Shameless, A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Shameless (2019) explores how the church’s view of sex and sexuality as sinful has guilted and shamed its congregants. Through personal stories and those shared with her by members of her church, the author demonstrates the harmful effects of the church’s teachings. She offers a new, inclusive way of approaching sexuality and ensuring fulfilling sex lives for everyone.
Discover how the church can approach sexuality differently.
In the church, sex is a taboo subject. If sex must be discussed, the same inflexible ideas are repeated again and again: Unless you’re married, you should abstain from sexual activity. If you’re not heterosexual, don’t conform to normative gender roles, or you identify as transexual or queer – well, you’re considered a sinner and, as a result, any sex you have is sinful.
But such rigidity is not reflective of the real world. After all, teenagers experience sexual desire, people are attracted to partners of the same sex, and many reject traditional ideas of gender identity and gender roles.
When people discover that their sexuality doesn’t match what the church expects of them, they experience feelings of inadequacy and shame. Often, they try to suppress the parts of themselves that they believe are sinful, causing them years of suffering.
These summary argue that it’s time to revise the church’s approach to sexuality and adopt a view that erases shame and encourages care for everyone’s sexual well-being.
In these summary, you’ll learn
- what can happen when people aren’t allowed to express their sexuality;
- what the church has gotten wrong about sexual purity; and
- the hidden message in the ten commandments.
The church’s teachings about sexuality exclude many people and force them to deny integral parts of themselves.
Picture this: a school rolls out a fancy new uniform, and all the students are told that they have to wear it.
But there’s a problem. The uniform only comes in one size – a size the school deems good and right. But for many schoolchildren it’s not a good fit. It’s too big for some of them; for others, it’s too small. These children have to choose between wearing the uncomfortable uniform or getting in trouble if they don’t. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
Well, in the author’s opinion, something similar plays out in the church when it comes to sexuality.
The key message here is: The church’s teachings about sexuality exclude many people and force them to deny integral parts of themselves.
It’s no secret that the church has very specific ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong when it comes to sexuality. It teaches that only heterosexual Christian men and women who are married to each other should have sex. But there are many Christians who can’t tick all the requisite boxes: heterosexual, cisgender, happily married. Maybe they’re not married. Maybe they’re gay or trans – or don’t identify with prescribed gender roles.
Like the school kids and their ill-fitting uniforms, Christians who don’t see themselves in the church’s teachings about sexuality must force a fit or face the consequences.
Often, they follow the church’s plan, which prevents them from having fulfilling sex lives. The author, a Lutheran pastor, came across many examples of this in her own congregation. She met young couples who, even after marriage, couldn’t shake the idea that sex was sinful and lesbians who hid their sexuality, believing there was something wrong with them.
These people, and many others like them, have been hurt by the church’s restrictive teachings. The author proposes that the teachings be revised so that they prioritize people instead of causing them harm. She’s certainly not the first person in her church to take this approach. Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, had a similar philosophy. He believed that the pressure the church put on people to do things – like fast or go on pilgrimages – did more harm than good.
Just as Martin Luther disregarded certain teachings for the sake of his congregation, the author believes that a new approach to sexuality has the power to heal people from the sexual shame they’ve experienced in the church.
In the following blinks, we’ll explore how the church has, in many ways, made sexuality synonymous with shame.
Sexuality is a gift from God, and suppressing it has terrible consequences.
Here’s a scenario: you’re given a brand-new, state-of-the-art sports car. But there’s one condition – you’re not allowed to drive it. So, instead of cruising around in your new ride and experiencing everything it has to offer, you park it in the garage and watch it gather dust.
In the author’s view, our bodies, like this hypothetical car, are also gifts that we’ve been told we can’t use.
The key message here is: Sexuality is a gift from God, and suppressing it has terrible consequences.
We’ve been given the capacity to experience sexual desire and pleasure, and so we should have the freedom to explore this gift. The author regards human anatomy as proof of this. For example, consider the clitoris. It’s a group of nerve endings that has no other job than to provide the female body with pleasure.
And yet, even though sexual pleasure is natural to us, the church tells us that our sexuality is wrong. The author shares many examples from her congregation: One person was warned as a teenager to not even think about sex. A couple were taught that they had to resist any sexual desires until they got married. And another congregant grew up being told that her attraction to women was unacceptable.
