09 February 2006


I'm convinced that cynicism, opportunism, and laziness are a popular and harmful mix. They lead to shortcuts—jumping to conclusions, bypassing thoughtful dialogue, skipping research, ignoring clues, all on the path to a short-term goal: cheap victory.

This theme has come up again and again this past week. My first example came to me as I thought more about the topic of sexuality and carnality in the context of holiness. (See the related item toward the end of last week's post.) Close to ten years ago, Earlham College's health office presented a safe sex education assembly for students, attracting them with a speaker who was billed as an educator in eroticism. If my memory of the articles in Earlham's student newspaper serves me right, his educational goals, teaching how to avoid STDs, were sweetened with suggestions concerning, for example, erotic ways to undress one's partner (as if unwrapping a present, I think). I'm sure there was more along those lines, but you get the idea.

The announcements for this assembly were distributed in student mailboxes. More general announcements were not made—again, according to the student paper and my imperfect memory—in order not to alert the wider constituency, particularly the Earlham trustees, who were sure to disapprove.

Some context: A few years earlier, Earlham's switchboard operator, a member of Indiana Yearly Meeting, had assured the yearly meeting during a controversy about co-ed dorms, that if any hanky-panky were going on at Earlham, she would know about it. The late Ray Stewart commented on the floor of Yearly Meeting that Indiana Quakers must believe in the Immaculate Conception, since clearly they were all born that way.

Earlham College was a perennial source of controversy at Indiana Yearly Meeting, who (along with Western Yearly Meeting) appointed most of the trustees of this school that they had founded. Trustee appointments were sometimes a flash-point for these controversies, many of which really sprang from a rarely-acknowledged reality: Earlham had drifted far from an earlier identity as a guarded education for orthodox Quaker children, and for the most part its quakerism was cultural rather than transformatively spiritual. The college's trustee-appointment arrangement was out of sync with its reality. The college you'd expect a highly Christ-centered yearly meeting such as Indiana to govern would be more like George Fox in Oregon, where you could reasonably expect any faculty member to be able to lead a student to Christ, or at least to know why that would be important. Earlham was nowhere near the same zone.

So much dialogue could have happened, but, in my experience in and near Indiana Yearly Meeting (1982-2000), rarely did. Why did Indiana Yearly Meeting's conservatives (not in the Wilburite sense!) rarely if ever project a winsome Christian presence at Earlham instead of specializing so completely in carping about the things they didn't like? (One year it was Playboy in the college bookstore.) Why didn't the liberals put forth more effort to understand and deal with the agony of parents who got up in the Yearly Meeting sessions and said sorrowfully, "How can I send my saved child to this school?" There were a few Friends who were persistent reconcilers—perhaps most notably Stephanie Crumley-Effinger—but there seemed to be many more who remained in a more or less permanent face-off.

In the case of the erotic-training-as-health-education incident, the whole thing naturally became public, despite the precaution of paper announcements in mailboxes. By then I was general secretary of Friends United Meeting, meaning that my perspective was, "Oh, ****, another great chance for our fragile constituency to polarize." (And so soon after the controversy over Earlham's designation in some college-student list as "queer-friendly" had died down.) But beyond that, I had another stream of reflections:

For one thing, why don't the conservatives at Yearly Meeting ever say what's good about heterosexuality rather than only saying what they think is bad about homosexuality? We're talking about sex, for goodness' sake—why do tempers get so short so fast? Why take the cynical shortcut to biblical one-upmanship (cynical because it makes mean, self-serving assumptions about the opponents) instead of zooming back to examine the larger landscape of desire and hurt and alienation and the false promises of liberal individualism, and then meeting those realities with a healing tenderness?

The stealth publicity tactic for the health education assembly was also a cynical shortcut, to my mind, and it backfired. For that matter, even the idea that you had to lure the audience with eroticism might be questionable. Again, there seemed to be self-serving, negative assumptions about the various audiences involved. On the other hand, who in the evangelical Christian world is dealing honestly and openly with sexuality as unmarried people of college age and younger experience it?!? I'm sure that, here and there, wonderful counselors are doing an inspired job, but there is no public, accessible, sustained dialogue that I've found. If I'm wrong, please let me know, but I don't see it, for example, in Campus Life magazine (now known as Ignite Your Faith). Their letters column has many examples of young people begging for input, but answers specialize in what not to do (and why) rather than how to understand and enjoy sexuality, and incorporate it into a more mature discipleship. Should I blame Campus Life, given the reality that any relaxation on formula answers will bring down the wrath of the shortcutters?

