Sex and nonviolence

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
18 Nov 2010

Paul cringed with embarrassment as the semi-naked woman produced a gun and began shooting at her big-screen co-stars. As a university chaplain, he had invited several American exchange students to the cinema. They now stood up and walked out.

“It was pretty violent, wasn't it?” said Paul, as he apologised afterwards. The students looked uncomprehending. After a brief conversation, he realised that it wasn't the guns that had offended them. It was the breasts.

Christians have often treated sex, sexuality and even nudity as far more serious subjects than violence. It is difficult to imagine the Anglican church threatening schism because a diocese on the other side of the world appointed a pacifist bishop. A minister's position on nuclear weapons is rarely of such major concern to a congregation as who he/she sleeps with.

The words “sex and violence” are frequently coupled, not least by Christians. This is bizarre. After all, virtually all Christians – whether pacifists or not - regard war and other forms of violence as extremely undesirable. Sex on the other hand is a gift from God and a cause for rejoicing. It can be abused, trivialised and made a means to hurt others, but in itself, when used properly, it is surely a good thing.

Bombs not sex toys

It is not only Christians who are confused about sex and violence. British society is deeply inconsistent about them. The owner of a small firm selling sex toys online told me that a major bank had refused to handle her account as they had ethical objections. The same bank has millions invested in the arms trade.

Successive governments have condemned gun crime while subsidising arms sales to brutal regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Death penalty advocates frequently describe themselves as “pro-life”. In a society that is supposed to be sexually liberated, the people whose voices are heard least include those who are forcefully deprived of the freedom to make sexual choices – rape victims, trafficked sex workers and abused children.

Of course, there is more sexual freedom than there was fifty years ago. We are saturated with sexual imagery. Yet for many, sexual matters remain a cause of embarrassment, low self-esteem or distress. Our history of negativity about sex is deeply ingrained – how often have you used the word “rude” when you really meant “sexual”?

Despite the secular acceptance of divorce and homosexuality, sexuality remains constrained by highly questionable expectations. If you doubt this, watch a few mainstream romantic comedies. Singleness is presented as something to be overcome. Casual sex is the norm. Genuine friendships with ex-partners are virtually unheard of and jealousy can't be controlled. Stereotypes are reinforced, with men desperate for sex and gay people tolerated only as marginal characters.

Abusive churches

It would be good to think that Christians are bringing some clarity and truth to this situation, but much of the time we seem to be making things worse. The global child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church has made it almost impossible in some circles for Christians to be taken seriously on matters of sexual ethics. Non-Catholics have no cause for complacency; all churches will be tainted by association. The vast majority of both Catholics and other Christians are appalled by the abuse and its cover-up, but this does not mean we can avoid asking ourselves some tough questions. The first of these is: does Christian theology really have anything helpful to say about sexual abuse?

Christians who oppose homosexuality and all sex outside formal marriage need to consider whether they spend more time condemning these practices than working against sexual violence. Nor are things any easier for those of us who like to see ourselves as inclusive. Repelled by the Church's history of sexual repression, some Christians are so keen to be positive about sex that they seem to have forgotten its dark side: rape, child abuse, domestic violence, adultery, prostitution, trafficking, the pressure on people to have sex when they are not ready, sexual imagery in advertising to make profits for the rich, sex that is without care or respect for the other person involved.

Of course, inclusive Christians oppose these things. But are they an add-on to our views, a disclaimer at the bottom of the page? Or is this an active opposition that flows from an understanding of sexual ethics that is as firm in working against abuse as it is about celebrating healthy, Godly sexuality?

Just war?

If we ask ourselves how Christianity got into such confusion over sex and violence, we need to go back a long way. In the fourth century, the Roman Empire ended its marginalisation of Christians and began to promote the Church. While Christians had been drifting away from Jesus' social radicalism since the first century, this was a change on a different scale. Stuart Murray Williams calls it the “Christendom shift”. For more than a millennium and a half afterwards, Christianity in Europe was allied with political and cultural power.

With the beginning of Christendom, previously persecuted Christians found they were the new allies of empire. The empire sent troops to kill its name, and many Christians abandoned their former rejection of violence. Theologians came up with a Christian version of 'just war', a notion that had been developed by the pagan thinker Cicero. Augustine of Hippo saw war as a regrettable last resort. He told a soldier that “peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity”. His criteria for “just war”, while not always clear, would rule out the vast majority of wars ever fought.

