Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My Response to the ELCA’s Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality

On March 13th, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) published a draft of a “Social Statement on Human Sexuality” and asked for responses. The draft is available at: http://www.elca.org/faithfuljourney/draft/draftstatement.pdf. My response to the draft is below. My response is best understood in conjunction with the draft, but I think that my comments are understandable by themselves.
I hope you will read the draft and my response and provide your own responses to me, to the ELCA, or to me and the ELCA. Thanks.

A Response to the ELCA’s Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality

This response comes from an individual.

Overall Rating

1. How well does the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality provide a useful and adequate framework to help this church discern what it means to live faithfully with our neighbors in the increasing complex sphere of human sexuality?

1 - Not Very Well (I checked this option.)
5 - Very Well

General Comment:

Overall, the draft continues the traditional church practice of demanding sexual renunciation of many of its members, specifically those not in a heterosexual marriage. As a result, it reinforces the heterosexual domination system by privileging heterosexuals. Thus, the draft does not proclaim the Gospel.

2. How helpful is each sub-section in Section II in explaining how Lutherans approach ethics?

I did not find the rating system helpful.

What if anything is a specific strength of Section II?

The draft recognizes that those participating in sexual activity should be responsible.

3. How helpful is each sub-section in Section III at interpreting why Lutherans regard our sexuality as one of the contributing blessings of God's good creation while acknowledging the complexities and difficulties that people experience in the sexual dimension of their lives?

I did not find the rating system helpful.

What, if anything, would you hope to see added to Section III?

An acknowledgement at least that sex is not always so fraught, solemn, frightening, and exalted as this section would have us believe. Although sex can certainly lead to all the miseries that are cataloged in this section, sex can also be pleasurable, fun, silly, frivolous, and romantic. Sex is not as grim as the draft would have it.

How helpful is each sub-section in Section IV in exploring matters of sexuality and relationships?

I did not find the rating system helpful.

What, if anything, would you hope to see added to Section IV?

Line 773 states that “Children are targets of sexual bullying, destructive language, and vicious humor.” This statement does not go on to point out that many bullied children are gay or perceived to be gay. Bullies justify their bullying by calling upon heterosexual privilege, as in “Queers deserve to be beaten up.” Persons in authority, such as teachers, principals, school boards, and legislators, often participate in or are afraid to go against the implicit heterosexual privilege in the community. Therefore, they do not work to stop bullying. Because the draft endorses heterosexual privilege, it also shies away from the truth that gay children are often the targets of bullies. The draft aids and abets gay bullying.

Line 797 indicates that violent and degrading pornography is a threat to children and adults. It should be obvious that it is the violence and degradation in such pornography that has potential for harm, because violence and degradation are usually harmful. Whether sexually explicit images and writing that are not violent and degrading are harmful is much less certain. Sexually explicit material that shows care and concern for people of the same sex can, in my opinion, be very helpful, particularly to gay people who are told that homosexuality is unacceptable. This, of course, has been the traditional Christian message for centuries, as expressed pithily by Fred Phelps: “God hates fags.” The church’s constant emphasis on “purity” has made many a gay child hate his sexuality and try to hide it and change it. With the advent of the internet and the sexually explicit material available there, children can see and experience a different perspective on their homosexuality. They can learn that it is not bad and sinful as the church has taught, but good, beautiful, and life-affirming. I say: “Thank God for the sexually explicit material on the Internet.” Such material is a way of envisioning the future when people are not hounded and ostracized because they don’t conform to the church’s version of “purity.” I wish that as a 13 year old boy in 1947, I could have seen on a computer men making love. If I had, I wouldn’t have felt so alone, abandoned, and evil. Even now the disapproval of sex coming from the churches, as in this draft, is a good part of the reason that sexually explicit material is watched “obsessively and in secret” (lines 799 and 801). Society is obsessed with sex because it is forbidden and church people are the principle forbidders. As long as the churches have an influence in society and use that influence to make people feel “impure” about their sex lives, people’s interest in sex will be obsessive and secret. The draft should encourage a view of sex that is neither so exalted that no one could ever have “good” sex nor so base that anyone who has sex outside of heterosexual marriage is branded as a sinner. Sex feels good, which is why people have sex and why they should have sex. There is enough misery in the world; sex can be a way of finding some happiness in a messy world. That said, not every sexual encounter is a sacred union, nor does it need to be. Likewise, not every sexual encounter is bestial exploitation. In fact, the litany of miseries in the draft has very little to do with sex, but rather the exploitation that is possible when sex is seen to be bad by the watchdogs of society. Someone is always available to make money on perceived sin.

