BDSM vs. The Temple of the Holy Spirit

A friend was recently challenged by someone about whether their kinky lifestyle could possibly mesh with their Christian faith. The challenger relied on the passage from I Corinthians 6 that says “don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? … so honor God with your body.” The challenge was, “isn’t flogging, beating, wearing leather and rubber gear abusing God’s Holy Temple?”

Oy, Paul…

So I don’t know if this post is going to matter to hardly any readers of this blog, and I don’t know whether anyone reading this has any experience in the evangelical/fundamentalist Christian faith. So if you don’t care, feel free to click through to the porn. But for those who might be interested and need a refresher, the passage above was from letter that we think Paul – an early leader of the Christian church – writing to the church in Corinth. Corinth was a burgeoning metropolis of the region, with a temple to Aphrodite (goddess of love) on the hilltop and to the god of seafarers at the coast. From what we understand it was a rather freewheeling town especially sexually, and the Christians of the town were permissive of apparently grossly indecent acts, whatever they were, something that Paul says not even the pagans would do.

The thing to know about Paul’s writings is that they are heavily dependent on context. They were specific instructions to specific people at a specific time for specific reasons. The nascent church was ever on the cusp of collapse and like any other new organization or structure, a stricter set of rules was necessary to keep things from falling apart. Moreover, Paul and the church needed, more than ever in an age of plurality and many gods, to be set apart. Set apart from the Jews who saw them as rebels or cultists, and from the greater society that more or less didn’t care. Rules were more necessary to set the church apart as something different, to garner the attention of the greater society, and hopefully point those interested toward what truly made this faith different from others: the teachings of Jesus and the radically simple Love People philosophy.

While Paul’s letters had their place, I believe they also ran counter to the core philosophy Jesus espoused; Jesus boiled the Law of the Jewish people down to simple loving tenets. Paul, a lawyer and Jewish religious scholar, essentially reintroduced rules and law to a faith that shouldn’t have needed them. He had his reasons, and they may have been valid, but the real crime has been modern Christians who turn to Paul without understanding the context. They take those letters, which I doubt Paul ever expected to last more than a few years and certainly not to be canonized, at face value. When most Christians quote scripture, they either quote something they made up (like “cleanliness is next to godliness” or “love the sinner hate the sin”), or they quote Paul. Because Paul is easily digestible spiritual-sounding nuggets for the stupid masses. It’s easier to memorize pat answers from the epistles (letters) than it is to really attempt to apply the more esoteric teachings of Jesus. Paul’s letters have their place, but only if the reader is willing to understand what he was trying to say then, and how it could possibly apply to our modern context now.

I could go on for ages about Paul, and admittedly I have much more to study as well. Even a lifetime in church and four years of theology classes isn’t enough to make me feel like I get him. But moving on to the issues at hand….

Tasty Legalism, or, “Me no like thinking to hard” [sic]

In the more postmodern Christian theology circles we call this mindless acceptance of translated verse “legalism” or “fundamentalism,” basically making rules and pat answers more important than application. It’s an easy faith, because it requires no thinking, but it’s a child’s faith, and children need to grow up. The issue with legalistic application of scripture is that it often leads down a slippery, hypocritical slope.

In the case of the passage in question, where does one stop applying it in judgment? Where does one stop using it to guilt trip or lord over others? Smoking and drinking are easy to condemn. What about tattooing? Piercing? And don’t forget obesity, an issue my Baptist background seems to have completely ignored. And in the case of obesity, is simply having a BMI over 25 mean you’re “sinning against your own body?” What if one is at BMI 40+ (morbidly obese) but on a diet and exercise plan and actively trying to be better? Is that okay? Or they still in sin simply because they are over BMI 25? A legalistic take on the issue would say yes, and until they fall in perfect line they are to be judged for it (“bless their heart”).

What my friend’s challenger did was pass a judgment without really understanding the scripture, and without understanding the world of kink and the mindset of kinksters.

A Modern Temple

I would interpret that bit of wisdom, in a modern era, as being along the lines of not being destructive to one’s own person. To legitimize the passage with Jesus’ teachings, there is a parable of the talents, which in the allegory are basically monies of some kind. In that story, a Boss (or Master is the term in some versions, which I always find amusing), gives “talents” to some of his people. Some of those people foster and grow the talents into something more, getting a good return on the money (or whatever). Others were afraid of the Master’s wrath, and didn’t want to risk losing the talent, so they buried them and did nothing with them. So when time came to justify the books, those people had nothing to show for the investment. The moral of the story was to be good stewards of the things given to us. To take care of the things in our life – actually property, money, our bodies, each other, our relationships, etc. Christians tend to believe that our stuff is not really ours, it’s meant to belong to God and the community, and we should use it for the betterment of others.

So if our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that is, we are given our bodies and our lives and we should take good care of them. This is not radical philosophy for anyone, Christians or otherwise. But we Americans sure do a pisspoor job of it, but that’s another matter. In any case, Paul’s writing today, to me, means that we should avoid being destructive to ourselves, not just physically (as a legalistic take on the verse would say), but also mentally and emotionally and spiritually and communally, etc, etc.

In the text, Paul’s example is fucking a prostitute. That’s destructive to oneself physically, through the potential for disease or whatever. It’s also destructive emotionally, because sex is powerful and paying for it cheapens it, makes one feel cheaper or desperate or any number of other imperceptible self-judgments. It’s also damaging to the sex worker, as it reinforces his/her place in a world that objectifies and dehumanizes them.

So is kinky play – flogging, beating, etc – destructive? It can be, but I don’t think the norm of it is. The maxim of “safe, sane and consensual” essentially mandates a non-self-destructive scene.  The biochemical reactions to physical struggle and even pain can actually be enlightening or liberating or relaxing. I’ve heard of people feeling closer to God through a flogging scene. The endorphins or adrenaline released during physical stress can improve one’s mental state, same as the endorphins released during sex, or eating chocolate. Sensory deprivation can remove the noise of the world to seek a deeper understanding of one’s self, depending on far past the sexualization of it one can go. Moreover, there is a Christian history of ascetics who self-flagellate as a pathway to deeper spirituality. The acts of bdsm and bondage are not unheard of even in Christian monastic and holy order traditions.

Sex is always a fine line, but safe, sane, consensual, egalitarian and affirming sexual activity is not self-destructive. Those who would go with reckless abandon, who sleep around, who fuck wildly bareback, who form no relationship with those they screw, who swim only in the pool of pornography and sexual fantasy without consciously understanding themselves, and as an extreme example, bug-chasers, I would think do fall into a realm of self-destructive behavior.

So is BDSM anti-Christian? No, I don’t believe it is, not when it’s a part of a fulfilling, honest, relationship. My friend’s challenger was misguided in her judgment. She failed to understand the passage and more importantly, she failed to understand or try to understand kink and bdsm’s true nature.

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