Puritans at the table

I grew up, thanks to my par­ents and the par­tic­u­lar but var­i­ous church­es we attend­ed, think­ing of God as a lov­ing God.  However, God’s church was not always so lov­ing. And as I grew into my teenage and young adult years, I real­ized that what I read about Jesus (heal­ing, for­giv­ing, uplift­ing the oppressed) did not match–at all–with the pri­ma­ry mes­sages I got from most Christians (celiba­cy, straight­ness, shame, judg­ment… ooops, don’t get an abortion). 

Christianity in the US con­tin­ues to be far too deeply influ­enced by the judg­men­tal patri­archy of its Puritan fore­fa­thers.  Worse, our gov­ern­men­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tives spend far too lit­tle effort on good gov­er­nance and far too much effort mak­ing claims about moral­i­ty which may well be Puritan but is not Christ-like at all.

My self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as a Christian waned as I real­ized that many gay and les­bian friends were the peo­ple I knew who were most like Jesus, and yet were most like­ly to feel exclud­ed from Christian faith com­mu­ni­ties. As a bisex­u­al per­son, I’ve found a spir­i­tu­al home in the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has, for decades, ordained LGBTQIA+ folks, includ­ing civ­il rights leader Pauli Murray, who helped con­struct the legal frame­work for women’s rights.  Despite find­ing this spir­i­tu­al home, I con­tin­ue to have a com­plex and fraught rela­tion­ship with my iden­ti­ty as a Christian. 

Jesus repeat­ed­ly told his fol­low­ers to love one anoth­er, to leave judg­ments to God, and to lift up the poor and mar­gin­al­ized.  Christians, as a group, seem to focus far more on fundrais­ing and strat­i­fy­ing oth­ers accord­ing to their per­ceived sins.

The Song of Solomon cel­e­brates desire, lust, and love in a rela­tion­ship that might be mar­i­tal. The one men­tion of lust by Jesus is assumed to be aimed at men and women equal­ly, even though it could be direct­ed only at men because men held so much finan­cial and civ­il pow­er over women.  The pow­er rela­tion­ship between men and women is and was not equal, and Jesus always advo­cat­ed for pro­tect­ing the less pow­er­ful.  Jesus healed the Roman centurion’s “boy”, arguably his lover, with­out ask­ing about the details of their relationship. 

Even if vir­gin­i­ty is tru­ly mean­ing­ful — obvi­ous­ly it gets held in high regard due to the whole Virgin Mary thing — we still have no real answers about how to sex­u­al­ly behave or advise some­one whose vir­gin­i­ty is already long gone.  Preferencing vir­gin­i­ty sig­nif­i­cant­ly com­pli­cates heal­ing for sur­vivors of rape or abu­sive past mar­riages.  Unintended preg­nan­cy can be a moment for grace, not shame.  Prohibitions against pre­mar­i­tal and non­mar­i­tal sex inhib­it con­ver­sa­tions about how much sex­u­al inti­ma­cy might be right for a cou­ple, about how healthy sex­u­al inti­ma­cy can, in the words of Nine Inch Nails, “bring [us] clos­er to God.” 

We have failed to explore, even the­o­ret­i­cal­ly, what Christian sex­u­al­i­ty should look like.  The whole idea sounds like an oxy­moron, but the judg­ment about the con­ver­sa­tion, in my view, is more sin­ful than the sex itself.  A Christian sex­u­al­i­ty might include dis­cus­sion of how sex can express and enhance love, fos­ter­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion about sex­u­al expec­ta­tions, dis­cus­sions of heal­ing touch beyond the back rub, under­stand­ing how not to con­flate sex with pow­er and how to recov­er when pow­er abuse man­i­fests as rape or incest, and under­stand­ing the right rela­tion­ship between sex and vulnerability. 

What is the right role of state-sanc­tioned mar­riage and var­ied famil­ial and house­hold bonds?  How do we alle­vi­ate pover­ty, espe­cial­ly among women, so that sex work is a con­sen­su­al choice, not an eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty dri­ven by pow­er­less­ness, and so abor­tion is a deci­sion made med­ical­ly or by fam­i­ly needs, not eco­nom­i­cal­ly?  How do we shame the peo­ple who are exac­er­bat­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, rather than the women try­ing to cope with that inequality? 

Meanwhile, we should ask our com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers: do you strive for work­ers to be paid liv­ing wages?  Do you respect the dig­ni­ty of every human being?  Do you spend resources to help meet the needs of the poor?  Do you share your pow­er and priv­i­lege with mar­gin­al­ized people? 

And hon­est­ly, if they don’t do these things, I don’t care where they spend their Sunday morn­ings or what reli­gion they claim to be; they are not peo­ple I have any faith in at all.

  • Nancy Gift, a mem­ber of Better Together, Winchester, orig­i­nal­ly from Lexington, is a pro­fes­sor of Sustainability and Environmental Studies at Berea College, and spouse of Father Jim Trimble. She and Jim have three col­lege-age chil­dren and a menagerie of pets.