I both praised and poked a bit of fun at the long list of qualifying adjectives that ethicist Dave Gushee employs when defending a “covenantal-marital” approach to sexual ethics. The key factor, he says, is marriage — but then he quickly has to say what all he means by marriage, clarifying and expanding the meaning of it. A marriage covenant needs to be “faithful and exclusive” and to be “loving, nonexploitative, noncoercive, reciprocal …”
The same thing happens when we look for more than just a momentary glance at any other proposed sexual ethic. Others may say the key factor is mutual consent — but then they quickly add a similar wall of adjectives to clarify that what they mean by consent also includes many of the same qualities. Or a Lennonist may say “All you need is love,” but then again we see the rush of adjectives to explain what they mean — and do not mean — by “love.” (In a sense, that’s what the apostle Paul does, beautifully, in 1 Corinthians 13.)
In every case, these lists of qualifying and expanding adjectives are needed, I think, because of the intrinsic oddity of trying to talk about “sexual ethics” as something separate and distinct from, you know, just plain ethics. All that other stuff we talk about under the umbrella of ethics for the majority of our lives when we’re fully clothed and out of bed can’t be set aside when we turn to the matter of sex. That, it seems to me, is the pitfall for a lot of discussion of “sexual ethics” — it tries to set all that aside to focus on this particular thing as wholly distinct. And it’s not. It’s a part of our lives, not apart from our lives.
All the rest of what we think of as ethics shouldn’t stop at the bedroom door, replaced there by the separate sub-category of “sexual ethics.” Creating such a separate category creates the danger of exempting that category from all the other stuff we think of as ethical obligations, duties, rights and wrongs. Rather than risk segregating “sexual ethics” from the rest of our ethics, we might be better served by some variation of that silly game we play with fortune cookies. We should reaffirm what we already know or believe about ethics … “in bed.”
If anything, all that other stuff that constitutes the rest of our ethical thinking and practice becomes more important during sexytime, because that is where we encounter one another at our most vulnerable. We’re naked, exposed, open and extended to one another. If we’re doing it right, we’re poised to surrender control to one another. Given all that, it’s strange that most talk of “sexual ethics” mainly involves the preconditions and the context for that activity without addressing the activity itself.*
Part of the weirdness that flows from this separation of sexual ethics can be seen in the way we turn away from the rest of our ought-talk when anything remotely suggests that sexuality is part of the equation.
Think of Micah 6:8. That verse has always been a favorite of mine because growing up in central Jersey we would pass the nearby synagogue where it was carved in huge letters on the wall facing West Seventh Street: “DO JVSTICE • LOVE MERCY • WALK HVMBLY WITH THY GOD.”Here’s the full verse: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
That passage is familiar enough for most Christians that if we quote the first part of it’s question — “What does the Lord require of you?” — it will usually prompt them to give Micah’s answer: “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
But if we raise that same question in any context that suggests sex or sexuality is anywhere in the mix, then we’ll get a very different answer.
Ask, “What does the Lord require of you as a single person?” or “What does the Lord require of you as a spouse?” or “What does the Lord require of you as someone who is LGBT?“** and the ensuing discussion won’t sound anything at all like the last half of Micah 6:8.
That’s a weird move. Ask a conservative white evangelical “What does the Lord require of you when it comes to human sexuality?” and they will respond “Chastity until lifelong biblical marriage between one man and one woman.”
That’s the wrong answer.
Even if you believe that’s proper sexual ethics, Micah still says that’s the wrong answer. The right answer doesn’t go away just because genitals are part of the discussion. We may want to add to the right answer, to expand on it and clarify it for particular contexts, but we still have to start there.
What does the Lord require of you when it comes to human sexuality? To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with thy God.
God has told you, O mortal, what is good. God has told you, O single people, what is good. God has told you, O married people, O straight people, O queer people, O all people, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
– – – – – – – – – – – –
* About which, let me just say this much: The Golden Rule is always important as an ethical guide — reciprocity is one aspect of justice and we should always strive to do right by one another. But it’s also practical. The character-building practice of the Golden Rule in all of life helps train us to appreciate and to negotiate — in both senses — the difference between our various diverse ideas about “as you would have them do unto you.” (My favorite beverage is strong black coffee. The Golden Rule doesn’t mean that I should insist everyone gets strong, black coffee, but rather that they get to enjoy whatever their favorite beverage is just as I get to enjoy mine. If my guest prefers tea, then the Golden Rule says I need to learn to make a good cup of tea.)
** No one ever asks “What does the Lord require of you as a cis-het/straight person?” because as the normative majority, people like me enjoy the privilege of not being defined/bounded by our sexuality the way we insist everyone else must be. We’re free to go about our lives as though we don’t have a sexuality, just like we white people don’t have a race/color/ethnicity. It may be impossible to overstate how much time and energy this frees up, or how much psychic/emotional toil this spares us.