Teaching Christian Sexual Ethics: Reflecting on Week One

Last Thursday marked the beginning of my time as an adjunct professor teaching Christian Sexual Ethics at the Candler School of Theology. I’m grateful for the opportunity to teach this class not only because once upon a time I was a Candler student who wished that such a course was offered during my matriculation, but also because I understand the necessity and value of a course such as this at such a time as this. So, with the first week behind me yet ever on my mind, I want to reflect on it.

The first day of class is often “getting to know you” time and my first day of class was no different. I spent time, with varying levels of success, introducing students to the overall structure of the class, though in telling them about the structure of the class I completely missed telling them about the class as in, “What is Christian Sexual Ethics?” I did a brief lecture that laid a foundation for the first quarter of the class, the section that will deal with historical documents that have influenced the discourse of and on Christian Sexual Ethics. I trotted out the usual suspects: The ones such as Paul, Plato, and Augustine who set the body against the soul or flesh against the spirit. Aquinas and his virtue-based approach to the body and sex. Then we quickly went through how sexual ethics turns topical in the 19th-21st century. Finally I asked the students, what is it that they want and need from the course. The answers were varied. We spent the second half of class discussing a few chapters in Michael Coogan’s God and Sex, a book that I recommend to people who are interested in beginning their study, in sober fashion, of what the Bible really says about sex. It was a lively discussion where students shared their understanding of the text, their theoretical perspectives adjacent to it, and personal experiences within their lives and their contexts.

It felt like a good class but it was only the first day. Since the class I have been thinking about the kind of space I want to create for the students, something that I could not have decided until I had an opportunity to meet and engage with them in the classroom. Now that I have done that once I am reflecting on what I think the task of a Christian Sexual Ethics teacher is, particularly as I see the ways in which students are hungry for knowledge, knowledge that will deconstruct the myth and production of sex and sexuality as the Christian Church has constructed it, for the sake of church contexts they may be leading or will lead in the future, and the knowledge that will give them a new ethical code to follow.

It is my belief that in teaching Christian Sexual Ethics one does not, necessarily, just prescribe a way forward. That is, the job of the person who teaches Christian Sexual Ethics is not to promote what to think but it is to promote how to think about what we have been thinking about the discourse at large. It is to test and approve or disapprove the ethic of Christian Sexual Ethics, particularly that which is prone to be regulatory. Thus I promote no new ethic that can be conceived of as in line with a new normal or that which would be conceived of as liberal, but I desire to take every side of the discourse, consider it in context, consider it outside of its context regarding the way it has been taught, and then think through the ways in which we might move forward with or from it.

I consider what one student said on the first day about presenting “alternative ideas,” which, in her definition, was not about actual alternative ideas but about how we make room for those who believe in the tradition–or what more progressive to liberal Christians might call the “conservative” teachings of the church. How do we talk to those for whom abstinence before marriage is still the model, purity is de riguer, marriage is between one man and one woman, etc? I felt this student deeply because it reminded me that space must be made for a multitude of views and that there is a possibility that someone could believe in the traditional teachings of the church on sexual ethics and if that is the case, how do we make room for that and ensure that if one stays close to traditional views they do no harm in the process? Because I am under no delusion that one can remain within the realm of tradition or the traditional and not toe the line of doing harm that can do violence either physically or metaphysically. How do we hold views that may be considered more liberal without making them the norm and categorical imperative? How do we help people own their sexuality wherever they fall on the spectrum not presuming that an interest abstinence denotes being a prude or a robust sex life denotes a whore? Can we break the binary that both implicitly and explicitly suggests to be tradition is to be repressed and to be liberal is to be liberated? Is there something in between all of this?

To teach Christian Sexual Ethics toward the end of liberation cannot always mean teaching liberal, it includes teaching what is considered liberal but it is not only that. It talks to tradition and contends with it and permits space for separating the wheat from the chaff in those teaching so that it might be possible to utilize the theoretical frameworks of a tradition to more liberating ends. Just as we are fully human and fully divine beings, we require a full conversation that includes all we can consider about how we move through the world as the embodied divine, little words made flesh. With this in mind we move forward entrusting one another with a full range of being and thinking through who and how we are on this earth and we wrestle with that on every level. We create space to wrestle with the implications of our commitments to our bodies and to God and to help determine for ourselves how to reconcile these two seemingly disparate modes. It is not only about how we live as faithful and sexual beings but how we think about how we live in accordance with that way of being.

