For 10 years, I’ve been working with people who engage the sex trade. Some trade for things that they need, like shelter, food, or drugs. Some trade for other things, college tuition, self-satisfaction, enjoyment. Some are there by choice, some are there by circumstance, and some are there by coercion. Some are there by all three.
There’s one constant about selling sex, though. People who trade sex believe that the church will judge them. And they’re right.
It’s important, as a minister, to have a sort of “street cred,” a way for individuals who believe that they will be judged to experience just the opposite of that, acceptance. Street creds take years to get. To be clear, you have to actually have street creds in order to be perceived as having street creds. Meaning you really have to care about people, you really have to be authentic and real. Here’s some help to get there:
Be You. Always be you.
You are the person that God created you to be. You are also the person that God is calling. Doesn’t it make sense that God would want you to be just who you are? Not “you, only better,” but you.
Churches and seminaries, and even the process of being called, encourages ministers to believe that they have to be better than their constituencies. You’re supposed to keep your quiet time, pray more, love more, be less of a sinner, and be a better all-around person. However, that’s just not the reality.
I live in a world in-between. I have to go between sex worker communities and my church, and the languages of both are different, and the needs of both are different. But I can’t be different. I have to be as authentic in my church as I am with my sex worker friends. Sometimes that means using the F word in the pulpit, or talking about Jesus in a conversation with a sex worker.
Don’t Be a Jerk
As I write this, Kevin Roose’s interview with Ted Haggard has just been published in GQ Magazine. In it, Haggard says that if he was in his 20’s, he’d probably call himself bi-sexual.
The problem with Ted Haggard is not that he paid for sex or that he’s bi or gay. It’s all the damage he did to gay men and women everywhere through the vehicle of the church. If you say, “You’re not included,” then you are guilty of heaping on coals of shame on a whole generation of gay people. If you exclude people based on traits that you share, the duplicity is the thing. Being a jerk means heaping shame, confusion, and humiliation on people for who they are.
Don’t Let Your Inner 12 Year Old Control Your Brain
A friend of mine received a text message today from a friend of his. It said, “I’m on my way skiing with a hot 34-year-old.” Can you see what’s wrong with this text? This person has a date with an object (a hot 34-year-old). This date is no longer a person. She’s an object.
There’s a whole world of hierarchy for 12-year-olds. There’s the jocks, the brains, the stoners, the popular kids. And when you’re 12, it matters what people think. And you make your decisions based on what people will think of you. People are classified by what they can do for you in the social stratum.
This is called objectification. People are no longer people. They are objects for your own use. Don’t do this.
I was chatting with a young Southern woman a couple of months ago. She wanted to be a “meeshionary” and had been on her first mission trip. Of all places, she went to London. She explained to me that missionaries can’t go to England and just tell the customs people that you’re there to do missions. She said, “You have to tell them that you’re there to do cultural exchange.” Of course, this was proof to the young woman that the Europeans are a godless people.
It strikes me that England might have had issues with “meeshionaries” before. Perhaps Londoners are tired of the disrespect so-called Christians offer them.
The lesson here, though? Don’t lie, even if it’s to do missions. Don’t deceive people. Jesus never did that. Ever.
I knew an anti-sex work organization who set out to rescue people from working as strippers. They set up a dummy toll-free number, and advertised in major magazines that they were hiring strippers. When you called the number, you heard from two former strippers about the evils of the sex industry and how shameful it was that the caller was looking for work there. The phone line was met with very little response, and certainly never gave them the response they were hoping to get.
There is never a moment in the New Testament went Christians lie about their motives. The writer of Romans says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” But lying says, “I am ashamed.”
And you should be.
Grow Your Theology Up
Many ministers end up having theology that doesn’t match who they are or who they love. A gay minister who thinks that homosexuality is a sin is just wrong, on so many levels. A feminist who believes that women shouldn’t be ministers needs to go back and match her theology to the life that she’s leading.
It’s not easy to grow your theology up, because you really have to scrutinize the theology of your childhood and see if it matches up to your real beliefs today. It’s hard because you might be wrong!
When I finally came to the intellectual understanding that homosexuality is not a sin, my process went like this:
God set it up so that human beings know themselves best through intimate relationships. Gay people have intimate relationships with same sex people. Gay people’s opportunities to know themselves come through same sex relationships. If gay people don’t have same sex relationships, they have no opportunity to know themselves better. If God is against same sex relationships, God is denying these people the possibility of knowing themselves. That’s not very loving, and God claims to be love. Therefore, gay relationships should be affirmed.
Then I dealt with the, “What if I’m wrong?” question like this:
If I’m wrong, and God doesn’t love gay people and want to afford them the opportunity to know themselves through intimate relationships, then 1) I know that I made my decision based on love, and 2) I’m not really sure God is as loving as they say, and I’m okay with a life without God, in that case.
