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Sexuality in relation to God and the Christian community.

Before his death Harry Reasoner interviewed a winsome prostitute on 60 Minutes. After some frank and direct questions of whys, whens, wheres, and hows, he asked if she liked to kiss her clients. "No," she said, "it's too intimate." Then he asked if she thought she could ever have a new beginning, and reserve sex only for a committed relationship. Again her answer was "No. I have abused and misused sex, and I think it would be impossible for me to reserve sex for a committed relationship." Her predicament might be, to some lesser degree, the predicament of some of us in the generation after the pill and the sexual revolution.

The way many of us construe sexuality today is strongly influenced by representations in the public arena, especially television and films that are transcultural, so that similar representations of sexuality appear in Europe, Africa, or the entire Western Hemisphere of the Americas. There is simultaneously a postmodern character to this global representation in that the modem era is understood as a period when we repressed our sexuality, largely under the influence of Christianity, as if our repression were different only in degree from the Taliban obliterating the personhood of women by hiding females. The consequence of repression was that our sexual activity was burdened with guilt, and the postmodern era presumes liberation from such repression by substituting innocent play for the guilty burden. Before the postmodern perspective, if you wanted to know something about human sexuality, you might look at the Bible, or even and especially at Paul. With a postmodern perspective you turn to Hugh Hefner.

Sigmund Freud taught us about repression and guilt, and so the postmodern notion is to divest ourselves of repression and guilt by replacing repression with openness and freedom. But Francis Watson claims that the notion that we can divest ourselves of repression and guilt is a decided misinterpretation of Freud. Freud called attention to preconscious dimensions that impinge on our behavior but never dispensed with them.' Thus sexuality comes in only one form, namely, the form that produces conflict, anxiety, and guilt. Whatever the frictions at the level of the psyche, at a rather conscious level, conflict arises because the drive for self-satisfaction clashes with the drive to fulfill the needs of a partner.

Human sexuality thus has amazing powers for bane or blessing. Sex has an astonishing capacity for blessing in two becoming one. This is true not merely for the second chapter of Genesis and for Jesus in his interpretation of Genesis 2 when he discusses divorce in Mark 10, but also from a post-Christian position for Luce Irigaray, who asserts that sex as blessing does not occur in a relationship but constitutes the relationship. For her, each partner individually and the two together give birth to one another. (2)

But sex also has an astonishing capacity to be the bane of human existence. Instead of constituting a relationship, as when two become one, it may estrange, alienate, divide, destroy. Sex forfeits its ability to constitute relationships when it is wasted on commitments that do not exist, when it is abusive, when it produces wounded lives and broken hearts. This double potential for bane and blessing makes all postmodern notions that we can replace repression with freedom and joyful innocence astoundingly deceptive.

In view of the double nature of sex as bane and blessing, African theologian Emmanuel Katongole from Uganda decries what he calls the "condomizatoin" of Africa. (3) Here is a bit of what he means. In 1999 in an Anglican church hall in Soweto, South Africa, I saw a poster that portrayed the New South African flag in the shape of a condom. Such a poster in a church implies that safe sex is Christian, patriotic, and innocent. With 25 percent of women aged 15 to 20 in South Africa HIV-positive, one ought to be concerned about a safe-sex campaign. But Katongole's objection is that behind the campaign lies the presumption that Africans are by nature promiscuous. He charges, however, that this construct of human sexuality is a global postmodern presumption that is a subtle imperialism in that it has dominated African identity from the outside.

Identity! I want to turn now to the identity the apostle Paul called the Corinthians to recognize in 1 Corinthians 6.

The mindset of our culture aims largely at sex education for youngsters in order to keep teenagers from making mistakes. Paul no doubt would have been pleased if his Epistle to the Corinthians could have helped teenagers avoid mistakes. But the sixth chapter is more for adults and adulterers. 1 Cor 6:9-10 is one of the texts at the center of debates about the ordination of noncelibate gays and lesbians in mainline denominations. The discussion hangs on the terms malakoi and arsenokoitai. I am referring to the Greek to make the point that we do not know how to translate the terms. Further, it is extremely difficult to correlate the terms with our current debate. For example, our understanding of sexual orientation and both the terminology and our understanding of homosexuality are developments of our time rather than of the time of the New Testament. Nevertheless, whatever malakoi and arsenokoitai mean, Paul immediately says that the Corinthians are no longer a part of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God, even if some of them used to be (1 Cor 6:11). Because Paul says that the Corinthians were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, interpreters have often suggested that conversion and baptism had cleaned up the act of the Corinthians.