But over time, the definition of just war has been stretched to breaking point. In the Falklands war of 1982, Christian leaders in both the UK and Argentina claimed that their country was fighting a just war. The just war theorist Rienhold Niebuhr was even prepared to countenance the use of nuclear weapons.

Augustine may well be turning in his grave at this abuse of his theory, but by focusing on the justifications for warfare, he and his allies had broken the automatic linking of violence with sin.

Guilty babies

This was helped along by another doctrine of Augustine's - 'original sin'. Earlier Christians had spoken of humanity's tendency to sin, but Augustine claimed that sin itself is hereditary - newborn babies are guilty. This was a new idea. It contrasted with the views of earlier Christians, such as Gregory of Nyssa, who insisted that all are born innocent. Augustine taught that sex should be used only for reproduction, but even then, the couple are transmitting sin to their child. Sex, said Augustine, “would drag through the ages the burden of original sin”.

As Karen Armstrong puts it, Augustine's notion of original sin “would become central to the way western people view the world”. Over time, contempt for sex, pregnancy and the body fuelled the subordination of women and sexual minorities. A doctrine that puts the focus of sin on sexual behaviour has proved far more amenable to the powerful than theologies which denounce sins of warfare and oppression.

Between them, the doctrines of just war and original sin have reverberated down the centuries, keeping the focus of sin on sex, and away from violence.

Unholy legacy

For the last half-century, Christendom has been in decline, both in Britain and elsewhere. Plurality and multiculturalism are taking its place. The end of Christendom should be good news for Christians, as it helps us to rediscover our roots on the margins of society, standing with the vulnerable and free to speak out against the powerful. Jesus never taught his followers to seek power for themselves that they denied to others.

But we cannot simply shrug off Christendom as if it never existed. Its legacy hangs over us like an unexcorcised demon. A significant number of Christians cling on to the vestiges of Christendom – bishops in the House of Lords, privileges for faith schools, opt-outs from equality legislation. In recent years, Christians have shown themselves capable of effectively championing social justice with campaigns such as Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History. But the influence of Christendom still hampers churches' ability to stand up for a better world.

Take the example of nuclear arms. A number of denominations are campaigning against the government's plan to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system. The Methodist Church has been one of the most outspoken. The Methodist Church has also produced a glossy booklet entitled Celebrating 150 Years of Ministry to the Armed Forces 1860-2010. It leaves ethical issues virtually unmentioned. Most other denominations also have an uncritical approach to military chaplaincy.

Unarmed forces

I have no doubt that chaplains do a very valuable job providing pastoral care to those who face danger and death in a way that is unimaginable to most of us. But military chaplaincy operates in a structure inherited from Christendom. Chaplains become members of the forces themselves, taking ranks and swearing oaths of allegiance. Their independence is compromised by loyalty to the state. And there are no formal chaplains to the unarmed forces – aid workers, human rights monitors and others who put their lives at risk in war zones while never picking up a weapon.

Whether we see violence as always wrong or as an occasional regrettable necessity, our witness is severely weakened by allowing Christian ministers to become subordinate to an institution which requires people to engage in violence whenever ordered to do so. How much stronger would the Methodists' witness be if they declared that Methodist chaplains would encourage soldiers to disobey orders if told to deploy nuclear weapons?

The shadows of Christendom similarly pervade our debates about sexuality and relationships. A good many Christians are still attached to 'traditional family values'. Such values have more to do with an impulse to social control and respectability than with the Christ who redefined his family as “whoever does the will of God” (Mark 3,35) and said he had come “to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother” (Matthew 10,35). On the other side of the fence, liberal Christians can be so appalled by Christendom's history of sexual control that they are nervous of speaking of sexual sin at all and their views appear as a pale reflection of secular liberalism, however spiritual their motivations may be.

A different power

To overcome Christendom, we need to turn to Christ. Whereas Christendom sought to accommodate the Gospel to the powers of this world, Jesus pointed the way to a different type of power altogether.

Luke tells us that before Jesus was even born, Mary praised God who has “brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1,52). Matthew shows us the newborn Jesus already in conflict with Herod's authority. Jesus saved his harshest words for people who abused their power. This is not to say he considered others guiltless. When socialising with prostitutes and well-known sinners, there is no suggestion he condoned their sins. But he may also have seen them as the victims of others.

Jesus lived in a society of deeply uneven power – between Roman and Jew, man and woman, rich and poor, clean and unclean. Violence generally involves a misuse of power over another person or people. Violence in this sense includes not only physical violence, but emotional violence and all that causes harm to people's relationships with each other and God. It includes the structural violence of oppressive political and economic systems.

