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  • Writer's pictureGreg Dover

Greg's Weekly Word: "purity"

Last week, a young man who grew up in a conservative, evangelical Baptist church murdered eight people in three Atlanta-area Asian spas. (Not to be confused with another mass shooting just days later at a Boulder, CO supermarket.)

Both of these shootings once again raise the issue of the out-of-control gun violence in our nation. And the Atlanta shooting(s) - with the shooter targeting Asian spas, and six of the eight dead being Asian-Americans - illuminates the growing racism directed toward Asian-Americans, particularly since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I know the shooter said these attacks were not racially motivated. And maybe in his mind, somehow they weren't. He said he was trying to eliminate a "temptation," and that he had a sexual addiction, having previously visited these massage parlors for sex. But his reasoning betrays an insidious intersection of misogyny and racism, particularly around Asian women.

Stereotypes in popular culture

Asian women are often seen as nothing more than a sexualized stereotype - the idea of the exotic geisha, the wartime foreign prostitute (as in Stanley Kubrick's film, Full Metal Jacket), or the massage parlor sex worker. In all of these cases, Asian women simply become objects of desire - fetishized and hyper sexualized.

Which leads me to my word for this week - purity. As I mentioned, the shooter in the Atlanta killings claimed he was addicted to sex, and these massage parlors and women were a temptation to him. All of which is rooted in everything I've written above. But these views also grow out of and are exacerbated by what the purity culture of many evangelical Christian churches.

Purity culture is more than just "no-sex-outside-of-marriage." (You can read more about it here.) It is an extra-Biblical, shame-based sexual ethic that puts the burden primarily upon women to remain "pure," as well as to protect men from their own lusts. Again, women become the objects of desire, and therefore objectified. And, as we've seen, it is much easier to enact violence toward objects than it is human beings - whether sex trafficking, soliciting prostitution, or mass shootings.

Rachel Denhollander puts it clearly and concisely in her recent opinion article, "How churches talk about sexuality can mean life or death":

Sexuality divorced from personhood is the foundation of objectification and violence. The evangelical community has yet to grapple with its own version of this same mind-set and the deep damage it has, and will continue, to do.

Any sexual ethic that depersonalizes is problematic, if not downright dangerous. Rather, we need a sexual ethic that respects human dignity, honors bodies, and empowers women instead of objectifying them (not to mention one that is not solely heteronormative). We need a sexual ethic that does not attach shame to desire, but offers healthy expressions of that desire (expressed best in the context of monogamous, committed, life-long relationship [i.e. marriage]). We need a sexual ethic grounded in personhood - in the grace of God's divine image and the goodness of God inherent in each person - and not one focused only on purity.

After all, purity is not our calling as Christians. Faithfulness is - faithfulness to the Way of Christ, loving God with all we have and all we are, and loving others as ourselves. Even Jesus himself wasn't pure. We believe he was sinless, and divine in that sinlessness. But it wasn't because of what he avoided. He regularly associated with sinners and sex workers, let a so-called "sinful" woman rub all over him, advocated for a woman caught in adultery (and another with five husbands!), and had physical contact with lepers and at least one hemorrhaging woman...all of whom the religious culture deemed "impure."

"Christ cleanses the leper" (Duomo de Monreale, Sicily)

Jesus was not divinely sinless because of what he avoided or didn't do. He was sinless because of what he did do...because of who he was...because he was fully faithful to God's will. To put it differently, he was 100% good, which meant he was 0% bad. And while we would be lucky to break 80% on our best of days (speaking for myself here), we can also trust that God's goodness and grace can make up for that other 20% (or more!).

In the meantime, though, let's do the best we can not just to be pure, but to be faithful: loving God with everything we have and all that we are, and loving and caring for all of God's children - women and men, Asians and all ethnicities, people "pure" and not - as ourselves. And maybe, in the process, we will discover how much we, ourselves, are loved, too.


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