On sex and strangers

February 21, 2012
Susie Guenther Loewen |

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been giving a lot of thought to questions about sexuality since the Mennonite Church Canada Assembly last summer, where it was decided that the discussion on issues of sexual orientation would continue. Though many aren’t happy with the decision, I think it’s positive, because it means homosexuality is being taken seriously as a relatively unexplored area of ethics for Mennonites, and an area in which we need to reflect further from a specifically theological perspective. A hasty decision that anything goes or that we’ll just follow whatever the rest of society says when it comes to sexuality wouldn’t be helpful or respectful.

As I see it, our theological reflection on sexuality has to get beyond the impasse of heterosexuality versus homosexuality, because sexual ethics are more complex than that. When we think of what a good marriage involves, we speak of the importance of mutuality, commitment (or covenant), and loving intimacy, and we speak against manipulation or the view of sex as an abusive power over someone else. Aren’t these specific and concrete aspects of a marriage relationship more important than the assumption that marriages are ethical or unethical just because they’re heterosexual or homosexual, respectively? For example, a same-sex marriage based on loving respect and profound mutuality is arguably more in keeping with Jesus’ way of peace than a heterosexual marriage involving rape. I find it very hard to see how the latter is more faithful than the former.

I don’t think it’s a matter of moving beyond the Bible, though. Instead, it’s a matter of reading the Bible differently. We tend to zero in on scattered, contentious passages which speak of a form of homosexuality that was abusive and didn’t resemble present-day understandings of same-sex marriage. So we seem to be undergoing a significant shift in how we define marriage, which makes everyone a bit nervous. But, as Mennonite theologian Lydia Neufeld Harder highlights (see this book, p. 54), a similarly major shift is recorded in the Bible: the shift from polygamous marriages being acceptable, and even faithful, to monogamy being the only faithful form of marriage. So this isn’t the first time people of faith have had to wrestle with a redefinition of sexuality – though the Bible doesn’t tell us exactly how they went about it (wouldn’t that have been helpful! Maybe the minutes from the monogamy committee meeting are still around somewhere…).

When we’re faced with other ethical questions, we don’t turn first to a set of Old Testament laws condemning certain foods and condoning capital punishment by stoning. Instead, we turn to Jesus’ example and interpretation of the law – and he highlights the Jubilee laws in Leviticus 25 (all about redistributing wealth and land), as well as the call to love God and neighbour, or even the stranger (Lev. 19:34). Scholar Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos finds this latter image meaningful for thinking about the church in relation to gay and lesbian people (see this book, p. 72-73). If Christ calls us to welcome strangers, as he himself welcomed and accepted people who were considered outsiders in his society, then it’s to be expected that we are to welcome other people without fully understanding them or agreeing with them – as strangers, as “other.” It’s key to notice that among the outcasts whom Jesus welcomed are those whose behaviour was considered sexually questionable – prostitutes and the woman caught in adultery are just two examples. Equally important, though, is that Jesus seems to have recognized these people as capable of repenting of their wrongdoing and being held accountable to the ways of the kingdom of God – for instance, he tells the woman caught in adultery that she is forgiven, but adds: “from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). As I see it, this points out that Jesus wasn’t “unconditionally” accepting when it came to sexuality – loving faithfulness and marital commitment were important for him (see Matt. 5:27-31). This is why I think it’s important and respectful to encourage every couple in our churches to be accountable to these standards, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Is that something we can agree on, at least as a starting place? Ironically, if church communities bless the commitment of marriage for all of the couples in their midst, this shows that what we do sexually matters, and is part of living out our faith together. Saying that anything goes, as our society does, leaves people on their own, with no guidance, when it comes to sexuality, and sends the message that it really doesn’t matter how we treat each other as sexual beings. Are we really going to fall for that, and empty sex of all meaning?

But while marriages such as the lovely picture above (found here) may be a part of the life of faith for some, it’s by no means the only – or even the central – component of our faith. Jesus, after all, never married. Living in community, welcoming strangers, making peace, admitting where we’ve gone wrong and truly forgiving one anther – these are all central aspects of following the way of Jesus Christ. Before making rash pronouncements condemning those who don’t share our view – something both sides of the sexuality debate have done – I hope we’ll keep these central aspects of our faith in mind. Thinking further about this isn’t going to be easy or quick. It’s much easier to just split up our denomination, to simply turn the stranger away (as many have), or leave the church (as many have). But what if we decided, together, to have the courage, imagination, and grit to keep on going, to work this thing out, and not back away from it? God works, after all, in mysterious ways, like in that discomforting call to love strangers, and even, when it comes right down to it, our enemies.

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