Line 814 indicates that sex education should emphasize responsibility, mutuality, and abstinence. Responsibility and mutuality are, of course, are necessary in any sexual or for that matter, nonsexual, encounter, but abstinence may be more of a problem than a solution for sexual issues. Here is an excerpt from “Students of Virginity” in the March 30, 2008 issue of the “New York Times” magazine that shows that abstinence is not a sex-free zone, nor necessarily a way for people to exercise responsibility and mutuality:
“Millions of teenagers have since pledged to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, mainly on the grounds that premarital sex is sin.
At the same time, Congress and the Bush administration have directed hundreds of millions of dollars toward abstinence-only education in the public middle schools and high schools — classes that have been roundly criticized for blurring the line between science and religion. A 2004 report issued by Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, found that 11 of 13 abstinence curriculums that his government-reform committee examined were rife with scientific errors and false and misleading information about the risks of sexual activity. Many states are now rejecting federal financing for such classes, on evidence that they fail to limit sexual behavior or reduce teen pregnancy.
In a follow-up study to a 1995 national survey of close to 12,000 students in grades 7 through 12, two sociologists, Peter Bearman at Columbia University and Hannah Brückner at Yale, found that while those who took virginity pledges preserved their technical virginity about 18 months longer than teenagers who didn’t pledge, they were six times more likely to engage in oral sex than virgins who hadn’t taken a pledge. They were also much less likely to use condoms during their first sexual experience or to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Disease rates between those who pledged and those who didn’t were actually similar. The authors, who published their findings in 2005, concluded that the emphasis on premarital abstinence was insufficient to fend off disease and ‘collides with the realities of adolescents’ and young adults’ lives.’”
My guess is that the writers of the draft were pressured by the right to include the mention of abstinence.

5. How helpful is each sub-section in Section V in understanding matters of sexuality related to life in society?

I did not find the rating system helpful.

6. How well does the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality balance the need to speak to issues in intimate personal relationships with the need to address social issues that are broader and structural?

1 - Not Very Well (I checked this option.)
5 - Very Well

7. How well does the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality helpfully address the needs and questions of all people in this church?

1 - Not Very Well (I checked this option.)
5 - Very Well

8. The proposed social statement on human sexuality will have a series of implementing resolutions. Such resolutions provide an opportunity to commit the church to the development of additional resources or programs relevant to the concerns of the social statement. Please list up to three topics you think it would be essential to include among the implementing resolutions for this social statement.

Resolved: Sexual renunciation, as advocated in the ELCA’s Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality, is a form of works-righteousness.

9. If there is anything else you particularly want to share with the Task Force for ELCA Studies on Sexuality, please use the space below:

The ELCA’s Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality is cowardly, cynical, and political.

First, the draft is cowardly because it is not the long-hoped-for announcement of a new sex ethic for the church. Instead, the draft attempts to reinforce the old, failed, discredited sex ethic that, probably more than any other single factor, causes people to leave the church. The old sex ethic would require people not in heterosexual marriage to renounce sex. This approach to sex is profoundly non-Lutheran. We Lutherans say that we cannot win God’s approval by what we do; God loves us unreservedly. However, the history of the church, including the Lutheran church, shows that there is one work traditionally required for acceptance into the church family: sexual renunciation, which is often encoded in Christian scripture, liturgy, and hymns as: “purity.” The flip side of purity, in this view, is fornication and impurity. St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, denounces fornication and impurity without defining either (Galatians 5: 19). The draft quotes Paul’s angry words without any interpretation, stating that St. Paul writes that fornication and impurity shred the bonds of trust (Line 1222).
The draft asks no questions about this passage, such as: What was happening in Galatia that led Paul to write these words? Or: Why was Paul so hostile to sex? In contrast to Paul, Webster’s dictionary defines fornication as “consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other.” This seems quite nonjudgmental, particularly the “consensual” part, but it hardly seems to fit with Paul’s condemnatory tone.
One website, “Liberated Christians” (http://www.libchrist.com), takes a different approach toward Paul and “fornication,” suggesting that “I Corinthians 6:9 badly mistranslates ‘porneia’ as fornication. English translations use ‘fornication’ for Paul's original Greek word ‘porneia,’ which means to sell and refers to slaves bought and sold for cultic prostitution. In Corinth, farmers would visit the temple priestesses who represented the fertility gods. By having sex with these prostitutes, the farmers believed that their fields would be more fertile. This wasn’t simply going to prostitutes, but pagan cultic worship. So, perhaps fornication in the Bible is not “consensual sex,” but religious sex with gods (or their representatives) who are not the God of Abraham.
The traditional Christian message has not considered possibilities like this, rather, as in the draft, it has condemned any sex, in thought, word, or deed, outside heterosexual marriage as sinful. Augustine went further, claiming that even within heterosexual marriage, sex was sinful if not entered into with the intention of procreation. The idea that fornication might refer to idolatry is lost on most Christians, and, because of this, church teaching, reinforced in the draft, states that in order to be good Christians, acceptable Christians, church people should renounce sex outside of heterosexual marriage. They have been asked, since the church began, to perform this work, this obviously very difficult work, to be good Christians and, it follows, to gain salvation.
Where did this emphasis on sexual renunciation in the church come from? In “The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity” (1988), Peter Brown traces the development of the thinking and practice of men and women in late antiquity, starting with Paul and concluding with Augustine, as they defined and sought sanctity. The result of their frequently very strenuous efforts at ascetic renunciation was that it moved to the center of Christian life early in the church’s history. Brown shows that the church, from its early period right into the Middle Ages, opted to make sex and contact with sex one of the main benchmarks of the hierarchy of the Christian life. Celibacy for men and virginity for women took on great importance.
We church people live with this works-righteousness (the idea that our works will save us) even today. Although celibacy and chastity for men have always been important, it is women’s virginity that is emblematic of sexual renunciation. It is only a translator’s slip that has given us Mary, the mother of Jesus, as a virgin. Isaiah 7:14, the passage in the Hebrew Bible that speaks of the mother of a deliverer like Jesus, uses the words, “a young woman” not “virgin.” However “virgin” was the word chosen in the Greek translation, and virginity very early in the church became the ideal state for all. Of course, the cult of virginity brings the concept of purity to its fullest flower (to use a sexually fraught metaphor). The Virgin Mary is revered not so much for her role as the mother of Jesus, but as an exemplar of virginity and, thus, purity. Mary becomes the exemplar of virginity, rather than, as in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the servant of God, who, while noting her lowliness, is quite assertive, presenting a quite liberal, if not socialist, vision of a world where the poor are fed while the rich are pulled from their thrones of privilege. This is not the traditional virgin, meek and mild, but a strong woman with a radical program for social change.
Virginity, or, more precisely, what it implies, is the curse of Christianity, making us, as sexual beings, always guilty and never “pure” enough. Rather than being guilty about our sexuality, we should embrace it, and learn how to be responsible sexual people. The draft is cowardly in that it embraces renunciation and works righteousness, giving no guidance on how all of us, not just married heterosexuals, can be both actively sexual and responsible.

