Friday, September 28, 2012

50 Shades of Grace: Jesus' Sexuality

I wasn’t surprised to read that the Vatican has published a response to the September 18th announcement of a tiny piece of papyrus that includes a dialog where Jesus refers to “my wife.” It is, in their words, a “clumsy forgery.” I only wonder what took them so long.

As you have no doubt read, Dr. Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, released findings last week regarding a newly found original document that offers evidence suggesting Jesus was married. It was front page news and lit up social media, with some claiming that it provides support for women priests and a married Roman Catholic clergy. 

Veracity of the fragment aside, this wasn’t news to those of us who think about sexuality and the church.  More than forty years ago, William E. Phipps wrote a book entitled “The Sexuality of Jesus,” in which he postulated that Jesus would have been betrothed by his parents during his teen years as was the custom for Jewish men based on the mores of the time. With an average age of marriage of 14, Phipps argued, Jesus was in all probability married. By the time we meet Jesus again at age thirty, when the Gospel story introduces him as an adult, he was likely a widower. (Women on average died in the first century at the age of 25, most often in childbirth.)

As a Jewish Unitarian Universalist, it’s hard for me to fully understand why a married Jesus causes such dismay. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the humanity and divinity of Jesus, the embodied Jesus would surely have been sexual from birth to death as all humans are. There is nothing in the Gospels that suggests that Jesus was asexual or celibate his entire life—something that would have been so extra-ordinary that surely it would have been mentioned by their authors. Indeed, the ideal of a celibate clergy was not decided until the late seventh century: the Quinisextine Council in 691 was the first to decree that clergy couldn’t marry after ordination, although previously married men could become clergy.

Rather than decrying the idea that Jesus was married (and therefore most likely sexually active with at least one woman), perhaps the discovery of the papyrus fragment will reopen the too-often missing dialog about sexuality in those denominations that would rather wish it away. If sexuality is one of God’s gifts to us, if sexual diversity is part of God’s blessing, if people of all genders are created in God’s image—then surely there is the possibility that Jesus too enjoyed this good gift.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Diverse Multifaith Leaders Support Family Planning -- Of Course

     This summer, I celebrated my 37th year working in sexual and reproductive health and rights.  My very first publication in the field was a 1976 pamphlet for the Population Institute titled, “Does Your Campus Offer Birth Control?”aimed at extending contraceptive services to college students.  In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court had affirmed family planning for unmarried women, and more and more universities were recognizing that their health services needed to include prescribing contraceptives.  Indeed, during my time at Wesleyan University, I had helped organize the movement to provide gynecological services at this previously all male school.

    I never would have predicted that nearly four decades later that birth control would once again be controversial.  After all, nine in ten heterosexually active women use family planning, nine in ten Americans believe that birth control use is morally acceptable , and three quarters of voters in 2012 agree that “we should do everything we can to make sure that people who want to use prescription birth control have affordable access to it.”

    Yet, during the past two years, there have been efforts to pass so called “Personhood Amendments” that would criminalize hormonal methods of birth control, the federal government almost closed down because of an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, and contraceptive coverage in health care reform is being challenged by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, calling its inclusion an attack on their “religious liberty.” Given these efforts, coupled with increased restrictions on abortion and politicians’ ridiculous statements on how pregnancy does and doesn’t occur, terming this a “war on women” seems all too apt.

    I am proud to tell you that this morning, 38 nationally recognized religious leaders are joining me in affirming safe, affordable, accessible, and comprehensive family planning services.  They include current and past heads of denominations, such the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black (United Church of Christ), the Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson (Reformed Church in America), the Rev. Peter Morales (Unitarian Universalist Association), and the Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins (Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)); presidents of seminaries such as Dr. Philip A. Amerson (Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary), the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones (Union Theological Seminary), and The Very Rev. Katherine Ragsdale (Episcopal Divinity School); organizational heads such as Dr. Richard Cizik (the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good), the Rev. Harry Knox (Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice), and Jon O'Brien (Catholics for Choice); and nationally recognized theologians such as the Rev. Dr. Tony Campolo, the Rev. Dr. Larry Greenfield, and Dr. Mary Hunt. They have all endorsed the Religious Institute’s new “Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Family Planning” []

    The Open Letter was developed at a Religious Institute colloquium held this spring.  A dozen Christian (mainline, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic), Jewish, and Muslim theologians created the Open Letter in a day of dialog and discussion.  They affirmed that, “in a just world, all people would have equal access to contraception.  The denial of family planning services effectively translates into coercive childbearing is an insult to human dignity.”  They called on hospitals and health services, regardless of religious affiliation, to provide or refer to contraceptive services, and reminded those who would oppose such services, that “no single faith can claim final moral authority in domestic or international discourse.”  They urged religious leaders to “advocate for increased U.S. financial support for domestic and global family planning services”.

    There is nothing new about religious leaders supporting family planning.  In 1929, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (Reform Judaism)  and in 1930, the Lambeth Conference of the Anglican Communion  passed the first religious organization policies supporting it.  Today, at least 14 major denominations, including the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) (, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, [], and the Seventh Day Adventist Church [] have policies supporting contraception.

    As people of faith, we must resist those who would deny individuals the ability to make their own personal decisions about their families and reproductive lives; indeed we must resist the political attempts to make such decisions and such services controversial when they are not.  As the Open Letter states, “contraception allows for a fulfilling sexual life while reducing maternal and infant mortality, unintended pregnancies, abortions, and sexually transmitted diseases.”  Surely as the wide range of endorsers of the Open Letter demonstrates, family planning is common ground.

    If you are a religious leader, please add your name to the list of endorsers by clicking  Read the Open Letter and view the endorsements there as well.   If you are a member of a faith community, please ask your religious leader to add their name.  Help us spread the word about the new Open Letter on Facebook and Twitter. 

    Let us demonstrate to all who would once again limit contraception that people of faith understand that “contraception saves lives, promotes human flourishing, and advances the common good.”