31 March 2016

Trust, the first testimony (now it gets personal)

For years, I've been claiming that the number one Quaker testimony isn't peace, simplicity, equality, integrity, etc. -- it's trust. Without trust in God and each other, we'll continue to employ the world's time-honored methods of violence, greed, elitism, regardless of our denominational mythologies.

About four years ago, I tried to sum all this up in a blog post entitled "Trust, the first testimony," in which I argued that trust is "the crucial link between faith (or conversion) and discipleship." I want to apply that assertion to a particularly tender area of our lives: sex.

What drove me to make these few observations was a pair of articles sent to me by people close to me:

1) "Girls Just Wanna Be Heard: In her new book, Nancy Jo Sales explores how teenage girls on social media provoke attention—but fails to show how they also demand respect."

2) "Is This the End of the Important, Inappropriate Literary Man?"

Both of these articles (and many of the links embedded in them) are important on their own merits. They reveal some of the sharp dilemmas involved in reporting on how sexual intimacy is solicited, resisted, imposed, and exposed. These articles helped me realize that, even as a teacher of teens and young adults here in Russia, occasionally entrusted with glimpses into their nonacademic realities, I have lived a sheltered life for decades. May these articles provoke many helpful conversations, even conflicts where needed.

As a Christian, and specifically as a male Christian, I see a major untouched area in these conversations. I want to understand how to add this underrepresented element -- you guessed it, the element of trust -- not just into insider Christian conversations, but into the wider secular conversation. If it's already there and my sheltered situation keeps me from hearing about it, I'd like to know.

And here's why: trust is not just a discipleship issue, it is (I believe) wonderfully erotic.

Rhetorical question number one: Isn't it true that when lovers trust each other, their intimacy gains freedom and passion? After all, they are in putting themselves in situations of incredible physical and emotional vulnerability. Doesn't safety and security count for something? When risks are taken, can't they be taken more readily if communication is utterly open and forgiveness is already part of the covenant?

More questions: what are the long-term implications of trust? I remember Mary Cosby telling an audience at Wilmington Yearly Meeting that biblical teachings on sexual faithfulness had nothing to do with God wanting us not to have too much fun: it was more analogous to the signs that warn us, factually, that BRIDGE FREEZES BEFORE ROAD SURFACE. As much as we might like to believe in recreational, unattached sex, are we truly ready to deny the devastating effect of betrayal, whether or not that impact was anticipated by either or both partners?

What struck me forcefully in those articles I cited above is our culture's failure to tell men (and I suppose not only men) that their desire to have sex at any given moment is NOT SACRED. It in fact CAN BE RESISTED. No matter how strong our personalities, no matter how accustomed we've become to being flattered and even seduced, no matter how much we enjoy projecting our influence through specifically sexual channels, we have no more right to manipulate anyone into disadvantageous sexual situations than we have to drive our beloved sportscars through town at 150 mph.

Are there things we can teach sexually energetic people that respect their personalities and give them honest guidance about how to manage the task of being trustworthy sexual beings? When I joined the staff of Friends World Committee back in 1983, my colleague Gordon Browne told me that, when I traveled in the ministry, opportunities for recreational sex would pop up, often as a side-consequence of being seen as a safe mediator in local congregations' difficult situations. If I hadn't been alerted in advance to the seductiveness of the visiting-hero role, I would likely have found out about it the wrong way.

Working a twelve-step program in light of my family's legacy of alcoholism also proved very helpful in managing sexual yearnings. Just as my father hid stashes of alcohol around the house, I learned that we can develop human "stashes" ... people who serve in our minds as fantasy candidates for future sexual adventures, should the opportunities present themselves. These insights don't at all guarantee sainthood or prevent temptation, they're simply tools to reinforce the deliberate work of being trustworthy.

Let's put it all a bit more positively: there doesn't seem to be a lot of teaching or testimony on the wonderful outcomes that resisting gratification can have in the long run. Isn't the best form of seduction -- if that is what you want to call it -- the cultivation of honest mutual trust? This is where discipleship and eroticism meet: the lifelong task of being trustworthy, in all its daily challenges and recovery from failures, leading to relationships that far exceed any "conquest" in sheer passion and enduring sweetness.

