Sexual Violence, Manipulation, and Cheap Grace

This is the second post in our series on sexual abuse. You can read the first post here.

A reflection by Sarah

Forgiveness is one of the most central ideas in all of Christian teaching. Christ commands us to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who sin against us.” As he hung dying on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness seems like a straightforward concept: forgive everyone, always, and as many times as necessary. Yet anyone who has tried to put these teachings into action can attest to how challenging forgiveness can be. One reason forgiveness is so hard is that perfect forgiveness requires understanding both God’s mercy and God’s justice in a perfect way. Forgiveness, like other components of God’s mercy and justice, reflects the unfathomable and unknowable heart of God. When discussing sexual abuse, it’s paramount to sit in the tension between God’s mercy and God’s justice.

When I first became aware of the news about Josh Duggar’s sexual abuse of his sisters and at least one other girl during his teen years, I was not surprised that his response to the public focused on his asking for and receiving forgiveness both from God and the victims. What did surprise me was seeing that a large number of people I know believe this should be sufficient grounds for ceasing criticism of Josh and his parents and letting the crime remain a “private family matter.” It’s naive to think such a situation should ever have been a private family matter in the first place, and it’s even more naive to think forgiving an abuser is simple and straightforward. I do not claim to know what Josh Duggar’s victims’ psychological and spiritual processes have looked like over the years. It’s possible that they have indeed forgiven him fully. But it’s much more likely that there’s more to the story than we will ever hear. It’s possible that the forgiveness Josh claims they have extended to him is not actually forgiveness. I draw from my own personal experience in saying this.

In some manifestations of conservative Christianity, forgiveness is used as a tool of manipulation. This does not happen only in the Quiverfull movement, but across a wide variety of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. To put some flesh on what I mean by “manipulation,” I’ll share a bit more detail about my own story.

One morning when I was 14, I had finally worked up the courage to tell my parents that I was being abused by a deacon at our church for two years at the time. We were at church early, the perpetrator had fondled my breasts and vaginal area while I was waiting outside the door of the women’s restroom, and I could not contain the truth any longer. I ran into the sanctuary, pulled my mom out and into the restroom, and began to tell her about what had been happening to me. I had barely scratched the surface of the details when I noticed her facial expression. It was cold and severe as she informed me that she thought I was either exaggerating or outright lying. No sooner than she dragged me back into a pew did my abuser approach her and comment on how tall I was growing, and that my height would come in handy next weekend when the church windows needed cleaning. My mom was completely fooled and forbade me to say anything about my “tale” to my dad immediately after church. I could not help myself, so I disobeyed and began blurting out random details of the story as we drove home. My dad’s response was to throw a screaming fit in the car, which terrified me into retracting part of the story and justifying my “incorrect” perception of my abuser’s behavior. This only made things worse, and I spent the rest of the day crying myself into a migraine as my parents told me that I was mentally ill, sexually deviant, unfit to be alone with my younger sister, at risk for tearing apart the entire church community, and in danger of going to hell. That evening, every inch of my privacy was revoked and I was forbidden to speak to anyone about this.

Over the next few months, the need for repentance was hammered into my skull day after day. Not my abuser’s repentance — my own. I was told that I should not commune and that I should instead be contemplating the state of my soul. Most of my mental space was consumed by suicide plans and how I would manage to find one that would work given how closely my parents were monitoring me. All this time, the abuse was continuing. I never had the chance to share the full extent of it because my parents’ condemnation was so swift and unwavering. Eventually, my dad saw what he thought might have been the deacon fondling me. His advice was that I should stay away from the deacon but be understanding and forgiving because of the deacon’s old age. Much later, my mom saw the abuse with her own eyes. Around the same time, a friend from church shared with me that she had also been abused by this deacon. When her parents and my parents eventually talked to each other I learned that this problem had been occurring for years with multiple victims, and those in the community who knew about it preferred to sweep it under the rug.

From that point forward, my parents began saying to me, “We’re sorry. Forgive us,” as though that should be enough to end the pain and bring about healing. Simultaneously, they made it clear that I was never to inform anyone of what had happened to me, and that disobeying this request would only cause more problems for me. At one point they took me to see a local psychiatrist who was all too willing to let them control what I said and did not say about the abuse. The psychiatrist — a mandated reporter, a person with a license to practice medicine — did not report anything. I was never asked for my opinion about how justice could be served. My abuser got away with everything. He was never held accountable by the community in any way. By the time I was an adult and considered reporting the abuse myself, he was ill and mostly homebound — no longer a threat to community safety. He had the privilege of reposing with the public image of a virtuous Christian who was a role model in the community for decades.

