Tag Archives: Christianity

Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner: Legal Prostitution and the Christian Church

Maybe it’s just me, but I read articles about Christianity and various topics on sexuality all the time. Sex and the body is a point of tension for the Christian Church, an area of human life constantly under scrutiny and attempts at regulation. I think I have heard the phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner” in conversations about sex more than in conversations about any other topic.

Last week, NPR published an article about Rome’s plan to create a zone of tolerance for prostitution. The southern neighborhood of EUR, full of parks, buildings, and people with money, has become a hot spot for sex workers; while aiding and abetting prostitution is a crime in Italy, exchanging sex for money is legal. This has led to EUR becoming a popular area for sexual solicitation and neighborhood leaders are attempting to deal with the problem by drawing boundaries. Under the plan, prostitution would be banned near home, schools, churches, parks, and playgrounds, pushing sex workers to the margins of the neighborhood. Along with zones of tolerance the plan “also calls for specially trained social and health workers to assist prostitutes and help women who want to get off the streets” (Rome’s Plan for Prostitutes Upsets Sex Workers And The Catholic ChurchNPR: April 2015). One supporter of the plan, Paolo Lampariello, sees the plan as protecting Rome’s women from the unsavory business of prostitution: “This is not a problem for us men, but women — wives, mothers — should not have to see this,” he lamented. “We now have grandmothers going out on their balconies and looking down at, at, at you know what” (Rome’s prostitutes, church opposes ‘zones of tolerance,’ The Star: March 2015).

Rome’s EUR neighborhood

While the zone of tolerance idea has support from many community members who agree with Lampariello, the Catholic Church has vocalized its opposition to the plan. Many Catholic organizations charge the plan with continuing and legitimizing the exploitation of women, and Father Aldo Buonaluto is quoted saying, “It is shameful that the city of Rome, the cradle of Christianity, can carry out such a proposal, endorsing the sale of the human body” (Rome’s Plan, NPR).

What the zone of tolerance plan highlights is the continual struggle of the Christian Church to reconcile human sexuality. In Rome, the Catholic organizations dedicated to helping women out of prostitution have been some of the most opposed to the zones of tolerance, calling instead for a criminalization of those who seek out sex for money. What I find particularly interesting is that Amsterdam, with its infamous red light district, has not inspired the same kind of criticism in modern media. A Google search for articles about Christianity and prostitution in Amsterdam turned up almost nothing; the most interesting article that popped up was a brief piece from this past February about Christian Democrat city council members proposing a minimum age for prostitutes [21 years old] and more strict licensing rules (Amsterdam city council as pimpDutch News: February 2015). Wikipedia offers a reference to religious efforts in the 20th century to end prostitution in Amsterdam, but it is just a few sentences in the bigger history of the area.

Amsterdam’s Red Light District

There are a number of social and cultural differences between Rome and Amsterdam that may account for the differing religious responses to prostitution, but I am more interested in the tension between Christianity and legal prostitution. Human trafficking is a problem, and women and men who are forced into prostitution certainly deserve assistance to get out, but what about those who willingly engage in legal prostitution? How can the Christian Church support men and women who choose sex work as their profession? Should Christians attempt to stamp out all prostitution, legal and illegal? If this is the chosen response, as is the Catholic Church’s in Rome, there’s got to be support for all those who will lose their jobs. What will the Christian Church do for all the men and women who worked the streets or the brothels?

Rome’s zones of tolerance and the Catholic Church’s opposition demonstrates, to me, a bigger trend in Christianity: often Christians call for the end of a practice – prostitution, capitalism, denominational hierarchy – yet there is rarely a plan for the aftermath. It is not enough to hate the sin and love the sinner: to simply do away with systems of sin or oppression [hate the sin] leaves hundreds and thousands of people with nowhere to go. Is that really loving the sinner? Perhaps it is time to really put away the hate – of the sin, of the sinner, of unsavory businesses – and instead fight against the sin and love everyone, not only those who are given the label of “sinner.”

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Yeezianity and Other Faiths: The Challenge of Defining Religion

Over time, the word of “religion” has been discussed, defined, and debated. The sociologist Èmile Durkheim defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community, called a church, all those who adhere to them” (The Elementary Forms of Religious Life). Paul Tillich says religion is “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of our life” (The Spiritual Situation in our Technical Society). William James pronounced religion to be “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine” (The Varieties of Religion Experience). Hundreds of scholars have come up with their own definitions of religion, some much more detailed than others, and there has yet to be a single, universal definition.

