“Jesus wants the rose!” — Matt Chandler, Sex, & God the Internalized Abuser

 

A post on Reddit alerted me to a very subtly disturbing video featuring an excerpt from preacher Matt Chandler. It is over two years old, but the sentiments are worth criticizing, because they are still very common. Check it out below (explanation below the video if you don’t want to watch):

The basic premise is this: long ago, Matt Chandler sees a terrible preacher pass around a rose during a sermon on sex. After passing through the hands of everyone in the sanctuary, the rose finally makes its way back to the stage, thoroughly tattered at this point. Then the preacher makes the obligatory, shameful comparison of the rose to a person’s sexuality. Basically, if you’ve slept with a bunch of people, what you have to offer to your future mate is this ugly, broken sort of sexuality. Then the pastor says, “Who would want this rose?” This makes Matt Chandler very angry.

I find myself tracking with what Chandler is saying right up until his climactic shout of defiance, “JESUS WANTS THE ROSE!”

roseWith this being the apex of emotion in the video, you’re supposed to cheer as Chandler has now vanquished the foe. The rest of the Chandler’s short speech is denouement, resolving the tension and explaining how Jesus wants even the most broken among us. Hurray for Jesus, who loves us in spite of ourselves.

I will grant that Chandler’s take on the rose metaphor is several ticks better than that of the original pastor, but it is still pretty horrible, albeit in a much more subtle way. When Chandler says that “Jesus wants the rose,” he is accepting the rose metaphor as valid. If you’ve slept with a bunch of people, Chandler implicitly states that you’re very much like that rose, but Jesus still loves you.

What we need to do instead is to reject the rose metaphor altogether.

People who have sex outside of marriage are not intrinsically broken, and they do not need love in spite of themselves. They are not the rose, beaten and torn apart. They’re still human. They have value. People who have had sex before marriage can almost always start having sex healthy again in a new relationship right off the bat. All cases I have encountered where people feel ashamed of their prior sexuality (and I do mean all cases) have been cases involving religious (or at least previously-religious) people who were taught this very narrative which Chandler accepts. They think of themselves as damaged goods, ugly, good-for-nothing, etc. Jesus may love them, but what about other people? They are terrified that someone might not love them as much because of their past.

This is especially (but not exclusively) the case for women. As you may have seen from the creepy photos of Christian purity balls, many Christians focus very specifically on protecting girls’ chastity. This makes those girls who deviate from the chastity plan feel extra-bad, because they gave away what they felt others were trying to protect. Not only did they let themselves down, they also let down their families, especially their fathers and their future mate.

We need to fight this narrative in its entirety, not just put a Jesus-flavored twist on the same old formula. Chandler does not go far enough. If someone decides to be promiscuous, it might not necessarily be a wise decision, but that person is not “damaged goods” or in any way of lesser value.

God in this context is an internalized abuser.

The narrative which Chandler embraces here is one that says “You’re worthless, but God loves you anyway.” If you tell this to people long enough and often enough, they start to internalize this narrative, tearing down their sense of self-worth. “God” is judgmental of everything you do and are, and He (definitely “He” in this context) wants to fill you with all the right desires, behaviors, and beliefs.

This is exactly the sort of behavior exemplified by an abusive partner, only the abuser exists inside the head of the abused. “You’ll never amount to anything on your own — good thing you have me,” said the abuser-God. “Everything you do amounts to nothing, but I still love you.” I imagine Chandler would object — but only to say that this isn’t actually abusive, that we are actually totally depraved and incapable of anything good of our own accord, yet God still loves us. Don’t just take my word for it, though; see for yourself and read the Village Church statement on total depravity: “We are all stillborns, utterly devoid of spiritual good.”

Theological arguments be damned; Chandler ascribes abusive behaviors to God. One might object that the abuser in normal circumstances is not God, and thus God receives a pass because He is perfect, but that misses the point of why abuse is wrong. The problem is not that abusers are imperfect and therefore unable or unworthy to supplant the will of the abused individual; the problem is in telling the abused person he/she is worthless. It is in the violation of autonomy and the collapse of meaningful distinctions between persons, where the will of one becomes the will of the other by manipulation or force. It is an abolition of the identity of the abused person.

We must combat these lies with truth.

Instead of trying to inflict wisdom through scare tactics, we should help people make informed decisions about how to handle their sexuality. The main negative consequences of promiscuity would be threefold: STIs, premature pregnancy, and disordered desires. We can battle the first two issues with condoms and birth control pills. The last, though, is more complex.

