Tag Archive | human sexuality

Ethics for a Mystery: Meeting Sexuality with Grace

Ethics for a Mystery: Meeting Sexuality with Grace
David R. Weiss – February 20, 2023

This post is a lightly edited pair of essays I wrote back in 2009. Fourteen years ago. Even at that time, these thoughts had been percolating and making cameo appearances in my writing since around 2003. Twenty years ago. These are still conversations we need to have today—with grace. And they are conversations we continue to have with reckless harm instead.

As a straight man, I share these thoughts foremost with other straight persons of faith. It is, after all, mostly our assumptions and biases (as straight people), reflected in personal attitudes and institutional policies and practices, that foment so much harm. Still today. I remain committed to being a faithful, humble, gracious participant in these conversations. May they bear fruit.

Removing the training wheels on sexual ethics (originally, April 2009)

As churches, locally and nationally, make slow but sure strides in welcoming LGBTQ+ persons of faith, there looms a conversation that many wish could remain quietly hidden in the corner but is sure to become the elephant that crowds the entire room.

You can sum it up in a single word: monogamy, but in truth it’s much broader, concerning the “acceptable” variety of sexual expression. Bluntly put, the question is whether churches will welcome LGBTQ+ persons of faith (including LGBTQ+ pastors) … only so long as they can fit their sexual expression within the approved norms of straight sexuality. And whether LGBTQ persons of faith are willing to accept these terms … and what if they don’t?

This conversation won’t happen quickly or easily. But, as is true of most crises, it represents at least as much opportunity as peril—and much hinges on whether we move forward with confidence or wait with trepidation as it approaches us. Between this month [April 2009] and next, I want to highlight several convictions that can help persons of faith move forward with confidence toward a new, more whole understanding of sexuality.

I’ll start with three observations that can help us frame the conversation so that it’s possible to say and hear some genuinely new things. Genuinely good things. In church that’s called gospel.

(1) It’s time we acknowledge that human sexuality is simply, profoundly, and mysteriously part of the fabric of who we are. It is not, as Christian tradition has often been tempted to regard it, some alien and untrustworthy force ever tempting us to sin. But it is much more than merely the psycho-biological means of attraction-mating-reproduction.

Ultimately, human sexuality is far more complex than either the puritanical strands of Christianity or the mechanistic descriptions of science have suggested. There are some things sexual we can “measure” objectively, but sexuality itself is one facet of the human eco-system in which we dwell. We discuss sexual ethics from the same vantage point as which we study it, reflect on it, and experience it—as participants in its mystery.

(2) It’s time to grow up and kiss the rules good-bye. Adults—real, mature, self-directed adults—don’t live by rules. I’m not saying, “anything goes.” Rather, as we mature into real adults in every area of our lives we learn to navigate more by principles or virtues than by rules. That’s part of what it means to grow up. And it’s time for straight Christians to realize that. It may not be easy, because for most of us who are straight the “rules” have largely reflected our experience (they were, after all, developed mostly by straight men).

But life beyond rules can be exhilarating—even for straight people—and not because it’s breaking rules but because this is how life is meant to be lived. Rules may have some value as “training wheels” on the bicycle of sexual ethics (appropriate as we enter adolescence), but we all know that to ride a bike the way it’s ultimately intended to be ridden, you take the training wheels off.

(3) Finally, it’s time to recognize, however uncomfortable it may be, that sex, like light, seems to be fundamentally paradoxical in nature. Light doesn’t behave neatly as either a wave or a particle; instead, it sometimes acts like one and sometimes acts like the other. And it seems that whether it is wave-like or particle-like in any given setting is determined at least in part by the expectations we bring to it (that is, the experiment we use). Many of us find this bewildering and frustrating. We want light to be neatly one or the other. That’s the way we like our world. But physicists, who find light’s ambiguity more intriguing than threatening, tell us that light simply doesn’t fit into the neat categories we’d prefer.

And, if we turn off our moral filters long enough to just listen to the voice of sexual experience, we hear something similar. For some persons sex has a sacred, creative, unitive character to it. For others, it is a deeply human, immensely satisfying, but not at all mystical experience. For others, it has a quality of ecstatic pleasure that is not necessarily tethered to marriage or monogamy. Bottom line: at the level of honest observation, of sincere listening to others, it simply doesn’t matter whether I “approve” or not. Sometimes sex is wave-like. Sometimes it’s particle-like. That’s just the way it is.