Tony Campolo says that, in his youth, his Baptist church didn't permit dancing—because dancing excites the lusts of the flesh. (Instead, he chuckles, they piled those young, temptable boys and girls into wagons for hayrides!!) How did we get from an evangelical culture that didn't permit dancing and short sleeves to one that, for the most part, lets secular society set all standards for dress and entertainment, without developing a conversation about the tradeoffs? To put it more positively, is such a conversation now starting, at least among Friends?

More shortcutting: Those fatal cartoons. A significant minority of the Muslim world, egged on by opportunistic leaders, is leaping to outrageous conclusions about various newspapers, leaders, countries, as a reaction to the publishing of cartoon images of Mohammed, whose own attitude toward both humor and criticism seems to have been far more humane. That angry segment of Muslims, expressing a viewpoint that is by no means unanimous among Muslims worldwide, asks the rest of us to respect the absoluteness of a taboo, but demonstrates no concept of reciprocity or openness to dialogue concerning our taboos or the context within which theirs were allegedly violated.

Here in the USA, among the few taboos that seem to evoke much widespread anger is the burning of the American flag. (I remember how nervous I was about our public flagwashing service across the street from the Federal Building a couple of years ago.) Overseas crowds seem to show no compunction about burning our flag. Not that they should, necessarily; nor can I prove that any of the anti-cartoonists ever burned an American flag. I'm just not willing to tolerate an asymmetrical awe of taboos.

A friend of mine points out that mobs cannot make distinctions that individuals can make, which puts the burden of encouraging dialogue rather than urging cynical shortcuts squarely on those leaders who have the rioter's ear. As for "our" leaders, such as President Bush, it is a cheap shortcut to criticize the cartoonists rather than acknowledging that Muslim demagogues can easily trade on our criminally stupid war in Iraq, our anti-Palestinian bias, post-9/11 xenophobia, comments by Franklin Graham and other Christian celebrities, abuse of the Koran at Guantánamo, and other examples of ignorance and worse on the part of Western crusaders. We might correctly assert that the Danish cartoons were not gratuitous insults, but we cannot say that insults, serious ones, have not happened. How can we ask angry Muslims to forego the shortcuts and engage in the hard, worthwhile work of investigation and dialogue, when shortcuts are so rampant in our own countries? (We should in fact still make that request to Muslims, and assertively; a relationship based on a pathetic desire to be liked by those who attack us is no relationship at all. Let's just also get to work on the ignorance and shortcuts in our own sphere of influence with a high sense of urgency.)

I loved what Os Guinness said a few years ago at a World Vision conference: There is a confrontation between the "Christian world" and the "Islamic world"—and at our best, we compete on the field of compassion, each seeking to outdo the other, not on the fields of violence or manipulation or slander.

Political shortcuts: Bush and Cheney reserve the right to cut right through the Constitution and laws with the rhetorical swords of war and unitary executive authority. I'm grateful that the eavesdropping scandal has, at long last, provoked a response from the advisory gallery once known as the United States Congress. But the other day I was shocked to learn what you, dear reader, might have known all along: U.S. Customs reserves the right to open all private mail coming into the USA from overseas. In a CNN story on the subject, a retired professor expressed a similar shock, having corresponded for fifty years with a friend in the Philippines and finding a recent letter opened and reclosed by our government.

During all those years I corresponded with friends in the old USSR, I was cautious in what I wrote because I thought my letters to them might be opened by the KGB, as might their replies. I never for an instant thought my own government might take my friends' replies to me into a black chamber and steam them open. I've never felt terribly secure about e-mail, which is the way nearly 100% of my international correspondence now goes, except for birthday and Christmas cards, but I feel sad that there is also no security for that most intimate form of correspondence, the hand-written letter, if it crosses our sacred border. I know that the chances of an individual letter being opened are very small, but ... I remember a letter reporting corruption in a Right Sharing project ... I remember my love letters to Judy, written from Norway.... Well, I guess I should resist paranoia; our government has enough of that for all of us.

