses that could be cherry picked but that list amounts top over 500 verses in the whole of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments – so what is the greater sacred concern for the authors of these scriptures, human sexuality or matters of human social justice? As Matthew Fox’s Article of Faith 71 says, “A church that is more preoccupied with sexual wrongs than with wrongs of injustice is itself sick.”

Copyright ©: 2016, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Main source:
Fox, Matthew, A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity, Inner Traditions, Vermont, [2006]

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