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Sex and Social Justice

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So all this talk against masturbation by Republican candidates reminded me of an email exchange I was having with a conservative relative recently. He said that us liberals always talked about Jesus talking about helping the poor and oppressed, but never talked about his stands on sexual immorality. Okay, fair point, I thought, so I decided to check my Bible and see how much emphasis Jesus placed on such issues compared with his discussion of social-justice-related issues. I figured the easiest way to check this out was just a verse count, which could give some sense at least of how much time he spent on one area vs. another.

I found 19 verses in the gospels where Jesus mentions divorce, which he was against. At that time in Jewish culture, men were quite cavalier about divorcing their wives, leaving them deserted in abject poverty (women of the time had little in the way of economic or civil rights) frequently with little prospects for remarriage, and Jesus was appalled at that idea, and so spoke out against divorce. His focus in these passages was not about the sex part and was focused on marriage as an institution.

I found nine verses that specifically referenced adultery and/or fornication. Three of these verses listed one or both on a long list of sins he was mentioning on his way to another point -- for example, in Matthew he is discussing the idea that what makes you a sinner is at least as much about what is in your heart as what you do. The final six verses mentioning sexual morality were in the long (29 verse) section of Matthew where he again talked about how we should not just obey the laws but hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal morality, and he used several examples including murder, violence, lying, loving others, and adultery (the famous lusting in your heart verses which Christine O'Donnell was so eloquent about). That's it in terms of Jesus' worries about sex-related sinning -- four mentions, all of them in the context of explaining a much bigger point he was making about how what's inside matters as much as whether you obey specific laws in the Jewish scripture.

Now, let's compare those to the social justice areas of the Gospel, which I think of as where Jesus talks about showing mercy to those weaker than us, not judging others, loving/forgiving/turning the other cheek to our enemies, forgiving enemies/blessing peacemakers in general, loving/treating others as we would ourselves, and what I would call the class warrior verses (the blessed are the poor/woe to the rich sections). Here are the numbers for these kinds of verses:
  • Mercy to those weaker: 24 verses
  • Do not judge others: 34 verses
  • Love and forgive your enemies/make peace: 53 verses
  • Loving your neighbors (defined as all other people, not just those who live next door) and treating them as you would treat yourself: 19 verses
  • Help the poor/the rich should sell all their possessions and them away: 128 verses

All told, that is 258 verses about mercy, forgiving enemies, not judging others, loving all people, helping the poor and woe to the wealthy vs. nine verses that mention adultery or fornication in any way, and 19 more saying divorce isn't good. Oddly enough, Jesus didn't say a single word against homosexuality or masturbation or abortion or birth control, although if you listened to some of our conservative friends, you would think he was obsessed with those topics.

Those ratios are pretty daunting. About 14 to one on class war vs. sex. Almost four to one on just the simple idea of not judging others as compared to all the mentions of sex sins. If you combine all the things Jesus said about sex and divorce, and compare it to all the stuff he said about helping the poor and how the rich should give away everything they own, you get close to a five to one. And if you combine all the stuff about sex and divorce vs.all the stuff about social justice, it's more than nine to one in favor of us social justice lefty types.

Of course, 2,000 years after Jesus lived and preached, we can't know for sure how much he said or cared about these issues. All the evidence we have of his life and ministry are those four gospels, written probably 40-60 years after his death by fervent believers who didn't always agree with each other on the details of his life, death, and ministry. But what is obvious from the gospels is that the Jesus of the Bible preached and cared overwhelmingly about just two things: his followers' relationship with God, and their love and kindness toward others, especially the weak and the poor.

Why is this important to our modern society today? Because conservatives try so hard to twist the religion of the majority of Americans into a warped, unrecognizable version of the message its founder had for us.

At least conservatives like Ayn Rand were honest in their disdain for religious pieties about compassion and helping the weak. Those conservatives who are trying so hard to wrap themselves in the Bible ought to try actually reading one someday.

Cross-posted at my home blog, OpenLeft.com, where you can read all of my writing on religion and politics.