Paul cringed with embarrassment as the semi-naked
woman produced a gun and began shooting at her big-screen co-stars. As a
university chaplain, he had invited several American exchange students
to the cinema. They now stood up and walked out.
“It was pretty violent, wasn't it?” said Paul, as he apologised
afterwards. The students looked uncomprehending. After a brief
conversation, he realised that it wasn't the guns that had offended
them. It was the breasts.
Christians have often treated sex, sexuality and even nudity as far
more serious subjects than violence. It is difficult to imagine the
Anglican church threatening schism because a diocese on the other side
of the world appointed a pacifist bishop. A minister's position on
nuclear weapons is rarely of such major concern to a congregation as who
he/she sleeps with.
The words “sex and violence” are frequently coupled, not least by
Christians. This is bizarre. After all, virtually all Christians –
whether pacifists or not - regard war and other forms of violence as
extremely undesirable. Sex on the other hand is a gift from God and a
cause for rejoicing. It can be abused, trivialised and made a means to
hurt others, but in itself, when used properly, it is surely a good
Bombs not sex toys
It is not only Christians who are confused about sex and violence.
British society is deeply inconsistent about them. The owner of a small
firm selling sex toys online told me that a major bank had refused to
handle her account as they had ethical objections. The same bank has
millions invested in the arms trade.
Successive governments have condemned gun crime while subsidising
arms sales to brutal regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. Death
penalty advocates frequently describe themselves as “pro-life”. In a
society that is supposed to be sexually liberated, the people whose
voices are heard least include those who are forcefully deprived of the
freedom to make sexual choices – rape victims, trafficked sex workers
and abused children.
Of course, there is more sexual freedom than there was fifty years
ago. We are saturated with sexual imagery. Yet for many, sexual matters
remain a cause of embarrassment, low self-esteem or distress. Our
history of negativity about sex is deeply ingrained – how often have you
used the word “rude” when you really meant “sexual”?
Despite the secular acceptance of divorce and homosexuality,
sexuality remains constrained by highly questionable expectations. If
you doubt this, watch a few mainstream romantic comedies. Singleness is
presented as something to be overcome. Casual sex is the norm. Genuine
friendships with ex-partners are virtually unheard of and jealousy can't
be controlled. Stereotypes are reinforced, with men desperate for sex
and gay people tolerated only as marginal characters.
It would be good to think that Christians are bringing some clarity
and truth to this situation, but much of the time we seem to be making
things worse. The global child abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic
Church has made it almost impossible in some circles for Christians to
be taken seriously on matters of sexual ethics. Non-Catholics have no
cause for complacency; all churches will be tainted by association. The
vast majority of both Catholics and other Christians are appalled by the
abuse and its cover-up, but this does not mean we can avoid asking
ourselves some tough questions. The first of these is: does Christian
theology really have anything helpful to say about sexual abuse?
Christians who oppose homosexuality and all sex outside formal
marriage need to consider whether they spend more time condemning these
practices than working against sexual violence. Nor are things any
easier for those of us who like to see ourselves as inclusive. Repelled
by the Church's history of sexual repression, some Christians are so
keen to be positive about sex that they seem to have forgotten its dark
side: rape, child abuse, domestic violence, adultery, prostitution,
trafficking, the pressure on people to have sex when they are not ready,
sexual imagery in advertising to make profits for the rich, sex that is
without care or respect for the other person involved.
Of course, inclusive Christians oppose these things. But are they an
add-on to our views, a disclaimer at the bottom of the page? Or is this
an active opposition that flows from an understanding of sexual ethics
that is as firm in working against abuse as it is about celebrating
healthy, Godly sexuality?
If we ask ourselves how Christianity got into such confusion over sex
and violence, we need to go back a long way. In the fourth century, the
Roman Empire ended its marginalisation of Christians and began to
promote the Church. While Christians had been drifting away from Jesus'
social radicalism since the first century, this was a change on a
different scale. Stuart Murray Williams calls it the “Christendom
shift”. For more than a millennium and a half afterwards, Christianity
in Europe was allied with political and cultural power.
With the beginning of Christendom, previously persecuted Christians
found they were the new allies of empire. The empire sent troops to kill
its name, and many Christians abandoned their former rejection of
violence. Theologians came up with a Christian version of 'just war', a
notion that had been developed by the pagan thinker Cicero. Augustine of
Hippo saw war as a regrettable last resort. He told a soldier that
“peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a
necessity”. His criteria for “just war”, while not always clear, would
rule out the vast majority of wars ever fought.
