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“Who will lead the nasty ministry?”
This is the question my significant other asked me the other night. It came in the midst of one of philosophical conversations that often center on church and the lived experience. “I know that sounds weird,” he continued “but I’m serious. Who will lead the uncomfortable people and parts of the church?”
My boyfriend’s question was not one that I hadn’t mulled over before in my own mind. See, I am not sure that salvation is free for all, or even offered to all. In the hierarchy of sin (as posited by many ideologies), there are many that are eligible for forgiveness. The run of the mill sins of fornication, adultery, deceit, lust, and glut are all easily ministered to in the course of your average Sunday altar call. These do not require in-depth scriptural exegesis. They only require a few power scriptures coupled with emotional appeal to compel and to draw.
In the words of B. Slade (formerly Tonex): “If I walk up just like this in your religious country clubs, would you give kisses and hugs or would you assume I’m a thug? Were you serious when you told me to come just as you are?”
Is There Still Room at the Cross?
Though his phrasing was humorous at the moment, I knew exactly what he meant. What happens to those whose identities [and subsequently, what the church would define as sin] are richly complex? Is there room in our sanctuaries for the sex worker or drug dealer who wants to come to Christ but whose survival is dependent upon their professional trade. Do we have more to offer than scriptures, rebuke, and halfhearted enthusiasm? Is there room at the cross for them too? More importantly, is there room in our churches for their growth and transformation?
Sex Workers in the Text
Sex, in itself, continues to be a polarizing conversation in our community. Our only familiarity with sex work from a biblical context is Mary Magdalene. Even that familiarity is false as there’s no biblical evidence that Mary Magdalene was a sex worker. It is a concept introduced by Pope Gregory the Great over 500 years after Mary Magdalene’s death (Read: Mary Magdalene was NONE of the Things a Pope Claimed).
Although there are sex workers in the bible, including Tamar (trades sex with Judah after failing to become pregnant by his three sons), Rahab (madam who, as perhaps one of the best war strategists depicted in the text, protected Hebrew spies in Jericho), and arguably Ruth (survival sex with Boaz to secure financial provision for Naomi and herself). Even the beloved Queen Esther was a sex worker, lest we forget that her Uncle Mordecai is the one who put her in King Xerxes harem.
Despite biblical examples of powerful and respected women who both heeded God’s call while engaging in sex work, it appears that many churches are afraid to extend their ministries to sex workers beyond aiding them in getting out. Do we choose to accept these people only if they get out of the trade that supplies their financial needs? Or do we simply cast them aside as incorrigible sinners?
Are We Preaching Salvation or Respectability?
I would argue that the church struggles with Respectable Christianity Politics. It is a set of requirements where sin must fall within respectable limits in order to be eligible for salvation and the right hand of fellowship within our churches. RCP has defined our acceptable dress code, style of worship, and even which sins we confess and address. Our preference for respectability over discipleship has led to an edging out at the cross for those who fall short of Christian exceptionalism.
Broadly speaking, respectability politics are the requirements (both spoken and unspoken) that marginalized communities abide by in order to earn respect in mainstream culture. At its core, respectability politics is an assimilation, not disruptive, tactic. In the words of Dr. Brittney Cooper, “it reinforces the myth of Black exceptionalism as the cure for anti-blackness.”
It is worth noting that RCP also reinforces the myth that Christian exceptionalism, as a person of color, is the cure for anti-blackness. It is not by accident that Evangelical Christianity traditionally associates black with death, sin, and evil while white is associated with purity, innocence, and holiness. It is not simply a “difference of opinion” when opponents argue against the endarkenment of our Savior.
Many denominations of Christianity teach of the flesh (body) as inherently evil and wrought with iniquity, keeping us away from the perfect holiness of God. With that logic, black flesh becomes even more inherently evil than white flesh. As whiteness continues to be prized as the penultimate marker of civility, the desire to gain favor in the sight of White Gaze (define: white gaze) will remain—even in the faith.
Is Our Discomfort Hindering Our Witness?