If monogamous fidelity is someone’s ultimate goal in life, then a disordered desire is one which interferes with that goal. If bearing/raising children is one of their goals, then a disordered desire is one which hurts the well-being of the children. While there are many considerations that might cause us to reevaluate traditional sexual values and norms, it is still the case that when one develops habits, they don’t just turn off with a switch or a wedding ceremony. If you are used to having sex with multiple partners, it will be hard to rein in your desires when your partner asks for faithfulness. If you are used to open, lewd behavior around the home or in public, it will be hard not to sexualize your children before it is appropriate.

Thus, we need to train people to make responsible decisions for themselves regarding their sexuality. This is not the goal of shame-based models which tell people to conform to a certain standard or else they’re like the rose in the pastor’s metaphor. Everyone must decide for themselves what healthy sex is in their context, and while we may expect patterns to develop, it is not for me or anyone else to call someone damaged because they have strayed from some some kind of norm.

We must reject the battered rose model that Chandler still tacitly accepts, and we must emphasize the intrinsic value of the individual, teaching people to be responsible human beings. Right now, we are failing generation after generation, training them to feel worthless and shaming them even as we try to encourage them to do the right thing. This has to stop.

Rose image used under the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license. Credit to Flickr user aling_.

About Chris Attaway

Chris Attaway is a Christian philosopher seeking to refine the way we live through reasoning and reflection. Be sure to follow his blog, The Discerning Christian, for challenging articles which offer new perspectives on old problems.
This entry was posted in Christian Culture Issues, Ethics, Sexuality. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to “Jesus wants the rose!” — Matt Chandler, Sex, & God the Internalized Abuser

  1. I hadn’t thought of that before: how damaging the mentality of “we’re worthless, but God loves us anyway” could be. I have grown up in the church and heard a lot of similar messages. If anything, we’re priceless, precisely because as humans, God loves us all and has endowed us with intrinsic worth.

  2. That seems to be the ongoing problem with organized religion, and Christianity in particular. Jesus was not a Christian, and really just talked about reforming the Jewish power structure, and about loving one another. God is us. So, anyone who tries to tell you about what God likes or dislikes is full of s**t.

  3. Gary Logston says:

    Chris, I appreciate your comments, especially as it relates to religious condemnation and the effects that this can have. I think that your list of negative consequences, however, is a bit shallow. As a counselor and pastor, here are a few more consequences that I have seen in those who are sexually active with a number of partners that you might add to your list that are as serious as those listed and often more destructive: (1) problem with making a commitment to one person, (2) emotional damage, usually related to one or more of the break-ups, (3) sexual dis-satisfaction and/or desire for variety, (4) emotional numbness based on a need to protect emotional life, (5) continued emotional ties to previous partners that are difficult to break, (6) difficulty recovering from emotional abuse from one or more relationships. I have found that when people shares themself in a sexually intimate relationship, there is often a deep connection where the emotional, mental, personality, and evenphysical boundaries of the couple blur. The seperation of this intimacy causes modifications of the personalities of the people that is not easily understood. People are often broken or damaged as a result of such break-ups and often require a lot of counseling to get back to a “good place”. While I understand the “religious” problem you rightly mention, it seems that you have dramatically downplayed the reality of such brokenness and pain. Many people bury these scars and take the emotional baggage into the next relationship. Others try to get themselves solid, often taking months or even years before they are ready for another relationship. Please consider the real pain that folks experience and the reality that they, more often than not, spread that pain to the next partner.

    • I had a longer response but lost it.

      I agree with the fact that there are hurt people, but much of that hurt has to do with the nature of relationships rather than sex. Points 1 and 3, though, are very true of sex itself and fall under the heading off disordered desires which I mentioned.

      Something to consider: perhaps much of the emotional damage from relationships occurs because people feel like they are now worth less to other people besides their former partner. I know it happens, and it’s another facet of the issues I raise here in the article. My question is how much of the emotional damage this can explain.

      A further issue is that we frequently do not teach men and boys to respect women; thus, when a woman gives herself without reciprocation, it hurts. Then it turns into shame for aforementioned reasons. Women really get the short end of the stick when it comes to the Christian purity dialog.

  4. DogTags says:

    Both you and Chandler have missed the point. The rose represents the person’s sexuality, not the person. Once you offer yourself sexually to someone, you cannot undo it. Once you ring that sexual bell, you can’t un-ring it. What you have, then, is a used sexuality to offer your mate, not the pure, undefiled gift that it should be. So, the rose analogy is appropriate when properly understood that the rose represents human sexuality, not the human.

