Escaping the Darkness of Shame

In issuing the “Call for Submissions” for this issue of Whosoever, the editor directed our attention to the notion of light in the darkness – specifically, how can we as GLBTQ Christians “witness to the light of God within us – and let it shine in a world of darkness and need.”

I got to thinking about that for a few days and, as I did, it occurred to me that many of us – GLBTQ Christians – continually struggle with the dark: the dark of self-questioning, the darkness of self-doubt, the Stygian realm of self-loathing. I think this is especially true for those of us who grew up surrounded by and infused with what we can broadly call Christian culture and its Augustinian-Thomistic-Puritanical view of sex. It is something, I cannot help but think, that many of us spend lifetimes struggling with no matter how many welcoming ecclesiastical arms envelop us or how many affirming books we read or how many ratifying sermons we hear. It is often a life-long tension: we don’t want to believe we as GLBTQ persons are welcomed in God’s kingdom; we want to believe, we have to believe, we are God’s beloved children, no matter what the gender of the person we’re having sex with.

The darkness of which I speak is insidious and tenacious, a cancer that untreated continues to grow, fed by uninformed or misguided, at best, or hateful, at worst, people who, in the name of the Christ we love and seek to emulate, bombard us with the message that what we are all about – loving, physically, people of the same gender – is nasty, dirty, disgusting, abnormal, immoral, evil and sick.

The ethical and/or theological foundation of that message is simple and has been a part of Christian teaching for centuries. It began with Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries and was highly refined by Aquinas in the 13th century: sexual activity is to occur ONLY between a man and woman who are joined together in a marriage sanctioned by church and state. No pre-marital sex. No extra-marital sex. In some traditions, no thwarted (i.e., contraception), non-procreative sex. In some traditions, no solo sex. It’s all man, woman; husband, wife; penis, vagina.

This has been the majority Christian position for hundreds and hundreds of years and has been especially a part of the atmosphere you and I have breathed as inheritors of the Puritan traditions which have characterized U.S. attitudes toward sex.

When I was a student at Reformed Theological Seminary back in the mid-1970s we used to jokingly debate whether or not a couple could have sex on Sundays. And we’d jokingly conclude that it was permissible as long as they did not enjoy it. A silly, stupid joke, to be sure, but indicative, perhaps, of the attitude toward sex which we Christians have carried with us in our very beings.

Why, one has to wonder, is sex – a naturally occurring biological and evolutionary driven act – so important to our faith tradition as Christians and why has the Church sought for so long and with such intensity to control its expression?

Regardless of the historical, social and political answers to those questions, this remains: that we GLBTQ Christians stand in a unique place wherefrom we can shine the light of a positive attitude toward sex into a world of darkness and need.

And we must begin by allowing God’s light to illuminate and warm even our own individual souls in this regard. It’s hard, damn hard, to escape the shame we often feel after engaging in sex – even if it is with someone we love and are committed to. We still carry with us vestiges of the darkness of Augustine, Aquinas and the Puritans. After all, it’s been part of the air we breathe for so long. It’s been drilled into our minds, merged into our hearts. We must, if we are to shine a light into darkness, begin to escape that very darkness ourselves.

Sex is, for the Christian, as much a part of that creation which God pronounced “good” as anything else. Yet even beyond the idea of homo-sex, many of us find ourselves carrying around imposed shame about being sexual beings in general, and homo-sexual beings in particular, that our faith tradition created to control the expression of sexual desire in general.

If we look, as we should as GLBTQ Christians, to have our views of sex informed by those sacred writings we hold dear – the Hebrew and Christian scriptures – if we look honestly at them, we are met by confusing messages when it comes to sex. Sex in and of itself, one could argue, is viewed as morally neutral in the Hebrew writings. Only the context of the sex has import and, therefore, has any moral judgment made of it. But even then, considering the context of sex, we don’t find consistency. What moral judgment is made, for example, of the sexual actions of Noah’s daughters after the flood? Or of Lot’s offering up of his own daughters as sexual objects to the gang-raping crowd of Sodom? What of Abraham’ dalliances? What moral judgment is made about Solomon’s innumerable concubines? Even the most famous of “sexual” regulations – “Thou shalt not commit adultery” – had reference to property rights, not sex qua sex.

