We have gotten the following question in many forms: why are you doing this work on sexuality when there are other super important issues that the church needs to be dealing with? (Hunger, immigration, homelessness, etc.)
We believe that the same system that functions on racism and creates poverty also polices appropriate sexuality. It is a system of a dominant culture controlling who is and who isn’t worthy in our community. Dismantling this system means approaching it from many angles simultaneously and finding the terrible places where these oppressions intersect. It’s a pertinent question for the United States and for our churches. The factors that control deciding who is legitimate also control who is legitimately sexual, relational, and/or gendered.
Consider Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s term “kyriarchy”, explained by her here (from her introduction to the book Prejudice and Christian Beginnings: Investigating Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Early Christianity):
We in Naked & Unashamed seek to topple the kyriarchy that rules our society and our church. Here is a section from our statement that expands on this:
“Our argument is that ELCA’s theology is hegemonic in that it prioritizes one cultural theology as the implicit norm, and those who fall outside are demonized and de-Christianized. This is felt in the internalized pressure as a church leader to be married and have children in order to normalize any current relationship. This pressure is implicit within both the church’s culture and our society’s culture. It is also reflected in overt policies and direct questioning during the ELCA candidacy process that disallow sexual intimacy, cohabitation, and committed relationality outside of civil marriage. The limited and hierarchical focus on marriage and family life over alternate forms of relationality is oppressive, preferential, manipulative, and culturally irrelevant to the variety of healthy sexual, emotional, contractual, and/or romantic expressions that could be part of an appropriate Christian lifestyle, which, according to Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, are healthy relationships that build trust and are life-giving. We call out this hegemony as being heteronormative, white-centric, economically oppressive, and non-Lutheran.
First, this theology is heteronormative. We define heteronormativity as a set of cultural expectations of “decency,” a prescribed ethic of appropriate relationality between a man and a woman, which is then applied to other and all relationalities, whether heterosexual, homosexual, queer, or otherwise. We see the ELCA’s heteronormative understanding of relational decency in its definition of acceptable Christian same-gender relationships as publicly accountable, lifelong, and monogamous. These words are chosen because these are the important defining values of a decent and acceptable marriage in the ELCA. Acceptable same-gender relationships must look the same as acceptable heterosexual relationships. Relationships that fall outside these values are assumed as indecent and unacceptable in the Christian life.
Same-gender relationships must mirror the cultural standards of decency imposed on heterosexual marriages in order to be accepted as “decent,” and even then, they do not need to be accepted as decent by everybody in the ELCA – a variety of theological opinions are allowed on this topic, which I will comment on later. This means that even “acceptable” same-gender committed relationships are not respected as fully as heterosexual marriages in our church. The ELCA’s understanding of relational decency implicitly and explicitly condemns other non-normative models of relationality and intimacy, including: households that consist of extended family or non-biological family/friends, blended families across one or more households, less than two or more than two parental figures, household partnerships without children, household partnerships without sexual intimacy, sexual partnerships without household sharing, etc. The heteronormative nuclear family is the default preferred model for a Christian relationship.
Second, we see this hegemonic ideal of relationality as white-centric. Cultural values of chastity and decency that are codified as “Christian” come from white elite European cultures from past centuries, and are not universal norms around the globe – understandings of decency in sex and marriage differ from culture to culture. Human Sexuality specifies that we as Lutherans inherit our views on marriage and family from the Lutheran Confessions, a collection of 16th century German documents. To claim only this one understanding of relationality as “Christian” means to understand other cultures’ and subcultures’ understandings of relationality as “un-Christian.” Understandings and practices of marriage, relationality, and sexuality also change over time, and must be understood as contextual. It is within these contextual understandings of relationality that the Christian gospel must be introduced and applied, leading to many possible forms of “Christian” relationality, just as we see diverse forms of Christian worship and community in various places and times. We need to be a church whose theology is based on our multicultural reality, both nationally and globally.
Third, we experience this theology as economically oppressive. The policies and pressure regarding marriage force us into a limited decision regarding household and finances. For example, at LSTC, similarly to other ELCA seminaries, students can only share on-campus subsidized housing with same-gender roommates (assuming a gender binary) or immediate family (meaning spouse, children, and/or parent(s) – one’s legal family relations). Living with a person of another gender is seen as inappropriate or questionable (because of the heteronormative assumption of sexuality), and living with a significant other with whom you have a sexual relationship is seen as sinful. Seminarians going on internship or being drafted for a call cannot have a relationship taken into consideration unless it is a civil marriage. This can (and does) force people into choosing marriage for economic reasons, getting married in order to both have a paid call and share a household with the person of their choice. Today, many people in sexual, nonsexual, or familial relationships share households in order to keep housing costs affordable, which is seen as non-normative in ELCA culture, in which independence is still celebrated and signaled by individual or marital homeownership. Civil marriage also changes one’s personal tax status, changing from an individual to a family unit. There is so much on the line economically for seminarians and rostered leaders in terms of job security, household affordability, and domestic partnership because of the ELCA’s insistence on civil marriage as the only appropriate form of committed and/or sexual relationality.”
As we do this work for sexual and relational justice, we do it knowing that we are also intentionally doing the work of questioning white supremacy, heteronormative patriarchy, neo-liberal capitalism, and the other systems in our society that create the inequalities and oppressions we are captive to. We do this work BECAUSE we are Lutheran!
“Our theological tradition centers on an incarnational God, who came to us as the person Jesus, taking on the experiences of bodily human life. Jesus cared for the needs of whole people, in spirit, flesh, mind, and emotions, especially attending to those outside of the religious and cultural norms. We believe our salvation does not rest on our actions, but on God’s grace. In baptism, we are freed in Christ to love and serve our neighbors. In the Eucharist, the Spirit joins us together in connection and relationality. The sacramental Christian life is therefore one of love, connection, relationality, and service. We are freed from worldly labels and minister to one another as community. A theology that includes limited legal understandings of sexual purity and relational mandating does not fit the joyous, Spirit-filled, embodied church we participate in as the ELCA. We welcome the spontaneous, “indecent” messiness of life that comes with being simultaneously sinners and saints.”
We will not let the church betray the gospel for imperial comfort. Jesus calls us to a communal life of relationality in which all people are valued. Join us in this work!