I’ve been in Waco since the fall of 2009, and I’ve never seen it this green. The rains have come down in historic amounts, the lake is 22 feet above level, and every green thing is exploding. Every pay-per-visit landscaping company must be seeing green as well, as the lush grass seems to spring back up before the mower is even done with it. Waco is alive with the hum of zero-turn mowers, racing across rebellious patches of centipede and St. Augustine.
Zero-turn mowers are fascinating to watch, as they defy many of our driving instincts. From early childhood, we play with wheels, imagining ourselves to be explorers, or race car drivers, or even just our parents driving home. We know long before we can legally drive that turning right takes us to the right; turning left takes us to the left. Zero-turn mowers, however, offer a much more direct control over trajectory, one that I imagine has crossed up many a first-time home user. On many such mowers, the right lever increases the speed of the right wheel relative to the left wheel…taking the mower to the left. The right wheel covers territory faster than the now slower left wheel. But as the left wheel anchors the mower, the right wheel is pulled in a circle and turns the mower to the left. The left lever similarly turns the mower to the right.
I’m afraid not enough of the church (including the conservative branch of the church universal in which I find myself and my focus) remembers this basic lesson of physics. We see the following of the Jesus Way as a binary. We look for the harsh line down the middle; the further from that line, the more holy or more profane we are, depending on which side of the line is in play. But Scripture is filled with language that describes the Jesus Way as precisely that: a way, as in a path or road. The author of Proverbs instructs us, “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.” This wisdom builds on a long tradition woven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, including God’s commission and charge to Joshua after Moses’ death. Following Jesus is not avoiding a line and pain beyond it (or flirting with one we want but fear to cross) but instead holding to a line, a path on both sides of which waits ruin for those who go astray.
There is perhaps no arena of the human experience more affected by this error than sex and sexuality. In my own experience, conservative Christians can become so blatant as to use “crossing the line” language to describe our views on Scripture and sex. Instead, honoring God here as with all things means following a path. On the one hand we find a falling away from God’s Law; on the other we risk being crushed under the weight of the Law. We fear falling off the first side, or even sounding like we might have a less conservative view of of sex, so greatly that we put the lever of the Law through the floor. Power races to one wheel. Fear holds back the other. And we go careening off the Way.
What pain is created by these failures to ponder the path? We don’t stand up when women our constantly bombarded by sexist and lewd jokes that aren’t “a big deal”, both behind their backs and to their faces. We don’t want to sound feminist, so the dignity of an entire gender made in God’s image is crushed beneath rampaging wheels. We trot out the same old rhetoric every summer about women covering up to stop male lust, telling women they are to blame for others’ failings and telling boys they are nothing more than untrainable animals. It’s much simpler to talk in such “strong” rules than to balance both levers with nuance, so off we go. Do not ever discount the effect such things have on the female psyche, and do not ever discount the effect such things have on the formation and maturation of young men.
I’ve seen this failure far too close to home. My beloved Baylor is in the midst of a future-defining struggle over how sexual assault is handled. According to the summary of the investigation recently released, “investigations [into assaults involving students] were conducted in the context of a broader culture and belief by many administrators that sexual violence ‘doesn’t happen here.’ Administrators engaged in conduct that could be perceived as victim-blaming, focusing on the complainant’s choices and actions, rather than robustly investigating the allegations, including the actions of the respondent.” Baylor is not the first nor probably the last to make such errors. Talking about sex sparingly and only in terms of hushed taboos is far easier than holding to a path, so we hold down our lever until a rut is carved, hoping that will hold back evil. But our little ruts only give error a chance to grow, as young men and women are left without the tools and language to talk at all about love, sex, or violence, let alone in ways which honor God and affirm humans. We fear any failure to immediately confront the admission of things we’ve made stands against in the past will make us “soft” on those subjects, but a rapist goes without confrontation while we wring our hands about alcohol or modern dating. We struggle to find balance so again the lever of the Law is punched, and the whirl of the blade grinds down a beautiful life already damaged. Meanwhile, the weed of evil continues to choke out all life around it while we spin in circles.
Folks, nuance is hard. I use “we” language above not simply for rhetorical ownership or because I claim membership within the conservative church and wider church universal but because I’ve struggled with it. But that’s how we must follow the Way. This is not a call to abandon traditional readings of God’s Law but a call to hold them in a way that fully and properly honors God and loves humans. When we let our fear and frustration pull us to either side, we fail both humanity and God. We allow, or even directly create, horrific damage to those we should love as God loves them. We short-circuit God’s good plan for human thriving. May we instead be strong and very courageous, not turning to the right hand or to the left, that we may have good success wherever we go.