This is not a huge leap for us. Sometimes bread and wine and water are holy for Christians. And sometimes they’re not. But we don’t consider them sinful whenever they’re not holy. It’s possible for something to be wonderfully mundane. And even mundane fresh-baked bread is a delicacy. Even a fine glass of wine by sunset or candlelight can be transcendent. Even a waterfall can be awe-inspiring. And even sex that doesn’t aspire to be sacred can be beautiful.

All of us—straight and gay—stand to gain by speaking with clarity and convictions about the values that guide “the diversity and dances” of our sexual lives. Might we not be intrigued, like the physicist, by the rich and multifaceted ways that people testify to experiencing sexuality? That way, when we do turn to the task of making choices about what types of sexual expression are healthy and whole, we don’t do so by first silencing a whole range of voices even before they speak.

Discussing sexual ethics … or trading recipes for hot dish (originally, May 2009)

Sooner or later churches that genuinely welcome LGBTQ+ persons of faith will need to talk about sexual ethics. We’re hardly ready for this, but we stand before a rare moment, with an opportunity to reconsider the nature and place of sexuality in the whole of our lives—both gay and straight. That makes this moment both daunting and exciting. How might we frame a conversation for LGBTQ+ persons of faith that is sufficiently expansive to weigh openly and honestly the range of sexual behaviors and relationships before us while remaining recognizably rooted in a posture of faith?

I suspect this conversation needs to happen in a whole bunch of places, but as a church-going Ally, I am most invested in helping it happen well in churches. Also, because this conversation isn’t likely to go far at the generic level, the best I can do is offer principles that will resonate with other church-going folks. I surely don’t mean to suggest that the only “ethical” sex happens among Christians! I’m simply being honest to say I think these principles can help progressive Christians have thoughtful and respectful conversations about sexual ethics. Other communities may find other principles more helpful … and that’s okay.

When it comes to ethical principles, less is more. A well-chosen few will carry us further than a whole bunch that function more and more like rules. I’ll name just five.

I begin with three mentioned famously by the Hebrew prophet Micah (Micah 6:8) some 2500 years ago: do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly. Micah is talking about how to live a God-pleasing life in general, but his wisdom is pretty far-reaching.

Justice suggests that healthy, whole sex is not exploitive of power differences, whether based in money, age, race, gender, or social role. It raises real doubts about sex that eroticizes the dynamic of domination. But because this is a principle, not a rule, it doesn’t absolutely forbid anything. It simply says, “make the case that this (or any) particular sexual expression doesn’t transgress justice.”

Mercy is not pity but compassion. Healthy, whole sex involves mutuality, a genuine care for the other’s joy, comfort, and pleasure. It invites trust in moments of deep vulnerability. Part of the power of sexual intimacy is its capacity—its alchemy—whereby vulnerability becomes transcendence. Absent either justice or mercy, such vulnerability is neither wise nor safe. This implies fidelity as a corollary of mercy. But, and listen carefully: fidelity is about promised faithfulness that is honest and clear. It may not always be life-long. It may not always be exclusive. But it ought to be honest and clear in its terms. Fidelity is not a single cookie-cutter; I suspect it is a tin full of different patterns.

Humility offers two words of wisdom. First, to be patient with ourselves and others. Sexual intimacy is an unfolding mystery better paced by our own deepest intuitions than by the messages of the marketplace or the pressures of our peers. Second, that as we encounter persons—whether in our intimate relations or in our public communities—whose sexual practices and preferences differ markedly from our own, we begin by listening carefully, curiously, and graciously for the truth of their experience. We need not affirm everything we hear, but we are fools when we think we have nothing new to learn.

To these three I add two others: whole and healthy sex should be procreative and joyful.

Procreative does not mean relationships in which physical reproduction is not a biological option (or desire) are somehow deficient. But because this term is so often wielded against LGBTQ+ persons, it seems worthwhile to reclaim it in a broader—and truer—meaning. To be procreative is to care for this world, from natural eco-systems to familial and civic communities. This is a human vocation, quite independent of sexual activity. But given that sex is one powerful way we generate and share energy, it seems fair to ask that energy so deliciously brought forth between lovers also spill outward into the world and the relationships around us.

