Is it possible to righteously use these two words in the same sentence? Condoms and the cross. The former labeled by the church a sign of human depravity and immorality, our fall from grace and God’s disappointment in our loss of purity. The second is the most venerable physical sign of Christian orthodoxy and the place where we believe that we become reconciled to God. Those who value and appreciate one certainly would not value the other, would they?
Not long ago, our Detroit church restarted a small safer sex kit distribution program that will grow over the course of the year. It reaches church members, those who take advantage of our food pantry and community kitchens, athletes who use our gymnasium and more. Of course the kits include condoms and other items that make for safer and better sex, as well as educational materials and a sentence or two of scripture intended to remind recipients of the love of God and love of neighbor. Thanks in part to Gospel Against AIDS and the energy of members of our church and community, the program has so far been a success.
Some have asked us why we would distribute kits with condoms. Of course the easy and most accurate answer is, “Because people need them.” Many Christians, however, do not accept that reasoning. Even in 2013, it seems that the vast majority of churches in most denominations, maybe even most faith groups, still have a very hard time talking about sex and sexuality. Our modern Christian cultural rhetoric has taught us that things are changing and the forever held value of abstinence, sex only in the context of marriage, has fallen in the past generation or two. (Ask my family elders born out of wedlock in the 1950s and 1920s about the long-standing practice of abstinence!) It is a frightening time to be in the church when it appears that our values and long standing cultural teachings are being challenged by every television show, advertisement and pop culture icon.
Nevertheless, the beauty of being a Christian is not found in declarations of righteous and unrighteous behavior, but in the person of Jesus who walked among the people and turned the eyes of the church to the needs of those who surrounded him. The religious leaders attacked Jesus for allowing people to do the work to get something to eat on the Sabbath and for touching people scripture and the religious leaders deemed unclean. I am certain they would have condemned him for handing out condoms as well. He always turned the argument, however, from ideological purity to the needs of the people.
We are in a world, in 2013, with a rapid expansion of HIV. It is our call as church to meet the needs of the people with compassion, love and life—changing power. We walk with people in their lives, all of us changed when we authentically love one another as neighbors. The traditional teachings of the church, of abstinence-only sex, are so far from the reality of our culture that it is time we understand the needs of the people and respond rather than living in the ivory towers of supposed moral righteousness.
It is immoral for the church not to respond to the spread of HIV. In fact, it is doubly immoral for us not to respond because we are responsible as an institution for discouraging honest talk and loving behavior. In the 1980s and 1990s we, as church, contributed to the isolation of HIV patients and led a supposed moral crusade against those who did not live what we determined to be righteous lives. Even if we did not actively isolate those with HIV, or those at greatest risk for the disease, we were silent when others who called themselves Christians did so. As in any crusade, many people died.
As HIV takes a breath, digs in its heals and begins to grow again in this era, we as Christians have the chance to redeem ourselves and live our faith. When we talk about sex openly in the context of trust, respect, honor, love and honesty rather than on the platform of religious purity, we are more authentic to the faith. We also stand a better chance of changing peoples’ lives for the better.
When we offer safer sex kits, a wall comes down. In almost every case, whether received by members of the church or strangers, a bit of unhealthy fear of the church and religion begins to fade. We are able to have a real relationship with each other, and even with God. The cross is the place where fear goes to die. Liberation and freedom take fear’s place. The cross is the perfect symbol of the power of transformation. As church, may we be transformed by the cross enough to be honest with ourselves, our own people and the world around us. Honesty for us means we need to distribute safer sex kits. It is time we loved people as much as our ideologies.
Rev. Matthew Bode is the pastor of Spirit of Hope, Detroit