Christian Sexual Ethics and Just Love for a Mormon Marriage

Posted on March 10, 2010. Filed under: marriage | Tags: , , , , |

by Caroline

Last week my husband and I had a fascinating dinnertime discussion on whether or not we have a ‘just love’. You see, I’m taking a class on Christian sexual ethics right now, and I’m reading one of the foremost ethicists on the subject — a Catholic nun by the name of Margaret Farley who taught at the Yale Divinity School for over 30 years.  Her book is called Just Love

The framework for sexual ethics that Farley comes up with highlights her commitment to the importance of justice in sexual relationships. For Farley, love is not enough. Love alone can be based on fantasy, it can be manipulative, it can look at the other only as a means to an end. Therefore, in her sexual ethical framework, love must coincide with justice.  Just love must contain these seven norms:

1. Do no unjust harm (don’t be physically, emotionally, spiritually destructive to the other)

2. Free consent.

3. Mutuality (both partners giving and receiving)

4. Equality (of power)

5. Commitment

6. Fruitfulness (not necessarily referring to kids, but rather a love that expands beyond the two, out into the larger world and brings good things to it.)

7. Social Justice (This is complex – on one level, she’s talking about making sure that one’s sexual relationship doesn’t harm third parties like future children, future lovers, or others that are in relationship to one of the parties. On another level, she’s talking much more broadly, about affirming the rights of all members of society as sexual beings. Homosexuals, transexuals, intersexuals, heterosexuals – all have the right to claim respect from the Christian community and to claim freedom from unjust harm and equal protection under the law. )

As I was analyzing my own marriage to see if it qualified as a ‘just love,’ one big question stuck in my mind.* Do Mike and I have a commitment to equality in our marriage? Sure, Mike and I conduct our marriage as equal partners. No one has the final say just by merit of being male or female, no one’s opinions weigh more than the other’s. But listen to how Farley describes equality (or rather inequality):

“Major inequalities in social and economic status, age and maturity, professional identity, interpretations of gender roles, and so forth, can render sexual relations inappropriate and unethical primarily because they entail power inequalities — and hence, unequal vulnerability, dependence, and limitation of options.”

Ahhh! This hits to the bone, this makes me catch my breath. I am so much more vulnerable than Mike.  I can never make as much money as he does. Right now our professional identities couldn’t be more different — I as stay at home mom, he as professor. My dependency on him is much starker this his on me. So can our love be just?

I don’t know, but I am comforted by Farley’s later paragraph, in which she says perfect equality isn’t necessary, but that it has to be “close enough, balanced enough, for each to appreciate the uniqueness and differences of the other, for each to respect one another as ends in themselves.”

Mike and I may not score so high on the vulnerability/dependency part, but I think we do pretty well on the respect and appreciation one.

  • What do you think of Farley’s framework?
  • How well do you think it meshes with Mormon ideals?
  • Do you have ‘equality’ in your marriage? How so and how not?

*I’m consciously leaving aside the question of number 7 — social justice — right now. That’s a big enough topic to be its own post.

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A Progressive Mormon Response to the Prop 8 Decision

Posted on May 26, 2009. Filed under: Acceptance, Belief | Tags: , , , |

This letter was composed by a group of progressive Mormons. I like the fact that the authors chose to base their support for the gay community in religious and ethical values, and I also like the fact that the letter does not attack Church leaders. It’s a positive statement of belief that resonates with me. What do you think of it?


Dear Friends,

 As a Mormon I am disappointed by the California Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Prop 8, which denies same sex couples the right to marry. Nonetheless, the court’s decision provides an opportunity to restate some of my essential religious and democratic values.

 1) As a Mormon I believe the emotional and spiritual growth, the life experience, the nurturing and acceptance we experience as members of strong, loving families is joyous, necessary and an expression of God’s hope for all of us. Yet we live in a society that values some families more than others. I reject the idea that families with same-sex partners are any less vital, any less loving, any less able to nurture their members, any less deserving of recognition or protection than heterosexual families.

2) As a Mormon I am moved by the recognition that both the Mormon and gay communities have experienced the agony of misunderstanding, marginalization, violence, and persecution. Communities that share the pain of common histories and status as “outsiders” have a unique opportunity to come together; to empathize with each other, and to heal one another; to work together for the advancement of inclusive communities, and for the defeat of prejudice for the benefit of us all.

3) As a Mormon, I am lead by the essential Christian idea that the great commandment consists of a full commitment to God and to loving my neighbor as myself. This is not merely a feel-good truism; it establishes the very foundation of Christian ethics that call us into relationship with God and those who are different from ourselves. The way we listen to, engage with, and treat those who are radically different from us is a true test of our commitment to Christ. It’s not enough that we be “tolerant” while living in judgment of and isolation from one another. Christian ethics insists that we allow our lives to be intertwined with the lives of those around us, even those who are radically different.