When it comes to the Christian scriptures, we are still met with inconsistency and confusion. Paul seems to have had issues with sex, at least on the surface. If he had his way, none of us would have spouses. But he also recognized how impractical that was and urged his readers to marry rather than burn [with uncontrollable lust]. His strongest objections to sex were raised against ritual sex; that is, sex engaged in as a part of “pagan” worship, sex that was engaged in in the context of non-Christian religious rituals. Jesus really didn’t have that much to say about sex, actually, as far as we know.

And so for the next 2000 years following Jesus and Paul, Church Fathers [note: Fathers, not Mothers] developed highly intricate systems to justify the control of sex acts. We have inherited that long, confusing, oppressing tradition. Sex = man and woman, legally and spiritually married. We have breathed it; we have drunk it daily. Any violation of that rule brings condemnation and, worst of all, internalized shame.

For the longest time, even into my 30s and 40s, I felt that shame in my heart when I would engage in sexual activity with someone. It wasn’t the same-gender aspect of it so much as it was the simple act of sex “outside of marriage.” My mind was there; I knew intellectually that it was a morally neutral act between consenting adults. But my soul – my soul ached, tortured at times by shame and guilt. My mind was illuminated; my heart, my soul, still in darkness. How could I possibly convince a hetero Christian of the validity of my homo-sex when I still felt shame and guilt?

Even some well-meaning, well-intentioned GLBTQ Christians writers and preachers have adopted that old way of thinking. Actually, it’s not that they have adopted it, they have simply retained it. Sex is okay, we’re told, as long as it is in the context of a “loving, committed relationship.” And I think I understand the intent of that position: to make, if nothing else, homo-sex more palpable, less “yucky,” to hetero Christians. It is, in that sense, a compromise with evangelical thinking in general on the part of evangelical GLBTQ Christians. It is the evangelical GLBTQ Christian saying in essence, “We’re with you. We, like you, don’t believe people should have sex outside of the context of a loving, committed relationships, just like you. We just want to expand such relationships to include same-gender pairings.”

There are problems with this position.

In the first place, what does it say to non-evangelical Christians who don’t have that view of the proper context for sex? Are we to insist that they must be chaste (such is the position currently of a couple of mainline denominations)? Is it okay for them to BE gay as long as they don’t DO gay? Are they to deny themselves partaking in God’s good gift of sex? Should they still, by those standards, feel the shame and carry the guilt for having consensual sex with another person?

In the second place, it raises the question of how we define loving, committed, assumably monogamous relationships.” I know of several GLBTQ couples whose commitment to each other is unquestionable, whose love for each other is unquestionable. But they are not monogamous; they do not restrict their sexual activity to the context of their relationship. What are we to make of them? Sinners in need of repentance?

And then we’re thrown back to that original, pesky question of how are we to develop an honest to the scriptural record, workable, biblically informed sexual ethic.

This, I think, is where we as GLBTQ Christians can let the light permeate the darkness, in our own hearts and in the world around us. This is where we can offer a sex-affirming, sex-positive, Christ-honoring sexual ethic: Do No Harm.

This sheds much needed light in the darkness. This gets us out of the quandary of trying to play by the rules developed historically by anti-sex, decidedly anti-queer, theologians who see what we as GLBTQ Christians do as sin.

Proclaiming a Jesus-centered, Christ-based sexual ethic of “Do No Harm” puts ethical decision making in the hands it should be in. Ethics are not easy. It means we really have to think, and pray, about our actions. But it is we who are making those decisions, taking those actions. “Do No Harm” honors the fundamental ethical stance of Jesus found in his teachings. It forces us, in our ethical considerations, to always take the other person’s best interest into account. It requires us to always treat the other person with respect and honor and dignity. Abusive or exploitive sex cannot past muster when measured against this ethic. But neither does it limit sexual expression to “loving, committed relationships.” Using a sexual ethic starting point of “Do No Harm” also sheds light into darkness by celebrating sex, in and of itself, as good and God-blessed.

Now, if I can just remember that all the time and banish the old shame-inducing, oppressive Augustinian-Thomistic-Puritanical ethic from my soul forever.