Friday PS: Dan Froomkin of the Washington Post has asked readers to submit questions concerning the U.S. president's credibility—questions they'd like reporters to ask George Bush. I resisted quoting this classic piece of one-upmanship disguised as a question, but I feel myself ... giving ... in ... yes, I'm a shortcutting hypocrite, but only because I'm quoting this question in full knowledge that George Bush is not going to read and answer this weblog entry, though I honestly wish he would. Read the whole thing here ... but the question that drew my attention is this:
What Would Jesus Do?

From Mary Beth Hastings:

"Mr. President, you have spoken often and with conviction of your Christianity and how you bring Christian principles to bear on your conduct of foreign and domestic policy. The 2007 budget you have just proposed extends tax cuts that mostly benefit upper income Americans, while drastically cutting programs that help the poor, including sick children. As news sources have pointed out, the cost of these tax cuts is far greater than the cost savings coming from entitlement program cuts. Given the number of times the Bible, and Jesus himself, references lifting up the poor and tending to the sick, how do you reconcile this proposed budget with your Christianity?"

Shortcuts not taken:Here's an excellent item on the Christianity Today Web site: "Habits of Highly Effective Justice Workers." I love the subtitle: "Should we protest the system or invest in a life? Yes." And the government might have tried to take a shortcut to bypass NASA's global warming messenger, but an important segment of the evangelical Christian leadership is going public with their own wake-up call on climate change. Finally, here's a fascinating video clip: preach it, Bono! (Transcript; thanks, Christianity Today.)


Johan Maurer said...

Ray Stewart was a remarkable and delightful guy. I loved debating theology with him--as a renegade Nazarene turned Quaker, he was an assertive debater but always a loving spirit. His opinions were strong and complex; he bemoaned what he thought was the "fundamentalism" in Indiana Yearly Meeting, even as he complained about the lack of talented pulpiteers.

When I became head of Friends United Meeting's staff, he invited me to meet him for coffee at Reid Memorial Hospital, across busy Chester Blvd. from the FUM headquarters on Quaker Hill, Richmond, Indiana. I wondered why he didn't want to meet me at my own building, but didn't ask. When we greeted each other and sat down together, he explained that it might not be good for my career at FUM to be seen publicly with him. I assured him that I had no anxieties about who I was seen with. From then on, he came to visit me from time to time ... his strong, cheerful voice ringing out from the reception area: "I'm here to bait the Orthodox."

Thanks to Google, I found this lovely obituary for Ray, who died just a few weeks ago. (Thanks to Phil Gulley for letting me know. I never got to reassure Ray that my becoming a pastor here in Oregon did not lead to terminal corruption.)


Nancy A said...

Lately I've been looking at issues in "packages" because I think there's a real yin-yang to the way things develop. It just happens that at a time in history when scientific contraception is available, so are people marrying later in life, and so are people sexually active outside of marriage. One could not happen without the other because they are inextricably linked. So it strikes me as counter-productive to examine one of these issues without considering the other two.

My grandparents (both sets) married at 18. So did most people at that time. There was no sex outside of marriage because there was no reliable birth control, so you married in your teen years. There were also jobs for people who weren't well educated, so it all worked out.

Today, nobody wants their kids getting married at 18. Most will not get married for another decade. Is it in any way reasonable to expect them to remain celibate all that time? Will that not do harm to their health, mental health, and day-to-day happiness?

Are the people who are opposed to adult non-married sexual activity also proposing that we go back to marrying kids off at 18? Or are they just trying to hide from the whole issue of sexuality?

What's sexuality got to do with Christianity anyway? That's my question. Isn't sexual morality a red herring that draws our attention away from the real spiritual issues?

How can parents base their decision on college choices exclusively on the degree of sexual freedom? Is that all Christianity has become?

I don't get it.

Paul L said...

In reply to Nancy's question: "Are the people who are opposed to adult non-married sexual activity also proposing that we go back to marrying kids off at 18? Or are they just trying to hide from the whole issue of sexuality?"

I'm not "opposed" to adult non-marital sexual activity (unless "opposing" it means not engaging in it), but I think we should go back to marrying kids off at 18. Or 16 if possible and ask them to postpone their education and working lives until they're mature enough to handle it.