    Secondly, shame is part of God’s plan for reconciliation. Shame is the mechanism that should motivate us to repent. Shame must not be administered in a self-righteous way. Jesus did not condemn the women caught in adultery, but he did say to her to go and sin no more. He pointed out her failure, but encouraged her to continue attempting to stay away from sin. Your blog seems to run with the theme that we can sin since grace abounds. But, Jesus never accepts our sins. Our sins sent him to the cross. Jesus accepts us despite our sin. Our sin is never acceptable. Sex outside of marriage is sin. If you disagree with that, then shame on you. There is a level of shame that is appropriate, and a level that is too far. But to throw out shame simply because it is abused is an over-reaction. It is ironic how your blog drips with shame in trying to tell people not to shame.

    • I had a hard time deciding what to do with your comment. There are so many false claims that I don’t know where to start or if I should bother. There is no mystical thing called purity, and we must disabuse ourselves of magical thinking about sex. If people are educated to make responsible decisions with their sexuality, then I am in no position to judge. If they are irresponsible, though, we may chastise them if they hurt others, or we may need to hold them if they’ve been hurt themselves.

      Shame, though, is a control tactic. I will not shame you; I will point out the damage that you have done and ask for change. You damage people with your shame, and you especially damage girls. I won’t stand for that.

      • DogTags says:

        Shame is a control tactic. What’s wrong with that? Your blog is a control tactic. Persuasion is a control tactic. You want to modify people’s behavior so you try to control their behavior with you words. Shame is a control tactic for those who are unrepentant. We are told to shun those who refuse to be corrected. Those who are repentant ought to be restored. We are called to a ministry of reconciliation. But, girls who feel bad, yet continue to rebel and be promiscuous ought not to be “held” lest we condone their sin in an effort to soothe their consciences. You damage people by allowing them to continue in sin simply because you wish they wouldn’t feel bad. I won’t stand for that.

      • You’re welcome not to stand for whatever you like, but there is a difference between control and persuasion. Control attempts to rob someone of agency (which shame does) and the other encourages agency. This is a point which I don’t suppose someone coming from a culture of spiritual abuse to understand. It’s like water to a fish.

      • DogTags says:

        First, I know I posted twice, but the second one was the edited one. Thanks for deleting the one that made me sound better (a little playful sarcasm). Secondly, to clarify, shame should be used only as a way for reconciliation. Reproof is always for the benefit of the one reproved and not for the reprover (is that a word?). Love covers a multitude of sin, so we should never broadcast people’s sin through gossip or as a pretext for a “prayer request.” But, shunning a brother or sister in Christ who is rebellious in their sins is the way God uses to reconcile them. The act of shunning involves shame. Only when rebellious Christians feel shame from their sins will they repent. I know many self-righteous Christians have abused their positions and have beaten up on repentant Christians, but that is no reason to reject the Scriptural principle of Church discipline in shunning a rebellious believer.

      • Sorry for deleting the edited version. I didn’t look closely enough to see that one was edited. Thought it was a simple double-post.

        Anyhow, I firmly disagree with shunning except in cases of harm. Where there are arguable principles at stake, where one person might have a different opinion than another and thus conduct his/her life differently, then it is hardly my place to step in; however, if one person is actively harming another, whether through physical or verbal abuse, then I would be in favor of discipline up to and including shunning or — in certain situations — legal action.

        The irony that I have found, having been shunned over questionable issues twice now, is that the people most eager to shun are the people who I would find most deserving of being shunned. The shunning in this case is not to shame but to isolate a damaging person from those who he/she would damage.

        A sexually promiscuous person, for example, might be severely misled, but, if he/she is taking responsible steps to stay safe (condoms & birth control) and only engaging in enthusiastically consensual sex, I might hold a different opinion on how one should live life, but I have few ways in which I can actually condemn him/her.

        But, if this man or woman is married, and the spouse doesn’t know about all of these trysts, then this is damaging to the relationship which he/she entered into willingly where fidelity is a reasonable expectation, and thus I would be very glad to intervene to prevent emotional harm of the spouse.

        Shunning as you’re describing it is othering and designed to lord one party’s moral superiority over another in order to get the latter party to conform. That is abusive and robs the latter party of their agency. Shunning to prevent harm is in effort to preserve the agency and health of the harmed party.

  5. Todd T says:

    @Gary Logston, I couldn’t have put it better myself. There is serious emotional damage that occurs when a sexual relationship is severed, whether one wants to believe it or not, and it is generally harder on women.

    • No, not really. The primary damage is if one partner invested him/herself in the other person without reciprocation. This is a result of a different aspect of the same culture which shames people for their sexuality. Men, especially, are not taught to respect women. A woman gives herself unequally and then finds herself used and abused instead of valued and cherished. If we taught men to be respectful of women, and if we taught women to identify abusive tendencies in men, this problem would disappear.

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