March 2011

Sex, Teens, and Christianity

It may be that Christianity confronts no more daunting issue than sex. This is because sex is one aspect of life that affects every human being regardless of any other distinction such as race, class, economic or social background. It may, therefore, not be a coincidence that sex is one moral issue about which much of Christianity is, quite simply, wrong. I admit that that is a sweeping statement, and if it is correct, one might ask, "How can this topic be addressed in a blog?" Clearly, a blog cannot fully address the issue, but it can provide a foundation for understanding and further discussion.

I suppose the first question to answer is what Christianity got wrong. Consider the newly released study indicating that fewer U.S. young people, ages 15 - 24, are having sex, a decline from 78% to 72% in the last decade. One response to the study, heard on National Public Radio, came from a young woman who stated she was not surprised because "there are more Christians and conservatives in this age bracket." Conservatives, perhaps, but Christians? Does sexual activity really determine one's Christianity? And if it does, what kind of Christianity are we talking about?

A significant part of the Christian right, considers anything having to do with the flesh as evil. By the way, these are the same people who think non-christians are going to hell. So I guess we cannot expect too much from them by way of dialogue. To be fair, though, this is not just a problem for the Christian right, or for other fundamentalist Christians. The Catholic Church does not have a stellar record on sexual theology, either. Nonetheless, from an intellectually open perspective, we must ask the question, "How does sex fit in with the Christian Faith?"

Tradition holds that most of Jesus' apostles were married. Certainly, we know that Peter was. At the same time, the best scholarship indicates that Jesus, himself, was not married. The same holds true for Paul, and possibly the Apostle John. Were any of these three sexually active? The very idea is anathema to most conservative Christians--at least as far as Jesus is concerned. Yet, there is no indication one way or the other. And if we wanted to try to make a guess, we should begin by looking at the teachings of Jesus himself.

Consider that of all the social issues Jesus addressed in his lifetime, of all the issues period, sex was not one of them. Jesus, simply did not speak about sex. Why, then, do so many Christians obsess about this most basic element of human existence? Certainly, if there were something intrinsically evil about sex, Jesus would have addressed it. He did not.

Admittedly, an argument can be made that hedonistic living can leave devastation in its wake. That would, in part, explain the over reaction of John Calvin and his brand of Christianity--a presumption that all flesh is evil and everyone, with a few exceptions, is predestined to hell. Another contributing factor seems to be a lack of understanding about the goodness of God, and certainly a total incomprehension, if not flat out denial, of the humanity of Jesus. For if God, in Jesus, chose to become human, then the flesh must fundamentally be good.

In fact, Jesus speaks directly to the goodness of life, stating in John's Gospel: "I have come that they might have life and have it to the full." No hedging there. Jesus's vision is one of a joyful life. When speaking about living in God's love and according to God's commandments, Jesus says: "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete." That love and those commandments do not include abstaining from sex. Now, I do not mean to suggest that Jesus supported some kind of licentious living. Nonetheless, it is obvious that he did not consider sex a topic of significant concern.

It seems that the problem for many of today's Christians is not so much sex, in and of itself, as it is pleasure. Sex is enjoyable and some Christian churches, sorely lacking a theology of pleasure, have a problem with that enjoyment in the same way that they had (or still have) a problem with dancing, music, gambling, smoking, drinking. What's left to enjoy in life? Perhaps that is the reason they make a mockery out of politics and attempt to dictate every aspect of morality beginning with abstinence only education.

Now power is one area and issue Jesus did address. He castigated the religious leaders of his own time for their legislation: "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them." He also cautioned his disciples: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you." Jesus condemns abusive power and control, but not a word about sex.

I suppose if sex was not enjoyable, specifically if it was an unpleasant experience, today's condemning Christians would not have a problem with it. In fact, they would probably command sex on a regular basis--especially if it made people feel even more miserable! I, for one, prefer Jesus' view of life--fullness and joy over misery and suffering. There is nothing inherently wrong with the flesh, and sex is something to be enjoyed, albeit responsibly.

If there are fewer teens having sex today, fine. That is their choice. It may even make them more conservative. It does not, however, define them as Christian. My fear is that many of these same teens will grow up to become tomorrow's conservative and intrusive legislators. Would that more of them paid more attention to what Jesus says about power, and in the process learned how to love and enjoy life--even through responsible sexual activity--rather than learn how to judge and condemn.