The difficulty is that Paul then immediately begins to deal with some sexual issues in Corinth. Apparently Paul was dealing with church members who consorted with prostitutes--probably sacred prostitutes. The issue was sex orgies in the name of pagan deities. The Corinthians who were involved had two arguments. First, ethics is not a matter of law. They probably learned that from Paul, and they developed a slogan from it: "All things are lawful" (v. 12). Second, sex is a natural drive like hunger, and they developed a slogan for that: "Food for the stomach, the stomach for food." They already intuited enough about psychology to take the stomach as a Freudian sublimation.

Paul's response is deceptively simple. It is about memory and membership--remembering and re-membering. Paul gives his reminder in a triadic form: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" (v. 15). "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?" (v. 19). "You were bought with a price" (v. 20). This last sentence contains a divine passive. If expressed in the active voice it would be "God bought you with a price." The reminder of relationships is triadic: Christ, Spirit, God. Further, there is an enormous emphasis here on the Corinthian community. All of the "yous" are in the plural. In the case of the temple of the Spirit, body is singular and "your" is plural. That is, the corporate body of the Corinthian community is a temple of the Spirit. Paul calls the Corinthians to live out their sexuality in a two-pronged relationship--in a relationship with God, which the triadic form makes quite christological and pneumatological, and in a relationship with the Christian community, w hich is quite ecclesiological.

Such a notion of living out our sexuality in relation to God and the Christian community makes Paul astoundingly absurd for the radical individualism of the twenty-first century. To speak of consensual sex for him would mean first of all consenting to be a member of the body of Christ. Sex is not merely a private matter between two consenting adults. Yes, of course, it is one of the most private of privacies, and it should never be without consent. But believers also live out their sexuality in relationship to the life of the parish and in relationship with God. The way we live out our sexuality is not just a private matter but a concern of the entire community. The Christian community cares whether our sexuality is a bane or a blessing. Could we ever believe, however, that the consecration of a congregation to God would ever really have an effect on our sexual ethics? Perhaps we could!

Relationships in a community of believers dedicated to God make a difference. Randy Styers, who teaches at the University of North Carolina, worked for a furniture company the summer after his first year in college. He was back home in a small community north of Winston Salem, North Carolina, where he and his family were faithful members of the local Baptist church. His father Don was Chair of the Board of Deacons, and Randy had played the organ in church since he was 14 and had preached in the church from time to time. In the same congregation there was one wealthy family among a host of middleclass families. The wealthy family owned a national chain of cafeterias. The daughter of the founders of the cafeterias decided she would redecorate her living room that summer, and she bought all of her new furniture from the store where Randy was working. Randy's boss gave him and three other men the job of delivering the furniture, but it was only part of the total order. Since Randy already had one year of college, he was in charge of the paperwork, which he took to the woman to sign. When she found out that they were delivering only part of her order, she hit the ceiling. She had expected to see her new living room in its final glory. Of course, in uniforms all people who deliver furniture tend to look alike, and the woman did not recognize Randy. She began to shout at Randy, to curse and swear. She was pitching such a fit that her mother came in to see what was happening. The mother did recognize Randy, and she said to her daughter, "What are you doing? Don't you see that this is Don Styers's boy, Randy, from the church?" Immediately the woman stopped ranting and raving, took a good look at Randy, and melted into her opposite--hushed, humble, apologetic. Relationships in a community of believers dedicated to God make a difference.

Paul saw things a bit differently. Had he been the mother, not only would he have reminded the daughter that Randy was from the church. He also would have said, "Don't you know who you are? You are from a community of believers that is consecrated to God!" Relationships in a community of believers dedicated to God make a difference. As a matter of fact, when the four furniture deliverers left, the woman tipped them each $20.

Outside of extremely rare exceptions, all of us are sexual beings. We are sexual beings as children. We are sexual beings before we are in relationships and after we are in relationships. Whatever our status, i Corinthians 6 emphasizes living out sexuality under the umbrella of relationships to God and to the Christian community.

What if, like the prostitute on 60 Minutes, we have misused and abused the life God has given us? I frankly think it is difficult for us to reclaim our lives. When we have made life cheap, it is tough to give it value again. But the situation in Corinth was tough. Some of the members were participating in prostitution. It was too late to get them to promise chastity until mating with their life's partner. But Paul did not abandon them in their predicament. In fact, I think Paul would have good news for the prostitute on 60 Minutes. He used the same solution that he used for abuses in the Lord's supper: remembering and remembering (see 1 Corinthians 10-11). Paul called the Corinthians to a Christian identity, to live out their sexuality as part of a community dedicated to God. If we are like the Corinthians, I suppose that Paul would tell us that relationships with a Christian community that is consecrated to God limit our sexuality, but these relationships also sanctify our sexuality.

(1.) F. Watson, Agape, Eros, Gender: Towards a Pauline Sexual Ethic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 107-19.

(2.) Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993).

(3.) Lecture at a conference on African biblical interpretation and theology, Hammerskraal, South Africa, 1999.
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Author:Brawley, Robert L.
Publication:Currents in Theology and Mission
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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