At the conclusion of this course I hope that students might be able to articulate where they have been and where they are going in light of the sources and resources that have been set before them over the course of the semester and that given all of this they might leave different than they came, whatever that looks like.

So once more unto the breach I go to teach Christian Sexual Ethics, hoping that I do the topic justice, uncovering what is unjust and just about our reflections on and utilization of sexual ethics in our tradition and hoping that I help students see a way forward for themselves and their contexts.

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Wrestling with “This is America” Through Black Genius on the 4th of July

Note: I wrote this when “This is America” first came out and didn’t publish it out of fear. I had one person approach me about publishing a version of this but time lapsed and it became untimely–and also, the world needed no more thinkpieces about it. Yet it came to mind today, on this fourth of July, so here I am letting these words come to light. 

It has been almost a week since the release of Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” a video that is as polarizing as it is profound. The first time I watched “This is America,” I sat in a state of paralysis as Gambino transitioned from a shirtless Black man happily dancing to sounds that reminded me of the Soweto Gospel Choir—albeit a choir aided by the voices of Gambino and Young Thug—to the dark turn that took us from our African diaspora origins to our tragic American home. For four minutes and five seconds I watched Gambino’s convulsing body shift from happiness to homicidal, revealing what I viewed as the tragicomic existence of Blackness in the public sphere. As the video concluded with a sweat-drenched Gambino running down a darkened hallway only lightened by the bodies of the white people chasing him, I was breathless and on the verge of tears. I had no clear words for what I had watched but what I did know is that I needed to see it and thus I took to social media to say one thing about it, “We needed this Childish Gambino in so many ways.” After that post I said nothing in public spaces about it, instead I discussed it with a few friends and observed the reactions to the video on social media. It turned out that the video was polarizing, either celebrated as a work of Black genius or decried as a poor meditation on Black death. In the cacophony of voices that took offense to it, I didn’t want to be an outlier, so I remained quiet. Yet I kept feeling the tug to respond with something more than, “We needed this…” and that more came in the form of reflecting on the video through the work of two Black geniuses who, though they are not talking directly to Gambino, have given me a lot to think about in regard to the tone and takeaway of “This is America.”

“Blackness, in all of its constructed imposition, can tend and has tended toward the experimental achievement and tradition of an advanced, transgressive publicity. Blackness is, therefore, a special site and resources for a task of articulation where immanence is structured by an irreducibly improvisatory exteriority that can occasion something very much like sadness and something very much like devilish enjoyment.” Fred Moten

A friend from Emory shared this Moten quote with me in a helpful, reflective conversation about the video. Her sharing this quote came on the heels of me sharing my read on the video, particularly how taken aback by Gambino’s somatic performance. Never static, his body transitioned between dancing and feet shuffling to a destination unknown. What we did know is the body was always in motion, so much so that I wondered about the Black person as moving target, one who creates out of the tragedy the body is steeped in, in order to free itself, if only for a moment. Thus our viral dances are not tools of distraction but resistance and recovery, a way to shake off the threat of danger that awaits us. My friend then layered my reflection with her remembrance of the aforementioned Moten quote, which, in its opaqueness, can communicate something about what could be seen in the video. It traffics in the dynamism and layers of an artist who is performing an understanding of being Black in America, part of that experience being contingent upon the ability to transgress boundaries—there is that moving target—and improvise through the body in ways that can read as BOTH sadness and happiness. There are levels to Gambino’s video and any point made about it that falls under the banner of a certain obviousness belies missing the point altogether. This is why I have sat with Moten’s quote and have been reading it alongside Gambino’s creation to gain insight into that which is complicated.

“Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world-destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does exposure of the violated body yield? Proof of black sentience or the inhumanity of the ‘peculiar institution’? Or does the pain of the other merely provide us with the opportunity for self-reflection? At issue here is the precariousness of empathy and the uncertain line between witness and spectator. Only more obscene than the brutality unleashed at the whipping post is the demand that this suffering be materialized and evidenced by the display -Saidiya Hartman

This quote from the introduction of Saidiya Hartman’s book Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America has also helped me think more and deeper about “This is America.” It beckons me to think about a phrase that I’ve seen bandied about during it’s release, “Black Death.” This is also the phrase that once I saw it one too many times I became paralyzed and afraid of offering another interpretation lest I seem to have turned my back on my people. Yet I need to say that, for me, “This is America,” is not making a spectacle of Black Death–that feels too reductive–but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still some meditation to be done on the death of Black people at the hands of a state and a racist people who honors their weapons more than their people.

