A Better Root For Human Intimacy

April 8, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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Two stories recently hit the headlines, one which made a big splash and one which went largely unnoticed.

In the story that made a big splash, last week, the nation of Brunei enacted new penalties for certain sexual acts.  Amy Gunia reports for Time:

Despite international condemnation, Brunei enacted new Islamic criminal laws Wednesday, including harsh anti-LGBT measures that make gay sex punishable by stoning to death.  The implementation of the draconian penal code is part of the predominantly Muslim country’s rollout of Sharia law …

Homosexuality was already illegal in Brunei, but it was previously punishable with prison time.  The new legislation mandates death by stoning for gay sex and a number of other acts, including rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sex and insulting the Prophet Muhammed.

The new penal code also punishes lesbian sex through whipping and theft with amputation, and criminalizes teaching children about any religion except Islam.

The second story that made headlines, albeit in a much more modest way, was last month’s repeal of some anti-adultery laws, still officially on the books, though not enforced, in the state of Utah.  Paulina Dedaj explains for Fox News:

The governor of Utah signed a bill repealing a 1973 law that criminalized sex outside marriage … The offense, which was not enforced by police, was classified as a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. 

These two stories pull in two very different directions.  But both of them point to just how contentious questions concerning human sexuality have become.

It must be stated that the new penalties in Brunei are nothing short of appalling.  Stoning people is inhumane as a matter of course, regardless of the reason behind it.  But, especially for Christians, stoning people for crossing sexual boundaries should have a special kind of cringe factor to it when one stops to consider how Jesus, in a story from John 8, advocates for a woman caught in the act of adultery by sending her accusers, who wanted to stone her, away.

The repeal of Utah’s law banning sex outside of marriage, though certainly not as flashy as the story out of Brunei, is also worthy of our attention and consideration.  Using legislation to uphold the kinds of sexual mores Utah’s law did, even if those mores are laudable, strikes me as a recipe for corruption and selective enforcement.  Corruption and selective enforcement are certainly endemic to the story of that woman caught in adultery.  Her interlocutors are unquestionably corrupt and selective in how they enforce their penalty of stoning, considering that they bring only her, and not the man in the tryst, in front of Jesus to face the death penalty.  Though I am a wholehearted proponent of traditional sexual morality, I’m not sure if what is moral always requires codification by what is legal.

I am thankful that there are certain pieces of sexual legislation on our books.  The criminalization of pedophilia, for example, is wise and needed for the protection of our most vulnerable.  I also wish we had more legislation bearing down on the pornography industry, which makes its billions by flagrantly degrading the dignity of human beings and, as with pedophilia, by preying on society’s most vulnerable by enticing them with money to humiliate themselves on camera to churn out a never-ending stream of smut.

With this being said, however, the larger debate over sexual mores will take something more than legislation to solve, especially when it comes to the hot-button sexual debates of our day, which often center not so much around widely agreed upon boundaries to sexual activity, but around deeper contentions concerning sexual identity.

In the West especially, views on human sexuality are broadly rooted in two things:  the sentimental and the carnal.  The sentimental root of sex is what we generally think of as romantic love.  Two people fall in love and express their love for each other sexually.  The weakness in this root however, as countless broken marriages and relationships can testify, is that the feeling of love can dry up with time or, as many who have affairs will argue, can even shift to another person.  This root by itself, therefore, is not sufficient as a foundation for human sexuality.  This root is simply not rooted enough.

The carnal root of sex is usually conceived of as the uninhibited expression of desire – or, to put it more bluntly, as lust.  This root of sex is what drives the pornography industry’s ubiquity and the hookup culture found on many college campuses.  The weaknesses in this root are manifold.  People are objectified.  Some are even raped.  And relationships rooted in carnality have literally no chance – and that is not an exaggeration – of lasting.  Such relationships are fundamentally selfish.  And selfishness is a sin that sexual commitment and wholeness cannot endure.

One of the unique gifts that Christianity brings to today’s debates over human sexuality is that while it celebrates the importance of love in sexual relationships and readily acknowledges and makes provisions for the reality that people struggle with carnal lust, it offers human sexuality another – and, I would argue, better – root.  It adds to the sentimental and to the carnal the aspirational.  This root sees human sexuality as something that reaches beyond the private love of two individuals and certainly beyond the fleshly lusts of one individual and seeks to reflect something of God’s love and His created order in its expression of human love and our relational order.  This aspirational root, rather than self-righteously condemning people who fall short of it, grieves over sexual sin and gently invites sexual sinners to turn from their sin and aim higher, just as Jesus does with the woman caught in adultery when He invites her to, “Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11).  The Christian aspirational root of sex trades the brutality of Brunei for the blessings of rightly ordered relationships and the legislative problems of Utah for the redemption won by Christ.

The best picture of aspirational sexuality can be found in Christian marriage, which is itself an aspirational picture of Christ’s love for the Church – a love so deep that it led Him to lay down His life on a cross.  On the cross, perfect righteousness and infinite forgiveness meet.  May we, as those who follow Christ, aspire to hold forth to sexual sinners what Christ first held out to us from the cross.  He is our way forward.

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