As the years have gone by, my parents have begged for my forgiveness repeatedly. They ask me why I can’t just move on with my life, why I can’t accept their apology, and why I am still so bitter and resentful years after the last occurrence of sexual abuse. They inquire as to why I don’t just focus on the good memories of my childhood, as though the good times outweigh the reality that I was sexually abused and the abuse was hidden. What they don’t realize is that forgiveness is a process, and in situations like these it can take a very long time. To them, moving on with my life means not needing or wanting to talk about this anymore. It means shutting up, doing all the life things I’m doing now at age 30, and just not thinking about what happened all those years ago. To them, bitterness and resentment are the same as having strong feelings about it half my life later.

This is the problem with the brand of grace that’s peddled throughout much of American Christianity: Jesus forgives all sins immediately after we say that we are sorry, so it follows that every Christian who wants to be forgiving like Jesus will let go of any wrongdoing once the offenders have apologized. That is the mentality I was raised with, at least when it comes to forgiving parents for making accusations of lying and sexual deviancy in addition to covering up child sexual abuse. That’s why when I was a teenager, I thought parroting “I forgive you” to my parents was the only way to show faithfulness to Christ. I believed that the state of my soul was dependent on it, especially after years of hearing stories about how miserable my grandmother was when she reposed because of all the grudges she had held during her lifetime. I honestly believed that I had forgiven them until my mid-twenties when I realized that I had never really processed what had happened to me and how I felt about the fact that no one was ever held accountable.

“I’m sorry” does not yield automatic forgiveness. Grace is not a gum ball machine where a person can insert a quarter, then go skipping along and blowing bubbles in ten seconds. It’s easy to assume that a survivor is bitter and resentful when you are not the one who has to live with the lasting consequences of a child molester violating your body and your parents insisting on covering up the whole situation. This is why I am skeptical of the claim that Josh Duggar’s victims have forgiven him, and therefore all is well. Perhaps they have, but why are we assuming that is so? Why are we so willing to say that this situation is a private family matter where the victims chose to forgive and move on with their lives? The language in every statement from the Duggar family about this issue suggests a high likelihood that Josh’s victims were manipulated into “forgiveness.” Whether that is the case or not, it happens constantly in conservative Christianity and is inexcusable.

You may have read this whole post and decided that I am a bitter, resentful person who cannot find enough strength in Christ to forgive my parents or my abuser. I have been working for several years on forgiving my parents, and I will probably be continuing that work for several more years. That’s okay. It takes time. I have a kind and patient spiritual director, and will soon be looking again for a kind and patient therapist. Though I cannot yet say that I have forgiven my parents, I can say with confidence that I have forgiven my abuser fully. He sinned against me terribly, but I am no longer angry with him. I hope that in the hereafter, I will get the chance to meet his redeemed self and come to an understanding of the whys that still run through my mind from time to time. On the day I learned of his death, I prayed for the repose of his soul. Some survivors will think I am crazy for this, but I genuinely hope that he is at peace and free from whatever demons and passions that had hold of him when I was young. Getting to a place where I can say all of this has taken hours of therapy and spiritual direction and has required the support of my extensive family of choice. It cannot be forced. A person cannot be manipulated into hoping that her abuser is at rest rather than in torment. I would not hold this attitude up as an expectation for any other survivor. I could not have gotten to this place if I had not willingly distanced myself from the cheap grace messages I had been exposed to in my earliest years as a survivor.

As I engage in discussions on Facebook about the Duggar scandal, something one of my friends commented continues to stick out to me. The implications of this comment are frightening: “Any Jesus who would forgive something like this is no Jesus of mine.” I have to wonder if this kind of thought would still come up in response to sexual abuse if Christians did a better job of teaching forgiveness. If what I had learned about forgiveness as a child and teen was the traditional Christian understanding of forgiveness, I would agree with her. When we reduce forgiveness to, “Being sorry and apologizing is good enough to erase the sin entirely,” we distort the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection. We communicate that Jesus will save the child molester who makes a public showing of remorse, no questions asked…but when it comes to the child who has been severaly sinned against, her  salvation is dependent upon being manipulated into “forgiveness.”

