This fall at Bloom we’re wrestling with the Sermon on the Mount… Jesus’ classic articulation of what life among those who have been captured and conditioned by the now-available ‘Kingdom of the Heavens’ looks like. This past weekend we dealt with his teaching in Matthew 5:27ff.: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery’, but I say to you that anyone who looks upon a woman to desire her has already committed adultery in her in his heart…”
Among the many words used by the New Testament writers for “hell”, the one used most commonly by Jesus in Matthew (and in particular in the SoM) is “Gehenna”. The imagery for anyone familiar with Jerusalem in the 1st century would have been hard to miss. Gehenna comes from the Aramaic ‘gehinnom’ which referred to a desolate, smoldering area just outside the south of Jerusalem used for dumping refuse… An apt image I think for the current state of our culture: a living sexual ‘Gehenna’.
Jesus, of course, is good. His desire is to lead humanity up out of the hell by reconnecting them with the Creator’s gracious call. He does not accuse. He invites and calls. And so he points out for us why and how this “sexual hell” comes into being by saying that (1) disordered desires (“looks upon to desire”) and (2) sexual objectification (“commits adultery in his heart”) are largely responsible. Think about it… In the absence of disordered, autonomous desires and sexual objectification, some of the greatest sexual “evils” of our world would simply disappear: rape, child molestation, adultery, sex trafficking, prostitution, pornography… all trade on the twin forces of disordered desires and sexual objectification. If those two things went away, so would a good deal of the sexual “hell” of our world.
And so among the redeemed, Jesus desires to swallow up “Gehenna” with a new vision for human sexuality… a vision that brings the Creator’s will for humanity into being… he desires to unearth in our midst an “ethos” of redeemed sexuality that re-dignifies us and makes our sexuality safe and meaningful again.
But this is no automatic process. It is a journey. This weekend I suggested five “journeys” we need to make personally and communally to begin to give rise to this ethos:
- From autonomous desire to chastened desire. Our culture enshrines “desire” as automatically right. In a way, then, we set up desire as the ultimate moral tribunal. The people of God understand desire differently. We see desire as a potential force for good that goes awry when it is disconnected from a moral and spiritual framework to give it stability, meaning, and coherence. That means that we don’t believe in “autonomy”. Rather, we believe in “chastity”; that is, in desires (sexual and otherwise) “ordered” to what is right and good and true and beautiful.
- From “objectifying” mental habits and language to “subjectifying” mental habits and language. Without realizing it, we are often the victims of long-ingrained habits of looking at other people as “sex objects”, reducing them to their “sexual selves.” In this way, we’re all impoverished, for this not only reduces the total truth of who we are (and obscures other forms of beauty which are not explicitly sexual), but it also introduces predation, competitiveness, fear, and insecurity among us. The people of God can and should do better. We refuse to reduce and objectify. Instead, we treat people as “Image-bearers” with the dignity that belongs to them as such. We remember that “objectification” is at bottom the sin that stoked the fires of Auschwitz. We swear off such habits as “from hell.”
- From “consuming beauty” to “protecting and preserving beauty.” I remember struggling with issues of lust in college, for I often found it hard appreciate the beauty of the opposite sex without feeling the urge to objectify. Then one day I realized, “God makes what is beautiful. It is good and right for me to appreciate beauty without ‘consuming’ it mentally.” That is to say, beauty is sacred. So to desecrate it by “consuming” it is simply out of bounds. In the same way that the Native Americans “loved” the land enough not to destroy (c0nsume) it, so when we learn to appreciate beauty as a gracious gift of the Creator we will then begin to admire the physical beauty of men and women without feeling the need to consume. This realization cut lust at the root for me.
- From sex-in-isolation to sex-in-context and sex-as-calling-and-sacrament. Sex was never meant to be merely a “thing in itself.” Rather, sex was always intended to serve the greater design of the Creator. To abstract sex, therefore, from the Creator’s plan is BY DEFINITION to reduce and objectify. That is, to degrade. Sex is ennobled, dignified, and chastened when it is fixed within the bonds of marriage, family, and sacrament… When sex is understood this way, the journey out of hell begins.
- From indifference to resistance. We Christians have a “dog in the fight” of truth-telling and justice. Bonhoeffer famously said that “peace cannot exist in the absence of the truth.” It is beyond question that the sexual insanity of our culture is fostered in large part through a media juggernaut that’s simply trying to make a quick buck. Therefore, it has a stake in presenting “sex” as context-less and community-less and value-less as possible, which is by definition to lie about it. Christians should resist this, because as Wendell Berry put it so well, “Trying to draw the line where we are trying to draw it, between carelessness (which is what our culture presents as “okay”) and brutality, is like insisting that falling is flying–until you hit the ground–and then trying to outlaw hitting the ground” (Berry 141). When sex is presented in the arts as un-moored from it’s total context and meaning, we can be sure that brutality is soon to follow. As Christians who profess to believe in something called “social justice”, which means in part helping to undercut the systems of violence and brutality and exploitation that ruin our world, we need to find creative ways to resist…
This list is by no means exhaustive. You could probably add some “journeys” of your own. But I think these are at least some of the crucial journeys we need to make in order to destroy the living sexual nightmare of our world and give rise to a more wholesome, more humane, more human, more dignifying, more beautiful sexual ethos…
(You can have a listen to the whole message from this past weekend here.)