In my view -- roundly rejected by every right-thinking person I have shared it with -- is that the reason sexuality is a "problem" or "issue" with young people is that adults impose an unnatural moratorium on doin' what comes naturally for the ten or fifteen best years of their lives. It's as nuts to ask kids not to engage in sex as it wold be trying to tell them they shouldn't read until they're 12. We know they will, so we bend and alter the sexual pattern we know to be right and true -- monogamous, faithful, life-long sexual relationships -- and tolerate or even encourage sexual activity outside that kind of relationship, and work like crazy to protect them from the natural consequences of such activity.

We pretend that the reason we want them to defer having sex is that they aren't "emotionally mature" enough to be faithful mates or good parents at 16 or 18 or 20. But if that's true it's only because we've made it thus by emotionally crippling them in increasingly sophisticated day care centers called high school and college. Now, we want them to hold off even a little longer while they finish grad school, and if they can possibly do it, until they've begun their careers.

If we lived right, most people would mate and breed in their mid- to late-teens & earlly twenties when every strand of their DNA is pleading with them, and begin their vocational and economic careers later, when they had the emotional maturity to tolerate graduate school and the workplace.

Then we'd have workers who knew how to love, knew the value of sacrafice, had peacemaking and negotiation skills, how to maintain an ethos, and all the other things we learn as mates and parents.

But we don't live right, and so we have to pretend we believe new rules that we don't really believe, and despairingly spend our energy protecting young people from the consequences of their sexuality.

Sorry for beating this drum on your blog, Johan -- I may have to take courage and put it on my own -- but I think it relates directly to the questions you raised in your post.

Liz Opp said...

A short comment here about the "marriage at 18" comments.

My understanding about a not-too-distant time of marrying that young comes from the documentary film about same-sex marriage, Tying the Knot.

Within that documentary there are comments by historians about the institution of marriage. What I recall is that marriage used to be a tool for "improving" one's household:

If my brother has a farm (women didn't own property back then; women were property for a long time) and needs help working it, and the family in the next town over had a suitable daughter who had strong arms and a strong back, perhaps the daughter would be married off to my farmer brother... and perhaps the family in the neighboring village would receive some goods from the farm, now that the families were connected by marriage.

Sexual attraction and love had very little to do with marriage... until fairly recently, apparently.

Liz, The Good Raised Up

Johan Maurer said...

Wow, so many assumptions, I don't know where to start. It's clear that I disagree with a lot of the views expressed above, even as I very much appreciate the tender and friendly way those views were expressed.

Is it wrong to expect celibacy under certain conditions? I don't agree that people can't stay celibate if they are motivated to do so. None of us does everything we might like to do, if we're persuaded not to do so by reasons or in the context of relationships that have credibility for us.

Years ago, Mary Cosby (co-founder of the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC) spoke at Wilmington Yearly Meeting sessions. She said something that was very helpful to me: the sexual ethics of the Bible are not moral strictures. They are simple warnings, advance information, so to speak, like the road sign that says "Bridge freezes before road surface." Sex is dynamite, in more than one sense (as are psychic powers, for example--dangerous because they're real); if we treat sex casually or unethically, we, or someone, will get hurt. Over and over and over again, we find this to be true (as a friend and counselor, I have gone through this agony with so many), but still we act as if sex were yet another arena of self-indulgence or self-expression without community consequences.

People who claim immunity from the power of sex to hurt (not claimed by present company, I know) remind me of alcoholics who claim that they can still drink in moderation. There are soooo many rationalizations once one goes down that road.

This doesn't argue for the total sanctity and 100% 16-ton-safe-on-head certainty of punishment of any set of rules to deal with sex. Not at all! As Urban Holmes said, most sexual sin is "warm" sin, dangerous but preferable to the "cold" sin indifference, of apathy in the face of suffering.

Statistically, chastity and monogamy are improbable, and yet I'm convinced that redemption isn't reserved for the statistical "faithful remnant." I'm just not convinced that we do anyone any favor by dropping the expectation of self-control until marriage and monogamy within marriage. We who theorize so lightly are often not around to dry the tears of the disillusioned and betrayed. However (and here's where I probably have at least some common ground with other commenters), I don't know how you teach sexual ethics credibly if you don't allow young people, or anyone for that matter, to be real about the feelings they're experiencing, or help them understand how those feelings are actually positive, how restraint is a good thing that doesn't need to be denial of those feelings, and how to critique the sheer exploitation behind the immodesty of much popular culture. My sons have become very good at exposing that exploitation for what it is.