4) As a Mormon I see ethical dialogue as a way forward in difficult times. This is dialogue that originates from our commitment to community ethics and from a desire for mutual understanding. This is dialogue that seeks to include, to listen, and to guide us in doing our best for those around us. The Mormon community does not benefit when people respond to us based on stereotypes and fear. Nor does it benefit us to respond to other communities in such a way. Fear is never a legitimate basis of action. Dialogue is a tool for putting aside fear and building ethical and democratic communities.

In the short term I know there is a great deal of work to do. As one person I commit myself to dialogue, to community building and to resisting those voices that encourage us to fear one another. The lives and relationships of gay people embody the same dignity, love, respect, understanding, nurturing, and spiritual potential as those of straight people. I acknowledge this and hope that others will too.  

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A Critique of Self-Sacrifice: Embracing Choice, Agency, and Engagement Instead

Posted on December 17, 2008. Filed under: Mormon women, spirituality, women | Tags: , , , , |

painting by Kathy Farabi

painting by Kathy Farabi


by Caroline


For centuries in the Western world self-sacrifice, as opposed to self-love, has been viewed as an ethical virtue. In serving and loving others, the traditional argument goes, one acts selflessly against the interests of oneself. Feminist scholars of religion and ethics have questioned this self-sacrifice/selfishness dichotomy, however. They argue that loving and caring for others can go hand in hand with understanding and loving oneself.


I’ve been learning about this in my women’s studies in religion class. It’s fascinating because it takes this traditional Christian virtue and turns it on its head. Sara Hoagland, author of Lesbian Ethics: Toward New Values, especially questions the virtue of self-sacrifice, since she argues that it’s generally the less powerful individual, group, or party that is encouraged to self-sacrifice for the good of the stronger party. Thus, she sees women traditionally being the ones to sacrifice their own interests, dreams and projects for the men (and children) of their lives. The result of this, she finds, is that women don’t have a distinct sense of themselves and try to live their lives through others. Also, they have to employ unsavory methods to carve out spaces of power. They use manipulation, control, etc. to try to encourage the men and children of their lives to act in ways they want them to. Thus they impede the agency of others.


Self-sacrificers also, Hoagland argues, are impeded in becoming full agents themselves. This was an interesting quote from her about the way that self-sacrifice is actually in some sense selfish. She states, “For if I disregard my own interests, I can live through someone else’s choices, enjoying the fruits of their power if they are successful, for example, while if they fail, not being responsible for failure but only for bad choice. So I’m selfish in not taking my own risks.” Hoagland argues that cowardliness can lie behind a life of self-sacrifice, as a person lives through others rather than living for herself, and ultimately, foists the task of caring for herself onto someone else, becoming a burden, and once again, selfish. A person who lives a life without taking personal risks, Hoagland argues, is not maturing into a full agent and achieving full personhood. [Personally, I’m sympathetic to this argument about taking risks, but I am uncomfortable with saying that a woman who has decided to split up duties along a traditional gender lines is necessarily selfish or a burden to her family (if that’s what Hoagland was implying). I think that can be a legit choice that can foster personal agency and creation in its own way.]


She also cautions against self-sacrifice because she sees it too often leading to burn-out, where individuals give themselves so fully to a project or person that they are devastated when things don’t work out in the way they envisioned.


Rather than self-sacrifice, Hoagland proposes that we embrace a new ethic – that of self-understanding.  Self- understanding will help people understand how to engage and love and help others, without sacrificing a person’s core goals and dreams. Self-understanding will lead a person to know that by pursuing her own dreams and goals, she inspires those around her to do the same. Self-understanding helps a person maintain healthy boundaries between self and other, while at the same time understanding the interconnectedness of society and the importance of engagement with others. Self-understanding leads a person to understand that her actions are deliberate choices to engage which benefits both self and other. She says that when a person chooses to devote some time to helping a friend, she is not-self-sacrificing. Rather, “Such choices are matters of focus, not sacrifice. That I attend certain things and not others, that I focus here and not there, is part of how I create value. Far from sacrificing myself, or part of myself, I am creating. 


I find Hoagland’s discussion of the dangers of self-sacrifice compelling, and I think her argument is pretty balanced. (Other than my discomfort with the implication that not working is necessarily selfish.) On the one hand, her points about living one’s life through others, refusing to take personal risks, and possibly controlling others because of an inadequate sense of boundaries sound like reasonable risks of extreme types of self-sacrifice. On the other hand, her points about the importance of engaging and helping others, not as sacrifice, but as acts of choice, engagement, and creation as a way to create value is a persuasive reframing of the issue for me.