I’m not certain that these are intentionally malevolent actions. I simply think we as a church struggle with discomfort. So many of us, despite having been saved for many years, have a very superficial relationship with our beliefs. Too often we shy away from conversations that cannot be met with “pray about it” accompanied by the comfort of a familiar scripture. It feels as if we’re so fearful of the unfamiliar because the foundation of our belief is shaky. We are afraid to question. We are afraid that an inquisitive mind is one that is tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine.
Perhaps the first step towards making room for everyone is looking at how we define sin. Remember that I identify most closely with Progressive Christianity (and we can talk about the bone I have to pick with that label another day). So, I often don’t approach the bible as without error or literal in meaning. Biblical Literalists often cleave to sin as doing anything that God says we are not allowed to do. The trouble with this is that there are a lot of choices and behavioral decisions we face daily that are not covered in the bible. What then do we say to these things?
As Samantha P. Field puts it: “Especially when what we do have in the Bible has God apparently telling people to commit genocide and infanticide…repeatedly. I think we’d all agree that genocide is a moral evil, but the Bible shows God commanding it, which is disturbing. Personally, I believe that either:
- a) the people who wrote the Old Testament believed that God told them to do that, regardless of whether or not he did, or
- b) they said God had commanded it to justify it.
“B” makes the most sense to me, as people have used their deity to justify all sorts of evil things through history.”
One day, I’ll get into how we define a lot of “sin” as based on Paul, the Beloved Misanthropic Apostle. Yes, Paul of the New Testament. Yes, the same New Testament does not reject the practice of owning people as property. For today, I’ll just pivot back to Samantha on this: “Paul doesn’t directly challenge this system [people as property] in his epistle to Philemon, although he doesn’t exactly endorse it, either. Owning people as property just … existed. Paul might not have been happy with it, but it was there.
The NT almost seems to shrug it off in some ways– explaining to Christians how to live in this system while practicing love and doing no harm. Paul even made the shocking suggestion to the heads of household that he was morally obligated to take good care of his property.”
Yet, for most of us, we’re pretty well convinced that slavery is an abominable sin. Now if we could only get y’all on board to realize that White Supremacy, an offspring of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and other atrocities against humanity, was also a sin maybe y’all could get your shit together. But I di-fucking-gress.
So then how do we better define sin? We do so by moving away from a binary of God’s approval or disapproval over our lives and towards measuring our actions by their capacity to do justice or do harm. By viewing our actions as one of justice or harm, we allow more nuance to distinguish actions not covered by the bible and for those that are, we allow the experience of our modern lives to carry more weight than the sociocultural norms of biblical societies.
Does engaging in sex work or drug dealing cause harm to ourselves or others? Arguably, yes. Yet, as I previously stated, they’re also survival tactics for many who participate in these illicit economies. But does it not beg the question of if the systems of oppression that force this behavior also do harm and, by new definition, are sinful? Do we have a charge to eliminate the things that cause the collective/community harm first or address individual harm first?
Are We Willing to Venture Beyond Our Comfort Zone?
Still, what shall we do about those who commit “nasty sins” yet continue to fill our pews each Sunday? Are our ministries prepared to welcome them into assembly? Are we prepared to provide them spiritual and mental counseling? Are we prepared to restore those who committed heinous acts while protecting our congregations’ most vulnerable populations?
Is the church prepared to offer sex workers more than advice on “getting out” of the game? Are we equipped to be of service to this “nasty ministry” beyond declaration of it as a sin? Are we able to articulate the nuanced intersection of sex work and personal faith? Are we ready, as the church, to get past our complex relationship with sex to re-educate ourselves to better serve the sex workers in the pews among us?
Or will we continue to allow our collective fear and discomfort to hinder our witness? Can we truly make an impact if refuse to go beyond our comfort zone?
See, there’s no neat concluding button up for this conversation. We have no definitive answers for one thing without creating new questions. There are more uncomfortable ‘sins’ than those I’ve highlighted here, but the question remains the same. Who will lead the nasty ministry?