What happens to people who grow up hearing that there’s something wrong with their sexual desires? Well, they try to suppress their sexuality. The author believes sexuality is an integral part of human identity – and that suppressing it often has awful results.
The teenager who believed that just thinking about sex was bad struggled to connect with himself and with others. He used porn as a substitute for intimate connections and eventually became an addict. The couple that waited for marriage had trouble forming a healthy and happy sexual relationship since they had never learned to express themselves sexually. And the woman who hid her sexual orientation turned to self-harm after her marriage to a man fell apart.
As far as the author is concerned, no one should have to go through such experiences. As long as people’s sexual desires aren’t directed at children or animals – or harmful in any way – they should be able to explore them without fear or shame.
Being pure doesn’t make people holy; it only separates them from each other.
How much do you know about prohibition, the nineteenth-century movement to ban alcohol? You probably know that it was spearheaded by religious groups that believed drinking was bad for the community and for the spirit.
But what about the prohibitionist campaign? Did you know that prohibitionists used misinformation to forward the movement? They held abstinence classes in schools and taught that alcohol led to blindness, madness, and even spontaneous combustion. All this so that people would remain holy! But the author suggests that their conception of holiness was completely off base.
The key message here is: Being pure doesn’t make people holy; it only separates them from each other.
For the author, holiness is about being deeply connected with God and with the people around us. In her opinion, Jesus is a great example of this because he strove to connect with all people. Jesus touched lepers, men who were possessed, women society thought of as unclean, and even dead bodies.
The holiness that Jesus exhibited through connecting with people also exists in sexual interactions. The author explains that when two people, made in God’s image, share a sexual experience, their unity in that moment is a holy one.
On the other hand, the sexual purity movement disconnects people from their natural desires. The author uses the example of a congregant who was raised to believe that she had to remain pure until marriage. When she left the conservative church and had her first sexual relationship, her inexperience made her feel inadequate, and she felt guilty when she engaged in casual sex.
On top of making it difficult for people to connect with their sexulity, the concept of purity also divides people. It creates a group of outsiders – shamed and seen as “less-than” because they don’t follow the prescribed rules – and a group of insiders who are considered “worthy.” For the author, purity does not equal holiness. Purity is just easier to define and regulate, so it’s been wrongly used to determine who is holy and who isn’t.
The church wrongfully justifies the idea of male dominance, and this plays a role in the sexual harassment of women.
In the era of #MeToo, people are realizing just how often women are sexually harassed by men. Far too many women have experienced harassment in one form or another – and, in the author’s opinion, the teachings of the church are at least partially to blame.
The key message here is: The church wrongfully justifies the idea of male dominance, and this plays a role in the sexual harassment of women.
For a long time, the church has taught that women caused the downfall of mankind – and so should be controlled by men.
This belief was reinforced by writings from early Christian leaders. One of them, Tertullian – a theologian from the second century – believed that when Eve was tempted in the Garden of Eden, she tarnished the image of God. And in the fourth century, the influential bishop Augustine stated that all women born after Eve inherited her sin, and so men naturally have to dominate them.
The author proposes that this belief drives much of the sexual misconduct that women experience. Believing that they naturally have power over women, men do a range of things, from subjecting women to inappropriate jokes to committing acts of sexual harassment or even sexual abuse. The author experienced this in her own childhood when a man masturbated in front of her and her young friends. In her opinion, this kind of behavior from men has its roots in the teachings of the church.
Now, since the church used the Bible to justify male dominance, it’s probably the last place you’d expect to find evidence against the idea. But that’s exactly where the author looks.
The Book of Genesis teaches that God created men and women in his image. The author takes this to mean that both men and women inherently deserve dignity – and that neither one has dominance over the other. Being created in God’s image entitles all of us to reject male dominance, along with the inequality and harassment that come with it.
The new Christian sexual ethic should be based on consent, mutuality, and a concern for everyone’s sexual well-being.
Let’s revisit the school from the first blink. Imagine that the teachers and students decide to do something about those ill-fitting uniforms. They could throw out the uniforms completely, but a uniform can create a sense of community. A better option would be to try to make the current uniform more inclusive. For example, having different sizes would cater to different bodies, and having both skirts and pants would cater to different preferences.