America's Lost Gospel

Christianity dominates the religious landscape of the United States. Still, given the great diversity of religious belief in this country, it has always been inaccurate to refer to America as a Christian nation. Today it is also patently false, for America is home to the Lost Gospel.

The Gospel I refer to is not some archeological unearthing of the story of Jesus, like the Gospel of Thomas. Nor is it some discovered fragment like the Gospel of Peter. There were gospels that did not survive with the four canonical ones due to questions of theological accuracy, orthodoxy and history. No, the lost Gospel I refer to is a matter for the modern world and goes to the very core of American Christianity, even Christianity itself, for it is what the four canonical Gospels are collectively all about. It IS the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and in America today it has been lost. In spite of the fact that many on the religious right claim to be Christians, the Gospel is no longer being lived in the United States and hence, authentic Christianity holds less and less sway. Indeed, America is not a Christian nation.

The evidence has been growing for some time, but has now reached its apex with the deceitful shenanigans of (primarily) Republican members of various state houses. The focus has centered in Wisconsin, but is spreading to one state after another. It has to do with the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for wages, working conditions and benefits. These are core Gospel values.

In 1891, Pope Leo XIII issued his now seminal encyclical "Rerum Novarum", outlining the rights of workers and cautioning against unrestricted capitalism. In doing so he gave rise to the social teaching of the Catholic Church, recognizing that at its heart, the Good News of Jesus Christ is a "social" Gospel. That 19th century encyclical was only the first in a long line of unbroken teachings from successive popes. These teachings bring the Gospel of Jesus to bear on the increasing demands of a world shattered by injustice, violence and greed. So the ensuing encyclicals address issues of social order, peace, migration and human dignity.

It is not incumbent upon non-Catholics to embrace the teachings of the Catholic Church on social justice. But it might be wise for everyone to heed the warnings against an unbridled capitalism that places the financial bottom line above the good of human beings.

I am reminded of how the Reagan Administration heralded the neutron bomb. This is a weapon designed to do maximum damage to human beings, while leaving buildings and infrastructure in place. Could there be a more despicable and inhumane weapon of mass destruction? What does it say of the soul of a nation to place more value on buildings than human life?

Comparing the budget of Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislators in Wisconsin to the neutron bomb is not a stretch. What does it say about their soul, that they are willing to sacrifice the welfare, the very livelihood, of the people of their state for political and financial gain? Or that they would sacrifice the exact principles that have enabled working class peoples to rise out of poverty? Theirs is a contemporary example of "neutron" thinking.

It is no accident that the first great social encyclical should focus on workers' rights, for it reflected the growing poverty and destitution of the urban poor. As a first critical look at unbridled capitalism, it was nothing short of inspired--sadly, an inspiration that has not taken root in the hearts and minds of most government or corporate leaders.

Collective bargaining does not represent capitulation to every demand of workers or their unions. The emphasis on bargaining enervates a process that allows give-and-take for the good of all. Governor Walker suggests that he does not want to restrict workers' rights to bargain for wages, only benefits. This is disingenuous in the extreme. Wages and benefits are inextricably interwoven together. The wages paid to workers are meaningless if the workers are not provided a working environment that secures safety and provides for their health. Wages do not matter if workers are not provided lunch and work breaks or sick leave. These are but a few examples of what workers have been able to secure through the collective bargaining process. Walker, casting himself more in the role of an authoritarian, medieval prince than a contemporary governor, would have workers return to the days of serfdom, when the prince set the rules of labor--a labor that was characterized by slavery rather than freedom.

Workers have the "right" to collectively bargain. It is not a gift or privilege extended by a paternalistic government. As a moral right it cannot be stripped away by law or edict. The working class should not be used as political pawns in a vain attempt to control the reigns of government and power. Most especially, workers should not be pushed back into 19th century poverty for the financial gain of corporations or the advancement of the super rich.

Writing as I am about the social Gospel of Jesus Christ, I suppose I should say something about Glenn Beck. I am fully aware that he has counseled his audience to leave any Christian Church that preaches a social gospel. Although my readers are unlikely to be among his fans, it is high time for someone to point out that not only is Glenn Beck in no position to offer such advice, he, himself, is not even a Christian. It will probably require a different blog to explain that. For now, it is clear that anyone who would advise people to walk out of a church that preaches the authentic social teaching of Jesus, is an offense to everyone, not least of which, Jesus.

In the meantime, we as a nation must demand that the rights of workers be protected from the kind arrogant assault launched by Governor Walker, lest this neutron thinking take hold and spread even further.