Sunday, July 6, 2014

God, Presbyterians, and Sex, Oh My!

Originally written as a guest-post for The Rude Pundit on July 3, 2014. Reposted here in part for archival purposes. 

This is a (probably-not-rude enough) guest post on God and sex from a Presbyterian pal of the Pundit—hope you enjoy!

Because of our mainstream American media—and that may include some of the posts on this potty-mouthed blog—it’s easy to stereotype Christians in this country, painting the social construct of their God as the gun-toting, bomb-dropping, cage-fighting, woman-hating, earth-raping, gay-bashing, sex-fearing, duck-hunting Jesus. But that leaves out the enlightened, queer, feminist, antiracist, peacenik, treehugger, economic justice Jesus that I’ve encountered and followed for most of my life.

Facts are that the historical Jesus of Nazareth as depicted in the gospels never encountered the nasty realities of napalm and atom bombs, of dirty bombs and drone warfare and drug overdoses, of global climate change or global economic injustice or the current global population of 7.2 billion and climbing. Jesus never faced the problems that we do, but He had the Roman empire and the religious hypocrites of his day to deal with. In light of pressing contemporary issues, isn’t it strange how some of my fellow Christians seem like they want to boil down the Bible into a book of stringent prohibitions regarding human sexuality?

I grew up in church in the 1970s and 80s, and the most memorable advice about the Bible and sex I ever heard came from a counselor at a Bible-beating summer camp. The sage and simple suggestion was: don’t read Playboy; read the Song of Solomon instead. Have you ever read the Song of Solomon? Lovely, lusty luscious love poetry—those verses are hot, what a student of mine recently called Fifty Shades of Yahweh!

Surely, the fundamentalists were teaching abstinence before marriage even then, but it never came across (at least to me) that this was because sex was forbidden and wrong and worth repressing, just that it was so unbelievably sacred yet salacious that it required reverence. As far as I know, in the 70s and 80s, those creepy daddy-daughter date-nights where young women pledge to protect patriarchy’s plush property for future papas had not been invented yet.

For many progressive Christians, our view of the Bible as mythopoetic mystery is shared by secular readers, critical thinkers, and even folks from other faiths. Most Christians I know read the Bible as an anthology of ancient literature, not as a rulebook resulting in arcane romantic restrictions on the daily lives of consenting adults. It’s a book inspired by God—not a bully’s whip required by law. The spirit of its law is love, no matter how the rigid readers try to torque it.

The church where I was baptized in Chicago in 1968 sang a song at that ceremony called “The Lord of the Dance.” This God I learned about through songs like that—this God is a liberating dance not an authoritarian trance. That same year, people from that same church took stands for peace in Vietnam, being part of a cluster of urban churches that let antiwar activists sleep in their buildings during the tumultuous actions outside the Democratic National Convention, with some preachers going so far as to join the melee in the parks, trying to bring peace between protesters and police.

After moving to Cleveland in 1970, we joined the Congregation of Reconciliation, a small, experimental Christian group committed to antiracist and civil rights work. This group was part of a small house-church movement and had “rap groups” to focus on various issues. My surprisingly vivid, yet scattered, early memories suggest that we also sang “The Lord of the Dance” in Cleveland, and I recall learning to take communion by intinction, where we would tear a piece of bread from a loaf and dip into a chalice of real wine. Doing research years later, I learned that our pastor at the Congregation of Reconciliation, Bob Hare, had risked his career and faced criminal charges for counseling and aiding a young woman in obtaining an abortion out-of-state, this in the years before Roe vs. Wade. It’s comforting for me to remember his prophetic witness for reproductive choice at a time when many Christians wish to roll back those rights for women.

Even though I left the Christian church in 1988 for a spiritual adventure that flirted with New Age, neopagan, Taoist, Jedi, Buddhist, and other teachings, I kept up with the goings-on in the liberal progressive church, mainly thanks to my parents, now living in Michigan. By the early 1990s, gay-rights had become the domestic civil-rights cause of our times, and my folks were actively crusading for what they called “full inclusion” for LGBTQ persons within their denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). Fast-forward to 2009, and I reconverted to Christianity and became an active member (now elder) in a PCUSA congregation.

Through study groups and activism at the local level, my parents and their colleagues made great strides for change within PCUSA for more than 20 years. But for decades at our national polity gatherings called General Assemblies, votes hindered and all but halted progress on LGBTQ civil rights. As Presbyterians, we are part of what’s called the “reformed” tradition within Protestantism, which means that we are always reforming, but for some smaller Presbyterian groups that means becoming more clearly right-wing conservative, in part in reaction to PCUSA’s recent redefinition as a more liberal, progressive place within that tradition. (For non-Christians to understand the splintering of denominations within the church, I find the “People’s Front of Judea” scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian explains it best.)

My father Ken Smith died at home in the Detroit suburbs on this past May 8, a few weeks before the historic June 14-21 General Assembly in downtown Detroit (in all the years Dad attended, GA had never been in his hometown). When the GA arrived in June, it was cushioned by Ken’s memorial service on June 7 and the interment of his ashes on June 21. And it was in his spirit that Mom and I attended, for my part as a volunteer blogger and editor with the More Light Presbyterians, carrying on the struggle for equality within PCUSA.

On June 19 (the day of African-American civil-rights celebration called Juneteenth at that), the PCUSA affirmed pastoral discretion for our teaching elders (ministers) to preside over same-gender civil marriages in states where it is legal and changed the description of marriage in our church’s constitution to say “two people,” where it previously made the opposite-genders of those people explicit. The latter change carried a 71% majority and awaits ratification by a majority of our regional bodies called Presbyteries. The very next day, PCUSA voted by a much slighter margin to divest from three companies that profit from the Israeli occupation in Palestine.

Christ’s law of love, often called the Golden Rule, finds correlating teachings in most other religions and would rarely be disputed by sensible secular thinkers, not even by the rude host of this blog. It’s an uncompromising ethic of love and forgiveness that attracts some of us to Christ (still a majority of Americans, according to surveys) and yet fewer of us to church (the fewest ever in the pews in recent history).

That some Christians cannot measure the law of love against today’s hateful legislation and come out the other side with logical conclusions of peace and tolerance baffles me. Of all the teachings in the Bible that people might choose to apply to their lives today, conservatives tend to ignore those overwhelming ones about war and poverty, and instead focus on taking teachings on sex far outside their intended contexts.

It’s in the Christian spirit of repentance, I would like to say “I am sorry” on behalf of the bigoted actions that some of my Christ-following kin have taken against personal freedom, especially as it pertains to trying to legislate the private lives and health decisions of people that might not share our religious faith, in this our allegedly pluralistic society.

It’s probably worth noting that for some leftish LGBTQ activists, marriage equality feels like a conservative concession to mainstream values. And for some in the PCUSA, its passage means that folks can focus on what they perceive as the more pressing peace and justice issues.  

While I hoped with a sense of humor that this guest post might better reflect the Rude One’s consistently lewd and crude tone, at least this blog’s readers may realize that not all Christians are prudes. It’s not that we don’t restrict some of our choices based on a relationship with God or even our interpretation of biblical teaching, it’s just so far from the far right extremes, that to some, progressive and conservative Christianity seem like different religions altogether. While I am much more modest and conservative today on some issues than I have probably ever been, my views are a far cry from the caricature of the religious right. Happy holiday weekend and here’s hoping for some fireworks with the consenting romantic partner of your choosing.