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!”
With 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. Sex is a healthy thing if you engage in it safely and with realistic expectations.
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.