Why is the definition, or lack thereof, of religion important? Without one accepted definition, almost anything can be presented as a religion. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Pastafarianism, has grown in visibility and popularity since it sprung up in 2005; scholars have written and discussed sports – particularly football  and baseball – as forms of religion; parts of the United States appear to adhere to civil religion, “worshipping” the American flag and military; and Yeezianity made its debut just a few days ago, as followers of Yeezus – Kanye West’s alter ego – are united in their love of the celebrity.

While Yeezianity is a joke, Pastafarianism and the religion of sports are not. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a group of critical thinkers who proclaim they are “not anti-religion, we are anti- crazy nonsense done in the name of religion” (http://www.venganza.org/about/). Many papers and books have been written by reputable scholars about the parallels between sports teams, their fans, and traditional religious groups – the collective experience of winning, or losing, a big game can seem a lot like the collective experience of worship. And the practice of reverence towards the American flag and the U.S. military is common in many parts of the country, particularly in the South. Many definitions of “religion” allow these examples to be classified as religions, and it is a rich area of religious studies.

Yet these examples, with a lack of emphasis on the divine, are not the only things to be excluded in some ideas of religion. There are many Christians who proclaim that Islam, with 1.6 billion followers across the world, is not a religion. Within Judaism and Christianity, certain fringe groups are rejected by the larger church and not considered valid expressions of religion. The Mormon church has often been the subject of ridicule from adherents to other “traditional” religions. There are thousands of people who believe in a variety of deities, rituals, and lifestyles, and who are told their religions and their faiths are invalid.

Without a universal definition of religion (and the word “religion” was imposed by Westerners on a variety of cultures without such a word), we are free to decide what qualifies as religion and what does not. It’s a blessing and a curse, it allows for freedom and oppression. 

What is religion? Religion is.

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Happy Holidays to All?

It’s Christmas day in the Christian world, Jews celebrated Hanukkah at the beginning of the month, and Kwanzaa begins tomorrow. It’s the season of giving and sharing in many faiths this December, and yet there are roughly 1 million people in the United States who won’t be wishing anyone a happy holiday. All over the country, Jehovah’s Witnesses spent the day without presents or Christmas songs or nativity scenes. This branch of Christianity – which does not believe in the Trinity and holds up the Bible as a divinely written and infallible text (BBC Religions) – asserts that Jesus commanded the disciples to observe his death, not his birth and Christmas is both a pagan celebration and lacks biblical support (Why Don’t Jehovah’s Witnesses Celebrate Christmas?).

Furthermore, the disciples and the early church did not celebrate Christmas, and God certainly couldn’t approve of a holiday rooted in pagan ritual. According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official website – jw.org – it is simply a myth that Jehovah’s Witnesses miss out on the generosity and spirit of giving at Christmas time. Jehovah’s Witnesses seek to be generous and giving every single day; why would they need a special day or time of year to express the commandment to love their neighbors?

While many of us may not think about Jehovah’s Witnesses, except to comment on that time they came to our door, they are a substantial part of the population in this country. We are doing better to incorporate and highlight the holidays of other religions – Hanukkah, Diwali, Eid al-Fitr – but what do we do about those who don’t observe any religious holidays?

When we wish people “Happy Holidays” in order to cover all our bases, we are being inconsiderate towards Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who choose not to partake in the winter festivities. Though “Happy Holidays” is certainly safer than “Merry Christmas,” we have to remember that it doesn’t cover all our bases. If someone tells you they don’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah, wish them a wonderful day, a great weekend, or a fantastic afternoon. You can start singing “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” as soon as you wave goodbye.

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Sex, Celibacy, and Salvation: What The Shakers and The Oneida Community Remind Us About Sexuality and Religion

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Religion tends to have an opinion about everything, but sex and sexuality seems to be one of the most talked about issues facing various religious communities around the United States and the world. This preoccupation with sex is seen in the attention Pope Francis has gotten for his comments about moving the conversation away from sexuality; in Texas’ House Bill 2, which put even tighter restrictions on abortion and has given Wendy Davis national recognition for her attempt to stop the law; and in the continued debates about LGBTQ rights.