In the same way, the author believes that a rethinking of the church’s teachings on sexuality should start with the basics: understanding what inclusive ideas of sexuality should look like.
The key message here is: The new Christian sexual ethic should be based on consent, mutuality, and a concern for everyone’s sexual well-being.
The Christian church needs a new sexual ethic. But what might this ethic look like? Well, the author suggests taking cues from the World Health Organization’s definition of sexual health and using consent and mutuality as foundations. This means acknowledging that sexual interactions should always have the enthusiastic consent of everyone involved – and should also be enjoyable for all parties.
But getting the go-ahead and having a good time isn’t enough; a Christian sexual ethic should also show concern. The author describes this as both an awareness of how our sexual behavior affects us and those around us and a willingness to support other people’s sexual wellness and growth.
For example, a man may be having consensual and mutually enjoyable sex with his wife. However, if he’s also being unfaithful, then he’s not showing concern for her. Or if a woman is going through an emotionally stressful time, she may consent to sex even when it’s not necessarily the best thing for her. A partner who chooses to ignore this isn’t supporting her needs or showing concern.
The author draws this idea of concern from Martin Luther’s teachings on the Ten Commandments. Rather than seeing the commandments as simply a list of don’ts, Luther believed that they also present opportunities to do good.
Here’s an example. Obeying the commandment “Thou shall not kill” doesn’t just mean people shouldn’t commit murder; it also means they should avoid doing anything that might harm or endanger another person’s life. Likewise, our sexual conduct and our views on sexuality shouldn’t harm those around us.
In order to move forward, people need to openly acknowledge how the church’s teachings about sexuality have harmed them.
Have you ever tried to deal with a negative experience by simply pretending it didn’t happen? Maybe you were in a bad relationship. Or maybe you lost your job. When things like this happen, many people choose not to talk about them because they’re worried about what others might think.
But being open about what hurts us is a key part of moving on. This also applies to people who’ve had their sexuality shamed by the church.
The key message in this blink is: In order to move forward, people need to openly acknowledge how the church’s teachings about sexuality have harmed them.
If you’ve struggled with your sexuality, talking about that pain and the feelings of shame might be the last thing you want to do. But it will actually help you form real connections with people.
This is because the things that happen to us – the good, the bad, and the seemingly shameful – all help make us who we are. Even Jesus was unashamed of his crucifixion scars and openly showed them to his disciples after he was resurrected. He knew that the scars would identify him to his disciples. Similarly, sharing your emotional scars with people will help you find your own community.
However, it goes without saying that being like Jesus requires a lot more strength than the average person possesses. And so, instead of being open about their sexual shame, many people try to bury it. This not only prevents real connections; it also stops people from processing their experiences and can make it impossible to grieve.
The author believes that our bodies simply have to process and grieve what they’ve been through. She went through this herself one morning on the anniversary of her wedding to her ex-husband. Even though she’d wanted to get divorced and it had been over a year, she was still overwhelmed with emotions and cried uncontrollably. This was her body’s way of working things out.
Everyone should have the chance to work things out. But they don’t have to do it alone. People who’ve experienced sexual pain and shame should have safe spaces where they can share and process what has happened to them. These spaces can be good, solid friendships, conversations with therapists, or inclusive church communities.
When people are able to share their scars and talk about how they’ve been hurt, they move closer to healing from their sexual shame.
The key message in these blinks:
Everyone – regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, or marital status – should be able to express their sexuality in a healthy way. Sexuality is a gift from God; instead of prescribing dos and don’ts that divide, shame, and go against people’s natural desires, the church should take an approach that embraces sexuality of all kinds.
Pay attention to how you’re affected by sexual images.
Our bodies were created with the ability to experience sexual pleasure, and so our responses to the sexual images and narratives found in porn are natural. However, different people are wired differently, and what is healthy for one person can be destructive for the next. This is why some people can incorporate pornography into their sex lives while others develop addictions. Pay close attention to how sexual images affect you, determine where your personal boundary lies, and decide how much of it is healthy for you to indulge in.
About the Author
Nadia Bolz-Weber is an author, Lutheran minister and public theologian. She served as the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Denver, Colorado, until July 8, 2018
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