Forgiveness is intimately connected to God’s judgement. When humans make so many misjudgments in cases of abuse, it can be difficult to trust that God can and will enact truly perfect justice. Until there is perfect justice, the cries of victims will continue bear witness to a world in desperate need of redemption. And so I continue to pray, “Lord have mercy. Show us a new way to relate to one another where abuse no longer exists. Bring healing to all of those who have been wronged. Open the doors of repentance to any who perpetuate the evils of abuse.”

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

20 Things Christians Need to Stop Saying about Sexual Abuse

Hello readers! We are looking forward to writing regularly again. We’ve missed interacting with you all. Unfortunately, Sarah’s health has continued to decline. Because of this, it may be a while before we’re writing very consistently again.

Given recent items in the news, we have decided to spend some time talking about sexual abuse. It’s an important topic for the Church as a whole. We are disheartened to know that so many Christians feel woefully under-equipped and underprepared to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse. Additionally, many Christians and non-Christians make strong assertions about how they think both celibacy and homosexuality relate to sexual abuse. We’ve shared previously that Sarah is a survivor of sexual abuse. We’d like to use today’s post to kick off a series related to sexual abuse, starting with 20 things Christians need to stop saying about this topic. Over the past few days, we have been engaged in many conversations about the molestation scandal within the Duggar family. While we are not talking about the Duggar family specifically, we’ve heard everything on this list either in response to this scandal or during Sarah’s process of healing from sexual abuse.

1. “Sexual abuse can’t happen in my church or in my family.” The problem with this statement is that yes, sexual abuse can happen in any environment. The vast majority of abusers are people known by the child. It’s much more likely that an abuser will be someone you know and trust than a shadowy figure lurking at the playground.

2. “But he (or she) is such a good Christian and contributes a lot to our community.” If you think a “good Christian” isn’t capable of sexually abusing a child, then you seriously underestimate the power of sin. Abuse happens because few people suspect those deemed by the community to be morally upright. Abusers are people who have regular access to children because they have earned a community’s trust.

3. “It was only touching. That’s not really abuse.” This is equivalent to saying something like, “It was only a knife. There’s no way your life was in danger during that mugging.” No one has the right to minimize someone else’s trauma. What is more, a person might be describing an incident of inappropriate touching as a way of testing whether you are a safe person to share with more openly about other kinds of unwelcome sexual advances. If you have never experienced unwanted sexual touching, you cannot know how frightening it is.

4. “But he’s only a teenager.” / “But he’s an old man who is probably senile.” / “But (insert reason here) and because of that, it shouldn’t be held against him (or her).” Making excuses because of a person’s age or ability level serves no one. Teenagers need to be held accountable for their actions. Those who are otherwise not mentally competent should be protected from finding themselves in situations where they would be at risk for behaving inappropriately. Focusing on the perpetrator and how responsible he/she is belittles the experience of the victim. The victim’s suffering is not contingent on the perpetrator’s age, motivation, sex, etc.

5. “Talking about this will bring scandal upon the Church and our family.” If you have an abuser lurking around because no one is willing to do anything about it, you already have scandal in your church. The victim is not the cause of scandal.

6. “But it happened so long ago.” Trauma is trauma, and the healing process rarely follows a nice, neat timeline. It’s easy to excuse the perpetrator by saying that he/she shouldn’t be held accountable for deeds done a decade ago when you aren’t the person having to live with the lasting consequences of those deeds. Saying that abuse shouldn’t matter because it happened years ago invalidates the experience of the victim.

7. “Everyone makes mistakes.” Abuse isn’t a mistake. It’s often the result of a careful process to select, groom, and gradually escalate episodes of inappropriate contact. Abuse is deliberate. And it’s a crime.

8. “But your abuser is welcome at God’s table. Who am I to exclude?” For the love of all things holy and sacred, do not use the sacred in this way. Would you have a person over for dinner if you knew that person was stealing substantive sums of money from you? Would you willfully see a person on a weekly basis if you knew that every time you saw that person he or she would be berating you with a steady stream of insults? We believe that different Christian traditions should be able to decide who can approach their communion tables, but if a sex offender receives communion as a member of a congregation that should never be held over the head of an abuse survivor. Don’t focus on who is receiving communion. Focus on promoting accountability within your faith community.

9. “You must have done something to cause this.” No, no, no, and a hundred times more, no. This kind of willful ignorance re-traumatizes the victim, prevents other people from coming forward, and allows an abuser to go unchecked for that much longer. No victim ever causes his or her abuse to happen.

