I’ve recently been invited to share my perspective on sexual ethics through the patheos.com channel of The Marin Foundation, a non-profit organization focused on building bridges between the LGBTQ community and conservative religious communities. I’ve known about and shared some connections with these folks for the past few years since I returned to Chicago, where their offices are based. The vision of The Marin Foundation is “to theologically, socially and politically see divided communities reconciled with each other through a faith in God and each other,” and that is definitely a cause that matters to me.
My first offering is a series on the dignity of sexual identity from an explicitly evangelical, Christian perspective. I’ve noticed that a lot of discussion about sexual ethics skirts this matter, and I don’t really see a way forward in the absence of better treatment. The first post in this series was distributed yesterday; it looks at the critical difference between sexual identity and lifestyle choice. Here’s an excerpt:
I have spent most of my adult life as a member of an evangelical church in the United States. For the past four years, I have served as the associate pastor of First Free Church in Chicago, which is affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of America. I’m so grateful that God blessed me with the chance to share close relationships with numerous people of varying sexual orientations who spoke honestly about their lives for as long as I can remember. Still, I cannot recall a single, intentional, public engagement by evangelical church leadership on the topic of sexual identity as such until I personally engaged in conversation with others a month or so ago during National Coming Out Day.
I won’t rehearse the details since the territory will be pretty familiar to anyone who has observed the event in the past. My LGBT buddies shared personal vignettes about their respective journeys. A few friends both queer and straight came out for the first time to several of their friends. And while the majority of conversation was enlightening and civil, barbed discussion arose on occasion when people maintaining a mainstream evangelical sexual ethic joined the dialog. As a result, I was reminded of a subtle yet severely detrimental feature of mainstream, evangelical Christianity when it comes to the way we understand and talk about the phenomenon of sexual identity. Namely, we don’t want to think about its existence at all.
As a result, many evangelical Christians are woefully inept at loving gay folks well. Predictably, we don’t love ourselves much better—even when our sexual orientation and behavior lines up perfectly with the best-case scenario recommendation of our sexual ethic since we developed that ethic in the absence of a robust concept of sexual identity. Why do we do keep doing this and what’s at stake? What might change for the better if evangelical Christians took a solid crack at exploring sexual identity directly rather than avoiding the matter or reverting to clichés and subcritical, scriptural misapplications? Here’s the first of a series of posts on this topic and why it makes such a huge difference for our lives and those we have been guided by God to love.
This is not an anti-Valentines Day post. Yes, the holiday has been ridiculously commercialized. Yes, it can be a total downer if you are single. Yes, it can exert a ton of pressure if you are not single and you feel you need to come up with some grand scheme to communicate your affections or else completely disappoint the person you’re with. Yes, our current observance of the holiday bears little resemblance to Victorian Era bliss when people quoted Chaucer at whim and wrote their own cards with beautiful penmanship, when men were truly men and women were truly women and everybody knew how to dance and court and woo like Pride and Prejudice.
But here’s the thing: Valentines Day was originally a commemoration for martyrs, people butchered for their unyielding commitment to sharing God’s love no matter what. So can we all agree to shuffle our various decks of expectation and get out there to kick some butt for love’s sake? Feel free to consult your favorite encyclopedia or History.com or something if you doubt me, but the celebration of Valentines Day is ancient–as in practiced informally nearly two thousand years ago and formally established somewhere around 496 CE ancient. Its purpose was to memorialize several different people with “Valentine” or “Valentinus” somewhere in their names who were all slaughtered for their active, counter-cultural faith in Jesus by a powerful Roman Empire. For example, one of the dudes whose death the holiday recalled, Valentine of Terni, served as the bishop of Terni, Italy until his death around 197 CE. His reputation as an evangelist, miracle worker, and healer was so great that he was not only imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded to halt his ministry during the persecution ordered by Marcus Aurelius, he was executed at night in secret so that the people of Terni would not break out into riots to avenge him because of their adoration for the guy.
