Just Love

OUR TIMES -- See minister's column, HERE


Oh, my, y’all – as we say down South. 2020 – the year that means perfect vision – 20/20 – has seen one thing after another that we never saw before and didn’t see coming. Global pandemic. Growing recession and unemployment. Three weeks and counting of protests – world-wide protests – sparked by the George Floyd murder. This last week – well, as one headline put it – it was a bad week to be a racist statue. Confederate Civil War figures were smashed, beheaded, pulled down. In Belgium, they’re removing statues of King Leopold, the 19th-century king who was particularly cruel in colonizing Africa. In New Zealand, protestors removed a statue of John Hamilton, the 19th-century British Naval commander who was merciless in his attacks on the island’s indigenous people.

NASCAR banned the confederate flag. NASCAR! I don’t know how many of you are fans, but the confederate flag has been so common at NASCAR races as to be practically the sport’s unofficial logo.

General Petraeus has called for renaming Forts Bragg, Benning, and Lee because they were confederate traitors. And the Senate Armed Services committee, controlled by Republicans, has said the renaming must happen within three years.

The National Football League reversed its stance on players kneeling during the national anthem. HBO pulled Gone with the Wind until they could provide a historical context framing. And the TV show “Cops” – which carefully selects footage to cast police in the most heroic possible light – after 31 years on the air was cancelled.

All in barely more than a week. Wow. These are symbolic moves, but they were passionately resisted up until the last couple weeks.

With all that going on in our world, I ask us today to reflect about sex. No, not because I thought we could all use a break from pandemics like Covid-19 and racism. Reality doesn’t take breaks. And uplifting spiritual growth does not come from escapism, it comes from more deeply connecting to reality, in all of its tragedy and its beauty. (So I hope you’ll plan to be part of our next event about the 1619 Project, and will participate in demonstrations for police reform. And zoom in at 1:30 today for the conversation Tracy will be leading about talking with children and youth about racial justice. We are liable to learn some things about how to talk to ourselves, too.)

Today’s topic is not to give us a break, but to emphasize that the work of justice is one. Our private relationships and our public relationships foster each other. In both cases, it’s about treating people in ways that respect and honor them to facilitate their flourishing and our own. This requires understanding, and it requires compassion, and those are skills that Unitarian Universalist congregations exist to help develop.

Whether the issue is hate or the issue is love, the need is justice -- respecting and honoring personhood; flourishing by helping each other flourish; liberation from domination. It’s all one.

Reconceiving marriage on a less patriarchal model has been a part of the work of liberation. Marriage once was understood as a set of five tightly-linked features:
  • creation of a household of two adults;
  • sexual exclusivity to within that household;
  • production of babies;
  • raising of the children; and
  • perpetuation of the parents’ genetic lines.
That was the package deal. Being married implied all five of those things -- most of the time. If, every once in a while, an infertile man or woman got married, or a couple past child-bearing age, that was OK. As long as that was the exception to the rule, the basic model (that those five went together), remained intact.

The sexual ethic, then, was to support the package deal, to uphold the idea that any one of those five parts ought to imply all of the other four as well. Thus, the ethic included such principles as no premarital sex, and no sex outside of the sort of relationship that looked like the kind that procreates.

Over the course of my lifetime, those previously inextricable features of marriage came apart -- and with that dissolution the old sexual ethic has faded. The arrival of reliable birth control meant that otherwise fertile opposite-sex couples could, as they chose, form a household together without producing or raising babies. The rise in out-of-wedlock births and single parent families has meant producing and raising children without two adults making a household together. You can have marriage without sex, and sex without marriage (which has always been fairly common but in recent decades has lost much of the stigma it used to have). You can have sex without babies, and babies without sex – the former through the aforementioned miracles of birth control, and the latter through the miracles of surrogate motherhood, artificial insemination, and adoption. You can propagate your genes without raising the children, and raise children without propagating your genes.

The package deal has come undone. And with it, the sexual ethic that supported that package deal no longer compels. Sexuality is nonetheless a powerful force that can bring us into our wholeness -- or break us into little pieces. As much as ever, we need a way to say what’s OK and what isn’t, when it comes to romance, and sex, and coupling.

Our bodies are themselves unique vehicles of potential liberation and fulfillment. They are integral parts of our identity. When our bodies love, the first awakening of love may not be a matter of choice. It comes upon us unbidden. We “fall into” love. Yet love can be directed by choice. Even in the beginning, we can influence our loves by, as Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“choosing to pay attention to certain realities or not, putting ourselves in a position to discover lovableness..., choosing to believe (even if we do not yet 'see,'...) in the value of persons or of anything in creation.... We can identify with our loves and freely ratify them....We can also repudiate, or defer, some of our loves by choosing not to identify with them.” (Farley)
Where there is choice, there is space for ethical reflection.

Justice means equal respect. Yet the concrete meaning of respect must be tailored to cultural differences and to individual differences. Just love – love that is not unjust – is a social concern, and sometimes a highly contentious social concern, as we saw in Supreme Court nominations in 1991 and 2018. We all have a role to play in creating a favorable social context for personal integrity, freedom, flourishing – and thus for individuals to choose just and true love and commitment.