Joyful. Well, good sex ought to be fun. And if it’s clouded by shame, disgust, obligation, fear, etc., that’s pretty good evidence that the sex in question is somehow less than healthy and whole. For Christians this will be a real challenge because most of us have been taught either that sex is the primal temptation that turns us from God or at least that it is deserving of near total discretion in polite conversation. Good sex is neither. Where else in our lives are we so mistrusting or quiet about that which brings such joy? Learning to embrace and name the joy of our sex is what will make the rest of the conversation worth the challenges involved. It might be (to acknowledge my Minnesota-Lutheran context) as exciting as trading recipes for hot dish!

Naming these principles hardly settles every ethical question in advance by producing a fixed rule. But that isn’t how ethics works! It isn’t how adults operate. It isn’t how life is lived. Integrity—which is the goal here—is not rote repetition; it is improvisation grounded in creativity and character, framed by trust and mutuality. Ethics, then, is the fruit of good conversation, in which ideas and practices can be compassionately and appreciatively encountered and considered. Occasionally, contested, yes. Because ethics is about both individual and communal well-being. But sexual ethics, as an ethics for our participatory engagement in human mystery, is equally grounded in bearing witness to the good news we have known—and in welcoming the witness of others. There are so many gifts of the Spirit. Why would we imagine that they would find only one “standard” expression across the beautiful diversity of our flesh?

The principles suggested above are hardly the final word. Surely my own learning is as yet incomplete! But these principles may offer some helpful touchpoints as we navigate conversations long overdue. Conversations aimed at eliminating harms through gracious listening. And conversations aspiring to hear fresh truths shared in ways that might offer greater healing and wholeness to all of us.

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

20 Years: From Ally to Accomplice

It’s been twenty years now since I publicly declared myself an Ally to LGBTQ persons. Twenty-three years, if you include my trembling words at a church meeting in South Bend, Indiana. But twenty since I—as a writer—“came out” in print. That decision began the twenty most creative, rewarding years of my life. Nothing has been so life-giving to me as to stand alongside these persons, offering my witness in their pursuit of dignity, visibility, affirmation . . . and simply LIFE.

I have grown immeasurably in my self-understanding as well. Today I would declare myself an Accomplice to LGBTQ persons (and to persons of color and immigrants, too). That is, I want to be clear: full human flourishing is not something I already enjoy and (from that vantage point) hope to extend to others. NO. Full human flourishing is a shared project. Until others are also free, my own sense of freedom is merely an illusion tempting me to indifference. My goal is to be an active accomplice in everyone’s pursuit of flourishing . . . thereby to take my own small turn at bearing the risk of challenging and thwarting the systems that threaten life.

Here, on the 20th anniversary of my own journey “from Ally to Accomplice” I share these two pieces from my first steps:

Spirituality and Coming Out
Originally written, October 7, 1999

October is home to National Coming Out Day. Still, it surprised me recently when some students of mine asked me to share some thoughts on spirituality and coming out. You see, I’m straight. But as I pondered what to say, I realized that I do have a “coming out” story of my own to relate. Two years ago, following my first ever GLBTA meeting at Luther College where I teach, I was reviewing with the faculty advisor the constituency covered by the acronym, “Okay, I know it’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered, . . . and what? What does the ‘A’ stand for?” “Allies,” Janet replied. And I said, “Oh, that’s me! That’s where I fit in.” So this is a short reflection on my “coming out” as an ally for GLBT persons.

I “came out” in February 1997. By then I had already come to a fairly well-developed sense of why I affirmed the integrity of sexual orientations other than just heterosexual. Driven by more than simply tolerance, I was increasingly persuaded that God’s freedom to love, affirm, and include such persons was far bigger than any of the prejudices I grew up with. I had a number of gay and lesbian friends, and I was openly, even articulately supportive of them———-behind closed doors. Not that I was in any way anti-gay in public. I was just decidedly silent.

While a graduate student at Notre Dame I read through the regular waves of debate over homosexuality in the daily student newspaper (debates carried out almost entirely by straight persons). I was disturbed by the rhetoric, but remained otherwise quiet. Notre Dame’s Catholic tradition wasn’t my own. This was not my issue. Not my cause. Bottom line: not my life. So why take the risk?

