Jesus And Sex

Apr 4 2012 @ 9:09pm

[Re-posted from earlier today.] Rod Dreher takes issue with my Newsweek essay. Guess what his main focus is:

Jesus condemns lust. What is lust? How would Andrew Sullivan define lust? Jesus believes that “sexual immorality” is so serious that it’s the only legitimate reason for divorce. What could Jesus have meant by “sexual immorality” Clearly, unambiguously, Jesus believes in a right way of sexual conduct, and a wrong way — and condemns the wrong way in serious terms. It is completely untenable to say that Jesus was indifferent to sexual conduct. If we want to know more explicitly what kind of sexual conduct Jesus found to be trayf, we should consult his tradition’s teachings, found in the Hebrew Bible. Or you could trust the rabbi Paul, who was a contemporary of Jesus’s. If you really don’t want to know, because to know is to be responsible, and to be responsible is to have to change your life and die to yourself in ways you prefer not to, well, then you are fooling yourself. It’s as if the Rich Young Ruler went away from Jesus sorrowful, and then wrote an essay later saying that if we really knew Jesus, we would know that he really didn’t mean that one would have to sell all one’s possessions if one wants to have eternal life.

It’s revealing that for Rod, sex is the first thing that comes to mind after reading my essay. Which kinda proves my point- which is that in the grand scheme of Jesus’ teaching, sex is an extremely minor theme, while the current Catholic and evangelical leadership regards it as a central defining issue. But the notion that Jesus was a free love kinda guy is also preposterous, and I never wrote otherwise. His sexual radicalism is as extreme as his property radicalism (give away everything, including your home). Take the part of the Gospels Rod cites:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’. But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

This is a remarkably radical passage – requiring us, if we take it literally, to dismember our bodies because they constantly present a temptation to forget God. My interpretation is that Jesus is warning against believing that because you obey certain religious rules, you are somehow holy. Inside you are probably not. Lust, greed, racism, fear, and tribalism – to take a few aspects of fallen human nature – are innate; and his call is for a total, deep renunication of all of them, not just obeying formal rules like a “certificate of divorce.” This is of a piece with Jesus’ insistence on interior, personal transformation – not just obedience to religious law. But in so far as this passage is about sex, it is a total impossibility. Not to feel involuntary sexual attraction is not to be human. The standard is impossible. I mean: try it. Try to have no sexual desires, feelings or moments of attraction. Not try to resist acting on them; but resist even thinking them. That’s Jesus’ standard. We all fail that standard. We are all therefore adulterers to different degrees. Any man who has ever had a chubby for someone not his wife is an adulterer. Every celibate priest is an adulterer. The Pope is an adulterer. Every Christian who has ever lived is an adulterer. This is Jesus’ radicalism at work, and it points, in my view, not to using government to police and repress sexual desire (as you see in large swathes of the Muslim world). And it does not point to church authorities using the repression of sex as a tool for real power over their flocks (which they then sometimes use for sexual abuse). It points to achieving a level of grace that leaves sexual desire behind entirely – a standard also familiar to other religious or philosophical traditions, like Buddhism. And recall Jesus’ response to an actual condemnation of an adulterer. She is about to be stoned. Does Jesus uphold the law he came to fulfill against the woman? No. He demands that those without sin cast the first stones. And he forgives the woman – while insisting she not sin again. Actually, he does more than forgive. He says:

Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

This is the Christian model of sexual morality, it seems to me, as it is of morality in general. Jesus poses an impossible standard and then refuses to condemn an actual tangible human being who fails to reach it. Since we are all completely ridden with sin, we equally have no right to condemn anyone else, even if we are living the most upright lives according to the law. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who Adulteresstrespass against us. And in this classic scene in which religious authorities stand ready to deploy their power to punish sin, Jesus does something strange. He physically defuses the dynamic. She is cowering; they are threatening; they demand he uphold the law. What does he do? He sits on the ground and doodles in the dust. He is neither condemned nor condemner. He breaks that circle. He does not condemn. He forgives. So I am a sinner. So is Rod. We should leave the stones on the ground. But this debate is not about me and Rod anyway. It is about reclaiming the core message of Jesus against the distortions that every age imposes on it. And in so far as I am offering any argument as to how to live one’s life when the standard Jesus offered is literally impossible, it is merely to say it is hard, and would be cruel were it not for forgiveness. I have had good moments in this struggle and terrible, lasting failures. This Lent has forced me to consider my constant failures more than my intermittent moments of grace. That I confess. As a practical matter, I have not had the strength to live as Saint Francis, without possessions, without a home, without sex, without anything but a subsistence diet, reliant entirely on physical labor and begging on the streets as a last resort. I find the secular world fascinating, funny, engaging, enraging, joyful. And I have made compromises in my faith-life – just as our laws make compromises for the crooked timber we make up. That made writing this piece hard; and responding to it difficult. Because I am unworthy to deliver such a message. But if no broken being can speak to the truths he cannot always live up to and has often strayed from, then we would have a great deal of silence. We should not be comfortable with the compromises our fallen lives compound. But we have to live with them, and keep each one in proper perspective:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime;
therefore we must be saved by hope.

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
therefore we must be saved by faith.

Nothing we do, however virtuous, could be accomplished alone;
therefore we must be saved by love.

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the stand point of our friend or foe as it is from our own standpoint;
therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.