Tag Archives: Oppression

Sex and the Land (Leviticus 18 and 20)

Leviticus 18:24-28 Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. Even the land was defiled; so I punished it for its sins, and the land vomited out its inhabitants… And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations before you.

These are the chapters of Leviticus (18 and 20) that caught my attention as a teenager, because, of course, they were all about sex. Both chapters contain approximately the same laws with some variances, but chapter 20 prescribes punishments for violations, either being put to death or cut off from the people. The first thing I will point out is that the vast majority of these injunctions were for men. In chapter 20 they are explicitly addressed to men, except for 20:16 which is the same as the previous verse except that it is addressed to women. In chapter 18 the ambiguous “you” is used, but it is clear that these injunctions are meant primarily for the men. My theory and assumption is that these prohibitions are primarily about asymmetrical power relationships in a highly patriarchal social structure.

The reason given for these laws is “You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes” (Lev 18:3) So, the people are between the land of Egypt where they experienced the foundational event of their existence in the Exodus and the Promised Land of Canaan. Coming out of Egypt defined them as a people and during the time in the wilderness they had to overcome their desire to return to where they “sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full” (Ex 16:3). They were formed through that experience of liberation and wandering in the wilderness as a peculiar, pilgrim people. They were promised a land where they would be able to make a home as a people. “But I have said to you, ‘You shall inherit their land, and I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Lev 20:24). The people will have to once again define themselves in terms of their relationship to their God and the people whose land they are going to be inhabiting.

Once again prohibitions are not given as hypotheticals lest God spark the sinful imagination of human beings. Rather these things were practiced and therefore needed a prohibition against them. The prohibitions have primarily the other nations in their sights, “for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean” (Lev 18:27), but it’s certainly feasible that the Israelites had already adopted some of these practices. Some would argue simply that Leviticus was probably written by the priestly class after the Babylonian Exile and has in view the practices that they adopted during that period. Regardless of when Leviticus was written, it seems that the purpose is clear: to distinguish the Israelites from non-Israelites by abstaining from sexual practices and child sacrifice in which the nations around them engaged. While a secondary reading of the prohibitions as unacceptable because of the biological and social problems associated with the sexual practices is certainly accurate, my reading of the text is that what is inappropriate about these relationships is primarily the abuse of power inherent in them particularly as they are almost exclusively addressed to men.

Caring for Creation is Sexy
What is then most fascinating for our purposes here is that an explicit connection is made between these sexual practices and their relationship to the land. These practices not only defiled the people and their relationships, but also the land itself. The land is not a neutral entity forced to accept whatever human beings happen to do to it. The land is depicted as a character with its own autonomy and the ability to vomit out the inhabitants. The Israelites are not immune to this connection to the land and the consequences of the practices that have been forbidden

Wendell Berry has pointed out this connection between sex and the land in numerous places. Somewhere he said that when you’re willing to exploit your fellow human beings’ sexuality you are more likely to be willing to exploit the earth and vice versa. They involve the same mentality that objectifies other people and nature. This way of thinking and acting disconnects from each other and nature by dehumanizing other people and pretending that we are separate from nature. In an article he wrote entitled “Feminism, the body, and the machine” Berry expounds further on this theme.

It is odd that simply because of its “sexual freedom” our time should be considered extraordinarily physical. In fact, our “sexual revolution” is mostly an industrial phenomenon, in which the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of “freeing” natural pleasure from natural consequence. Like any other industrial enterprise, industrial sexuality seeks to conquer nature by exploiting it and ignoring the consequences, by denying any connection between nature and spirit or body and soul, and by evading social responsibility. The spiritual, physical, and economic costs of this “freedom” are immense, and are characteristically belittled or ignored. The diseases of sexual irresponsibility are regarded as a technological problem and an affront to liberty. Industrial sex, characteristically, establishes its freeness and goodness by an industrial accounting, dutifully toting up numbers of “sexual partners,” orgasms, and so on, with the inevitable industrial implication that the body is somehow a limit on the idea of sex, which will be a great deal more abundant as soon as it can be done by robots. (accessed at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2096/is_1_53/ai_102979436?tag=untagged)

So, according to Berry the basic problem is not the particular behaviors or acts prohibited here, but the way of relating to the earth and other human beings that they embody. As I said before, there is a basic problem of asymmetrical power relationships here in which the ability to dominate other human beings and the earth is taken as permission to do as we please. Privileges embedded in cultural norms and mores are sometimes hard to unmask. They are often subtle and assumed, and therefore go unnoticed for the most part, particularly by the dominant class that benefits from the privileges bestowed on them through the social order. Perhaps by pointing the finger at Egypt, Canaan and the other nations, this was a more subtle way of pointing the finger at Israel itself. By proclaiming loudly that Israel should not be like “those people”, the text clearly judges any resemblance that Israel had to those nations past, present or future.