In the spring of 1996 I began teaching at Notre Dame, and very subtly my perspective began to change. The mass of Notre Dame undergraduates, previously just a sea of faces to me, suddenly and inescapably had names . . . feelings . . . and lives. Then, the following February I read a poem in Scholastic, a weekly student magazine. Entitled “Living in Fear,” it was written by an anonymous gay senior student at Notre Dame and recounted his daily four-year battle toward self-acceptance while driven by fear to remain in the closet. This time, perhaps because this wasn’t a debate but a poignant lament, I wasn’t “disturbed but quiet,” I found myself weeping and raging. Late into the night I poured myself out onto paper in a long letter of response that I titled “Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.” In it I ransacked the Bible for every manner of image to comfort and affirm him (and there are many of these!). As I put it in the letter, “I see now that if God keeps silent in the face of your anguish, it is only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words.” Later on I wrote, “Against all this [the fear] that you know so well I can offer only words—but maybe this is precisely what I have not done often enough or loud enough or long enough.”

When my letter ran in the next week’s Scholastic, I was “out.” An ally. And there was no going back. I received a good number of e-mails of gratitude—but also more than a few words of derision. Coming out—even just as an Ally—has its price. But also its rewards, which leads me to my point about coming out and spirituality. I had reached a place where for me not to come out publicly as an ally of GLBT persons would have been, by my silence, to deny the very graciousness of the God who has encountered me. Instead, coming out as an ally has afforded me the chance to get on with the essential work of integrating my personal spirituality with my public commitments—the vocation of living my whole life in response to God’s grace. I know from friends that this is true for GLBT persons as well. It’s hard to hear the gospel in private if fear keeps you in the closet in public.

So I might be tempted to close with an invitation to all GLBT persons to “come out,” but I don’t think that’s my invitation to make, at least not directly. I can say, if you’re an Ally still in the closet, National Coming Out Day is for you, too. However, my direct task is to keep on “coming out” myself as an Ally, again and again, to do what I can to make the room beyond the closet a place that is safe when the closet door is opened by someone from the inside. And that’s not something I do as an “extra” or “add-on” to my spirituality; it’s the way I bear witness to the God I know

*     *     *

This is the text of my letter which originally appeared in Scholastic Magazine, February 27, 1997.

Words offered at the end of the day to an unknown friend living in fear.

I need to say this quietly in deference to your eloquent anguish. But I need to say it nonetheless. And I am angry, and it will be hard to keep my voice down; angry not at you but for you. And if I misread the last lines of your poem and you already know all this, that’s okay. I’m sure someone else needs to hear it.

You say, “God knows, but God loves me anyway.” Wait. Let me say it gently but firmly—unequivocally. God does not love you “anyway”—despite your being gay. God does not need to overlook the way you are to smile at the beauty of your humanity, at the earthy reflection of divine love as you are gaily—and I don’t mean just “happily”—imago Dei.

Do you hear me, my friend? I will be downright strident about this because I see now that if God keeps silent in the face of your anguish, it is only because I wouldn’t lend God the use of my words. Well, here they are.

When Hosea spoke of a day when God would have pity on “Not-pitied” and would say to “Not-my-people,” you are my people—Hosea meant you, and I hope that day is now. When Isaiah welcomed foreigners and eunuchs (ever before outcast from the presence of God) into the Temple—well, Isaiah meant to welcome you as well, and to name your praise, like their praise, as more dear to God than even that of the faithful Jews (or Christians), perhaps because your praise is brought over the objections and insults of so many of us—and yet still finds its way to God. And when Peter, our first pope (no less stubborn than the rest) was treated to that heavenly picnic of assorted forbidden foods it was to remind him of Isaiah’s self-same insight, that the church dare not exclude those who come at God’s own call.

When Jesus stopped to speak and sip with the Samaritan woman at the well, perhaps she, too, thought that his fellowship came to her “anyway,” despite her ethnic outcast baggage. But I tell you, my friend, and I am not scared to be flamboyant if need be: Jesus offered her living words and living water because of who she was. He relished her Samaritan beauty; he chose her for the Kingdom, and when he did, he meant for you to feel chosen, too, not despite, but because of your gayness. So, remember when you walk past the silent, subversive statue of her and him at the well in front of O’Shaugnessy Hall, that while the administration might prefer you didn’t exist, or at least didn’t tell us who you are, Jesus is stopping to chat because you caught his eye not “anyway”—but just the way you are.

