In the same week that the Revised Common Lectionary’s reading from Colossians includes a call to purity, a tendentious column in the Washington Post posits that a faith-based movement called “purity culture” is an “ideology” that causes “great harm.” Whatever insights columnist Liz Lenz might have offered are lost in bizarrely angry, over-the-top fulminations.
First, the relevant line from Colossians: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” Paul’s letter continues by saying that eliminating these and a host of other bad habits and practices allows us to “clothe [our]selves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”
This is meant not so much as a fire-and-brimstone, God-will-hurt-you message, but as a hopeful promise of the good and loving things God will do for us if we open ourselves more to him than to our short-term, earthly desires.
By contrast, columnist Lenz says that purity, or at least sexual purity, is dangerous to the psyche. Granted, she is writing about an entire and specific construct of “purity culture” pushed in a book 20 years ago, one with rather extreme strictures not just on pre- and extra-marital sex, but (as she describes it, or at least describes how some adherents practice it) even on kissing or “dating” before marriage. Rather than concentrating her fire on some of those excesses, though, Lenz painted the entire enterprise with a brush so broad and a palette so dark as to be absurd.
She says she herself was a virgin until marriage and that she enjoys a wonderful relationship with a terrific husband. So what’s the problem? She isn’t specific at all, yet unleashes white-hot rhetoric that seems so angry as to be almost unhinged: “I was taught that men are my cover and my shield, when for the most part they have been the ones causing damage through molestation, rape and abuse.” If she has a loving husband and was a virgin until marriage, how has she been molested, raped, or abused — and how is it that “the most part” of what men do is to molest, rape, or abuse?
The column is full of loaded, angry-feminist lingo blasting “the external self-serving colonial standard,” saying that purity somehow offends both the “cisgendered” and even those who are not “white” (where, pray tell, did race enter into this?), and that it creates a “structure that taps deep into rape culture and misogyny.” (Somehow, she neglects to mention that calls for chastity apply to men, too, and certainly condemn rape and spousal abuse much more than consensual, pre-marital sex. How is that misogynistic or encouraging of a “rape culture”?)
All these eruptions come against a backdrop that says chastity “uses fear to mask our bodies and our needs.” Set aside the demonstrable reality that sexual desires —pace modern, feel-my-pain psychology — are not “needs” but actually “wants.” (One doesn’t die from lack of sex the way one does from lack of food or water, as plenty of celibate Catholic clergy can attest.) One still is confronted with Lenz’ complete misunderstanding of the whole point of chastity or other forms of self-control.
Look back at today’s reading: The point of the message is not to stress the fear but to stress the promise. The main point is not the threat but the wonderful reward. The “new self,” in the “image of the creator,” is not only one that refuses to exclude “cisgendered” or non-whites but that is actually without divisions (“Greek and Jew… slave and free”). The promise, in return for setting aside earthly evils, is an existence in which “Christ is all and is in all.”
The reason Paul warns against “fornication [and] impurity” (and other sins) is not to punish us, but because they put the body ahead of the spirit, ourselves ahead of God, and thus keep us from being fully open to God’s extraordinary healing and love.
Perhaps the call to premarital chastity is one of the biblical instructions transgressed upon most often. Perhaps for some it is too big a stumbling block. Well, let’s keep in mind two things. First, Christ tells us that God forgives sinners, again and again. Second, self-control, with a willing heart focused on a loving God, is not — can never be — an evil in itself, or something that (if rightly understood) can possibly lead to “generations of women and men walking around crippled in America because of it.”
Lenz closes her column by pining for a day when “the fear that has held our bodies in a vice is finally replaced by grace.” She missed the whole point: God always offers grace, if we will only believe in it. The point of purity isn’t to succumb to fear, but to make ourselves that much more attuned to the greatness of the love that grace eternally offers.