This post continues a series on ethics. The series begins here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics. In my last two posts, I set forth Hebrew and Greek notions of purity, both potential candidates for a core ethical principle. Here I explain why I find them unsatisfactory for Christians.
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Christians and Purity
In my last two blogs, I introduced two concepts of purity. The first, a Hebrew concept of safety protocols for dealing with the God Most High who dwelt with them, occurs frequently in the Old Testament. The second, a Greek concept of eternal perfection opposed to physical corruption, appears occasionally in the New Testament. I want to say unequivocally that the Gospel speaks against both. The Good News promises grace in the material world and peace with the spiritual. We no longer fear the danger of accidentally getting too close to God’s power. We no longer see ourselves as perfect souls trapped in filthy and constraining flesh. This is a profound shift in faith both for Hebrews and for Greeks and it came in the form of Jesus Christ, a physical, touchable, approachable Emmanuel – God with us.
It shames me that I have to write this. It shames me that Christianity has become associated with concepts of purity, self-righteousness, and disdain for the world God created. And yet I must write this, for the temptation to place ourselves above our neighbors and above creation is so strong that, even within the faith, many succumb. Nowhere is this more obvious than it is in matters of sexuality.
Jesus and Paul both speak of the benefits of eternal life and they also speak in favor of God’s Law. We are called to perfection and we are called to eternal life. Still we must recognize – Christians must always recognize – that we are so called in the flesh and brought into the Kingdom by one who became flesh and dwelt among us. The Good News is scandal to both Jew and Gentile for precisely for this reason: we are asked to meet God here and now, and see God’s presence in the impure, the imperfect, and the changeable.
Purity is not an acceptable core ethical principle for Christians.
Anyone interested in Christian sexual ethics should read Paul’s epistle to the Romans. This may surprise some of my liberal friends, for the words of Romans have so often been used as a bludgeon in debates about sex and sexuality. I would argue that there is no better weapon against self-righteousness. The letter is full and rich, but I will focus on the first 3 chapters which are so popular – if for all the wrong reasons. I encourage you to read the whole book, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the message. And, of course, I would encourage you to meditate or pray on it. It has become one of my favorite parts of the New Testament.
Paul against the Greeks (Romans 1:18-2:16)
In chapter 1, Paul points an accusing finger at Greek Christians. Note closely the language he uses. Paul is accusing them of being physical, of denying the immortal for the sake of the mortal, denying the truth for the sake of a lie. In short, Paul is accusing them of being bad Greeks. They know through their philosophy to pursue that which is perfect, and yet they run around chasing bodies. And yes, Paul uses homosexual acts as part of his accusation. I suspect Paul, as a Hebrew, had a very low opinion of homosexual acts. (We’ll see why in a later post.) Nonetheless, the primary objection is a Greek one. Women, he said, are acting from filthy passion, rather than for their proper and eternal end. Men, he said, are shamefully turning from the natural end of reproduction (which fulfills their animal nature) to the unnatural end of physical desire. Notice that lust is contrasted with animal reproduction. This is why idolatry and pride are so closely tied for Paul. The passage is about the proper object of worship and the proper perspective. Non-procreative sex for physical enjoyment is seen as demonstrating rather than causing an inappropriate attachment to the body. [Incidentally, I am not agreeing with Paul’s sexual ethics here – or with Paul’s portrayal of Greek sexual ethics. I am highlighting Paul’s accusation that the Greeks are not being good Greeks according to pre-Christian standards.]
Paul’s critiques extend beyond the Greeks, however. “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” (2:1) Everyone, both Greek and Jew, both believer and unbeliever, suffers from messed up priorities.
Paul against the Hebrews (Romans 2:17-3:26)
In chapter 2, Paul turns to his Hebrew readers. They have been saying to themselves, “We may have the wrong priorities, but we are safe. We follow the safety protocols.” Hebrew righteousness is about action, not goals; it is about physical purity. Paul doubts that any truly do obey the law in its fullness and claims that Jews are in many ways worse off because they know about the law. They have a copy of the safety manual, but still do not follow the instructions. Worse yet, God expects more than rote compliance. “For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal.” (2:28-29)
For 500 years, Israelite culture had been moving away from the purity model of Leviticus. The books of the prophets are littered with references to God wanting more than Temple sacrifice.
