Sin, Sex, and Violence

Well, if a title like that won’t get your attention, I don’t know what will!  Actually, the title isn’t mine; it is from a book chapter by Marie M. Fortune, in a volume titled The Other Side of Sin, edited by Andrew Sung Park and Susan L. Nelson.  I was re-reading this chapter in preparation for my next Seven Deadly Sins class, which is on Lust.

The reading has been interesting, of course, as you might imagine, but also pretty challenging. Readings on sexuality in the Christian tradition range from unhelpful, stringent prohibitions on any sexual expression/experience outside of a heterosexual marriage to frank discussions on pornography and the definition of adultery.  The context certainly has changed, particularly for those of us in the United States, and the addition of women’s voices to conversations about sexuality has been a game-changer, in very positive ways.  However, there is no denying that Christian conversations around sexuality and sexual desire continue to be fraught with many challenges and misconceptions.

In this area, I really appreciate Marie Fortune’s work, and this chapter is outstanding.  Basically, she reminds us that Christian discussions of sexuality need always keep in mind the victimized, especially when notions of “sexual sin” continue to be so prevalent in people’s minds.  She talks about the ways in which people can justify abuse or tragedy because they are so desperate for answers:  “We are looking for some meaning because we earnestly believe that the only thing worse than suffering is meaningless suffering” [124].  So a woman who is raped was “asking for it;” or a woman who is battered “deserved it,” or a gay man who contracts AIDS is “being punished” for it.  This is theology at its worst.

Fortune suggests that it is the dominant moral framework that shifts the heavy burden of guilt and self-blame onto the victims for the harm they are suffering.  In this moral framework, which supports those in power, sin is understood as disobedience, rather than “harm-done-to-others.”  When it comes to sex, this means an emphasis on “violations of rules (no sexual activity outside of heterosexual marriage) rather than on harm to others (minimal attention to sexual violence as sin)” [130].  This interpretation “reflects the interests of the dominant, patriarchal culture and contradicts the interests of the marginalized” [130].

Further, she notes that when sexual sin is only disobedience, “ethical questions about consent, bodily integrity, choice, power, and vulnerability are never asked” [131].  However, “Sexual sin as harm done to others provides a moral framework that speaks to the marginalized (usually women, children, gays, and lesbians) as the possible sinned-against but also speaks to everyone’s responsibility to do least harm sexually in relation to one another” [133].

We have the responsibility to choose a different moral framework, a moral framework that supports and empowers those who are marginalized, especially women, and provides a constructive way in which to interpret and respond to acts of sexual violence.

The powerful, she says, need to be held accountable.  Does that resonate with anyone else these days?

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