Can you hear me, yet, my friend? I am not afraid to be audacious if I have to. When Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, he said to them if any town refused to welcome them in his name, well, on judgment day those towns would fare far worse than Sodom and Gomorrah. Okay, it isn’t in the text—I admit it—but I will say it anyway because it’s true: Jesus meant to say as much to all you same-sex couples who, not unlike those disciples, come, two by two, hoping for a bit of hospitality from the church. What irony that we who have so long burdened you with the guilt of Sodom and Gomorrah find that the fire and brimstone are finally aimed our way.

And when Jesus said that foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head he knew that if ever a day came when churches with their gilded gold and schools with their omnipresent crosses in every classroom thought that now Christ surely had a place to lay his head, he knew that you, my friend, would know better. For with your anguish every night you bear a fearful witness to us all. Until your head rests fully welcome within these walls—until then Christ keeps his weary watch outside with you, still after all these years aching and envious of foxes and birds.

I hope that you have heard, my friend. I tremble for the silent “no” that closes out—and closets in—each day, the quiet daily unmaking of yourself by fears all too well founded. Against all this that you know so well I can offer only words—but maybe this is precisely what I have not done often enough or loud enough or long enough. So, I hope, my unknown friend, that at the end of this day, and the next, and on and on, that when you crawl beneath your covers of so much more than linen you remember these words I offer in gentle but firm—unequivocal, strident, flamboyant, audacious witness: You are loved by God already now, not “anyway,” but fully because of who and how you are.

And I wait with you for the day when “no” becomes “yes” and you place yourself truthful in our midst. I wait patiently, because who am I to tell you when to step beyond the fears that we have heaped up in your way? And because who am I to think your fear is not, in part indebted to the comfort of my own silence? And I wait impatiently, because I know at least this much that God is anxious for you to share the joy God takes in the very beauty of who and how you are.

Sexual Ethics with Teeth: On Some Limits to Affirmation

A longer than usual post about a topic that requires careful thinking.  

Sexual Ethics with Teeth: On Some Limits to Affirmation
David R. Weiss, June 11, 2014

As a church we need to get better at talking about sex, both about what makes sex healthy, and also about what makes it unhealthy. We’re far better at teaching rules (black and white “do’s” and “don’ts”) than ethics (the capacity to reason for oneself about choices that involve shades of gray). And, our rules are mediocre at best, judgmental and shame-based at worst. Adults, moreover, need ethics—we need the capacity to reason for ourselves why some behaviors in some circumstances are healthy or not, Christian and not. Here’s a case in point:

Recently a Minnesota transgender woman escaped from a couple in Louisiana who regarded her as their slave—sexual and otherwise. It’s an incredibly complicated affair. While the woman was forced to do hard physical labor, it seems clear that the situation unfolded out of a sexual fetish for a master-slave (dominance/submissive) relationship. Thus, this is not a “typical” case of human trafficking, although it has certain dimensions of that. It appears she entered the relationship voluntarily (though perhaps not in a state of good mental health) about two years ago and later tried to leave, at which point she was kept against her will and under increasingly violent conditions. Sex run seriously and dangerously amok. And, while this type of master-sex fetish is not exactly common, across a range of expressions, it is far more common than we might imagine.

But as a church, we are utterly ill-equipped to even talk about this. And we have to.

You can read original news accounts here: KARE 11 (NBC); Star Tribune; and WCCO (CBS), whose coverage includes a comment by someone who explains why transgender women, in particular, are vulnerable to this type of exploitation. However, my purpose in this essay is not to explore this particular situation in detail, but rather to argue that a church unable to discuss such troubling cases with reasoned clarity is just as incapable of discussing the less extreme but far more frequent choices that face us—and our high school, college, and young adult members.

This is important in every church, but perhaps especially so in “welcoming” churches, where our affirmation of LTBTQ persons in their wholeness makes clear that we believe that the goodness of human sexuality is far more nuanced than rules can address. But as churches that have dared to move beyond the black-and-white of rules, we have seldom actually formed our members’ consciences with substantial ethics. In other words, we have quietly set aside the “traditional” rules, and, while none of us wants to say, “Now anything goes,” very few of our members could offer a coherent response to what goes and what doesn’t—and why.