Don’t Deny Responsibility
One of the most damaging habits humans have is denying responsibility for our actions. Maybe the first sin was eating the apple, but the second sin was ducking and running. Eve says, “It’s not my fault, it’s the snake!” Adam says, “It’s not my fault, it’s Eve!”
Ministers do this all the time. Blaming the culture of the church for their unhappiness in their job. Blaming church members for not caring for congregants better. Blaming the budget for the conflict in the church.
And in radical ministries to outsiders, we do the same thing. We blame the church for the problems that our constituents are having. When the reality is that we all carry the blame for our own lives. That’s all.
Accepting responsibility allows our congregants to identify with our humanity, and if they can identify with our humanity, they might find compassion for us, and if they have compassion for us, they may, just, have more compassion for themselves and create less conflict. Saying, “I screwed up and I’m sorry” goes a long way.
Deal With Behaviors, Not Characteristics
One thing that really helps with being nice is focusing on behaviors rather than character traits. If you have to confront someone who has lied to you, say, “You lied to me about X and Y,” not “You’re a liar.” See the difference? Behavior can be changed, personality can’t.
Think about it in another way. When you classify someone as an addict or an alcoholic, what does that say about the person? What if, instead, you talk about them as someone who uses drugs or alcohol? Do you see the inherent difference between naming characteristics and naming behavior? You can even say, “He uses a lot of drugs, or “he has chaotic behavior around drug use.”
Labels never really help anyone.
Sex is just sex. It’s not a sin, it’s not a betrayal, it’s just sex. And any sexual act is sex.
What gets people in trouble around sex is two-fold. First, it’s the OTHER people you’re in relationships with, and second, it’s the way you treat the person you’re having sex with.
In other words, have sex. Have it often. Have it the way you want it. But three things must be in place in order to have sex as often as you want it.
- Sex must be consensual—both partners must be able to choose to have sex and choose not to have and both partners must want sex. That means that you can’t have sex with children (they can’t choose), animals, or people who are too drunk or high to make decisions, or anyone who has been forced into having sex, including trafficked and pimped individuals.
- It must not violate a contract with another person—if you are married, dating, living with, or, even if the expectations, written, oral or other is that you won’t have sex with anyone other than this one person, then you should not have sex outside of that contract. Because sex then becomes an act of betrayal. If you must have sex, change the contract first. Break up. Get divorced. Ask for permission.
- You must hold the person you’re in the sex act with in high esteem.
Ted Haggard tells of being with the sex worker who exposed him:
“We never had sex sex,” he says, glancing at the car to make sure that Elliott and Jonathan are asleep. “I bought drugs and a massage from him, and he masturbated me at the end of it. That’s it.”
Really, Ted? That’s sex.
Henry James said, “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
No, I’m not talking about being polite, or even being a doormat. But I am talking about treating people with kindness and cooperation at every turn. Even when they disappoint you. Every person that you meet is dealing with problems. Every one of them would tell you, “Life is hard.” It doesn’t matter if they are the wealthiest person in the world, life is hard! And kindness goes a long way in making life less hard.
Quit Othering People
Ted Haggard said, in his interview with Kevin Roose, “In the evangelical movement, we’ve said to people that differ from us: ‘We want to convert you.’ And what that means is, ‘We want you to adopt the things that we believe. Then you can be like us, and we will have won a convert.’ ” I would go a step further and say, “We want you to believe the things that we believe because we’re better than you and our way is better than yours.”
“I’m better than you and my way is better than yours” is the root of all racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism. Carol Lee Flinders, in Rebalancing the World, wrote:
Social exclusiveness has its intellectual counterpart in oppositional thinking: the First Farmer’s dictum— “This is a plant; this is a weed.” Basic to the trajectory of Western civilization is the understanding that in encountering any duality—high roads and low roads, East and West, Toyota and Plymouth—one must choose. There can be no middle ground, and compromise is cowardice. Zero-sum thinking, in short—the winner takes all.
Jesus, on the other hand, said love your neighbor (the one who is like you) and your enemy (the one who is unlike you). And really, recognize that there’s no difference between you, your neighbor and your enemy.
Never, never, never lose your sense of humor.
One of the things that keeps ministers, in general, and ministers, in particular, who work with individuals outside of the church’s boundaries, sane, is our sense of humor. If you can’t laugh, you can’t pray. If you can’t pray, you can’t love. And if you can’t love, it’s time to get out of ministry.
I personally allow the 12-year-old to control only one thing: the sense of humor. This means that I laugh at the most inappropriate things. But it keeps me praying. And loving. And in ministry.