10. “If he was touching your breasts, you must’ve been old enough to have breasts and be a temptation to him.” Too often, Christians will go to amazing lengths to contort what happened so that it follows a convenient narrative of the female “temptress”: we sin because we are tempted; the best way to avoid being sinned against is to avoid being a temptation. When considered against the dynamics of how abuse works this line of thinking is, once again, willful ignorance. We will say more about this topic in a future post. For now we’ll say that Christians are generally helpful when a person says, “I have sinned,” but unfortunately clueless when a person comes forward with, “I have been sinned against.”

11. “It couldn’t have happened that way. You’re exaggerating. You’re lying.” Sometimes it’s easier to accuse victims of lying than it is to wrestle with the implications of their stories. People can assert that a victim is lying when, in reality, they are saying, “That couldn’t have happened. I don’t believe that it happened. I don’t want to believe that it happened. That’s absolutely horrible, it makes me sick to my stomach, and I don’t know what to do. I’m not going to think about it.” Never accuse a person of lying when he/she confides in you about an experience of abuse. If you believe the person who is claiming to have been abused, almost every time you are believing the right person.

12. “If you were really abused and it really wasn’t your fault, don’t worry: God protected your purity.” This kind of response misrepresents Christianity on a fundamental level. The goal of being a Christian is not to remain physically untouched before marriage. The goal of practicing Christianity is fully embodying Christ and coming into a deeper union with God. This message tells the victim, “An untouched body before marriage matters more than anything, and I don’t know how to square that with what happened to you, so I’m just going to say that God fixed it.”

13. “You need to be more forgiving.” Christians tend to be full of advice for sexual abuse victims. Advice like this is manipulation. It’s code for, “You just need to get over it. I’m done listening to you.” Unfortunately when it comes to sexual abuse, “forgiveness” is often used to hide the allegations as quickly as possible so that the family and community don’t have to think about the truth anymore.

14. “If you report this, nothing will be done about it anyway.” Authorities can respond to sexual abuse allegations in many ways depending upon the situation. Oftentimes, filing a report with the police is a necessary first step for taking other actions. Victims should be able to report what happened to them to the police if they choose to do so. A Christian should never encourage someone to remain silent.

15. “If you report this, it will only drag your reputation through the mud.” This sentiment is another way to blame the victim. It highlights that reporting sexual abuse can be a humiliating process. The better option would be to work on improving the process and making it less painful instead of steering the victim away from reporting altogether.

16. “You need to have more compassion for his wife and children. If you report this, you’ll be causing them pain.” It’s distressing how many people can think about cases of childhood sexual abuse from the alleged perpetrator’s perspective. Yes, a perpetrator’s spouse and children will experience pain when the truth is revealed. But whose fault is that? It’s the fault of the perpetrator. Reporting abuse can prevent other people from being victimized. Any pain experienced by a perpetrator’s family due to reporting is an extension of the perpetrator’s own sin.

17. “Going to the authorities is spiteful and vengeful. Jesus doesn’t want us to be spiteful and vengeful.” No, going to the authorities is not necessarily about spite and vengeance. It’s about protecting others and seeking accountability. It is irresponsible to use Jesus’ teachings to manipulate a victim into shutting up.

18. “If your parents didn’t report the abuse but you report it yourself, social services will think your parents are the abusers and take you away from them. The state persecutes good Christian families.” And this is just another way to get victims to shut up. Failing to report abuse is a serious matter. Parents who are aware of abuse and don’t report it are breaking the law irrespective of whether they are Christians. The state is not going to pull children away from a family unless the abuser lives in the home. This is a ridiculous lie created for the purpose of scaring children into silence.

19. “God will judge based on truth. Do you think the police will judge better than God?” This sentiment places full responsibility back on the victim’s shoulders. This kind of counsel can help an abuser hide easily and avoid any kind of consequences. The kingdom of God is both “already” and “not yet.” Building the kingdom of God means dealing with injustice in the here and now as well as having faith in divine justice.

20. “You and your abuser are the same because we are all sinners.” This line of thinking is dangerous. It prevents victims from saying, “I have been sinned against.” It normalizes and equalizes abuse as “just another sin” and blames the victim in the process. It is true that we are all sinners, but this is not an appropriate response to someone who has experienced sexual abuse.