This way of relating, dehumanizing, dominating and objectifying people and nature violates the basic principles embedded in ecology and I would argue in the biblical narrative and biblical assumptions about our relationship to the land and each other. This is what lies at the root of these chapters, not some sort of puritanical notions about sexuality or arbitrary rules solely intended to make Israel different, but a radical reminder about who we are as creatures and how we are to reflect the image of God embedded in us in our relationships.

P.S. I want to blog more about these connections just so the traffic on my blog will increase by using the word “sex” a lot. If I can somehow combine it with words like “hot” without sounding lewd, then the traffic might increase even more. Though I’m not sure those readers will stick around to read what I write.


The Original Sin of Church and State

I’ve been interested in First People, Native American, indigenous issues ever since I spent two weeks on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. I was working at a Lutheran camp based near Ft. Collins, CO and worked with High School youth groups on week-long service trips. We were invited by the local Arapahoe chief to participate in a sweat lodge. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’m not so interested in adopting their spirituality or somehow trying to “go native” by putting a dream catcher in my car and wearing lots of topaz. I want to avoid appropriating and co-opting their culture, because it can be easily become another form of colonization, domination and oppression. However, I do believe indigenous people have a lot to teach and remind us about our own traditions and things we’ve lost.

I probably stole this from someone, but I believe that the original sin of the United States (as well as the majority of nation-states in existence today, particularly in the western hemisphere) is what we did to the people that first inhabited the places we now call home. Do we even need to go over the list? Genocide, cultural oppression and extinction, theft of land, desecration of sacred places, broken treaties. The list goes on and continues today. What we in the church often leave out of our theological equations and history of Christianity is the complicity of the church with the state in perpetrating such acts on indigenous people around the globe. I believe strongly that this is a (perhaps THE) most fundamental sin with which we, both church and state, must reckon. Our current economic, political, social arrangement is based on the historical and continuing exploitation of these people, their land and their resources.

Bolivia has the largest percentage of indigenous people in South America (maybe more than Guatemala which has the highest percent in Central America). Three groups make up most of that indigenous population; Quechua, Aymara and Guarani. There are some other groups mainly from the eastern lowlands that I don’t know much about. In Charagua, where I live, we are on the northern edge of the Chaco region, which is the historic home of the Guarani people extending through northern Paraguay and parts of Peru, Argentina and maybe Uruguay and Chile. Needless to say it’s a large region and crosses many of the arbitrary borders that were created by the Spanish. The Chaco War was basically a conflict between Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell, none of whose employees participated in the fighting over the border between Paraguay and Bolivia.

This fundamental sin has obviously done damage to indigenous communities everywhere, but some of the effects are more subtle than the more obvious. In working with a couple Guarani communities here, I’ve noticed that they have adopted a lot of industrial agriculture’s methods of production. While they continue to produce a lot of food for their own consumption, they primarily produce commodity crops like sorghum, sesame, corn and soy for sale to large agribusinesses. They use a lot of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to manage their crops. These are people who have lived on this land and handed down knowledge about the local flora and fauna for probably thousands of years. They survived in the harsh Chaco climate for millenia without growing these crops or using chemicals. Now this knowledge is all but lost. There are still lots of people with knowledge about local plants that are edible and good for medicinal purposes. MCC’s head of rural and agricultural programs in Bolivia, Patrocinio, showed me four different weeds that could be used to either make tea or a medicinal salve in my own backyard.

This is the effect of our civilization’s original sin. It harms the people with the knowledge we most need to survive on this planet. How many North Americans could name ten native plants that they could eat in their area? Not many. This is our basic relationship between people across the globe. All of our injustices and inequality come back historically to the exploitation of indigenous people and their land. We cannot simply wish that it remain in the past and somehow move on, forgiving and forgetting. This sin is continuing and we continue to participate in it.

If this is our original sin, for both church and state, how can we, as individuals and churches (I have little hope for the state), find redemption, reconciliation and salvation for our complicity? I would like to suggest that the first thing we can do is learn about the people that used to live on the land that now belongs to our house or are church. We must expand our imaginations past the lifetimes of ourselves and our family to the people that first encountered the white man in our area. How did those people live? How long did they live there? How did they survive? Are any of them still alive? What knowledge still remains from the thousands of years of experience living without oil and coal?

Then we must also expand our imaginations forward into the future. What will the world look like in seven generations if we continue down this path? If there is knowledge left from these people left, what can we learn from it? If there is no knowledge left, what can we do to begin learning about the places where we live? How can we partner with indigenous people to begin to steer this boat the right way and if it turns out to be the Titanic to help get people safely off?

I believe strongly that the salvation of our world (including the church) lies in our relationship to indigenous people around the world. What might this mean for Christian theology? If salvation, in some sense, lies beyond the church (perhaps in order for the church to reclaim her own tradition), what does that mean for how we understand what Jesus did and who the church is? I believe that Jesus birth, life, work, death and resurrection is good news for people that are marginalized and oppressed. Indigenous people are marginalized in a way that seems fundamentally different than others. They have been an obstacle in the way of progress and civilization. Now that we are reaching some of the limits of this project, indigenous people provide an alternative possibility for how to live in the world with each other and with nature.

