My “HIS 502 Intro to Christian History” class took their final examination this week: Three essay questions, choose 2, three hours. One of the questions was as follows:
Jesus said: “At the resurrection, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” (Matt 22:30)
Paul said: “For it is better to marry than to burn.” (I Cor. 7:9)
Kelly Brown Douglas writes: “Western Christianity’s dominant approach to sexuality has contributed to white culture’s ability to challenge black people’s humanity by impugning their sexuality.” (Sexuality and the Black Church)
James Baldwin wrote: “To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” (The Fire Next Time)
The Southern Baptist Convention insists: “True love waits.” Some Baptist millennials respond: “Mostly” (One study suggests 88 percent of 12,000 signers didn’t wait.)
Bill Leonard says: “Christian faith and human sexuality, theology and biology, often seem inseparable in the history of the Church.” (I say this often in class.) Respond to that statement with at least two historical examples that illustrate the church’s response to Christianity/sexuality issues. Then, based on lessons you learned from historical studies, develop your own response to a specific religion/sexuality dilemma.
I’m about to start the grading, so I don’t know how students responded, but their options were considerable.
They might have discussed the impact of miscarriages and infant mortality on Christian families and theology. Missionary icon Ann Hasseltine Judson (1789-1826) lost one child by miscarriage; son Roger, born in Burma, died after eight months; daughter Maria lived six months after her mother’s smallpox-induced death. Straining to discern God’s sovereign hand in biological realities, Judson wrote after Roger’s death: “When our heavenly Father saw we had converted the precious gift into an idol, he removed it from us, and thereby taught us the necessity of placing our supreme affections on Him. … To show us that we need no other source of enjoyment but God himself. Do not think as I write thus, that I repine of the dealings of Providence, or would wish them to be otherwise than they are. No, God is the same when he afflicts, as when he is merciful.” Such 19th-century, Calvinist-oriented spirituality was at once harsh and sustaining for Ann Judson. God, she believed, “afflicted,” taking their son to teach a spiritual lesson.
Or students could have referenced Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, one of the Catholic Church’s most direct statements regarding marriage, abortion and birth control, declaring: “In conformity with these landmarks in the human and Christian vision of marriage, we must once again declare that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun, and, above all, directly willed and procured abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as licit means of regulating birth. Equally to be excluded, as the teaching authority of the Church has frequently declared, is direct sterilization, whether perpetual or temporary, whether of the man or of the woman.” Fifty years later, bio-theological issues concerning abortion, birth control and church authority continue to unite and divide Catholics and Protestants.
Or they might have cited a motion approved May 2 in Macon-Bibb County, Ga., that added gender identity and sexual orientation to the county’s anti-discrimination procedures for promotions and hiring. During the process, two Baptist ministers, one a pastor, the other a professor, both Ph.D. graduates of the Baptist seminary in Louisville, Ky., clashed over the issue. The pastor, Tim McCoy, opposed the amendment, noting: “I think the unintended consequence might be that it will teach that the Judeo-Christian worldview is not only false but discriminatory.” The professor, Andrew Manis, responded, “I believe in the separation of church and hate and I am against religion being used as a weapon of bigotry. The church in America has already spent too much time defending slavery and racial segregation to make the same mistake again on LGBT persons.”
Struggling with my own exam question, and ceaseless issues of nature and grace, I stumbled onto the words of James Baldwin, black man, gay man, who left his Pentecostal-Black-Church origins behind (sort of) in self-imposed, racism-resisting exile in Paris. Toward the end of The Fire Next Time he wrote of the black American experience in words inseparable from biology and spirituality: “The Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone … this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity … for all its horror, [is] something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering … but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are.”
At the end of the exam and the semester, I hope my students committed themselves to alleviating such injustices; rejecting any spirituality that attributes to God the death or disability of children; refusing to protect the church’s reputation at the expense of protection for the sexually vulnerable; and that they and their professor will “discover who they are,” with and beyond the nature and grace (?) of unjust or inescapable suffering.