It is our hope that more Christians will start thinking about how to help the victim journey through the entirely messy healing process. If someone confides in you about being abused, consider responding with something like, “It really means a lot to me that you would trust me enough to tell me about this. Have you told anyone else? How can we work together to help make sure that you’re safe?”

Stay tuned this week for more installments in our series on sexual abuse.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

On Taking the Bible “Seriously”

When Christians disagree with each other on important theological questions, it can be easy to declare that the other person is ignorant, intellectually dishonest, or clearly missing the meaning of critical texts and simultaneously assert that you have come to the proper conclusion–end of story. Listening to the conversation about LGBT people in the church, it’s common for to hear some variations of “People who think you can be gay and Christian are twisting the Bible to say what they want it to say” or “Those who advocate for same-sex marriage are trying to throw 2000 years of Christian teaching out the window.” Rarely do these quick judgments prove true. In today’s post, we’d like to discuss why the claim “Any person who wants a same-sex marriage cannot possibly take the Bible seriously” is problematic.

Amid the polarized debate, the conclusion that “God can and does bless same-sex marriage” is sometimes referred to as a “Side A” or “LGBT affirming” position. Here at A Queer Calling, we purposefully abstain from debating the permissibility of same-sex marriage or whether gay sex is a sin. If you want to participate in those debates, there are plenty of other places on the internet to do so. This post is not an apologetic for a “Side A” position, but is rather an attempt to shift the conversation away from polemics. Agree or disagree with progressive Christians who support gay marriage, it is generally a good idea to avoid writing a person off as a rebel, a heretic, or a revisionist before actually attempting to see where that person’s argument is coming from.

Taking the Bible seriously means carefully considering its claims relative to one’s Christian tradition. Christians throughout the centuries have wrestled with the Scriptures, and certain passages are better known than others for leading to conflicting interpretations. Consider:

  • So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.’ John 6:53-56
  • Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 1 Corinthians 6:27-29
  • Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew 18:5-6
  • And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Matthew 16:18-19
  • But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23
  • Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  1 Timothy 2:11-12
  • Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. Romans 14:13-14

Theologians within every Christian tradition can examine Scriptures, shake their heads, and wonder how seemingly intelligent people from other Christian traditions can miss theological truths that are blatantly obvious. Each Christian tradition offers guidance on how to interpret the Scriptures, and interpretation sometimes varies widely. Roman Catholics can read Matthew 16 and wonder how it’s possible for any Christian not to accept the Pope as Peter’s successor. Many Protestant traditions read John 6 as symbolic and allegorical. The United Church of Christ has a different interpretation of Scriptures than the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. If the PCUSA held to identically the same Scriptural interpretation as the Roman Catholic Church, then these two bodies would likely be much closer to each other in doctrine. Oftentimes, Christians from different interpretative traditions can agree on which Scriptural texts apply to certain theological debates.

We know a lot of people who believe that God blesses same-sex marriages. The vast majority of these friends are LGBT Christians who came to their conclusions only after devoting themselves to rigorous study and prayer about what the Bible teaches about sexuality, relationships, marriage, and the human condition. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their conclusions, it’s neither helpful nor fair to assert that these people have not considered what the Bible says. Many have turned to Scriptural interpretation tools within their Christian tradition in order to wrestle meaningfully with relevant texts.

As we have traveled on our own journeys with faith and sexuality, we’ve been blessed to meet so many friends searching the Scriptures using the light of their Christian traditions. Is Genesis 19, Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1 the right textual corpus to use when discerning one’s sexual ethic? What did Jesus say about marriage? How do the Scriptures bear witness to marriage? Where can we look in the Bible to discern what God wants for married people? What does the Bible say about gender and gender roles? What do we learn if we search the text for all instances of the words “sexual immorality”? Are there places where Christ surprised people by how he responded to those in sexual sin? How have the Scriptures been used to defend human sinfulness, particularly as it relates to slavery and misogyny? What is the historical context around particular verses? Are there parallel accounts in the Scriptures that can provide additional information? How has my Christian tradition understood celibacy? Which Biblical commentaries are accepted within my Christian tradition? How does reading alternate translations challenge my understanding of the texts? How does Christ love the Church? How do the commitments people make to one another mirror Christ’s love to the Church? It would be difficult to catalogue all of the thoughtful questions raised by friends who have concluded that the Bible is silent on the topic of loving, committed, monogamous, lifelong same-sex relationships.

