Looking at Christmas Through a Rear-View Window

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 7 January 2009 0 Comments
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I subscribe to your letters, and I have read most of your books and have found them helpful in my personal search for truth and in the search for my own identity as a Christian. I am 75 years old and retired from a busy practice of family medicine. I consider myself a second-commandment Christian.

On both counts, human suffering has been one of my primary concerns. Early on as a physician and caring human being, it seemed clear to me that, of all the causes of human tragedy and suffering, there was no greater cause than that of people having children they didn't want or couldn't take care of. Therefore, potentially we had no more effective weapon than family planning against it. So I became an advocate of family planning. In the mid 1960s, in Waukesha, Wisconsin, there was and still is a religious bias against birth control, and not just from Catholics. Vasectomies were not done openly in the state of Wisconsin, as they were considered both immoral and illegal, so I was referring my patients to a urologist in Rockford, Illinois. After determining that vasectomies were not illegal in the state of Wisconsin, and having failed to persuade my urologist colleagues to do them, against all advice and in the face of religious criticism I decided to do them myself. Over the next few years I did thousands of them, as many as ten between morning hospital rounds and noon. I carried a surgical kit and did them on the road. Within five years, the practice of vasectomies was accepted and widely practiced in the state of Wisconsin.

I continue to be an advocate of family planning. Based on polls taken by our local health department and my own experience, I believe the majority of people favor making contraception and sex education available to all women of childbearing age, including sexually active teenagers.

So my question is this: Why the deafening silence from our Christian churches — conservative, mainline and liberal — regarding this humanitarian issue? Why the absence of family planning from all organized religious outreach programs? I have interviewed pastors and elected officials and concluded that religious leaders fear being seen as condoning sexual promiscuity, and both elected and religious leaders fear being divisive. They both dodge the issue by touting education and economic development, already long accepted approaches to the problem of poverty. But come on, that's not the issue. It's easy to support popular charities. I've always liked this somewhat obscure quotation of Emerson's that might apply here. "Your goodness must have some edge to it."

You've never been afraid of controversy, so I'm interested in your take on this issue, particularly if you can think of ways to change the thinking of the broad Christian community in a way similar to the way it changed regarding the specific issue of vasectomies a half century ago.


What a terrific letter and what a powerful witness your life has made. Thank you for that.

The question you raised is daunting and powerful. Before trying to address it may I say that you are obviously part of the Christian Church, a "second-commandment Christian" as you call yourself — so the Church spoke loudly and eloquently through you.

What you are asking about is why institutional Christianity has been so silent on things like family planning. There are at least two things that I think can be said, not to excuse, but to help us to understand.

First, institutional Christianity has always been tied up over and repressive to issues of human sexuality. This stemmed from its move into a dualistic Greek thinking world in the second century that identified flesh and bodies with sinfulness while extolling souls and spirits so pure and holy. In time denying the flesh or the desires of the body came to be identified with Christianity. Later the Church declared that the holy life was the sexless life and so virginity was the pathway to holiness and celibacy was the mark of the holy or priestly life. A wide variety of negative things flowed out of this, including the negativity toward family planning, negativity toward a married priesthood, negativity toward women who were defined as "temptresses" if they were not virgins and the sense that sex was somehow dirty or unclean. For years women had to go through a ceremonial cleansing after childbirth before they could return to the Church. During the Middle Ages, cathedral choirs were normally made up of men and boys because menstruating women in the choirs might pollute holy places with their unclean menses.

I think it is also fair to say that institutional Christianity's negativity toward homosexual people and even the outbreak of priestly abuse of young boys that has drained the resources of many part of the Roman Catholic Church in paying off lawsuits is one more illustration that unhealthy and sometimes violent expressions of sexuality always result from the repression of healthy sexuality.

Once these negative attitudes are present in institutional Christian life, any attempt to change the cultural attitude is defined as immoral. So nations and states have made it difficult to oppose laws that when they were enacted reflected that distortion of the dominant religious perspective.

Today, efforts to teach sex education in public school are opposed by an unholy alliance of traditional Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestant fundamentalists. The current administration in Washington, bowing to the pressure of its "religious right" supporters, had advocated the teaching of abstinence instead of sex education. It has been a colossal failure, as statistics reveal. It has been about as effective in curbing sexual activity as the "Just say No" campaign was in controlling drug use. This administration has also refused to fund international family planning clinics around the world for the same reason.

Perhaps your letter will give people new courage to act. I do see a new day dawning in America on these and many other issues.

– John Shelby Spong




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