Does the way Christians talk about sex scare people away?
As a 20-year-old college senior, Ruth Everhart had been gang-raped at gun-point for hours. “Of course, I was traumatized,” she wrote in Friday’s Washington Post. “But what was harder to describe — and more long-lasting — was how the crime became bound up in a sense of sexual shame. I wondered constantly: Did I somehow deserve to be raped? Had the rape ruined me irreparably?”
The author’s a Presbyterian minister, and a Catholic wouldn’t endorse everything she writes about the Blessed Mother. Her argument’s not really coherent and she’s much fonder of the clichés of mainstream liberalism than I am. What struck me in her honest description of her struggles is what the experience did to her ability to see the Christmas story and how unhelpful Christian culture was to her in her need.
She doesn’t seem to see the Mother of God very clearly, for one thing. In Advent she feels “a sense of kinship” with Mary. “I know what it’s like to be a good girl whose life got upended by what someone did to her body.” That “what someone did to her body” misses the power of her “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In other places she writes as if Mary were a problem.
Many years ago, when I began discovering the Catholic Church, I excitedly told a friend about my first experience saying the Angelus. She was a high-churchy Protestant of what I had thought very traditional piety. She shut me down. She was having none of that Marian stuff. Not because she had the typical Protestant objections. Because she had always felt herself put upon, patronized, taken for granted, and that’s what she saw in the story of the Annunciation. She heard “Be it unto according to your word” as “Walk all over me.”
Everhart also explains how the Christian purity culture, which Catholics have as much as anyone else, made her feel. She asked herself if she deserved to be raped and if she was permanently ruined. “Both questions seemed inevitable. After all, what is the opposite of being sexually pure? Sustaining irremediable damage. Being ruined.” That’s what she felt the Christian culture was saying to her.
That too I have heard before. The way conservative Christians have stressed sexual purity — for the best of reasons and with genuine concern — can tell the victims that they are, as Everhart felt, irredeemably damaged and ruined. They don’t find healing, and they don’t hear Jesus, in the way so many Christians talk about sex.
I think Everhart’s story and those of people like her offer two Advent lessons. In the season we prepare to celebrate the Incarnation, they tell us something about how others can experience the story we find so enjoyable and compelling.
First, we can too easily make Christianity unattractive, no matter how good our intentions and how hard we try to be winsome and appealing. It’s a fallen world and the law of unintentional consequences always undermine us.
We preach purity in a culture that advances impurity, for which impurity seems as good, natural, and necessary as breathing. Often in fear — and as a father of four, I know this fear very well — we push hard a distorted idea of the good. We preach moralism and rule-keeping and fail to give the young a compelling ideal counter to the world’s ideal. We talk idealistically about purity in a way that makes the victims of rape and abuse, and that includes a lot of people, feel permanently, irredeemably ruined.
Second, sometimes, to some people, the good news looks like bad news, through no or little fault of their own. It’s a fallen world and none of us see all that clearly, as St. Paul noted. We can’t assume, as I think we do, that everyone can see the good news as healing and liberating.
Even the story of the Annunciation and the birth of Christ nine months later, a story that seems as heart-warming as any greeting card artist could want, can push people away from God and His Church. They’ve been so hurt they can’t see its beauty. Others will feel attracted but feel they don’t belong there, that they’re too bad to enter the stable. They feel they’re not good enough to repent, and they expect rejection.
That seems to me the more important lesson of the two. We don’t know what other people can see and not see. Their hurts can be deeply hidden. The Advent lesson for us is: Don’t judge them; pray for them, and love them. You may need to be the story that leads them to the baby boy in the manger.