We also know a lot of people who believe that the church should not bless same-sex relationships as marriages. Many of these friends belong to Christian traditions that clearly proclaim marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman. For people holding this viewpoint, what benefit is there in talking with a Christian who believes that God can bless same-sex marriages? Why is this point of view worthy of any respect? People ask us this almost weekly. First, the Bible is most living and active when one searches the Scriptures to guide one’s own life. Trying to live out one’s convictions means going beyond hypothetical scenarios. The Bible can speak to us when we approach readings by asking questions and seeking illumination from the Holy Spirit. Discerning one’s sexual ethic or vocation necessitates asking a lot of questions. Second, listening to a person from a different Christian tradition can give you insights into your own tradition. Call us nuts, but some of the best questions we engage in involve people in different Christian traditions. Theological thinking works differently across various traditions. Seeing another’s theological approach can challenge us to explore our own tradition more fully. Third, developing relationships with other Christians can provide mutual aid and support. Even if you think that a person is seriously theologically mistaken on one issue, do you want to go so far as to say that person doesn’t have a relationship with Christ at all? Asserting that any person who advocates for gay marriage does not take the Bible seriously comes close to saying that person does not value growing in Christ. Even across our most vigorous disagreements, as Christians we should hope that the Holy Spirit is at work in everyone’s lives. It’s possible to believe that a person is wrong while still respecting the intellectual processes that person has used to reach his or her current conclusions. We all are works in progress, relying on Christ as the good shepherd to lead us.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

50 Shades of Grey and the Dangers of Soundbite Sexual Ethics

A reflection by Sarah

This is a difficult post for me to write. It’s hard enough to talk about sexual violence and abusive relationships as a gay Christian, and sometimes I think it’s even harder as a celibate person. There’s no way out of controversy when there are people on one side telling you that you’re celibate because of your abuse history and people on the other side telling you that your abuse is what caused your sexual orientation. I’ve sat on this post for almost a week, but I’ve decided to write it because I believe we need to have more meaningful conversations about sexual ethics. The new 50 Shades of Grey movie has ignited conversation in diverse internet communities. Christians, feminists, survivors of sexual abuse, liberals, conservatives, and people at the intersections of different communities have used the movie’s release as a springboard for conversations about abusive relationships. While I’m grateful for everyone who is writing to raise awareness of any kind of abuse, I’m saddened that the resulting conversation in Christian circles does not include more critical discussions of pitfalls in both progressive and traditional sexual ethics.

I think this issue hits me in the heart because I was once in a relationship with a woman whose personality bore considerable resemblance to that of Christian Grey. This relationship was one of the many non-celibate relationships I was involved in before meeting Lindsey. I have neither been in an intentional BDSM relationship nor participated in the broader BDSM culture, but after reading 50 Shades of Grey I began to see frightening similarities between the titular character and this woman from my past. She was obsessively controlling, used manipulative tactics to fashion my “consent” around her own desires, focused entirely on meeting her needs in the relationship with very little mutuality, and viewed my role in the relationship as satisfying her sexual cravings. She was so charming with all of her friends, colleagues, and associates that no one would have suspected the depths of what was happening between us. This person knew how to manipulate my emotions such that my heart would play easily into her hand. At times I felt so drawn in that it was nearly impossible for me to see I was not being loved. She had a way of whittling down my emotional defenses to the point where she could convince me that I actually did consent to sexual activities that would terrify me. At times we would lie in bed talking, and the next thing I realized was that I was being blindfolded and having my wrists tied together with rope. Of course she told me that she would respect my limits. Of course she told me that we could stop at any time. Sometimes my fear would overtake me and I would begin to cry. She would respond with, “What the hell is wrong with you? Let go of your childish nonsense!” before asking me if I wanted to continue. Everything about how the question was asked told me that there was only one acceptable answer: yes, I want to continue. Yes, I give you my consent. If I tried to test alternative answers, the berating would continue until I gave in. She made it abundantly clear to me that the purpose of our sexual interactions was to meet her needs and I was not in the driver’s seat. That was the price I had to pay if I wanted to continue to be with her.