Hartman’s quote pushes me to consider my position in “This is America,” the song and the actual space. Am I witness or a spectator? Witnesses see and then give an account of what they saw—or as Hartman states, witnesses confirm the truth of what is happening. Spectators watch with fascination and then walk away, or, if spectators do give an account, it is of the spectacle of the situation because of how it titillated them, not how it convicted them about the brutal truth of a situation. Here I wonder what rattled so many about the video, is it that they saw themselves as the distracted—another response I saw to the videos utilization of viral dances? Hartman also bids us to consider what the exposure of many bodies violated by a racist state (and racism in general) yield. For me, it is hardly about Gambino but about a larger media project outside of him that depends on video footage taken by camera phones that is then embedded on news sites that broadcast Black death for traffic–and remember in the video how there were people above Gambino standing there recording the pandemonium below them. As we bear witness to various shootings of Black people and, in the instances where there is someone there to record it on their cellphone, that person becomes a de facto producer in an industry that sells Black Death back to us under the guise of making us aware. Black Death has been packaged and sold to us in far more deleterious ways than Gambino’s video. He, unfortunately, is art imitating life, the life that some of us haven’t skewered nearly as hard as we are skewering him.

In the end I think “This is America,” opens up a discussion of the “both/and” sometimes tragicomic existence of Black people in America. We can dance the Gwara Gwara and be keenly aware of our mortality in one fell swoop that really is the state of being black in America right now. We don’t have the luxury of the either/or but the both/and. Blackness is complex, as complex as all the things thrown at us in Gambino’s “This is America,” and complex beyond all the things it didn’t throw at us.

Wined and Dined: A Fairy Tale

Last night a man wined and dined me, treating me to the most sumptuous foods and waiting on me hand and foot. This was our first time out but he was at ease in spoiling me, calling me “My Lady”–the way that British people say it (Mehlady). He had his finger on the pulse of everything this epicure enjoys, from mushrooms stuffed with shrimp, crab meat, and spinach to steaming hot paella chock full of fresh seafood such as lobster tails, scallops, and Mahi Mahi. He anticipated my every need and met it while being so careful not to overstep boundaries, after all, this was only our first time out. He even brought dessert, a selection of six decadent treats from Tiramisu to Pecan Pie of which I chose only one for fear that I would explode in delight with anything more. I exploded anyway. We kept things fairly light throughout the meal but by the end he asked me about what I was reading. I responded in the way one responds when they assume that someone won’t know who they are talking about.

“City of God, by this guy Augustine,” I said. His eyes lit up when I said Augustine and I realized that he knew him as well as I did–or at least as well as I was hoping to know Augustine.

“I recently started reading a book on Plato, even though I haven’t read much of that nature since my theology class,” he responded. I lit up at the sound of the words “theology” and “class.”

“Did you attend a theology school?” I asked, beaming in excited anticipation of his answer, hoping we shared a similar path.

“It was while I was at Xavier,” he said.

Now I was really lit.

“Are you Catholic?” I asked.

“I am,” he said. Inside I felt like the 4th of July, all fireworks and Katy Perry singing, “Baby You’re a Firework.”

“I am Catholic too,” the words spilling out of my mouth.

He smiled wide, put his hand over his heart, and extended his other hand in what felt like some secret greeting between people of the faith. I smiled on the outside but inside I was bursting with desire to know this person better, bursting out of desire because I finally found what I was missing, a man who shares my faith tradition and knows a little about Augustine and Plato. All of a sudden the wasteland I had been walking through evaporated and I was in a promised land.

We both smiled at one another and then he excused himself to get something in the back.

He walked away but then turned on his heels swiftly and said, “I’m sorry, I digress, what’s your name?”

As if we hadn’t already greeted one another with hands I extended mine for a chance to meet his again and said, “Nicole.”

“It’s really nice to meet you, hopefully I’ll see you again so that we can talk about Augustine’s City of God. I’m here every day,” he said in earnest as he walked away from the table.

I smiled at my good fortune on this evening. I wasn’t expecting to be wined and dined and treated like a queen. I expected a perfunctory dinner, but this was different, I was unprepared for this difference. I said farewell to this man and took leave of the place where I was wined and dined, walking past table upon table of people enjoying their sumptuous meals and decadent dessert. I squeezed past large groups awaiting seating and finally reached the doors to the exterior of Seasons 52.