But over time, the definition of just war has been stretched to
breaking point. In the Falklands war of 1982, Christian leaders in both
the UK and Argentina claimed that their country was fighting a just war.
The just war theorist Rienhold Niebuhr was even prepared to countenance
the use of nuclear weapons.
Augustine may well be turning in his grave at this abuse of his
theory, but by focusing on the justifications for warfare, he and his
allies had broken the automatic linking of violence with sin.
This was helped along by another doctrine of Augustine's - 'original
sin'. Earlier Christians had spoken of humanity's tendency to sin, but
Augustine claimed that sin itself is hereditary - newborn babies are
guilty. This was a new idea. It contrasted with the views of earlier
Christians, such as Gregory of Nyssa, who insisted that all are born
innocent. Augustine taught that sex should be used only for
reproduction, but even then, the couple are transmitting sin to their
child. Sex, said Augustine, “would drag through the ages the burden of
As Karen Armstrong puts it, Augustine's notion of original sin “would
become central to the way western people view the world”. Over time,
contempt for sex, pregnancy and the body fuelled the subordination of
women and sexual minorities. A doctrine that puts the focus of sin on
sexual behaviour has proved far more amenable to the powerful than
theologies which denounce sins of warfare and oppression.
Between them, the doctrines of just war and original sin have
reverberated down the centuries, keeping the focus of sin on sex, and
away from violence.
For the last half-century, Christendom has been in decline, both in
Britain and elsewhere. Plurality and multiculturalism are taking its
place. The end of Christendom should be good news for Christians, as it
helps us to rediscover our roots on the margins of society, standing
with the vulnerable and free to speak out against the powerful. Jesus
never taught his followers to seek power for themselves that they denied
But we cannot simply shrug off Christendom as if it never existed.
Its legacy hangs over us like an unexcorcised demon. A significant
number of Christians cling on to the vestiges of Christendom – bishops
in the House of Lords, privileges for faith schools, opt-outs from
equality legislation. In recent years, Christians have shown themselves
capable of effectively championing social justice with campaigns such as
Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History. But the influence of Christendom
still hampers churches' ability to stand up for a better world.
Take the example of nuclear arms. A number of denominations are
campaigning against the government's plan to renew the Trident nuclear
weapons system. The Methodist Church has been one of the most outspoken.
The Methodist Church has also produced a glossy booklet entitled Celebrating 150 Years of Ministry to the Armed Forces 1860-2010.
It leaves ethical issues virtually unmentioned. Most other
denominations also have an uncritical approach to military chaplaincy.
I have no doubt that chaplains do a very valuable job providing
pastoral care to those who face danger and death in a way that is
unimaginable to most of us. But military chaplaincy operates in a
structure inherited from Christendom. Chaplains become members of the
forces themselves, taking ranks and swearing oaths of allegiance. Their
independence is compromised by loyalty to the state. And there are no
formal chaplains to the unarmed forces – aid workers, human rights
monitors and others who put their lives at risk in war zones while never
picking up a weapon.
Whether we see violence as always wrong or as an occasional
regrettable necessity, our witness is severely weakened by allowing
Christian ministers to become subordinate to an institution which
requires people to engage in violence whenever ordered to do so. How
much stronger would the Methodists' witness be if they declared that
Methodist chaplains would encourage soldiers to disobey orders if told
to deploy nuclear weapons?
The shadows of Christendom similarly pervade our debates about
sexuality and relationships. A good many Christians are still attached
to 'traditional family values'. Such values have more to do with an
impulse to social control and respectability than with the Christ who
redefined his family as “whoever does the will of God” (Mark 3,35) and
said he had come “to set a man against his father and a daughter against
her mother” (Matthew 10,35). On the other side of the fence, liberal
Christians can be so appalled by Christendom's history of sexual control
that they are nervous of speaking of sexual sin at all and their views
appear as a pale reflection of secular liberalism, however spiritual
their motivations may be.
A different power
To overcome Christendom, we need to turn to Christ. Whereas
Christendom sought to accommodate the Gospel to the powers of this
world, Jesus pointed the way to a different type of power altogether.
Luke tells us that before Jesus was even born, Mary praised God who
has “brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly”
(Luke 1,52). Matthew shows us the newborn Jesus already in conflict
with Herod's authority. Jesus saved his harshest words for people who
abused their power. This is not to say he considered others guiltless.
When socialising with prostitutes and well-known sinners, there is no
suggestion he condoned their sins. But he may also have seen them as the
victims of others.