Time and again, she asserted that no one would ever want to be with someone like me and incorporated litanies of my real and perceived failings as a person. I was a total loser if I was unable to meet the goals that she had set for me. At every turn, she found ways to criticize me. I recall a time when I picked her up from the airport and she spent the entire drive yelling at me for being 15 minutes late and not finishing enough work during the days she had been away. There was constant critical commentary about my body size, my clothes, and what I did or did not eat. I distinctly remember her denouncing one of my favorite summer dress as being too childish and babydoll-like, especially on a body that had recently put on weight. One evening we were planning to go out to ice cream after eating dinner, and she declared that I didn’t deserve any ice cream until I could figure out how to make myself look like a “real adult with a real job” rather than a “fat child in a sundress.” If she discovered that I had a friendship or a meaningful relationship with any other person that she didn’t know every last detail about, she would accuse me of engaging in an emotional affair and shame me for desiring emotional intimacy with any person other than her. She was effective at isolating me from my friends despite her regular complaints about my never introducing her to them. On rare occasions when friends would express concern about my relationship with her and she found out about those conversations, she would bark, “You have no business saying a damn thing about our relationship to anyone!” Often at these times, she would offer me a monologue that I had practically memorized by the time our relationship ended: she was the one who had worked through all of the issues in her past, I was clearly full of red flags, she should have known better than to get involved with me, and I was lucky that she even wanted to look at me.

Rarely, I experienced moments of clarity about the abusiveness of this relationship. There was a time (actually, there were several) when I tried to reach out to clergy and other spiritual directors for some help with regard to this situation, and it always made matters far worse. On one occasion I sought the advice of a spiritual director I had been seeing temporarily after my previous spiritual director had moved away. This person’s counsel boiled down to, “Everything that has happened to you is evidence of the depravity of gayness and of same-sex relationships.” From his point of view, the situation I was in was my own fault because I had chosen to be a lesbian and I had chosen a way of life that “everybody knows” is totally hedonistic and abusive. There was no focus on connecting me with resources or help. The focus was on importance of seeing my sexual identity as “that of a woman” because in his mind I was confused about God’s plan for womanhood and was too hard-hearted to admit it. He refused to help me any further unless I would assure him that I would make every effort to stop being a lesbian. Knowing it would be impossible to change my sexual orientation and highly unlikely to find theologically sound advice on this problem from other potential spiritual directors I had access to at the time, I gave up on the notion that leaving the relationship was even possible. I left spiritual direction that day with a heavy heart, feeling like a wretched human being unworthy of love from God or another human being.

I chose to tell this story because ever since I first summoned the courage to read the book, it has been painfully obvious to me that in many ways, this past relationship of mine was only marginally different from the relationship dynamic between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele. Yet, no one — not even the most traditional and theologically conservative of spiritual directors — would use this book to denounce the total depravity of heterosexual relationships as a broad category. One can find counter-examples aplenty of wholesome heterosexual relationships yet remain blissfully and willfully unaware of similar counter-examples in the LGBTQ community. For so many people on the Christian Right, any problem, any emotional unhealthiness, any instance of abuse in an LGBTQ relationship can be traced to the presence of homosexuality within that relationship. This is low-hanging fruit and ignores a host of relevant sexual ethics (and general Christian ethics) issues. I have yet to see a person who identifies strongly with the Christian Right address this hypocrisy. If my former temporary spiritual director’s attitude is any indication, I’m guessing that most would not find it important to engage in critical discussion about consent, psychologically healthy relationship dynamics, etc. in LGBTQ relationships. I hope I’m wrong about that. Please, take this as an invitation to prove me wrong about that.

Looking beyond LGBTQ-related topics that would be good for discussion in light of the 50 Shades of Grey movie release, several additional issues in sexual ethics also remain insufficiently explored in the Christian blogosphere. Some Christians discussing 50 Shades of Grey zoom in on the observation that the sex occurring in the book and movie happens outside of marriage, leaving the distressing question of “Would the sexual relationship between Christian and Anastasia be morally acceptable if they were married?” wide open. I wonder if those claiming that any kind of sexual activity is acceptable within the confines of marriage actually believe what they are saying. If “anything goes in marriage” is your sexual ethic, are you willing to give your stamp of approval to a relationship in which one spouse disrespects the other’s limits or fails to stop when asked? I also wonder about the acceptability of BDSM activities from the vantage point of “rightly ordered sexual activity is open to procreation.” If your sexual ethic can be summarized as “sex must be intercourse that is open to children and between a husband and wife only,” is that inclusive of married heterosexual couples who are part of the BDSM community? If a BDSM experience between a particular husband and wife always ends in intercourse that is open to life, is that couple practicing a traditional sexual ethic? Then there are all sorts of questions about  wisdom that has made its way into broader discussions about consent partly because BDSM exists. Concepts like limits and safe words are used in “vanilla” relationships as well as BDSM relationships. If your sexual ethic does not include space for BDSM practices, can it rightly include elements that have been heavily influenced by the BDSM subculture?

