Sex and the city of God

Mar 21, 2014 by

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Mennonite Church USA finally seems near a tipping point on issues of human sexuality. The path, however long and tortuous, seems to be leading to elevating the gospel message of loving relationship over the ancient purity codes around human sexual preference and practices. Recalling the early church’s angst over circumcision, I find it interesting that two millennia down the road, the hottest topic in the church still revolves around what happens with men’s sexual organs. At least today women’s are on the table, as well. We can be grateful for small steps.

Sexuality is powerful. Where there is power, there is danger of abuse. Perhaps a good measure of the power of sexuality is the immense catalog of abuses it has accumulated over the millennia. The major sections of the book would include slavery, domination, profiteering and the threats of damnation used to perpetuate religious institutions.

Power, in and of itself, is neither good nor evil. It just is. And the biblical lens on sexuality reflects this. We each have power — whether sexual, monetary or otherwise — in various measures. The primary tasks — and the biblical admonition — in our connection to power are to submit it in relationship and to use it in the service of justice.

For Christians, perhaps the most instructive biblical lessons on sexuality and power are in Matthew’s less than subtle but almost completely ignored inclusion of four women, all notably not Israelite, in his genealogy of Jesus.

The first among them is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah. Tamar seduced Judah and bore his son in order to shame him into honoring his obligations to care for family, whether Hebrew or other. When all else failed, she effectively used sexual power in the service of justice.

The second is Rahab, the Canaanite woman who ran a house of prostitution on the walls of Jericho. It is interesting that Joshua and his band of spies stayed with her and was protected by her on that holiest of land grabs, the retaking of the Promised Land following the Exodus from Egypt. Rahab apparently married one of the troops and was elevated to the status of a progenitor of the Christ, despite the fact that the ancient world thought women played only the role of incubator in the process of procreation. Sexual power, here, was turned to relationship.

The third is Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law of the Hebrew Naomi. Ruth, with the direction and support of her mother-in-law, seduced Boaz, effectively claiming a rightful inheritance and protection for these socially vulnerable women. Ruth was the grandmother of King David. Sexual power, here, was used to secure protection.

And finally, there is Bathsheba, the Hittite who withstood the murder of her husband and the uncontrolled sexual urges of King David, becoming the mother of Solomon in the royal line of the (biblically) chosen people. In an act of redemption and justice, Bathsheba is elevated, at least in Matthew’s genealogy, to the position of matriarch in the messianic line.

People point to the story of Sodom to illustrate divine hatred of homosexuality, if not just sexuality in general. What was hateful in Sodom was the wanton pursuit of sexual satisfaction without regard to the safety and welfare of the other, yet alone any thought of relationship. The men at Lot’s door would not be satisfied without violent and abusive sex. And the worst among them was Lot, who submitted his daughter to rape and murder in order to save his own sorry self. That city burned itself down with self-centered violence.

The point of these stories is not that God somehow had a negative view of homosexuality (in the case of Sodom) or on sexuality as a force in human relationships. Rather, it is that sexuality was recognized as powerful. Like all biblical stories of power, the consistent message is that it is used appropriately for relationship and for justice, and never for violence, greed or anything at the expense of others.

Under the Tree of Life, sexuality is a thing of astounding beauty, magnified in relationship. It is, in the words of Jackson Browne (Looking East”), “the power of a sunrise, the power of a prayer released.”

Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil we become lost in rules, social norms and false morality that have everything to do with the abuse of power and nothing to do with beauty, relationship or justice. Our sexuality, when we own and celebrate it in relationship, travels with us as a lovely companion — strong, true, beautiful and useful — on our journey to the Tree of Life, at the center of the metaphorical city of God.

Jerry Kennell lives in Estes Park, Colo. He blogs at Two Trees in the Garden, where this originally appeared.


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