Jesus lived in a society of deeply uneven power – between Roman and
Jew, man and woman, rich and poor, clean and unclean. Violence generally
involves a misuse of power over another person or people. Violence in
this sense includes not only physical violence, but emotional violence
and all that causes harm to people's relationships with each other and
God. It includes the structural violence of oppressive political and
Jesus’ teachings on violence make sense only in the context of power.
When he said, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other
also”, he was addressing people used to being hit. Someone can be
struck on the right cheek by the right hand only if the aggressor is
using the back of his/her hand. This was the way in which people
humiliated supposed inferiors. Wives were backhanded by husbands, slaves
by masters and Jewish civilians by Roman soldiers. Jesus advocated
neither violent resistance nor cowering submission but an assertion of
dignity. Turning the other cheek signals to the aggressor that he/she
has failed to humiliate the intended victim.
Love in action
As Christians, we are called to witness to a power that is radically
different to the powers of violence and wealth that sustain kings and
empires. The power proclaimed by Christ can work through a beaten slave,
through amazed fisherman and perplexed prostitutes.
The peace campaigner Helen Steven wrote of how her activism was strengthened by her deepening understanding of Jesus:
"For a few moments I had experienced a power and outrage beyond
myself, and this showed me that that special power which Jesus had is
also available to me... It was precisely this very question of authority
and source of power that constituted the offence of Jesus to the
religious leaders of his time... So now it came to me with blinding
clarity that claiming this power and letting it drive where it must,
leads straight into trouble."
It is this power that makes active nonviolence possible. Nonviolence
is love in action. It rejects violence in all forms – physical,
emotional and structural. We are all complicit in violence to some
extent, for example by participating in an exploitative economic system.
We are all sinners. Nonviolence means seeking to overcome this,
changing both the system and ourselves.
Nonviolence is not passivity, neutrality or the avoidance of
conflict. Nonviolent conflict is essential to challenge the power of
violence. Nor does a commitment to nonviolence involve certainty about
how we would react in any given situation. It means seeking to live by a
different power than the power of money, markets and military might.
So if the New Testament focus of sin is on violence and power abuse,
what are we to say about sex? Should we assume that sexual ethics don’t
matter much? This approach is tempting to those keen to avoid
controversy, but there are two major problems with it. The first is that
for most people, sex and sexuality matter a great deal. The second is
that some of the worst violence in the world is sexual violence.
Sexual violence is a term that can rightly be applied to any abusive
form of sexual expression – a child violated by a parent, a woman raped
and beaten by her husband, a teenager pressurised into sex he does not
want, a man who deceives his partner by denying he is sleeping with
someone else. Sexual abuse is deeply sinful not because it is sexual but
because it is violent in a sexual context. It involves the intrusion of
violence into an area of life that should be full of love, affection
The prevalence of sexual violence is a reminder that our own society
perpetuates deeply unequal power structures. So what happens if we
approach questions of sexuality from the angle of nonviolence?
As with other areas of Jesus' teachings, his comments on sexuality
are illuminated when we look at issues of power. Jesus criticised
divorce in a society that generally allowed only men to initiate a
divorce, which could throw a woman into desperation or poverty. He
insisted that a man who looks at a married woman with a hope of sex has
already committed adultery in his heart (Matthew 5,28). The Greek phrase
puts the responsibility so much on the man that Kurt Neiderwimmer
translates the line as “already abused her by adultery”. This was in
contrast to the dominant view of the time, which blamed women for
tempting men into lust. Jesus saw where power really lay and encouraged
his listeners to take responsibility for their sexual behaviour.
Context is all
Living out our sexuality nonviolently cannot be reduced to a set of
convenient rules that take no account of context. Certain behaviours are
clearly abusive. But for many others, careful, prayerful reflection is
required to discern their real nature. We cannot decide whether a form
of sexual expression is violent simply by whether it looks violent at
first glance. A married man may seem thoroughly respectable, but if he
spends time looking at pornography without his wife's knowledge, he is
abusing her trust and love. A kinky sex act involving physical pain
obviously appears violent, but what if it is an expression of love
between a faithful couple who have thought about it carefully and who
use it to strengthen their relationship rather than damage it?
Oceans of ink and vast reserves of energy have been thrown into
Christian debates on sexuality. I suspect progress is hampered partly
because we keep asking the same questions, and then shouting our
contrasting answers at each other. Speaking of sexuality in terms of
nonviolence provides a different starting-point, while not being without
its own challenges. Like other forms of nonviolence, it is an attempt
to witness to a different power than the type understood by the pimp and
the arms dealer. It is an ethic more concerned with our relationships
with God and with each other than with the convenience of conformity or
the cop-out of tradition.