It’s critically important to discuss matters of sexual ethics beyond when sex is permissible. Sex can be a great gift. However, giving blanket moral approval to “sex within marriage” or “sex that is open to life” hides ways sex can be misused. People living in diverse situations are puzzling through questions of sexual ethics. When discussions of sexual ethics among Christians are entirely restricted to the importance of being married before having sex or the importance of sexual behaviors being open to the creation of new life, people are guaranteed to have unresolved questions. There’s also a huge risk for dismissing (or in some cases, justifying) abusive behavior inadvertently, especially in relationships that are easy for some people to write off as sinful and unworthy of discussion related to abuse. I’m left wondering: how can Christians create spaces for people to discuss sexual ethics holistically, receive support for dealing with abuse in relationships of all kinds, appreciate how sexuality manifests in diverse vocations, and acknowledge how major contributions to our collective thinking about sexual ethics have come from unexpected places?

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Fighting Tradition

Today we’re featuring the voice of our friend who wishes to use the name Tom Merrick. Tom grew up as a gay Christian in an Evangelical Protestant home. We’ve enjoyed getting to know Tom over the past several months. At the beginning of December, we were incredibly distressed to learn that Tom’s father had told Tom he’d no longer be welcome in his parents’ house. We wanted Tom to share his perspective about living as a celibate gay Christian, entering into a celibate partnership, and dealing with his family. As always when reading guest posts, please keep in mind that everyone’s story is different, and the experiences, perspectives, thoughts, and theological ideas presented by the author will not necessarily match completely with ours. For this guest post specifically, we would like to clarify that the word “tradition” can have different meanings depending upon the context. Tom uses the word “tradition” in reference to how fundamentalist evangelical Protestants have approached questions of faith and sexuality. 

A reflection by Tom Merrick

“Tradition, tradition!” goes the debut song of Fiddler on the Roof. Tradition tells us who we are and what God expects of us. It defines us. And sometimes it binds us.

Tradition, not Scripture, holds that one cannot be gay and be Christian. Tradition says being gay is a choice. It says gay people are unacceptable to God.

That is Tradition. And breaking with Tradition means breaking with God.

That lie I have battled against. And I lost that battle.

I lost when I came out to my parents and my father counseled me to get reparative therapy to become straight, refusing to think anything but that being gay is a choice. After a long, agonizing call where I tried to convince him otherwise, I cried. I screamed. I overturned tables and desks and chairs in tortured agony, despair, and rage. All because I could not fight Tradition.

I retreated into myself, feeling abandoned, betrayed, hopeless. I drank, figuring a hedonistic lifestyle condemning me to hell was all I could do. That was, after all, what Tradition said gay people did.

I wrote, attempting to hide my writing from my parents, who were unwilling to accept me. However, they discovered I was writing, and I spent another hopeless night trying to reason with my father. But Tradition said otherwise, and, again, I lost the battle.

I found hope in a small online community of gay Christians, who welcomed me in with open arms. I found acceptance and subsequently retreated further from the unaccepting parents I lived with.

And I found love for the first time. I fell in love with a fellow man, who loved me in return, and showed me more about Christ’s love than I could have ever understood. I learned to accept myself. To look at my reflection in the mirror without seeing myself as ugly or wounded. I found what it meant to support and be supported in rough times.

But such could not be endured by Tradition. So my father confronted me about this man I loved. And again, I lost the battle with Tradition.

Two weeks before Christmas, my father asked me to choose. Choose him and Tradition, or the man I loved. I broke with Tradition and he asked me to leave.

Tradition won that battle. The stupid Tradition found nowhere in the Bible that any not straight are hateful to God. The Tradition that says cast the unrepentant from your home to their life of rebelliousness.

And so Tradition won. I spent Christmas estranged from my family and living with the man I love. And I find myself trying to make sense of a world where Tradition reigns supreme and causes me to lose the family I love. I struggle to know how I should feel or what I should do. And I try to make ends meet in the real world of job searching, loan payments and car troubles, all in a new city and environment.

Tradition has won today. But maybe someday it will lose. And maybe someday Tradition will not ruin a family like it has mine. In the meantime, I will retreat, mourn my loss, and look forward to the day when Tradition no longer defines and binds peoples’ minds and hearts.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.