Susie Essman, a gifted actress and comedian whose comedic skills I have long appreciated on the HBO series, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” has written a memoir that is scheduled to be released in October.
While I have not yet read the memoir, I have been intrigued by selected excerpts from the memoir that recently appeared in The New York Post. In one of those excerpts, Essman, who did not marry until the age of 53, gives expression to a sexual and marital ethic that I believe sheds important light on the way in which both sexuality and marriage are frequently conceptualized in contemporary culture:
So you marry a guy when you’re 25, and that’s it? That’s the extent of your sexual experience? That wasn’t for me. I always thought if wedding vows went something like: ‘For better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, and you’ll never have sex with anyone for the rest of your life,’ people wouldn’t be so quick to say, ‘I do.’
Although I approach these issues very differently than Essman does, I appreciate her honesty, not to mention her willingness to put her finger on the pulse of precisely what it is that makes the covenant of marriage so daunting: its permanence.
I wonder how many people in recent years have opted to alter the “until we are parted by death” portion of the traditional wedding vows in order to provide a moral escape clause should one or both of the parties grow weary of the marital union. And, even if such liturgical alteration were not permitted, I wonder how many brides and grooms look upon the “until death” reference as a quaint and unrealistic link to a bygone age.
It is not my desire to judge Susie Essman or anyone who may agree with her viewpoint. Judgment, after all, is best left to the heart of Almighty God, who is the only one qualified to render it. And yet, my efforts to discern what it is that troubles me about Essman’s viewpoint have led me to this observation:
Essman’s comments bear witness to the all-too-common penchant for conceptualizing human sexuality as one’s personal and private resource—a resource that each person, as the owner of the particular resource in question, is entitled to utilize as he or she sees fit. The danger, of course, is that human beings have a long and painful history of exploiting, misusing, and squandering whatever it is that they perceive to be their personal property, be it money, fuel, the environment, or sexuality.
Worth noting, however, are the rhetorical questions to which the Apostle Paul gives expression in 1 Corinthians 6:15. They are questions that bring us somewhere very close to the heart of the church’s historical understanding of human sexuality:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (1 Corinthians 6:15)
Which is to say, “Do you not know that your bodies, including your sexual organs, are not your personal property to utilize as you please. Rather, they are the property of Christ and are to be utilized in a way that honors his Lordship and in a way that illuminates the reality of his kingdom in the world.”
Last summer, I had the privilege of participating in an interview process in which some of my brothers and sisters in Christ had the opportunity to ask me anything that they wished to ask me about my personal theology, my interpretation of Scripture and doctrine, and my vision for the church and its ministry. As one might imagine, the issue of homosexuality came up in that process more than once. Even if the word “homosexuality” did not find its way into all of the inquiries that were made of me, the weighty division in the United Methodist denomination over that particular issue was palpable in every question that made reference to human sexuality.
Like many of you, I am weary of the issue and the debate that surrounds it. I have very dear friends who stand passionately on opposite sides of the issue, and I find myself often attempting to stand on the bridge between them (which is often a bridge over very troubled water). Like many of you, my desire is to honor the teaching and spirit of Scripture while at the same time honoring what some of my brothers and sisters consider to be the further revelation of God’s Spirit. The problem with standing on a bridge, however, is that the one standing on the bridge gets run over from both directions!
At any rate, when I found myself confronted with those questions last summer, I did not respond with declaratory certainties or a detailed analysis of why self-avowed, practicing homosexuals should or should not be permitted to be ordained. Some were looking for that kind of response. But that was not what was on my heart to offer.
What I did offer, however, was my deeply held conviction (based on 1 Corinthians 6:15) that human sexuality is not a human commodity but a divine gift from the One to whom it ultimately belongs. Therefore, a crucial portion of the church’s ministry is to help followers of Jesus Christ (be they heterosexual or homosexual) to live more faithfully into a Christ-honoring stewardship of their sexuality, in such a way that even their sexuality might be subordinated to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Naturally, such subordination will have different implications depending upon one’s sexual orientation, life situation, and status of relationship. But the common ground is the sacred territory of seeing sexuality as a gift to be stewarded rather than a property to be hoarded or exploited.
Interestingly, Susie Essman’s observation (with which this blog post began)—that monogamy at a young age “wasn’t for [her]” and that she needed a more expansive and creative sexual “experience” than that—bears witness to a perfectly understandable result of a property-oriented approach to human sexuality. It is an approach that would treat sexuality as a utilitarian commodity, the purpose of which is to satisfy our sexual appetites in whatever ways they manifest themselves. In such a viewpoint, the marital promise of fidelity until death seems like an absurd stifling of our sexual capitalism.
In the countercultural ethics of Jesus, however, the promise of sexual fidelity to one person until death parallels the absurd grace of a Christ who promises to be monogamously faithful to his Bride for all eternity. It is a different way of looking at the world. It is a different way of conceptualizing human sexuality. And, to be sure, it is a different way of practicing stewardship over the members of our physical body, which, as Scripture reveals, are members of Christ rather than private property.