So let me be clear, this “anything” has as much to do with a “hook-up” culture on college campuses that is at least as straight as queer. And sexually extreme behaviors (like master-slave fetishes) are no more common among queer persons than straight persons. I note that the woman in the case above is transgender not because there’s anything about master-sex relationships that is particularly trans or queer; rather because she was, and it does seem that, in her case, family rejection on account of her transgender identity may have left her more vulnerable to exploitation.

This challenge of teaching “sexual ethics with teeth” (that is, with a capacity to say NO) matters to me because for two decades now I have been a committed, fervent, vocal Ally for LGBTQ persons. Part of my message has been that not only LGBTQ sexuality, but straight sexuality, too, is astonishingly good. I’ve become convinced that a big part of the church’s difficulty in affirming LGBTQ persons is rooted in the church’s inability to truly affirm the sexuality of straight persons in any real way. Yes, we speak the words. But we speak them quietly, and then opt for discretion as quickly as we can. We have taught generations of even our straight youth that sex is a gift about which we are actually rather embarrassed, even ashamed. So, when I declare that there is no cause for shame—that embodiment is intended to be relished with joyful abandon—there is always the chance that what will be heard is, “Anything goes.” No.

I have developed briefly elsewhere a set of principles that I argue can help us navigate the terrain of our sexual lives with integrity. In short I propose the central values of justice, mercy, and humility (borrowed from Micah 6:8), with the additional measures of procreative (not the way you think—read the piece!) and joyful abandon. Here I just want to focus on why I think master-slave sexual fetishes are problematic—at least for Christians. And, even with that proviso, these reflections matter, because I have little doubt that plenty of Christians dabble in bondage and dominant/submissive sexual behaviors.

I enter this conversation with trembling and … conviction. One reason that I make humility a central value in sexual ethics is that we all need to guard against reading our personal preferences and our culture-bound tastes as grounds for moral judgment. We need to cultivate—by practice—the ability to listen first to the witness of experience by others whose preferences and tastes are markedly different from our own. So I have to speak with caution.

Yet, I also speak with conviction because I don’t believe that all tastes and preferences are simply relative. I do believe we can—and must—make judgments with distinction, because not every choice that seems (even if only momentarily) appealing is healthy, innocent, or without risk. So here I go …

The alchemy of sexual ecstasy turns on mutual presence. Lovers become both fully present and fully open to the other, which presumes a deep level of trust, because they become naked not simply physically but emotionally. In this place—so long as trust is sufficient, vulnerability is wholly erotic. We recognize in a passing way that our selfhood is indeed more than ours alone. We are selves together. Sexuality is not the only place this truth is touched—it is entirely possible for asexual/nonsexual/single persons to know it. And there is no guarantee that sexuality—fraught with its own share of dysfunctional behaviors—will always convey it, but sexuality is one place that is exquisitely revealed.

So vulnerability is potentially erotic. It is potentially part of the delicious way that we weave ourselves together. But when vulnerability is not mutual, and one person becomes defenseless and at risk before another, this may well be titillating, it may well be a turn-on at some level to both persons, but if it is not expressive of mutual presence, it is problematic. It places our sexual energy in the service of a lust for power. And this is unchristian.

There are educated thoughtful persons who espouse a worldview in which some of us are born or bred to dominance, while others are born or bred to submission. In truth, I suspect this worldview is far more common, even if unconsciously held, than we like to think. But it is not a Christian worldview. Part of the power—and the scandal—of both Jesus’ preaching and Paul’s writings, is that they challenge this worldview by proclaiming a vision in which each of us is fundamentally known, not as greater or lesser, Jew or Gentile, dominant or submissive, master or slave, but as child of God. In a Christian worldview, the goal, among our various inborn and acquired gifts and our too plentiful inborn and acquired wounds, is to help one another move toward the fullest possible flourishing of our human agency.

“Agency” is the technical term in ethics for being a full moral self, a person with the capacity (usually understood as a combination of necessary knowledge, power, and freedom) to choose between right of wrong. More broadly speaking, human agency means the capacity to direct our lives toward fulfillment in healthy, life-affirming ways. Christianity declares that all persons are worthy of agency, and that our common duty—our joyful obligation—to one another is to support the agency of each of us to its fullest extent.

