I read in a book today that the crucifixion serves as a beautiful contrast to sexual exploitation. We follow a Christ who gave away His body for others. But we live in a culture that, on the contrary, operates by demanding and taking from others - most clearly seen in our rampant sexual exploitation. Christ gives His body - the opposite of taking and exploiting.
Indeed, our world is obsessed with 'rights' and entitlement. It is particularly striking to me that we treat sex as a right - as if we are mere animals who cannot control or turn off our desires. This attitude feeds a culture of licentiousness and exploitation; and also interacts with emotional entitlement that feeds all sorts of relational dysfunction.
We possess a desire for companionship, relationship, affirmation, and sex. These desires are natural and God-given. But we also have something deeply perverse inside of us. We have a ravenous internal monster that wants to take and demand from others. It is from this place where exploitation, abuse, lust, and many other related evils all stem - including dysfunctional emotional cycles of dependence and enmeshment, and emotional manipulation; a self-centered neediness and sense of entitlement and demand that dominates many of us in differing degrees. It permeates society, and our individual lives, in deeply destructive ways. We blame rape and abuse on the victims, as if we (men particularly) are insatiable beasts who have sexual needs that it is only natural to satisfy. We have a raging sexual exploitation industry that has enslaved millions of women, children, and sometimes men into forcible prostitution. We have rampant porn addictions and treat these addictions as natural, normal, expressions of our uncontrollable animal desires. Our kids bully and rape (do you really think the recent high school rape case was an isolated incident? - sexual exploitation among our youth is rampant and conveniently ignored by parents, churches, and schools). Domestic violence is rampant, and its roots can often be identified in deep needs to control, exact emotional 'benefits' from a significant other by force, and dominate for ones of own selfish desires.
We pay lip service to condemning many of these things, but our deep hypocrisy is unmistakable.
As I toyed with these ideas, I wondered why it is that our culture runs away from marriage and commitment as if from a plague? It would make sense to me that in a society like ours marriage would be appealing. It provides a permanent and consistent setting for taking what we want and supposedly have the right to have, from someone else (who is expected to give it to us). Why don't we more earnestly seek someone who is bound to us, who we might could display some sense of ownership over - to demand all those things our inner-monster wants to feast on for our own selfish ends?
There are millions of different sociological, historical, cultural, and ideological reasons this is not the case. For the first time in history we act as if marriage is a choice we have complete control over and might have reason to put off. In pre-modern cultures, marriage was in some senses a duty - an institution that dictated society and had religious, economic, familial, and social expectations governing it and encouraging it. But we have 'progressed' past this era and treat marriage as a right based not on duty, but solely on desire. So we find reasons to put it off, and don't find it as important. Sometimes we claim economics as the reason to wait. Other times we cite a desire to enjoy young adulthood as free agents. And these tendencies get easily Christianized: 'I want to be right with the Lord first,' or 'I want to be sure I'm following my calling first,' or 'I'm just not sure we're right for each other and I don't want to rush into the wrong thing and having an ungodly marriage.' I'm not commenting on the merits of these objections, many of them are certainly worth thinking about (many have indeed entered poor marriages because of a lack of careful thought and maturity) and part of what I am calling for is greater commitment to Christ above all else. I am simply pointing out that these questions are spectacularly unique to our period in time. People living before us didn't have the luxury to think about these things. Marriage happened independent of such considerations, more or less.
In such traditional societies, there was arguably less tendency to treat marriage and sex with a sense of personal, emotional, and sexual entitlement. That's not to say there wasn't plenty of exploitation before - there definitely was. We in the West have a long history of degrading women, for example. But it still contrasts with the current world of selfish demand and insatiable neediness. We plan and control our relationships, and we enslave others to feed our seemingly insatiable desires. When marriage is put into a context of demand, lust, instead of duty and community it becomes meaningless and unnecessary. And we exploit.
St. Augustine taught that while marriage and family are beautiful and wonderful things, sex was a result of the fall. Beforehand we would have procreated without sex. It now exists as a necessary evil. This view has, in some periods of Christianity, encouraged an over-emphasis on celibacy and sexual asceticism - sometimes assuming that our sexuality can and should be fully controlled and subdued (or at least that it is more holy if we are able to do so). I disagree with this opposite extreme. We do have good and natural desires for marriage and sexuality that I don't believe should be necessarily deprived. But, Augustine (and the ascetic tradition) helpfully teaches us the need to lay down our desires and find our fulfillment in our life in Christ. Augustine sought deliverance from his life of wayward licentiousness, which left him empty and restless. He discovered the he could find his "rest in Thee." Indeed, The Catholic critique of contemporary sexuality (well-founded in Augustinian thought) is powerfully prophetic in its declaration that sex is not the insatiable desire many now treat it to be. The Catholic Church is often quite wise in its attempt to find solutions to sexual-ethics related problems which probes into the deeper issues of the human heart (though, I sometimes disagree with certain particularities, especially about birth control). Where are the men and women who are, while not denying the goodness of marriage and sexuality, are willing to put their desires 'to death' for Christ? To turn the world's message that we are owed things from others on its head and become servants of the Lord?
Christ offers us an example of absolute surrender. He demanded nothing from anyone even though He was above all most deserving of all honor, praise, and glory. He did not count equality with God as something to be grasped. He did not retain His own life but freely gave it away.
Consequently, we have no claim to anything in this world. Wealth, health, marriage, sexuality, companionship, affection. Nothing. Our whole self belongs to the Christ who gave His whole self to us.
We are the bride of Christ - He and we belong to one another. He gives Himself for us and we give ourselves to Him.
This is not just a personal, spiritual, ethic - it is absolutely a social ethic. We are to treat suffering humans as if they were Christ Himself: for as the Lord says, what we do for 'the least of these' we do unto Him. If Christ is our Beloved spouse and we are to serve Him through 'the least.' In a sense, then, we are to serve the least as our own spouse.
We are called to love God and love our neighbors as our own self - this is the core of the law, Jesus says. Have you noticed how similar this is to the biblical picture of marriage in which man and wife become 'one flesh'? To love your neighbor as yourself is to love them as one would love their own spouse, their own flesh - as we are to love Christ. Indeed this is how we love Christ. The least of these - our Christ, our spouse, Whom we owe everything and from who we deserve nothing.
This is not to deny that God may provide us with many wonderful blessings - including marriage, health, perhaps even wealth. And particularly on the former - if we are given the blessing of family we are to be good spouses and parents - too many in full time ministry have used their commitment to Christ as an excuse to neglect their families. But all these things are to be put in context of our allegiance to Christ.
Can we transform our demands and desires into submission and surrender? Can we give ourselves to the poor and needy, the body of Christ, instead of exploiting? Can we give instead of demand? Can we live as ones who are surrendered to others instead of living as if others are our conquered slaves? Can we speak for the voiceless instead of using our voice to bring attention to ourselves or to abuse or manipulate others for our ends?
Can we bless our Beloved Christ, our Spouse, instead of looking for others to satisfy our selfish demands?
Can we stop looking for what we can get from others, and seek to discover how much we can give?
Can we put down our raunchy magazines and rescue girls from brothels?
Can we stop trying to please our bodies, and feed the broken bodies of the lost and the hungry?
Can we follow Christ in His death and surrender - into the very pit of Hades?
Can we transform our lust into alms?
No, we can't. But Christ can. He can transform us.
He can turn this whoring, unfaithful, bride of His and redeem her.
Nathanael and I will be blogging quite a bit about asceticism, sexuality, and particularly draw connections between sexuality and service. This is just the beginning.