When a pagan government has to kill you in secret because they’re scared of their own pagan citizenry flipping out, you are doing it right. And that is why Valentines Day should ultimately be a call to arms, a call to compassionately and assertively embrace others–risking blood and thunder if necessary, with quiet and sustained and painstakingly humble means if that is what gets the job done best, with a heart so committed to responding to God’s overwhelming love for us that it can no sooner be dissuaded from inhabiting and sharing that love than it can stop beating and survive.
Some Christian holidays were derived from preexisting celebrations of other cultures, such as the explicit attempt by the Roman Catholic Church to co-opt and borrow elements from Dies Natalis Solis Invicti through its formalized celebration of Christmas. And while there were multiple different festivals from multiple different people groups around the same season as our contemporary celebration of Valentines Day in its formative context of Late Antiquity, there was virtually no carryover whatsoever into the original celebration of Valentines Day. Moreover, there was no romantic overtone to the holiday at all until Geoffrey Chaucer took a whack at it around a thousand years after it had been formally established. All the “love” celebrated in Valentines Day for the first millennium or so of its existence referred to the selfless compassion of people who literally laid down their lives to share the love of God with others.
This is not to say that romance has absolutely no place in the “proper” observance of Valentines Day or that other forms of love, like friendship or affection, are patently base. What’s at stake here is a matter of perspective and priority. In The Weight of Glory, the Christian essayist and former Oxford don, C.S. Lewis, launches into a diatribe against the popular notion that proper faith in God should merely blunt our passions:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
No matter what your station, you have the opportunity to live the dream this Valentines Day of tasting and passing along a dose of the infinite joy that God’s very self has offered us. Don’t hate on all the lovebirds. Don’t turtle up in your shell of forever alone-ness. Don’t get so absorbed in your significant other or latest crush or going-on-thirty-years-of-marriage-spouse-of-consummate-awesomeness that you miss the deeper and even more awesome opportunity to get out there and kick butt for love in the way that those long-dead martyrs once knew. And just in case you’re totally devoid of ideas about how to do that, here are a few that I came up with for your consideration:
- “Like” on facebook as well as donate to The Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, which is building a global community free from all forms of sexual exploitation, including sexual assault and the commercial sex trade.
- If your grandmother is still alive, call her. Just do it.
- Remember that whole martyrdom thing? Visit Voice of the Martyrs homepage to learn about the millions of people suffering intense persecution for their faith in Jesus right now and donate to support their ministry.
- I read an email from a good buddy of mine who’s a dude fifteen minutes after midnight of February 14 that concluded with an all-caps “HAPPY VALENTINES DAY!!!” This inspired me to duplicate the matter for all the messages I will send today. Hey, why not join us and take things up a notch by linking the salutation to this article to inspire others, like this:
Just wanted to check on those TPS reports. How’s it coming?
- Buy a dozen flowers and distribute them to the oldest, most homely, or most needy people you encounter, looking them right in the eye as you wish them a Happy Valentines Day. By the way, just because some random person gives you a flower today does not mean that you are ugly :D
- Scope out this article listing fourteen different charitable options for Valentines Day compiled by the Case Foundation, spanning everything from fair-trade cards to ways of volunteering to methods for expressing compassion for those who could really use some, like nursing home residents.
- Still need some ideas about how to celebrate the holiday with that special someone or total lack thereof? Check out this article by USA Weekend listing twenty-three ways to do so whether you’re spoken for, single, chilling with kids, hanging out with friends, or all by yourself. But, seriously, don’t spend today all by yourself; there are plenty of people who would enjoy your company.
- Remember God’s love for you and take advantage of the precious opportunity you have to share that love with others. If you just need to hear it, this reading of 1 John by the award-winning Max McLean is a pretty good option.
Note: This post is dedicated to four women who have recently, unexpectedly, and graciously brought a dose of joy into my life. To Kay Spreitzer for definitively introducing me to the swing dancing community at Fizz, to Rachel Durchslag for teaching me about the amazing work of CAASE, to Katie Fretland for her dedication to The Howard Brown Health Center with well wishes for her new journalism gig in Oklahoma City, and to my sister and favorite valentine, Adriel Harris, for sharing the masters and demos for her forthcoming musical releases to which I wrote this piece. (Holy Moses, get ready, world…)