What are your thoughts on self-sacrifice? Do you embrace the concept completely as a Christian? Or just to the extent that others around you are also self-sacrificing? What are the pros and cons of self-sacrifice that you have personally experienced? How do you like Hoagland’s reframing of the idea of helping others as creation?

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The One I Believe In

Posted on January 30, 2006. Filed under: Uncategorized, world news | Tags: |

“Lo taamod al dam réakha”: Thou shall not stand idly by the shedding of the blood of fellow human beings. When Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel was asked to name the most important commandment, this was his response.

I recently finished reading Weisel’s Night with my students. I’ve taught it before, but this year has been different. Perhaps I have an especially thoughtful group of students – young adults who are compassionate and wonderfully attuned to both justice and hypocrisy. Perhaps I have finally taught for enough years to allow conversations to become what they want to be, without over-planning. In early December, I showed them the documentary Paperclips. It profiles a small middle school in rural Tennesee whose project on the Holocaust eventually transforms the town. They were riveted. The next day they asked, predictably, “Can we do a project like that?”

I teach Night, and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and Frederick Douglass for a clichéd yet still pressing reason: Never Again (or again or again). When I mentioned that the Holocaust was not the last genocide, some students were visibly jarred. When I noted that the situation in Darfur has been labeled genocide, they had their project. Research. Op-ed essays. Bracelets. Letters to congressional leaders. School and community education. A benefit concert in the works. I love teaching middle school.

The week we began these conversations about Darfur, the lesson in Relief Society was on Letting Our Light Shine Before The World. Sitting quietly, listening to an exhortation to “call Walmart to protest the shameful utterance of ‘Happy Holiday,’” I began to reflect on the chasm between the social activism I am drawn to and the social activism frequently advocated from the pulpit. Sometimes I have Quaker/Unitarian Universalist envy when I look at the long list of abolitionists, civil rights, and social activists who’ve graced their ranks.

While I wasn’t surprised, I was still disappointed when I reviewed the diverse membership of the Save Darfur Coalition — an alliance of over 100 faith-based, humanitarian and human rights organizations. The Baptists are on the list, sandwiched between Catholics, Lutherans, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Unitarians.

No “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

Why? What harm could come from formally lending our name to protest crimes against humanity? On Larry King a couple of years ago, President Hinckley noted, “The church does not become involved in politics” but “we speak very strongly on moral issues” — e.g.: Gambling. Same-sex marraige. Liquor laws.

But wasn’t genocide the moral failure of the twentieth century? (At some point I’ll post a review of Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.)

To be fair, the church hasn’t been entirely silent on the suffering in Darfur. Hinckley mentioned it briefly in the last conference. The complete statement was: “Man’s inhumanity to man expressed in past and present conflict has and continues to bring unspeakable suffering. In the Darfur region of Sudan, tens of thousands** have been killed and well over a million have been left homeless.” However, this short statement was in the context of personal preparation in the last days and transitioned into a discussion of food storage. (LDS blogs have proliferated discussions of gay marriage and p*rnography, but have given scant mention to the first genocide of the twenty-first century. Kudos, though, to Kaimi for writing a post in 2004 and again in 2005 on the crisis).

I guess I am left wondering about which battles we pick and why — personally and as a church. At some level, I am a fan of those who become socially and politically engaged to any degree – even when it is for causes I do not support. I love the scene in Biloxi Blues when Arnold Epstein chastises his friend: “You’re a witness. You’re always standing around watching what’s happening, scribbling in your book what other people do. You have to get in the middle of it. You have to take sides. Make a contribution to the fight. Any fight. The one you believe in.

However, as someday “saint,” I keep returning Elie Weisel’s comments on Darfur:

“Sudan has become today’s world capital of human pain, suffering and agony . . . How can a citizen of a free country not pay attention? How can anyone, anywhere not feel outraged? How can a person, whether religious or secular, not be moved by compassion? And above all, how can anyone who remembers remain silent? . . . Should the Sudanese victims feel abandoned and neglected, it would be our fault – and perhaps our guilt.”

Some battles feel more pressing than others.

**Note: More accurately hundreds of thousands have been killed. Current estimates run about 400,000, with the death toll exceeding 10,000 a month – 70% children. These numbers do not reflect systematic rape of women. If war breaks out between Chad and Sudan, the death toll will increase dramatically. For a personal face to the crisis, I highly recommend reading Nicholas Kristoff’s columns in the New York Times (if you don’t have a subscription, google his name with Darfur and you’ll find plenty to read). Also, consider taking a few minutes to send a postcard.

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