As I walked toward my car I exhaled. I’d been waiting for this feeling, waiting to feel something more real than I’ve felt in a while and I finally felt it. I smiled. I got in my car and exhaled again, reaching into my wallet to pull out my receipt so that I could look at his name. He told his name but I hoped that I’d have more than his first name, unfortunately it was not to be. All I had was his first name and, of course, his place of employment, Seasons 52. Far from being in despair at this Cinderella-like fate, I was hopeful. Not because I was planning to make a habit out of going to Seasons 52–because that’s an expensive habit to sustain–but because that chance encounter restored my faith in something like love even if just for a moment.

I sit here now with the only memento from that night, a symbolic glass slipper that belongs to a Prince Charming-prototype. I wonder if he too feels like his only memento of the night is holding a symbolic glass slipper, a receipt with my signature scribbled on it and the last four digits of my credit card number. If I’m lucky he’ll use those two things to track me down and save me from this evil spell called living in this crazy world without a romantic equal. Alas life is not a fairytale, and he probably gives impeccable service to scores of people at Seasons 52, after all, it is his job.

At Home in Aloneness…

As I looked out the window to the ground being pounded by droplets of a downpour I thought to myself, “I can’t believe I’m here.” The world around me is moving swiftly. People’s relationships are evolving or shriveling up and dying and here I sit, in the same place I’ve always been, and it’s sort of unbelievable to me. As I watched the concrete grow slicker with each drop I tried to feel something different, but my heart wouldn’t budge. I conjured thoughts about people in love with one another, about sitting on a couch with someone doing the proverbial “Netflix and chill,” about having someone to share the end of my busy days with. I tried to conjure some sense of disappointment about not having that yet, about not having a prospect, about not even having the person who I know is a complete waste of my time but I persist because I figure it’s better than being alone. Amazingly I felt no sense of disappointment, no wistfulness for all I’m supposedly  missing at this moment in life. For the first time in a while, possibly in my young adult life, I’m romantically alone with nothing on the horizon, and I’m not scared of it.

For the first time in my life that I can fully sense, I am at peace with being alone. I’m 36 and single and I actually feel satisfied. Not in that cliché, “I can do bad all by myself,” way but in a rewarding, “There is richness, possibility, and hope in this space of aloneness.” This aloneness is not pejorative or stigmatizing for me. I don’t seek to be uprooted from it by busying myself with ways to not lean into this feeling. I’m not compelled to jump on a dating app to busy myself with “in the meantime” men. I am content. This takes me by surprise because for so long I’ve been compelled to mourn my singleness for every year that passes by and I remain so. But I’m 36 and single and I’m compelled to lean into this. I’m no longer willing to create a narrative for my singleness save for the one that tells the story of a woman who has chosen this for herself not as a lot I’ve settled on by circumstance but as a choice.

Just a few weeks ago a man asked me why I’m single given my beauty and intelligence and, initially, I regurgitated the script telling him, “Talk to your brethren.” But a moment later I said to him, “I’m sorry I take that back, it’s not on them, it’s on me. I haven’t found what I’m looking for and I lead a rich and fulfilling life that someone must be compelling enough to be a part of.” I’ve reached that sweet spot that Warshan Shire put words to when she wrote,

My alone feels so good, I’ll only have you if you’re sweeter than my solitude.

As I’m bombarded with engagement announcements, budding relationships, breakups stories, and dating app disasters, I stand still in this world where everyone is searching for someone while I am  finding myself and satisfaction in me. I have hit my own sweet spot, a place where I am building a sense of contentment not as a placeholder until someone else comes but as my home, my strong tower. I am cherishing what I have in this life in walking in a purpose, in my wonderful family and friends who are like family, and in a faith life that I am only beginning to discover the extraordinary riches of apart from anything I might gain from it. It is with slight incredulity that I occupy this space because I am not supposed to be here. The world wants me to mourn my singleness, the barrenness of my womb, the emptiness of my bed, the space between my fingers, the holes unfulfilled…But I am truly, finally, at peace with where I am in that perceived lack because I’ve found my fulfillment.

My aloneness, that presence, fullness, aliveness, joy of being, overflowing love is home. In this place I am complete. Nobody is needed, I am enough.[1]

 

[1] Inspired by the definition of aloneness by Pragito Dove, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/pragito-dove/loneliness-v-aloneness-wh_b_8032702.html