Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sex and Power


The sexual abuse scandal swirling around Penn State has drawn massive media attention.  Members of the Penn State community have been joined by many of us in a mixture of revulsion, shock, anger and sadness.
Former coach Jerry Sandusky stands accused of sexually molesting boys who participated in The Second Mile program, a program designed to provide children with help and hope.  He has been indicted on 40 counts of molestation.  
Not only did he use Penn State athletic facilities to commit the abuse with which he is charged, but his actions were reported to the university chain of command.  No one from the administration contacted the appropriate authorities, and the University took no official action for about a decade.  
Poussin's Rape of the Sabine Women

Only now that these allegations have come to light has the Board removed the President and the beloved coach Joe Paterno for failing to respond appropriately to Sandusky’s abuse of the boys under his care.
For the record, Jerry Sandusky denies these charges.  In fact he did so on national television in a phone interview with Bob Costas.  There is a detailed Grand Jury indictment containing the lurid details of the allegations and the evidence presented about them.
Our system of justice requires a presumption of innocence before a trial is held and a verdict is passed.  However, in moral community we can form an unofficial opinion prior to the results of a trial.  For that matter, we may assign guilt informally even when the technical process of legal proceedings cannot arrive at that conclusion.  For instance, I am not held to the verdict of “not guilty” in a hiring decision when I know that someone escaped punishment only due to a technicality.
However, let’s set aside for a moment Sandusky’s and Penn State’s culpability and ponder the lessons cases like this teach us.  They tell us a great deal about sex and power.

Sex and power form a toxic, destructive compound in what are sometimes called sex crimes.  Rape and child abuse involve both sexual behavior and coercive power.  
Experts often say that rape is about power, not sex.  But I am going say something that might shock you.  Christians believe that sex and power are inextricable.  The issue in sex crimes is not that power is involved.  It’s the kind of power.
In sex crimes, power is always coercive.  A more powerful person forces a less powerful person to perform acts for the gratification of the more powerful person without regard to the damage done to the victim.  Debasing the victim is part of the abuser’s motivation and leads to the abuser’s sense of gratification.
In the Penn State case, the institution exerted its power for the sake of self-preservation.   But this kind of abuse will have to wait for another post for a full discussion.  So, let’s return to our focus on abusive power and sex.
There is always a power differential between adults and children.  Children depend upon adults to provide for them, to protect them, and to model behavior for them.  
While physically violent means are often used in the rape of an adult, manipulation is highly effective on children.  
Boys and girls may wish to please an adult or fear angering a benefactor.  They look to adults for permission and moral guidance, and so they are especially susceptible to the direction given by authority figures.
This psychological and emotional violence leaves no visible bruises or cuts.  Nevertheless, the spiritual damage is just as real and far more enduring than many physical wounds.
With all of this said, how on earth can I say that Christians believe that sex and power go together? I can say this because healthy, loving sex involves a completely different exercise of power with a fundamentally different result.
The traditional Christian teaching about sex is that it occurs within the context of marriage.  Marriage is a covenant.  Two people have committed themselves to love one another.
Juan de Flandes' TheWedding Feast at Cana
Love in this case is much more than how we happen to feel about each other at any particular moment.  Husbands and wives commit to nurture and support their spouse as they grow into the clearer image of a child of God in Christ.
Physical intimacy is a good and wonderful part of this covenant.  And it involves an expression of power completely contrary to the coercive power seen in sex crimes.  It involves the power of self-surrender.
In sex we give ourselves willingly to our spouse.  We make ourselves frightfully vulnerable precisely because we trust that the self-surrender will be reciprocal.
Perhaps because the word “power” bears negative connotations today, it is difficult for us to say that sex and power are meant to go together.  But that is precisely the case.  Our freedom to give ourselves away in love is the greatest power that God has granted us.
Like all things human in this fallen world, that power has been and will be appallingly abused.  But in fact it is only the power of self-sacrificing love that will redeem the fallen creation.
Sex can be an instance of it.  So too can parenting, serving the poor, caring for the sick, and a host of actions that we consider merciful and compassionate.
But there is one example that is completely unique and unrepeatable to which all other acts of self-surrender are a response: Jesus’ self-surrender for our sins on the Cross.

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