We should also be honest about the appetite for novelty that is part of the mythology of unbounded recreational sex. Sorry, it's not a lifestyle; it's an addiction, plain and simple. Novelty is just one facet of sexual experience, but its exaggerated importance leads to depression, jail, or death, just like any other fatal addiction -- not to mention the consequences for partners, assuming you're not a total sociopath.

So this might be the proposition that the disciple can discuss with the secular conversation partner: deferring gratification for the sake of building trust has a huge long-term erotic payoff. Just as with every other aspect of Quaker discipleship, we are going back through the flaming sword into the paradise of God, where there was no hierarchy, greed, or violence, and where we were naked and unashamed.

Friday PS: A bit more on that issue of men (or anyone it pertains to) learning that their desire for sex isn't sacred:

What seems to be happening is that we no longer tolerate the assumption that "boys will be boys." I remember the crushing disillusionment that came when I heard about charges that some male Friends in Canadian Yearly Meeting were behaving as sexual predators. Not very many, true, but in those very first years I was a Quaker, I had this giddy impression that Canadian Yearly Meeting was some kind of idealistic alternative world. OK, I was naive (and my personal life was not at the saintliest level, for that matter), but I wasn't entirely wrong. My mentors and most of the people I admired were just as wonderful as I thought they were. But not everyone.... Being male, I was not a target of the behavior at the center of the complaints. I was clueless and oblivious. As it turned out, generations of Quaker daughters had been told the same thing that girls were being told in the secular world: the best response to predatory behavior was to endure, avoid, and pass the warnings quietly along the grapevine, rather than making a fuss. But the historical moment had arrived when that conventional wisdom was finally rejected.

When anonymous reports of predatory behavior are published, or borderline predators are accused on social networks, such as the Jezebel article above describes, injustices are bound to happen. Not every accusation will emerge from a 100% clear-cut predator/victim encounter. My point is that sexually aggressive people are now living in a far riskier world, and they have to face the question of whether their preferred lifestyle and image are really worth it.

A related issue: the disconnect between Christians in the Atlantic culture, primarily western Europe and North America and related nations, and Christians in the rest of the world. Sometimes the issue of homosexuality is the hot fault line in the breakdowns between those two broad camps, as exemplified by the tensions in the Anglican communion worldwide. But I think there are deeper issues relating to the different ways we understand the relationship between individual and community. For one thing, some societies whose majorities live at a subsistence level simply don't get the Western individualistic attitude toward sex as an unbounded recreational activity. I've heard Kenyan Quakers ask bluntly: "Why is sexual freedom so much more important than economic justice?"

The challenge doesn't go in just one direction, however. Sometimes I suspect that non-Western Christian leaders use morality as a rhetorical club when convenient for confronting Westerners who defend sexual and reproductive freedom, but they don't then turn around and scrutinize the behaviors of their own predators. Male-dominated leadership patterns are not exactly guaranteeing justice in their own territories.

Again, trust turns out to have a central role. If our only source of unity comes from finding out whether we have the same allies and the same enemies, we will remain divided. When we determine that the only unity worth having is in Christ, we can begin to let down our guard long enough to explore tenderly what that most precious unity actually looks like.

More on trust and consent: What's so urgent about sex?

... from Matrimony in the True Church: The Seventeenth-Century Quaker Marriage Approbation Discipline, by Kristianna Polder:

Oregonian writer's quick thinking on Dutch Bros coffee story earned her a zillion hits. (And her original story.)

Greek Catholics respond to appeal of Orthodox intellectuals.

Earlier this month, the mathematician and poet Aleksandr Esenin-Volpin died. He was the son of the great "peasant-poet" Sergei Esenin. Among the many tributes to Esenin-Volpin, here's one that honors his civic courage.

While we're at it: A literary map to the Moscow metro.

Mother is it ok if I call you mama?
My own walked away when I broke the law
And standing on the bridge
Feeling like falling
Would you pray for me mama?
St. Teresa
Have mercy on my soul

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