elaine a. heath

Spirituality, Theology, Creativity, Community


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A New Set of Questions about Sex and Sin

My sister Jeanine tells me that she never really understood what Jesus meant by turning the other cheek until she came out.  She says she never really had to show grace—unmerited favor and regard—toward people who hate her until she discovered she was suddenly the despised “other.” What did the hating look like? Excommunication. Bullying. Religious double-speak such as “we love you unconditionally, but…” Hearing her long term, monogamous relationship and her beloved described as an abomination, and worse, all “in the name of Jesus.”

Coming out in an exclusive, shaming Christian world is the very means by which she has had to wrestle with and choose, again and again to pray Jesus’ prayer: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

We have talked about the irony of this turn of events a lot over the years, partly because I am a theologian and she is a therapist. We know from our own journeys and from our work in tending hearts and souls, that what passes as teaching on human sexuality in most churches is woefully incomplete and often just plain wrong. The problem, we think, is that the wrong set of questions shapes the discussion. Are you homo (bad) or hetero (good)? Having sex with anyone besides your own spouse (bad)? Married (good) or single (highly suspect)? These questions are too simplistic and too dualistic. They assume too much and ask too little.

It is past time to ask new, better questions about sexual virtue and sexual vice. The springboard for the new questions is not genitalia but imago Dei, the inherent sanctity and dignity of human life.

The homo that has our attention is homo sapiens. Do we understand ourselves and others as human beings made in the image of God?

The question of sexual orientation that concerns us is not whether people are hetero but are vehemens, having an orientation toward violence.

I believe sexual vice is behavior that in some way does violence to self or others sexually. This kind of vice can be physical or verbal, and as Jesus reminds us, mental and emotional. It is always spiritual. Abstinance from sexual vice is far more challenging than resisting fornication.

Sexual vice is sinful first and foremost because it violates, exploits, objectifies, manipulates, takes advantage of, and uses human beings. It treats humans made in the image of God, as commodities. Sometimes sexual vice is carried out to give pleasure to the perpetrator of the sin. Often it is an act in which domination is the goal, rather than sex per se. Sexualizing others, internet bullying around sexuality, sexual abuse of all kinds, sexual domestic violence…these are just a few of the possible sexual sins. So much of the fruit of sexual vice is sexual self-loathing, self harm, and self deception about one’s sexuality.

Sexual sin goes on all the time within the bonds of marriage including rape, sexual shaming, forced marriage between little girls and grown men in some cultures, and many other dehumanizing actions.

Violence against sexual minorities because of their sexuality is yet another area of sexual sin.

Corporate sexual sin is the name of the game in the advertising industry that objectifies and exploits the bodies of women and little girls to sell everything from jeans to plumbing. Ditto for the entertainment industry in which entire television programs are built around shaming women’s bodies. There is the cancerous, lucrative, soul-destroying universe of porn which feeds on images of human bodies, and yes, real humans are harmed in the making of porn.

Sexual sin objectifies and stereotypes men through cultural norms and expectations that reward the bifurcation of emotion from sexual activity, and that sexualize men to the point that every man is viewed as a potential sexual predator.

In light of sexual sin as a violent orientation, what then is sexual virtue? Is it not a deep integrity, respectfulness, and authenticity in how one lives one’s sexuality? Does it not begin with a fundamental respect for one’s identity as someone made in the image of God and then extend outward to other persons? Is it not inherently reverent of embodiedness?

Sexual virtue neither begins nor ends with genitalia, but with fully accepting, loving, and wisely stewarding our whole, embodied life as human beings. It begins with a deep commitment to the theological concept of imago Dei and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. It grows with a daily commitment to first do no harm and second, do all the good we can to ourselves, our neighbors, and our enemies.

If we will address sexual virtue and sexual vice with a new and better set of questions, we will find our way out of the morass of violence against the sexual “other.”  We will be able to move forward into a deeper, more human and ultimately more holy understanding of embodiment. We will become better practitioners of sexual virtue.