Sex and Civilization

An interesting tangent emerged in my reading of Ever Since Darwin. When considering some aspects of the evolution of human beings, Gould quotes Freud. In one case it concerned the idea that we retained juvenile traits of primates in our evolution, a process called neoteny. Our upright posture is a trait found in juvenile primates, not adults. Freud elucidates another interesting facet of this development in his book Civilization and Its Discontents (which is now on my list of books to read, not knowing that much about Freud).

Freud argued that our assumption of upright posture had reoriented our primary sensation from smell to vision. This devaluation of olfaction shifted the object of sexual stimulation in males from cyclic odors of estrus to the continual visibility of female genitalia. Continual desire of males led to the evolution of continual receptivity in females. Most mammals copulate only around periods of ovulation; humans are sexually active at all times…Continual sexuality has cemented the human family and made civilization possible; animals with strongly cyclic copulation have no strong impetus for stable family structure. “The fateful process of civilization,” Freud concludes, “would thus have set in with man’s adoption of an erect posture.” (208-209)

I’ve read this paragraph over and over again, and the implications are only slowly sinking in. Freud claims that the basis of all civilization begins with the development of an erect posture which has an impact on sexuality and therefore family structure. Now, the thing you often hear about Freud is someone mocking his obsession with sex and that so much of his analysis is based on studying people with neuroses. I don’t know enough about Freud to comment on these common criticisms, but this particular argument taken at face value by a scientist like Gould appears to have some credibility.

When you think about the senses in terms of language it is clear that smell takes a huge backseat to almost all the other senses. Our sense of sight is certainly primary and we have more words to describe how something looks, sounds, feels or tastes than we do for how it smells. Just try and think of all the words related only to smell. How many are related to other senses? And the effect of this shift toward vision also moved our sexuality away from the natural cycles of pheromones to being constantly receptive and sexually active. I wonder how exactly this creates a stable family structure in the beginning. I assume it has to do with monogamy of some kind developing, but I’m not sure precisely how. The irony, of course, if this is true, that the shift toward a sexuality based primarily on visual stimulation formed the beginnings of civilization, is that the eventual effect of this shift in modern civilization is precisely the breaking down of family structures (among many other factors).

Perhaps this shift is also the beginning of the objectification of women, which makes a lot of sense, meaning that our social structures have developed unjustly based on evolving sexuality. Far from excusing this behavior based on some natural argument, the expression of genes has more to do with our environment, choices and social constructs. This is the argument Gould makes again and again in the book against scientific ideas like biological determinism that have led, and continue to lead, to the justification of racist cultural prejudices.

Of course nature is all about sex. That’s what keeps the whole thing moving and evolving (though he shares an interesting theory about the evolutionary benefits of homosexuality) swapping genes and trying to making sure yours survive. Yet Freud seems to also indicate that this fundamental understanding of our nature and relationship to the environment erodes as civilization “progresses”.

Freud argued further that as civilizations become increasingly complex and “modern,” we must renounce more and more of our innate selves…the price of civilization is individual suffering. “It is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the nonsatisfaction…of powerful instincts. This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large field of social relationships between human beings.” (260)

As I hinted concerning the objectification and domination of women, it is possible that the “individual suffering” of civilization is partially the unfortunate result of the evolutionary traits which made civilization possible. It seems to me that the “renunciation of instinct” that seems to be required by civilization to an ever greater degree can be called neither good nor bad. In the case of the oppression of women (based ultimately on our evolving sexuality and then gradually the patriarchal institutions that grew out of that instinct) there is certainly a case to be made for renouncing this instinct. On the other hand, capitalism seems to require the suppression of more altruistic instincts that are present in natural systems and evolutionary theory. This may be an instinct that we have suppressed to our detriment.

People (most often those who oppose it, Christian fundamentalists mostly) tend to equate Darwinian theory with some form of determinism. The genius of Gould is his ability to deftly navigate between the extremes of bad religion and bad science. There are biological processes at work that shape us through evolution over generations and millenia, but genes are nothing until they are expressed. The expression of most of our genes is not like our eye or hair color, something we can’t control. Our genetic makeup only finds expression as we interact with our environment. Far from taking away our choice, this increase in knowledge places the responsibility squarely back on our own shoulders as unique creatures with the ability to make choices about how our genes are expressed in relationship to other human beings and nature. Civilization as we have constructed it is not natural because of Freud’s ideas about the influence of erect posture on its development. Genetic material is simply the raw stuff of possibility.

I’m still kicking a lot of these ideas around in my head. I find them intriguing, provocative and helpful in some ways. At the end of the day this rabbit trail once again points me to the hope that we can imagine possibilities beyond the world we’ve created.