While you may associate “sex and Christianity” with virginity, abstinence, the FLDS church, or heated debates about abortion, these reflect a very narrow view of the relationship of sexuality and religion. Let’s go back 150, 200 years and we find many religious movements where ignoring sex was not an option – divine perfection and salvation hinged on practicing appropriate sexual behavior. In the 18th and 19th centuries, two different utopian movements illustrated two most extreme beliefs of sex as a way to salvation: Mother Ann Lee discarded marriage, sex, and most all physical contact between men and women as she led the Shakers of the 1770s and 1780s towards perfection, while John Humphrey Noyes advocated for complex marriage and shared sexual partners as core practices of the Oneida Community in the mid-1800s.

Though these two communities functioned in stark contrast to each other, the beliefs and values of both movements were grounded in the same desire for perfection and salvation. For Lee and the annleeShakers, renouncing all carnal desires and living a celibate life would re-establish order, and mankind would be restored to God. This meant no marriage, no sexual activity, and very little physical contact between men and women. Some scholars suggest Lee’s insistence on celibacy and the single life came from her personal experiences: before joining the Shakers she suffered many difficult pregnancies, losing four children, and her marriage disintegrated soon after her move to the United States. The Shakers, holding beliefs that were firmly in opposition to the idea the women’s duty was to bear children, drew many critics who suggested the movement was launching an assault on marriage and attacking the validity of family life. Yet even with the public and adamant rejection of marriage, the order of leadership within the Shaker church reflected traditional ideas of family and household. At each level of authority, from the head Ministry to local groups, men and women led in equal numbers. Shakers were divided into “family” units, where one man and one woman would assume leadership over a household, creating the guise of a traditional family. The success of this structure, with men and women in equal positions of power, is often attributed to the doctrine of celibacy in the Shaker community.

John_Humphrey_Noyes

It is not difficult to see similarities between the Shakers’ beliefs about sex and sexuality, and common Christian rhetoric today. Unlike the Shakers, John Humphrey Noyes would still be considered controversial in United States; Noyes formed his 19th century movement around the other end of the sexuality/salvation spectrum: frequent sex with multiple partners was the key the perfection and salvation. Noyes came to the conclusion that sex was a form of worship and monogamous relationships, i.e. marriage, would never allow someone to truly glorify God. This was the core doctrine of Noyes’ Oneida Community, though it should not be mistaken for “free love.” While Noyes required complex sexual relationships, there were still rules to be followed when picking sexual partners. Age played a large role in who was allowed to have sex with whom, because Noyes established a connection between age and spiritual knowledge. Followers were encouraged to select partners based on this relationship, because a spiritually superior person was able to share their wisdom through the act of sexual intercourse. Another important rule of the Oneida community was that there should be no “special love” or sexual preference between two members, which negatively impacted the community’s goal of salvation. Despite these guidelines, Oneida’s sexual activity did not always stay in Noyes’ parameters. Often young men and women would avoid elders as sexual partners because they were not as physically attractive as the younger members of the community, leading to this “special love” and older members feeling neglected. Noyes saw this as a huge problem, responding by revoking sexual privileges as punishment for at the sign any of special love or preference and sometimes sending one partner to Oneida’s sister community in Wallingford, CT. Any special bond between two people threatened Noyes’ ideal community and was quashed as quickly as possible.

Neither the Shakers nor the Oneida Community exist in the United States today, with no real surprise. Between the inability of the Shakers to attract enough new followers (and the non-existent birth rate) and the many problems that arise when people are instructed to engage in sex without emotion, both movements faded away. Yet I think these two movements remind us that the loudest voice is not the only voice, and nothing regarding sexuality and faith is black and white. Using celibacy and single life, the Shakers advocated for gender equality in the 1770s and 1780s, when most societies had yet to consider that women were actually people. Through shared sexual partners and an emphasis on women’s sexual pleasure, Noyes challenged the negative attitudes towards sexual activity, particularly for women. However the most important goal for Lee and Noyes went beyond changing social attitudes towards sex and gender. At their cores, both movements were searching for an answer to a question contemporary Christians are still asking today – what is sexuality’s role in salvation and perfection?

What do you think? What kind of sex does your god want you to have?

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