For those who have been sexually abused and assaulted, what follows may be difficult to read.
I’ve heard a few jokes that start out, “A priest, a pastor and a rabbi … ” But it’s been a while. These days, I don’t hear much of anything funny about priests and pastors.
In fact, the news lately has been so “unfunny” I’m having trouble typing this editorial. I’m having trouble processing the sheer magnitude of the problem of sex in religious circles, in our circles.
There was a time when the problem with sex in religious circles was we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t talk about what husbands and wives do to become parents. We didn’t talk about how marriages are strengthened by … you know … um … well, physical intimacy. We didn’t talk about the gift and the wonder of part of God’s design. We didn’t talk about the blessing of sex.
We did talk about the dangers of sex. We talked about living in sin. We talked about the shame of sleeping with someone outside of marriage. We sniggered and blushed and shushed.
We talked about some of the dangers of sex, but not all of them.
We didn’t tell children how to avoid sexual predators or what to do when they couldn’t avoid them. When the unspeakable happened, perhaps because we didn’t talk to them, our children didn’t talk to us. Perhaps because sex was so shameful, so unspeakable in itself, so dangerous, our children were easily silenced by their abusers. Not all of them, but most of them.
Later, much later, when so many became brave enough to speak, we didn’t believe them. We said, “You’re making that up. It’s a case of faulty memory. He wouldn’t have done that. You seem to be doing just fine.”
We hushed them when they were terrified of the men we all trusted, the men our children were supposed to trust. We stayed silent about people—usually men, but sometimes women—who we knew acted inappropriately with other people. We came up with reasons why, surely, he, of all people, couldn’t have done … that. I mean, he doesn’t look like a pervert.
And now it seems all we can talk about are the scandals of sex.
After so long a silence …
After so long a silence, the stones are crying out.
Why were they—why were we—silent so long? Why didn’t they tell us sooner? Why didn’t we speak up sooner?
Whatever the reason, silence reigned, but now, it’s time to talk.
No, simply talking about sex wouldn’t have stopped the evils of sexual predation. No, talking about sex is not a magic spell to ward off destructive behavior. But talk is powerful, at least as powerful as silence.
Being tongue-tied about the sensual and the sacred may be behind our silence.
Perhaps one reason we haven’t talked about sex is that we struggle to escape Gnosticism.
Gnosticism is that ancient philosophy New Testament writers attempted to combat. Gnosticism, with a silent “g,” is the idea that the sacred (or spiritual) and the secular (or flesh) must not come into direct contact with each other and therefore are separated by many layers through which a person can progress only with special knowledge (gnosis).
According to this philosophy, Jesus could not be simultaneously God and human. In no way could Holy God take on flesh, not directly. In no way could the sacred be defiled by skin. As a result, Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion must be understood as something other than a mixture of body and spirit.
An expression of Gnosticism is seen in the way religious people avoid talking about sex. For us, sex is all-too-human, leading us to question whether things like sexual pleasure could possibly be blessed by God. With such questions, we insinuate all things sexual are strictly secular, mere sensuality. We insinuate that elevating the sexual to the sacred is tantamount to sacrilege.
What is sensual, and what is sacred?
Merriam-Webster defines sensual in part as “relating to or consisting in the gratification of the senses or the indulgence of appetite, fleshly; voluptuous; deficient in moral, spiritual or intellectual interests.”
By this common definition, we give the term “sensual” a narrow, negative meaning. A broader understanding of “sensual” suggests a celebration and enlivening of the senses. I wonder if God’s creation of the senses is something to celebrate or something to abhor.
Merriam-Webster defines sacred in part as “worthy of religious veneration, holy; entitled to reverence and respect; inviolable; highly valued and important.”
Being religious people, we believe we have a firm grasp of the sacred and don’t need it defined. Given our confidence in knowing the sacred, I wonder if we can accept sex and the sensual as sacred.
I hope so. We are all here because of it, and I consider each of us to be sacred.
The real perversion of sexual abuse
I wonder if merely suggesting mixing the two, of sacralizing sensuality and sensualizing sacredness, gives us cold sweats.
After all, isn’t the tainting of the sacred with the sensual the very problem with which we started this discussion? Isn’t the sexual abuse of people by religious leaders the very perversion of God’s good creation we are trying to avoid, a problem only made worse by connecting the sacred and the sensual?
The real perversion of sexual abuse is not that it connects the sacred and the sensual but that one uses the other to achieve its ends.
To undo the perversion of the sacred and the sensual requires more than removing all the sexual predators from our churches, schools and workplaces. It requires more than separating sexual predators from those they can hurt.
To undo the perversion of the sacred and the sensual requires us to recognize our complicity.
Redeeming the good from the evil
Sex is as sacred as Jesus is God and as sensual as Jesus is human. And yes, I am aware of how provocative a statement that is.
Sex is not only a sensual thing; it is also sacred. As I’ve already stated, you and I are here because of it.
You and I, these tangled webs of sacred and sensual, we must listen. We must hear the stories of boys and girls whose sacredness was violated by the sensual, damaging both the body and the spirit. We must agree the act was wrong and grieve the wrongness of it. We must untangle the web we’ve woven, holding the sacred in one hand and the sensual in the other, and we must reweave with God the tapestry of God’s good creation, joining in the work of redemption and restoration.
I’m not talking “thoughts and prayers,” here. I’m talking about taking people seriously when they report sexual abuse. I’m talking about hearing them out completely and validating their stories. I’m talking about standing with people when they need to notify the authorities. I’m talking about you making that notification yourself when the situation calls for it (such as when a minor reports abuse). I’m talking about extending grace above shame to a person who feels dirty, spoiled and ruined. I’m talking about walking what may be a long road of advocacy, friendship and recovery.
May the evil we can no longer ignore lead us to the good we will talk about.