In a chapel message entitled “The Cross and Sexuality,” Chaplain Blackmon discussed sex as a sin-issue for which we are in need of repentance and forgiveness. Sex is an issue of sin for some people. Repentance is the correct response to any sin of which the Holy Spirit convicts a believer. However, this chapel furthered painful and destructive aspects of purity culture at Wheaton. The overarching rhetoric of sexuality as an issue of sin perpetuates the understanding of sex and sexuality as dangerous things that need to be firmly held under control until they can be acknowledged, glorified, and idolized as the mark of a successful life in the context of heterosexual marriage. This rhetoric is ultimately harmful for survivors and victims of sexual assault.
Marriage as Savior
The rhetoric of “sex as sin until (heterosexual) marriage” increases the shame and guilt survivors of sexual assault experience on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis. Marriage cannot be the solution to or end goal of sexual purity, health, or wholeness. To present “healing” or healthy sexuality as something that happens solely within heterosexual marriage fuels the fear, anxiety, and hopelessness many survivors of sexual assault experience. Sexual assault survivors may not want to marry or engage in sexual acts, either shortly after the attack or years later. Instead of portraying marriage as a savior or a prize, we need to remember the Cross. We must remind ourselves that Jesus never married and yet lacked nothing. We must speak of Jesus as the Healer, the Comforter, the Friend, and the Lover of our souls, rather than portraying sex within a heterosexual marriage as the goal or sign of healthy sexuality.
Sex Solely as Sin
The overarching rhetoric of sex as sin leads us to think of the despicable sin of sexual assault perpetrators before we acknowledge the pain, confusion, and trauma that survivors of sexual assault experience. This rhetoric is also reflective of the white, Western cultural captivity of the church (see Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism) instead of a biblical understanding of sin which is collective, communal, and centered on honor and shame. Ignoring the experience of survivors of sexual assault is also fundamentally opposed to the Cross, since Jesus himself was the innocent one who suffered. The main recognition of sexual assault in a chapel message cannot be directed towards potential perpetrators of sexual violence. Focusing on the perpetrator resembles glorifying someone’s sin and neglecting the victims and survivors of sexual abuse. We need to re-prioritize survivors of sexual assault and their experiences of “life after” a traumatic event.
Christ of the Cross
The Cross is not a hindrance to this re-focusing. When we remember the Cross, we do not need to think mainly or solely in terms of forgiveness of sin. When we remember the Cross, we need to recognize the lack of force, manipulation and coercion in Jesus’ interactions with women throughout Scripture. We need to honor the presence of compassion, understanding, and physical safety when Jesus speaks to the abused and ashamed. We need to remember Jesus’ compassionate interaction with the woman at the well, a victim of domestic abuse and neglect. The Cross was the sight of Jesus’ identification with the poor and the oppressed, with victims of injustice and abuse, with the innocent who are murdered (for further reading, see The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone). The intersection of the Cross and sexuality is important to highlight not (solely) in terms of sin, but in light of the fact that on the Cross, the God who became flesh was crucified. In the Resurrection, the God who became flesh rose again. This crucified and resurrected Lord is the Christ of the Cross.
Furthermore, rhetoric of the man “giving” himself and the woman “receiving” his gift in sexual intercourse is extremely problematic, not only for its heteronormativity, but also in light of sexual assault. During healthy sex, each party should give and each party should receive. Receiving is generally understood as a passive action in response to a stimulus or another act, while giving is active and involves agency. Women are most likely to be the victims of sexual violence, inside and outside of a marriage relationship. Men are far more likely to be the perpetrators of sexual assault, both against women and against other men. Attributing passive actions to women during sex is not just inappropriate and unhelpful – it is sexist and furthers rape culture which encourages men to coerce and force sexual acts, unwanted touching, and sexual intercourse.
Finally, discussing sex as sin perpetuates the understanding of sex as an individual issue from which specific individuals need to repent or receive restoration from. With our heads bowed and eyes closed, individuals are encouraged or socially pressured into admitting that they have sinned. However, sexual assault is never the product of a single individual. The national #itsonus campaign recognizes the role that groups of people and entire societies play both in allowing sexual assault to occur and hopefully in bringing an end to sexual violence. It is too easy to tell potential perpetrators “don’t force people to have sex.” It is far more difficult and much more important to challenge societies that portray women as prizes to be won or objects to be purchased. This definitely includes Christian (sub)cultures, as evidenced in the stories men tell of “pursuing” their wives and the applause in response to victory in their conquest. It is far more difficult and much more important to speak against a culture that celebrates, glorifies, rewards, and even overlooks (aka. passively allows) sexual exploits with people who are unwilling, intoxicated, or otherwise unable-to-consent.
We need to reconsider The Cross and Sexuality in light of the experiences of sexual assault survivors. When sex is discussed solely or predominantly as a “sin-issue,” the pain resulting from sexual assault or abuse is not only overlooked, but exacerbated. Sex can be bonding and it may be an area where certain people are called to repent of sin. However, for sexual assault survivors, sex and sexuality is not a “sin issue.” Sexuality is an issue of justice. Justice is something close to God’s heart that we are called to seek (Isa. 1:17). Maybe it’s time to start talking about sexual justice.
Sex is not sin. Sex is relationship. Sex is connection. Sex should be consent, and sex should be safe. Since our campus and college campus across the nation will never be full of people who get to choose what they have done and what has been done to them sexually, purity culture and the dominance of “sex as sin” rhetoric is unacceptable. We can do better. We need to do differently. We need to end this rhetoric because it is actually contrary to the Cross.
We need to speak of sex as relationship, and begin to restore what has been broken. We need to be the Body of Christ and suffer with those who suffer (1 Cor. 12:26) due to sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact. We need to remind sexual assault survivors that the One who hung on the Cross was not only the forgiver of sins, but also the One who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (Isa. 53:4). We need to pray for deeper understanding of what it means that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us (Matt. 1:23). Through the Incarnation, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Through the Cross, God is with us in our suffering, in our confusion, in our trauma, and in our pain. Through the Resurrection, suffering does not have the last word. We have a God that not only suffers with us, but somehow, beyond understanding, is big enough to redeem.
I think our campus can & should continue dialogue about sexuality in ways that support and encourage survivors of sexual assault. I recognize that some of my peers have become exhausted by years of striving & fighting & praying & crying for our campus to address racial, sexual, and economic diversity in multiple capacities, while seeing little to no change. As a result, many no longer expect change & have stopped expressing their hurt. This piece was written with them in mind, as a thank-you note because I stand on their shoulders.
Ironically, the hope of this piece is in the expression of hurt itself. When hurt is expressed & addressed, bitterness (in all its toxicity) loses power. This piece was written with a broken heart because I hope & believe & pray for change. There needs to be space in the Church & on our campus for honesty and authenticity, especially when pain and frustration is directed towards fellow Christians & larger structures. This is nothing new. For the entirety of the Church’s existence, members of the Church have been speaking truth to power with hearts broken & breaking for the oppressed & marginalized. This is mainly perceived as a threat for those in power with privilege, those who have something to lose.
May we, whoever we are, learn to listen to the marginalized. May we seek to understand the hurt behind the frustration. May we lament. May we repent. May we change.