Second, the draft is cowardly because it does not abide by the second great commandment that the draft cites as foundational (line 8). The draft refuses to go where the Gospel is always leading us: To the conviction that God loves all creation and, in response, we are lead by the Spirit to love all people without partiality (Acts 10:34). Instead, the draft implies that God is partial to heterosexuals, blessing their marriages (line 1005), but not those of same-sex couples (line 1117). The draft claims that the church does not have consensus regarding same-gender relationships (line 1117). Without this consensus, the draft refuses to proclaim the Gospel: God calls for fairness and equality for all people and this should be without regard to their sexual orientation. Instead the writers of the draft, politically and cynically, have put their fingers in the air to determine which way the wind is blowing, and, lo and behold, they have discovered that the right wing is blowing to keep marriage for heterosexuals only, thus attempting to maintain and strengthen the heterosexual hegemony build into traditional society. The possibility of gay marriage challenges this hegemony, eliciting strong, often violent, reactions against those who name and oppose heterosexual privilege. The draft upholds heterosexualism when it merely recognizes controversy without providing leadership toward a position of sexual and marriage equality.
The plight of the Anglican Communion today should be instructive for Lutherans. Archbishop Rowan Williams has consistently tried to placate the Communion’s right wing by shunning gays, notably Bishop Gene Robinson. If, at Robinson’s election, Williams had welcomed him as a fellow bishop, a message would have been sent to the right that gays are not to be made scapegoats in the church to “satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15). Now that openly gay people are being shunned in the Anglican Communion, violence and hatred against gays have been released because they are seen as convenient scapegoats. For example, in 2006, Nigerian Archbishop, Peter J. Akinola supported a proposed Draconian law in Nigeria that would have effectively banned the "promotion" of homosexuality - punishing violators with up to five years imprisonment. (Wayne Besen: 365Gay.com, 2008).
So, for the ELCA to deny gays church marriage because popular opinion seems to be against it, is to fall into the same trap as the Anglicans have. Homosexuals in the ELCA may not marry in the church because some in the church might object. The draft appeases these objectors in a manner similar to Williams’ appeasement.
It wouldn’t work, because the point of Christ’s passion is that his scapegoating is called out and pointed to as wrong. That is why Christians “proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” at communion (I Corinthians 11:26): To proclaim publicly that scapegoating is wrong and God wants people to stop it. Christians should be saying: “Don’t satisfy the crowd, don’t throw the crowd another scapegoat in an attempt to avoid controversy, but proclaim the Gospel that God loves all people equally.

Thirdly, the draft is cowardly because, by privileging heterosexuals, it makes it harder for homosexuals to embrace their sexuality in the face of social hostility. This cowardice has real life consequences, particularly among gay youth. The Rev. Dr. Janet L. Parker of Rock Spring Congregational United Church of Christ has provided evidence concerning the hardships faced by gay youth. On June 10, 2007, she wrote that: “Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender children account for up to 40% of the youth living in homeless shelters and foster homes in our nation’s cities. Gay, lesbian and bisexual youth are three times more likely than heterosexual youth to attempt suicide. Queer youth are much more likely to run away, end up as teen prostitutes, attempt suicide and suffer beatings and abuse inside and outside of their homes than heterosexual youth.” (http://www.rockspringcongucc.org/html/sermons.html). In the face of these findings, the draft goes along with heterosexualism making the lives of gay people harder than they need to be.

Because there is no consensus, the draft takes the easy way out and satisfies the crowd. The draft accomplishes nothing but the reinforcement of the status quo. It provides no leadership; it does not proclaim the Gospel.