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A Statement Worth Remembering

[1] A few months ago, I taught a class on sexuality for our 9th grade confirmation students. As the class began, I asked them to write on an index card what they believed the bible said about sex. To a student, all 22 responses were the same: “if you have sex before marriage, you’ll go to hell.”

[2] Well. Clearly we have our work cut out for us.

[3] I serve in a congregation which identifies itself as a “Reconciling in Christ” church. Although I have only been on staff here just over a year, I cannot imagine that my colleague or any of my predecessors have ever, in the lifetime of these confirmation students, preached a sermon which in any way approached the sentence written on those index cards. We are an openly welcoming community to gay, lesbian, and straight persons. We try hard to speak about ‘family’ in broad and generous terms. For heaven’s sake, we have the word “inclusive” in our mission statement, which is prominently featured on every publication we create – how is it that our confirmation students, nurtured and loved in this community of faith, could have such a shallow and unimaginative concept of the bible’s teachings on sexuality?

[4] While it’s true that fifteen-year olds are not famous for their complex analytical skills (I certainly wasn’t, at that age), I suspect the source of the problem lies someplace else. These kids are not stupid. And the congregation would certainly have more to say about sexuality than creating a list of what will send you to hell – if the congregation ever spoke to them at all about sexuality. Therein lies the real problem. Everybody else in their lives is talking about sex. But the church has said nothing. And so they are left with what they can glean from media portrayals of Christianity and the glossy flyers which come to their house from conservative denominations. No wonder their index cards had so little to say. The church has never said anything to them on this topic worth remembering.

[5] Because I spend much of my time working with youth and families, I read the ELCA’s proposed social statement on human sexuality primarily through that lens. Is this statement worth remembering? Does it have anything my 9th graders can write down on an index card? It’s not written for them, and it shouldn’t be. But I find much to commend, if there are also a few weaknesses here and there.

[6] Above all, I am thankful for the persistent focus on trust as the center of our common vocation in human relationships. Shattered trust leaves its shrapnel littered throughout our lives, and perhaps no group suffers more from this than youth. They live with parents’ divorces and adults who disappoint or hurt them. They watch hours of television, movies, and video games which teach them to watch out solely for themselves, not to trust others, to gratify their own desires, to see others as objects to be used and discarded at will. They are living through perhaps the greatest demonstration of a broken public trust in generations, watching as formerly dependable institutions like banks and corporations crumble on a daily basis. Not even the church is always to be trusted.

[7] The question of trust goes far beyond human sexuality, but it does form an important foundation for our conversations on this topic. It will not serve them well if I simply tell our teenagers, “the bible says, don’t have sex before marriage or you’ll go to hell.” They’ll probably remember it long enough to write it on an index card, but what good will that do when they are faced with a boyfriend who says he’ll only love you if you have sex? What does that index card say to a student who is coming to accept homosexuality as his or her orientation? What does it say to a student whose parent is living with a new boyfriend or girlfriend? If all we have to offer is that one line, is the church worth trusting? I doubt it.

[8] If we can begin to teach our youth that the breaking of trust is the reason for careful stewardship of sexuality, then we give them something to build on. There is more at work here than your eternal destination (which, in good Lutheran fashion, is clearly not at stake in these discussions anyway). “Promiscuity and sexual activity without a spirit of mutuality and commitment are sinful because of their destructive consequences for individuals, relationships, and the community” (252-254). Once we begin the conversation this way – not with a list of what you can and cannot do – we treat our youth with the trust and respect we ask them to show to others. You cannot build trust without trusting those in conversation with you. In matters of sexuality, youth have been viewed primarily as the audience to be taught. If we truly desire to create a community of mutuality and commitment, we need to begin by trusting those we hope will trust us in return.

[9] If trust is the first theme of this document, then complexity is not far behind, and it is this aspect of the statement I find most helpful. I confess that when the document was released, I skimmed it quickly, looking for a conclusion on the definition of marriage. I’m sure I was not alone. Perhaps the inherent failing of a statement on anything is the underlying assumption that a clear, precise, easily-summarized verdict will be offered in its pages. What good is a statement that doesn’t, in fact, make a statement? Can a ‘statement’ be complex?

[10] This is the frustration I’ve heard from several colleagues and parishioners on this document: that, whatever their deeply held beliefs, this document refuses to align itself fundamentally with anyone. I wonder, as we debate back and forth, whether it is useful for us to create “statements” about matters as complex and evolving as human sexuality. We Lutherans know that words matter. “Statement” may no longer be the word which fits this work best.

[11] At any rate, I value the complexity reflected in this document. I do so because I believe sexuality to be an enormously complex topic, one which involves deeply-held personal beliefs, intensely intimate experience, the constant possibility of abuse or damage, and a fundamental sense of self. I believe such a topic deserves more than one perspective, and careful thought.

[12] But I also value complexity because I believe our youth have an innate sense for being lied to, for oversimplified clichés, and for grand proclamations which deny the intricacies of their lives. In the end, this is the most important reason why the index card simply will not do: because it does not tell the truth. It does not take into account the varied pressures, expectations, hopes, and fears of the next or any generation. It is not a theology of the cross: it does not call a thing what it actually is.

[13] In all things, but perhaps most especially in matters of sexuality, I believe that to be the church’s calling in this time: to tell the truth. To call a thing what it actually is. To resist all temptations that we settle for a simple index card with a one-line answer. Our youth deserve more than this. They deserve a statement that acknowledges our deep disagreements with one another, that is honest about the conscience-bound beliefs of the whole church, and that reminds them of the most important truth we know: that the church is not an organization of people held together by mutual agreement on social statements, but the body of Christ, sometimes broken and bleeding, and always resurrected into new life.

[14] I would have preferred that this statement gave significantly more attention to the use of sexuality in the media. For all our debates about gay rights and marriage, we still do not spend any significant time facing the constant use of sexuality to sell products, to objectify women (and sometimes men), to demean those who don’t fit a certain ideal of beauty. Yes, Miss California USA created a fuss when she declared herself an advocate of “traditional” marriage; but for all the commotion which ensued, no one bothered to ask about how beauty pageants impact gender roles, self-image for young girls, and our expectations of women’s bodies. In my college years, Christian organizations made a great fuss about featuring a homosexual man as a main character on the series “Will and Grace,” but I never heard any of those same groups suggest it was worth discussing Joey’s constant promiscuity on “Friends.”

[15] We owe each other, and certainly our youth, more than one line on an index card. We need to learn how to live within our disagreements and honor one another, even as we try to work toward reconciliation and trust in all our relationships. I believe this statement is a step in the right direction. You certainly can’t summarize it on an index card. For which I say, thanks be to God.

© June 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 6