Progressive Christian blogger John Shore got an email the other day looking for advice on being a polyamorous Christian. John’s written on polyamory before, and in a fairly balanced way, which makes this post particularly disappointing.
Alas, John has chosen to fall back on tired stereotypes and glib dismissal, rather than consider that a person might be struggling with a very legitimate concern. His entire advice amounts to “My insight is that you should (children: avert your eyes) stop fondling your dick through your pants pocket. You’ve got a wife. Put your attention there. I think you’re really just looking for a way to have an affair. Stop doing that.”
It’s hardly unexpected to see even the most progressive Christians equate polyamory with cheating, but still disappointing. The letter-writer is less looking for advice on how to open his marriage or negotiate two relationships at once (there are dozens of secular resources to handle this topic), and is more concerned about his standing in his Christian community. I’m especially drawn to “even though I know I am capable of loving more than one person completely and intimately, I should restrain myself out of my respect to fellow believers, so that they don’t stumble.” I know I’ve worried about this same thing myself, often.
The reference here is Romans 14, where Paul is discussing whether Christians should keep kosher. Paul knows that Jesus has changed the terms of salvation, and we no longer need keep strictly to the law in order to experience right relationship with God. Because of the expansive love of Christ, distinctions between clean and unclean no longer matter. I like thinking of Biblical cleanliness as decency; Christ’s love can enter and redeem even the most indecent of places and actions.
Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t stop there. Concerned about the health of his community, Paul first cautions against being judgmental. Live and let live, embrace all as your sisters and brothers in Christ. However, “if your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died” (Rom 14:15). To best understand this Scripture, it is perhaps good for us to apply it to something other than unclean food. I imagine Paul talking about alcohol or sex, both of which can be good gifts from God, or can be abused and lead to disconnection and sin. It takes a lot of maturity and strength to be able to indulge in alcohol or sex as a glorious celebration of God’s beautiful creation, and not to pervert either of these and worship them in place of God. It is easier for some people to abstain altogether and thus retain their focus on God.
The problem comes when we live in community with one another. For those who are early in their journey, and have not yet learned to see God in all things, will the existence of alcohol or free sexual expression or other so-called “vices” distract them from developing the basic spiritual disciplines? If religious leaders are seen to indulge in these pleasures, how can the weaker members of their flock resist?
I find this interpretation patronizing and unrealistic. The statistics for the success of abstinence-only sex ed programs are telling; even though teens often lack the resources and maturity to engage in fully ethical sexual relationships, they still choose to enter them. The teens we give the least education to suffer the greatest consequences; those who have access to comprehensive education and a space to talk about the emotional and spiritual ramifications of sexual activity (as opposed to an overly physical focus on STIs and pregnancy) often choose to delay their own sexual activity, and are better able to make informed and ethical choices when they do choose to have sex.
I’d argue that this approach is necessary for all apparent vices we think would cause others to stumble. Polyamory is hard. It requires a lot of maturity and relationship skills and self-awareness, and should not be entered by just anyone. There are plenty of people who are capable of doing so, however, and it is more, not less, important that these people be able to do so and educate others about the possibility. Like teenagers who have had no practical sexual education and thus are unable to prevent pregnancy, many people who find themselves interested in more than one person are led to cheating, breakups and other negative relationship consequences. Even though every person who desires two or more people does not have the resources and ability to ethically love both people, everyone can benefit from being educated about what is actually entailed in such an arrangement. Everyone can benefit from learning to have an open and honest conversation about love and desire with one’s partner.
Being polyamorous is a part of my Christian witness. The strong family I am building with multiple partners is just as legitimate as the strong families monogamous Christians build. I am better able to minister to and offer care to people because of the lessons I learn in my family. God loves me, and God empowers me to love others without limits. There is no decent and indecent in Christ, only great love.