But in the world of master-slave fetish behavior, the goal is to erase a person’s agency—even their identity—all the while claiming that their truest “self” is found in being enslaved to another. This is serious business. The woman in the news story was, in effect, reduced to a barcode (literally 813-790-720!) a number tattooed on her neck and registered (my God!) by number, certificate, barcode, and scanable QR code on an international website with nearly 200,000 “registered slaves” on it. She became part of a world in which the erasure of her identity was declared her destiny. The New Testament analogue for this is demon possession.

I do not recommend web surfing around master-slave websites. It’s a soul-churning tour, and I say that not to denigrate the people who appear on them, but to warn about the extremity of ways you’ll see people denigrating themselves. Still, we cannot reject this behavior just because it “feels” wrong to us. We need to articulate how both master and slave become something less than God intended them to be.

So we need to be able to say that healthy sex honors the principle of justice in that it does not exploit power differences. But this fetish celebrates and eroticizes power differences to an absolute extreme—where behaviors that are physically, psychically, emotionally, and spiritually abusive become the goal.

We need to be able to say, that in an arena where vulnerability is present, mercy—the genuine care of the other—is a central value. Yet this fetish deems mercy as the very antithesis of what slaves deserve. It seizes vulnerability without mercy, and in so doing it claims to confer a role, while denying personhood. No. You can’t do that and call it “okay.”

We need to be able to say that healthy sex necessarily heightens personhood through mutual presence, and, if it doesn’t, then what’s happening is either not healthy, or not sex (i.e., eroticized violence).

We need to teach our youth and young adults to think in principled, discriminating ways about why some sexual practices are risky, sometimes in ways quite independent of physical risks. There may be part of our lower brains—our most primal areas of cognition and emotion—where being vulnerable or holding power translates into an adrenaline rush that can be experienced as thrilling. But meth can give you quite a thrill, too, for a while at least. Not every “thrill” is healthy just because it makes your heart race.

As someone who seeks to honor the variety of consensual, life-giving sexual expression, I have to say—with conviction—that I find BDSM (bondage-discipline/dominance-submission/sadism-masochism) behaviors and master-slave relationships morally problematic because they “consensually” “play” at roles that are destructive of selves, worth, identity, and integrity. They eroticize that primal thrill of vulnerability in ways that are not mutually life-giving. They harness some of the deepest power that we know—our sexual energy—and they use it to fray the fabric of our humanity.

If, as the church, we remain awkwardly silent in the face of such news stories, preferring to discuss the weather or sports or even the narthex renovation, we betray our members—especially our youth—by refusing to say that this (justice + mercy + humility + pro-creation + joyful abandon) THIS, and not that, is what healthy sex looks like. Because, honest-to-God, their sexual choices are going to shape them far more deeply than anything happening in the weather or the world of sports or the narthex.

Does all of this mean that simple, playful bondage—silk cords, fur-lined handcuffs, or harmless collars and leashes, coupled with “safe” words—are off limits? That isn’t mine to say. Humility—that other central value—says I am beholden to listen to others who can tell me in good faith that such things can be used in ways that heighten our personhood, convey mutual presence, and do not betray justice or mercy. So talk to me. But, honestly, I worry that we don’t adequately reckon the impact of such practices any more than we take seriously the ecological impact of many of our lifestyle choices or the health impact of many of our food choices.

We live in a culture with a VERY questionable vision of humanity. Christianity—in its best expressions—offers a starkly different vision: a community of persons committed to mutuality, justice, compassion, and mercy. As Christians, we ought to be conversant enough in our vision of humanity to talk back to a culture hell-bent on luring us into choices that are not life-giving.

We don’t do a very good job at teaching ourselves how to talk back to culture ever; we’re so worried that Christianity might look counter-cultural. Surprise: it is. And we are least comfortable doing that with nuance and reason when it comes to sex. But the choices we make in the bedroom about how power is held and wielded, these choice inscribe themselves in our psyches and ultimately incarnate themselves in our world. We need this conversation. Please enter it. Now.

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David R. Weiss is the author of To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome(2008, Langdon Street Press). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around issues of sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He lives in St. Paul and speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. You can reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com and read more at www.ToTheTune.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” He recently published a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book, When God Was a Little Girl. Learn more at www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com.