“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? … He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6,8; see also Psalm 50:8; Proverbs 21:27; Isaiah 43:24; Hosea 6:6)
No one, Paul says, neither Greek nor Jew, neither believer nor unbeliever, can make sufficient sacrifice to fulfill the law. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)
Purity as Pride
Paul turns the two notions against each other to show that God operates by the free gift of grace to humans, who do not deserve the gift, and yet are worthy of it through God’s love. There is no room for us to be prideful in either our intention or our effects. We have not achieved purity, by either standard. Where is the good news in this? We are justified (saved, redeemed, what you will) by Jesus Christ. We cannot have pride in our own efforts, but we can have pride in his. Jesus broke the Hebrew concept of purity by being God, but fully accessible – he’s a nuclear reactor you can hug. He brings the benefits of God’s power and Lordship without the danger traditionally associated with it. Anyone – absolutely anyone – can approach. Jesus also broke the Greek concept of purity by being the eternal Logos, perfect and unchanging, but also painfully human. He took on flesh, he ate and drank as one of us. He even showed his changeableness by crying, being wounded, and dying. [This, by the way is the original meaning of passion (Gk: passeo, to suffer or be subject to)]. Thus Christians cannot boast being closer to God through being safety certified; all can come close through Christ. Nor can we boast being closer to God through being less corrupted by the flesh. Jesus was fully human. God exists concretely and physically in the world and asks us to participate through concrete, carnal sacraments. And yes, carnal is the right word. It’s the only word in English that comes close to the shocking physicality of sarx in John 1:14 and 6:51.
Some readers will turn to several passages in the New Testament which contrast flesh and spirit (notably John 6:63; Romans 8; I Corinthians 3:1-3; Galatians 5:17). I would encourage you to read closely, however, particularly in light of what we have already covered. Christ and Paul are arguing that it is not the body alone – nor the law alone, nor particularly acts of righteousness alone – the bring life. The Spirit of God brings life. We breathe that Spirit in and out like the air and like the air we cannot own or even hold it in our lungs and still live. Righteousness and grace and purity cannot belong to you. They are in you solely because God is in you. The miracle arises because the flesh – useless on its own – can be enlivened by the Spirit. It will even be transformed by the Spirit into something wholly good in the resurrection, but it will nonetheless still be flesh (I Corinthians 15:39, II Corinthians 4:11, Colossians 1:22, Hebrews 10:20).
Purity as Apathy
I am not denying that living flesh is better than a corpse or that the desires of the Spirit are better than the desire of the flesh. I am only saying that, in Christianity, the opportunity for grace occurs in the flesh without regard to dignity, purity, or past accomplishment. The wind (spirit) blows where it will.
We cannot be apathetic toward those we see as less pure than ourselves. We know that they may, perhaps even have, come closer to God than we have. Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man, every single person you encounter may be more holy than you, may have something to teach you about the glory of God. Every one has that opportunity and we are duty bound as Christians to help them achieve that goal.
And, as a special note to those who read their Bible closely, Abraham was not a nice man. He may have been faithful to God, but he treated his wife and concubine and sons horribly. He lied and cheated. If we are to turn to Abraham as an example – as Paul does in Romans – we cannot turn to him as an example of purity or perfect behavior. We must turn to him as faithful and beloved of God, despite and through his imperfection.
Purity then, at least as constructed by the Hebrews and Greeks, is not a virtue in Christianity, but an opportunity for vice. Insofar as it is a good thing, and I believe it can be, it represents a love of that which brings us closer to God and to the ideal of who we want to be. We cannot afford, however, to keep track. We cannot afford standards and measures of closeness to God or closeness to perfection. God is in all and made the world exactly as it is.
We can, should, and indeed must work for a better world. We may be called upon to sacrifice our desires, even our lives in order to fulfill the commandment to love God and neighbor. Jesus Christ has freed us from the bonds of dignity, honor, cleanliness, even religiosity so that we might pursue that goal. This is not an occasion for sin. It is not an excuse to behave badly, knowing we cannot earn or deserve grace. It is a chance to love fully and deeply, and even obey God’s will, without the limitations of Earthly convention. It is a chance to dredge the depths of humanity, the depths of creation for the last and least spark of divinity. It is a chance to find grace, even in a crucifixion.
If you see “purity” as a means of love or obedience, then I may be with you. Let us talk about how this virtue achieves those ends. If you see “purity” as that state of holiness which may be achieved through God’s purifying fire, at God’s hands and not our own, I am with you. If you see purity as a way to separate the sheep from the goats, those included from those excluded; if you see purity as a source of pride or excuse for apathy, then I cannot agree. Indeed, I can think of few things as harmful to true Christian faith.
We may ask for righteousness. We may strive for righteousness. But it is neither our birthright nor our reward. It is a gift from God.