I think the holiness culture intuitively understands a lot about the power of sex and temptation, and vainly tries to protect people from those dangers. The liberal alternative has too often been to celebrate those same dangers, or be in denial about them. There must be something in between denying young people the right to dance, and blithely throwing them into dances without any tender, humane preparation for the sexual dimension of dancing.

As for marriage; you can find plenty of evidence in the Bible of the social and economic dimensions of marriage, clearly out of sync with what we now desire as an ideal. But that ideal is also found in the Bible--romance, companionship, passionate sexuality, friendship. It's all there. As with every appeal to biblical evidence, a lot hinges on the motives with which we approach the book.

The fact that sexual attraction and love often had little to do with marriage is a complex truth. Often in history the ideal WAS there, sometimes accessible only in, ahem, unofficial relationships; sometimes arranged and even forced marriages served social purposes other than those agreed to by the principals, and it is hard for us in a society based on the individual to understand societies based on the collective (nor do I particularly want to understand those societies, except to consider how to open them up). Nevertheless, sometimes genuine passion and long-term love did spring up in those marriages. In any case, warped and oppressive arrangements do not prove the ideals wrong or irrelevant; they just prove the human capacity to inflict evil.

Love and chivalry isn't the only thing that gets tromped on in oppressive social situations. People who have to work twenty hours a day to survive, or whose survival totally depends on factors beyond their control, as in subsistence agriculture in much of the world, do not have many of the elements we'd define as essential to quality of life. It's hard to understand the web of imperatives, visible and invisible, that constrain the lives of others, but that web should be taken into account in comparing them with us.

Thanks for beating various drums here! I appreciate you all.

Anonymous said...

There's a view that "everybody does it" but study after study shows that's not true. Many do, but many don't as well. It's hard to stay celibate, but many find it worth it. Instead of being defeatist, let's provide positive models for people to seek to live by.

It is true that we seem biologically designed to mate much younger than today's average marriage age in our society. There is a real tension between the changed pattern of extended adolescence and much later transition to full adulthood, and the biological drives which have not become later but in fact even earlier. We need to address these tensions, but I question whether the right way is to encourage people to play with fire. As Johan reminds us, many get burned and are hurt. Paul wasn't far off. Sexual union does unite us in some respects in a much deeper way. Our sexual lives can not be separated from the rest of our lives. Treating it solely, or mainly, as a biological urge separable from relationships that are much deeper doesn't make it so.

If you look at the factors which affect incidence of teenage sexual behavior, you will find that factors which tend to lead to greater incidence generally have other negative consequences (and are sometimes evil in themselves, like child abuse), and factors which tend to lead to lesser incidence generally have other positive consequences. Our families and faith communities should be upholding the good and positive in all areas of life, including our sexuality, and the better we do that the more healthy - physically, emotionally and spiritually - our youth will be as they grow up, and the better equipped to respond to the tensions of life in a positive manner.

The positive alternatives involve the yes as much as the no. My parents provided positive role models by the depth of their commitment to one another, and being open that include sexual intimacy between them. When they were both high school teachers at the same school, they were reprimanded for kissing on the steps, but they felt that this was a good example for the students, not a bad one. They taught by their lives more than their words that our sexuality reaches its its potential within the commitment of marriage.

Walker said...

I've not yet blogged at all about the Mohammed cartoon flap - the degree of the outrage seems so foreign to my Western sensibilities, yet I appreciate some call for restraint rather than gratuitously inciting anger just because "it's our right to".

You have a nice perspective on the affair - thanks.

Walker of Choosing Hope

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Walker.

You touched on a point that has nagged at me ever since I posted my original comments on the cartoon controversy.

I half expected someone to write a far angrier version of the comment you made: calling for "restraint rather than gratuitously inciting anger just because 'it's our right to.'"

