The Bible has a number of paradoxes that cut right through the heart of our age. I am always preparing to preach somewhere, which I love. But I mostly preach in short form and don’t always get time to work out the more subtle paradoxes that show up. That and it isn’t okay to talk about BDSM at church.
So there is a culture of bondage in the world that doesn’t have very much to do with church. Google search when the kids aren’t around. People tie up their sexual partners and sometimes hurt them for pleasure. This sadomasochistic relationship has been brought into pop culture more or less obviously by the Fifty Shades of Grey series of books. They were so popular that these lit-porn books were being read on subways in the newspaper at least. I did see women reading them in cars waiting to pick up kids at school and on a couple of planes.
Now, bondage isn’t a new phenomenon. It has floated just below the surface of our porn culture for a long time. It is one of those dark fantasies that no one admits in polite culture, and certainly not to a priest! Yet the domination and submission game is well known in relationships where there is little leather. Many couples play out this dynamic on more subtle levels.
I am struck that so much of the literature around bdsm (bondage submission sadomasochism) talks about the submissive finding freedom. This parallels one of the central paradoxes of Christianity.
Freedom is the root of the word redemption. The whole concept of redemption or to be redeemed is to be set free from bondage or slavery. The Greek word “doulos” means slave or servant or deacon. The word is extremely common in the New Testament appearing 127 times (Strong’s number 1401). It is a title applied to oneself (Paul and Peter) and to others. We are said to find our freedom in becoming servants to Jesus.
We have been set free by the cross and yet are to put ourselves in bondage to Christ. Now clearly this is two very different ideas about bondage. Fear not, dear reader. I don’t think you need ropes to explore your freedom! I think rather that many of us are looking for our freedom by doing whatever we want. That is the cultural promise of freedom.
“Let it Go” is a popular song because it captures that adolescent search for freedom by shedding the clothes of your culture and family and wearing a miniskirt and bustier with highlights and cleavage to match. This message is really deeply embedded in our media and our thinking. “If only I could . . .” lies behind many fantasies and adulteries. We go looking for the freedom we have already.
The problem is not our ability to choose. Any of us could choose at any moment to go out and do just about anything these days, at least in America. We are basically free. The problem is not our number of choices. The problem is our frustration with the choices we have made. The problem is our frustration the outcomes our choices have given us, because one choice inevitably leads to another until we are forty looking at a life we feel like we didn’t choose.
On the other hand, the masochist goes deeply down into that powerless place and accepts it. In that acceptance they find freedom. Humiliation and pain are often a central part of the experience. It is hard to not read that and hear Paul and the Acts of the Apostles in the background, the celebrations of sufferings and beatings. So what is the difference?
There is first of all that when we place ourselves into the hands of God, we are not blindly putting ourselves in bondage to another human, a fallen creature who has both the capacity for love and violence. We are told repeatedly in the Scriptures that we are safe in God’s hands, that we are loved, held, healed, made whole, safe.
Here it may be helpful to call up the images of the mothering nurturing God that are throughout the Bible. But even in the male images of the New Testament there is a clear consistency about the nature of God. Jesus depicts God as Abba and then spends a great deal of teaching what that means, loving, merciful, compassionate. Strong, powerful, even angry, but always in a protective way, endlessly forgiving wrong. That means relinquishing our images of revenge and punishment. The New Testament actually spells out that we are to give up our revenge and punishment fantasies.
The image of the bondage relationship is an image of the brokenness of humanity in flesh. It is a depiction of bad theology, a God who is violent and punishing and a humanity whose job is to learn to submit to violence and control.
The image of the New Testament relationship between God and us is a God who is loving and healing and a humanity whose job is to submit to love and own the responsibilities of freedom and stewardship of the earth and each other, or to put it another way to embrace our full redeemed humanity.
I am deeply saddened by both Fifty Shades of Grey and “Frozen.” Both portray a deeply flawed search for a controlling masculinity and submissive femininity that destroys the image of God we were created to bear. We are called to be strong responsible men and women who are in relationships of mutual care, healing, and redemption. Our freedom is meant to be responsible and allow us to love and heal others, to set them free.
You can’t set someone free with bondage. Neither personally or nationally does that work. It is bad theology, bad psychology, and horrible foreign policy. There are times when we give up our freedom because we commit crimes. But the longing of the human heart is to be free and responsible. I do think there is hope in “Frozen” in that the sisters learn to love and rule their inherited kingdom.
I have hope that our culture that worships freedom can learn to love responsibly, but right now we are still singing “Let it Go” right now and trying to bind that which we can’t control. We still see responsibilities as limiting our freedoms, personally and politically. We don’t seem to understand the call to be children of God, who are loved and called to love, provided for and called to provide for others, whole and free by a grace that is not our own doing.
That is the bondage here. We bind ourselves to others in responsibility to love, just as Jesus took up the cross to bear the sins of Jerusalem and the world. We bind ourselves to our obligations, but in them we find a freedom and wholeness in identity. It seems vital that this be a choice. God never forces us, never ties us up, never beats us into submission. We choose to be adult children of God who love as we are loved.
The image of this I have after looking at the Fifty Shades culture is of Tiny Hands International, a ministry that my wife and I support. They do work around addressing sex trafficking and have orphanages in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. The story of men and women going into brothels and stopping traffickers at the borders to set free these girls and boys, women and men in very real and destructive bondage never fails to awaken my heart to hope and humanity, even as their reality breaks it. Freedom and responsibility.
Tiny Hands does more than just set them free, but works to provide a life, a home, and a living for these human beings to help them get to the place where they can be fully free and responsible. These commitments take years sometimes to live out. I am proud that my wife, really, has kept us committed to one little girl who is not so little anymore for more than seven years. This young woman is part of my children’s prayer life and our financial life, though we have never met and only seen each other in pictures and letters.
Her life is deeply tied up in ours, and the work of Tiny Hands and that small tie of financial commitment has meant more to my own and my family’s freedom and humanity than I can ever relate.
As a pastor and priest, I am deeply concerned about how our bad theology and search for freedom is destroying our humanity in Christ. I am concerned as a father about what those desiccated images of masculinity and femininity can mean for my children and for those victims of violence and sexual abuse around the world. I am concerned how my own choices have bound me and sometimes even set me more fully free.
Don’t worry, I don’t have Tillich’s drawer full of secrets anywhere! The articles about this subculture have been very open in psychological journals and Time magazine since the Fifty Shades books and now movie have gone mainstream. There are lots of articles without pictures out there! But as Uncle George says, “There’s more ways to tell who fell in the drink than falling in there yourself, I think.”