Darker the Despair
Erin is a childhood friend who's shared a lot of the same experiences as I have. I got an email from her yesterday, full of anger and woe.
Raised by Southern Baptists, Erin was fed a steady diet of monogamy and abstinence while she lived in Dallas. Erin buys it. Erin's mother and father are passionately in love with each other, and Erin and I used to dream about the boys we would marry. We both developed our first crushes on boys in high school, and we both stayed away from sex, where the other girls who listened to punk and wore black clothing lost their inhibitions. Both of us were motivated by a mixture of fear about STD's, biblical rhetoric, the example of our parents, and the education of our social class.
But at eighteen both Erin and I moved East for college. At college it was difficult to find other progressive Christians to date. One could, perhaps, date fundamentalist boys who expected their future wives to abandon their careers for reproduction and dedication. One had no interest in the perpetual dating circuit of one-night stands. Both Erin and I ended up dating in college, amongst a run of artists and future politicians, all dedicated to the progressive values of love for one's neighbor, service to the poor, responsibility for the sick and lonely. Among progressives in Eastern colleges, it would be an extreme rarity to have a relationship that didn't end in sex. Erin thought she was going to marry the theater director she first slept with. She's had the idea that she might marry every man she slept with since. The relationships fizzle for whatever reason: inconstancy, apathy, periods of growth or travel. Erin inevitably ends up a wreck.
Going home every year she would go back to church with her parents, sit silently deferent at the kitchen table listening to her parents, undergoing speech after speech about the foolishness of premarital sex in any form, the certitude of death; AIDS linked in her family as a natural punishment by God for bad behavior. The wages of sin are death, and premarital sex, she accepted, was a choice she made that doomed her. Whether by the hellfire of damnation or the risk of infection, sex outside of marriage doomed her, body and soul; doomed whomever she was with, barely if at all countered by her virtuous motives -- affection, intent of marriage, political enthusiasm for righteous causes. Erin doesn't get tested for STD's. The outcome for her is clear already. Talking about STD's sends her into fits of angst and anger.
Most people in Erin's demographic turned angrily against the church. Erin didn't. She still goes to church. She still dreams of a marriage like her parent's. She's riddled with a kind of fear and guilt well beyond anything relieved in confession boxes: she blames herself for every failed relationship, she blames herself for a lifestyle, she sees no real alternatives to her lifestyle that still allow her to have relationships where she is recoganized as a professional woman.
Erin was reading in the paper this weekend how the rate of young women in
South Africa who have AIDS is now 40% for women aged 25 to 29. It's hard for me not to reflect that these women are my age -- Erin's age. It's hard not to think about jettisoned careers, romances, and dreams, let alone about AIDS orphans.
It's hard to avoid despair about the sadness of death and disease, but despair is the darker when one believes that those dying are cursed. For Erin, the curse is one visited on her by a vengeant God she can barely understand. But the curse also takes the material form of a people to whom the worldwide Church refuses minister : the Church as it refuses to hand out condoms, the Church as it refuses to talk about what characterizes loving relationships before marriage, the Church as it threatens and chides human individuals in love, in despair, and threatened by disease -- and tells them to repent.
The despair is the darker when one believes that one's own community of faith has been actively involved in the spread of the disease through wanton denial of discussion.
Let's say right here that Erin's religious education sucks. I think she survives by not thinking too hard about it. When she considers, she's faced with a cosmological catch-22: God and Erin agree that marriage would be wonderful; God and Erin agree that she finds a spiritual home among progressives; God and Erin exhort intense, shared affection, love of the subcultural and outcast; but God has denied Erin any Christian company among progressives so that she should find a partner who understands her; God has cursed those who break His law with damnation and disease.
When I joined the Episcopalian church I met for the first time a community of religious progressives interested in actively engaging the theology of the body not only from a more *lenient* perspective than conservative fundamentalists, but from a more *godly* perspective about the body. Body theology among conservative Roman Catholics means John Paul II's phenomenological understanding of a body physically designed to declare itself given only for sex inside marriage. Body theology among liberal Anglicans means a body that represents joy in its creation and relation to other creatures, not constrained by the tyranny of reproduction, property relations, or the expectations of social custom.
This is a body theology that reaches out to others, that finds in sex one of the fiercest and most contested of our ways of making war on each other, an endless excuse to defer compassion to other nations and other creatures. When the lamb appeared to Abraham, God promised that human sacrifice was no longer required of man. Christ fulfilled that promise with his blood, shed that we should no longer make war within families, within societies, or across nations merely to vindicate the reign of custom.
What one friend advises another about the best response to her series of failed relationships is one thing. What the Church as an institution chooses to uphold as a model for political and educational structures of guilt and repentence seems to me outrageous in light of these personal activities, fraught with complicated decisions, guilt, love, patience, compassion, and fear. A world-wide plague is quite another thing entirely, and a tragedy. All three are linked together by the way we speak of them in the media. All three of them together are too much despair to face. Christ stopped the stoning of the adulteress: that is all I ask for a friend in despair.
Starfish International: Turning the Tide on AIDS, an Episcopalian/Anglican charity that takes seriously the Christian responsibility to care for the downcast. Starfish is responsible for caring for AIDS orphans throughout Africa.
Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, visits Kenya this week. He will focus on discussions about AIDS, but it is expected that his language will also address the African bishops angry about Episcopalian and Anglican theological leniancy towards homosexuality.
Having visited South Africa this week, Laura Bush advocates sociological research that ties violence towards women with the spread of AIDS
Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body, according to a site dedicated to its justification
Sex, Lies, and Scripture: "These groups may have Christian-sounding names, but their goals include reinterpreting the Bible to justify sexual liberalism. Don't be fooled."
Avowed, Practicing and Straight discusses why it's okay to love Jesus and have sex.