Much of the Western commentary seems to have polarized around two positions:

First, there's the position of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and of others who, probably more than anyone else I know, understand the danger of this controversy for Christian-Muslim or "Western"-Muslim relationships--business, social, interfaith, and political. For them the danger is more than personal, but it is personal as well.

Living in a Muslim-dominated social context, the CPT workers and others who are motivated by a desire to serve, cannot help but empathize with their friends and neighbors who've been slapped in the face by apparent Western flippancy or discourtesy or worse. These workers' situation is made hazardous enough by their being associated with nations or coalitions who are perceived as not having Muslims' best interests at heart, without the added crisis of the cartoons.

I have been a financial supporter of CPT for a long time, and will continue to be indefinitely. I have far more respect for their particular expression of solidarity with Muslims in this controversy than I do with those who do not appear willing to pay the cost or understand the depth of commitment required to inhabit completely one religious identity while building deep and mutually respectful relationships with people who equally inhabit another religious identity, while living as guests and servants of a society largely formed by that other religion.

On the other hand, columnists such as Andrew Sullivan have a different priority. The best of them do not deny the requirements of courtesy, but they feel obliged to insist on intellectual honesty as they see it. There is no moral equivalency, in their view, between cartooning, no matter how insulting, and burning embassies, for example, or threatening to thrash participants in a gay parade in Russia, an intention Sullivan documents by linking to a reported statement from Russia's chief Muslim spokesperson. (That "chief" designation, to risk a tangent, is subject to dispute.) There's an asymmetry between Muslims demanding that their taboos be respected, and Muslims in Western countries beating their own daughters, or worse, for dating non-Muslims who are ethnically part of their host countries. Before being too glib about such discrepancies, of course, it would be important to document that the same Muslims who demand our self-restraint with respect to depicting their Prophet are the ones who punish their daughters for treating non-Muslims as less than respectable.

I am very troubled by some of the larger dimensions of this terrible controversy. Christians probably should not draw caricatures that are offensive to members of other religions, or engage publicly and provocatively in other behavior known to be offensive, regardless of whether we have the secular right to do so. Using that right is akin to eating food dedicated to idols--as St. Paul says, we may have the theoretical right, but actually to do so is a stumbling block.

Nevertheless, a relationship between Christians and Muslims cannot be based on servility and cowardice in either direction. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Andrew Sullivan (a Christian) or anyone else challenging false premises, opportunism, or apparent hypocrisy on the part of the anti-cartoonists. If the ban on images of Mohammed is not as absolute as some find convenient to assert, then go ahead, point it out. If those who protest against insulting Mohammed seem willing to tolerate revolting anti-Jewish propaganda, that is also an important reality check.

And to have a "right" but not to use it is also problematic. The angriest anti-cartoonists are attributing motives to the cartoonists that they have not gone to the trouble of researching; and for us or Europeans to cave in and pass anti-blasphemy laws or the like would seem to confirm their unjustified suspicions. I am all for building interfaith bridges and mutual courtesy on every possible occasion; but I'm also for honest conflict. To me it is outrageously blasphemous and a direct attack on God's character to suggest that God approves of suicide bombings. I won't draw a picture of Mohammed warning martyrs-in-training that the supply of virgins is low, but I reserve the right to express the same viewpoint as that cartoon, whether or not that ingratiates me with anyone.

Nancy A said...

I rather liked Paul's comment about returning "adulthood" to the teen years instead of keeping adolescents in artificial childhood. The Green Party (of which I'm a member) has policies along this line: adulthood at 14 with a civic ceremony; graduated licensing for voting, drinking, driving, etc. from that point up to age 18; each 14-year-old starts up a business of their own in the first year of high school; adolescent members of parliament.

The idea of adolescents reproducing has some real merits: improved outcomes for the babies, and reduced injuries to the mothers. Moreover, adolescents don't learn very well because their bodies are preoccupied with growth and development: they would certainly learn better in their 20s. However, this cultural transformation would depend entirely on a return to extended families and a fully funded childcare system so that people can return to school in the 20s. It would also promote rapid population growth, since generations would be 16 years apart, instead of 30. So it has merits and a few compelling drawbacks. Somebody should experiment with drawing up a cultural framework for this idea.