Jesus’ teachings on violence make sense only in the context of power. When he said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”, he was addressing people used to being hit. Someone can be struck on the right cheek by the right hand only if the aggressor is using the back of his/her hand. This was the way in which people humiliated supposed inferiors. Wives were backhanded by husbands, slaves by masters and Jewish civilians by Roman soldiers. Jesus advocated neither violent resistance nor cowering submission but an assertion of dignity. Turning the other cheek signals to the aggressor that he/she has failed to humiliate the intended victim.

Love in action

As Christians, we are called to witness to a power that is radically different to the powers of violence and wealth that sustain kings and empires. The power proclaimed by Christ can work through a beaten slave, through amazed fisherman and perplexed prostitutes.
The peace campaigner Helen Steven wrote of how her activism was strengthened by her deepening understanding of Jesus:

"For a few moments I had experienced a power and outrage beyond myself, and this showed me that that special power which Jesus had is also available to me... It was precisely this very question of authority and source of power that constituted the offence of Jesus to the religious leaders of his time... So now it came to me with blinding clarity that claiming this power and letting it drive where it must, leads straight into trouble."

It is this power that makes active nonviolence possible. Nonviolence is love in action. It rejects violence in all forms – physical, emotional and structural. We are all complicit in violence to some extent, for example by participating in an exploitative economic system. We are all sinners. Nonviolence means seeking to overcome this, changing both the system and ourselves.

Nonviolence is not passivity, neutrality or the avoidance of conflict. Nonviolent conflict is essential to challenge the power of violence. Nor does a commitment to nonviolence involve certainty about how we would react in any given situation. It means seeking to live by a different power than the power of money, markets and military might.

Sexual violence

So if the New Testament focus of sin is on violence and power abuse, what are we to say about sex? Should we assume that sexual ethics don’t matter much? This approach is tempting to those keen to avoid controversy, but there are two major problems with it. The first is that for most people, sex and sexuality matter a great deal. The second is that some of the worst violence in the world is sexual violence.

Sexual violence is a term that can rightly be applied to any abusive form of sexual expression – a child violated by a parent, a woman raped and beaten by her husband, a teenager pressurised into sex he does not want, a man who deceives his partner by denying he is sleeping with someone else. Sexual abuse is deeply sinful not because it is sexual but because it is violent in a sexual context. It involves the intrusion of violence into an area of life that should be full of love, affection and mutuality.

The prevalence of sexual violence is a reminder that our own society perpetuates deeply unequal power structures. So what happens if we approach questions of sexuality from the angle of nonviolence?

As with other areas of Jesus' teachings, his comments on sexuality are illuminated when we look at issues of power. Jesus criticised divorce in a society that generally allowed only men to initiate a divorce, which could throw a woman into desperation or poverty. He insisted that a man who looks at a married woman with a hope of sex has already committed adultery in his heart (Matthew 5,28). The Greek phrase puts the responsibility so much on the man that Kurt Neiderwimmer translates the line as “already abused her by adultery”. This was in contrast to the dominant view of the time, which blamed women for tempting men into lust. Jesus saw where power really lay and encouraged his listeners to take responsibility for their sexual behaviour.

Context is all

Living out our sexuality nonviolently cannot be reduced to a set of convenient rules that take no account of context. Certain behaviours are clearly abusive. But for many others, careful, prayerful reflection is required to discern their real nature. We cannot decide whether a form of sexual expression is violent simply by whether it looks violent at first glance. A married man may seem thoroughly respectable, but if he spends time looking at pornography without his wife's knowledge, he is abusing her trust and love. A kinky sex act involving physical pain obviously appears violent, but what if it is an expression of love between a faithful couple who have thought about it carefully and who use it to strengthen their relationship rather than damage it?

Oceans of ink and vast reserves of energy have been thrown into Christian debates on sexuality. I suspect progress is hampered partly because we keep asking the same questions, and then shouting our contrasting answers at each other. Speaking of sexuality in terms of nonviolence provides a different starting-point, while not being without its own challenges. Like other forms of nonviolence, it is an attempt to witness to a different power than the type understood by the pimp and the arms dealer. It is an ethic more concerned with our relationships with God and with each other than with the convenience of conformity or the cop-out of tradition.

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(c) Symon Hill is Associate director of Ekklesia. This article appeared originally in the November 2010 issue of Third Way magazine. See http://www.thirdwaymagazine.co.uk.

Symon's book, The No-Nonsense Guide to Religion can be ordered from http://www.newint.org/books/no-nonsense-guides/religion, priced £7.99.

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