However, not wishing to promote a point-counterpoint argument here, I feel a need to point out some assumptions about celibacy and sexual morality in general. This may be where the more conservative and more liberal branches of Quakerism diverge, and I wouldn't want to focus on divergences. But many of these ideas come from outside Quakerism and need to be examined for merit.

1. The current US conservative obsession with celibacy and sexual morality is having some deep repercussions internationally. The Bush administration has now stopped funding safe-sex programs in AIDS-ridden parts of Africa, because it wants only to promote celibacy and faithfulness. Until this funding change, African nations had promoted a three-part program: celibacy, faithfulness, and condoms. The US has threatened all countries that promote condom use with a cut to their funding. So now many African countries have these ridiculous programs of checking all girls every month to see if they are still virgins. Never mind that there are many other options for sexual activity, some of which carry extremely high risks without condoms. And never mind that African AIDS rates are going up again, after finally starting to drop. All that the Bush administration cares about is its own ideas about sexual morality, even if that sexual morality is a sham, and even African people die as a result.

So then, is this morality?

2. A few years ago, certain states in the US introduced something called a "covenant marriage" which was to be a kind of marriage where it was more difficult to get a divorce. This was mystifying to us in Canada and seemed like an anti-divorce legislation. But the truth is that in many of the Bible-belt states, adolescents are taught that they can't have sex unless they are married. So whenever they want to have sex, they get married. Then once the affair is over, they get a divorce. It's not unusual in Bible-belt states to meet people who have 5 or 6 divorces. In order to meet the demands of sexual morality imposed on them, they play games with words of promise. And somehow, the churches approve of this.

Is this morality?

3. Over the last decade, the Catholic church went through an inner revolt called the We Are Church movement. With millions of signatures from all around the world, it demanded that the Church stop obsessing about sexual morality issues (abstinence, homosexuality, contraception, abortion, priesthood celibacy and maleness, etc.) and devote time to the "real" moral issues (poverty, social justice, peace, the environment). Their point was that the upper levels of clergy were obsessed with these sexual ideas, but the ordinary catholics wanted to work on more real-life issues. Ordinary catholics don't see sexuality as a religious issue. Of course, the We Are Church movement met with a deafening silence from Rome, and since then the pope has died, and good luck getting anywhere with this pope, that's all I can say.

Who was being more moral: the We Are Church movement, or the clergy hierarchy?

4. US preachers often give examples of the hurt and moral injury of young people involved in sexuality or talk about how these kids are the product of unhappy childhoods. But they always fail to talk about the other side: those who remain celibate and become bitter, lonely, unable to live; those who spend so much of their moral energy crushing their sexuality that they failed to grow as people; those who miss opportunities to live and regret it for the rest of their lives. I know far more of the latter than I do of the former. Moreover, since most (90%) Canadian adolescents are sexually active before the age of 18, we can't assume that they are all from broken homes.

The truth is sexuality at any time of our lives can do harm. And so can celibacy.

The larger question is: What is morality, and does sexuality have anything to do with it? Do we take our rules for living from scriptures that predate Christ, or do we base them on the teachings of Jesus? Jesus himself apparently did not marry. Was he celibate? We don't know. Some texts suggest he was, others suggest he wasn't. If it turns out he wasn't celibate, does that change Christianity? Does that make him not the Christ? One Christian woman told me it was offensive to her even to think about this topic. Is it offensive to think this? Is that what morality is?

In effect, the question is: What is our gospel? When we reduce our religion to its fundamentals, what is at the core? It's through choices that we reveal that core. For example, if you refuse to send your kids to a college because it does not forbid sexual activity, even though it has excellent programs in social justice, peace, the integrity of creation, and other Christ-centred subjects, then your gospel is sexual morality. When push comes to shove, that's the only thing that matters to you. Another example: If you vote for a political party that wants to restrict access to abortion, but also cuts social programs for the poor, starts violent unnecessary wars, commits human rights violations, uses torture, abuses democratic institutions, reduces civil freedoms, etc., then abortion is your gospel.

Is this what Christianity is? Are these truly moral priorities?

Watching certain factions in the Muslim world obsess on their rules for living and their morality ideas to the point of ignoring Mohammed's teachings (through violence, killing, harm to women, hatred of sacred groups, etc.) is enlightening. To what extent do we allow our ideas about moral living snuff out our gospel?