Sacred friend and guide, invaluable projection of our individual and collective imagination and moral aspiration, avatar of our better selves:
You are with us whenever we invoke you, and with others whenever we hold them in our compassion. Our vision sees you there, a companion in the streets, in police stations, on curbsides, at take-out restaurants, in hospital waiting rooms, in public health offices conducting contact tracing phone calls, in hallways of governments, standing beside the sprayers of tear gas and the shooters of rubber bullets and the wielders of billy clubs, and standing with those receiving tear gas, rubber bullets, and billy clubs.

Be with us as our minds take in the words of the times: “police reform,” “migrant worker,” “essential workers,” “health equity,” “social distancing,” “multisystem inflammatory syndrome,” “data control,” “I can’t breathe,” “spiritual bypassing,” “voter suppression,” “caught on film.” Yet let us not forget the older, enduring words: “hunger,” “poverty,” “deserted,” “overrun,” “marginalized.”

Be with the people who have taken to the streets all over the world to protest. Be with those veteran activists who have been devoting their lives to justice since long before there were cell phones and viral videos. Be with those who have committed to the Black Lives Matter movement since its inception 8 years ago. Be with the thousands of newcomers who have just now, finally, decided that Black Lives do matter. We pray for the ending of institutional racism here and in all places. Help us to lean out new windows to hear sounds in other communities.

Be with the people of Brazil and its public health care system and epidemiologic surveillance that has pushed back against the president and ministers who sought to suppress and minimize the data on COVID-19. Be with the people of Hong Kong, and help their freedoms endure: of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, and association. Be with the Indian Samaritans organization in New Delhi, delivering food coupons to the neediest families. Be with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, dismantling white supremacy and advancing human rights around the globe.

Give us courage to do what is difficult. Make us unafraid to give tenderly, and strong enough to love mightily. Soften our touch, blend our voices, clarify our minds, fire our hearts for the task at hand, and make our juices flow for justice. When we are the healers, then will we be healed. Blessed be, and Amen.


These are the six norms that Sister Margaret Farley offers for love based in justice:
  • do no unjust harm, 
  • free consent, 
  • mutuality, 
  • equality, 
  • commitment, 
  • fruitfulness.
One: Do No Unjust Harm

Harm can take many forms:
“physical, psychological, spiritual, relational. It can also take the form of failure to support, to assist, to care for, to honor.”
In love and its sexual expression, we are uniquely tender and vulnerable -- so acute attention to the risks of harm is called for. Sexual expression is highly variable, and just because something is repulsive to you or me doesn’t make it wrong. Pain may be a part of sexual expression, and for some folks it may be particularly central. Bodily damage may part of that. Sexuality-related cosmetic surgeries also constitute bodily damage. So we can’t simply say, "Do No Harm." What we can say is do no unjust harm. That’s the overall guideline, the overall ethic, the first rule. The other points are for clarifying what "unjust" is.

Two: Free Consent

Justice requires autonomy, and without free consent, there is no autonomy. Consent seems such an obvious principle that it’s remarkable how much the emphasis on consent has grown in recent years. And it’s worth remembering that there has been resistance. It wasn’t that long ago that a fraternity group gathered outside the Women’s Center at Yale University to chant, “No means yes.”

Seduction or manipulation of persons who have limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power violates free consent. But seduction is complicated. It’s certainly not wrong to try to make yourself attractive to a prospective mate. It’s not wrong to lower the lights, put candles on the table, and Barry White on the stereo.

Promise-keeping and truth-telling are aspects of honoring free consent, since betrayal and deception limit the free choice of the other person. If promise-keeping and truth-telling are honored -- and neither party has "limited capacity for choice because of immaturity, special dependency, or loss of ordinary power" -- then I'd say we're in the realm of wholesome courtship rather than ethically problematic seduction.

If alcohol is going to be involved, then the consent should be clear at some point before inebriation, but whether ethics requires it to be clear before the first glass of wine starts to get a bit fuzzy. Certainly, the clearer the consent, and the more clear-minded the judgment of both parties when they consent, the better.

Moreover, we may be of partly divided mind when it comes to romance. Part of you may be ready to jump in, while part of you is not so sure. Yes, you’re the boss of your body, as Tracy’s Time for All Ages emphasized – but this boss is sometimes a divided internal parliament. So I think the "consent" requirement needs some help from the further guidelines like mutuality, equality, and commitment.

Three: Mutuality

Ethical sexual expression involves mutual participation. What we’re talking about here are the old ideas of “the male as active and the female as passive, the woman as receptacle and the man as fulfiller.” That’s a violation of the mutuality principle. True relationship entails a context recognizing each partner’s activity and each partner’s receptivity -- each partner’s giving and each partner's receiving.

Mutuality need not be perfected, but it does need to be present in some degree. “Two liberties meet, two bodies meet, two hearts come together” – and if they aren’t both putting heart and self into the encounter – if either partner is overwhelmingly passive, hardly participating, it isn’t mutual.

Four: Equality

Just love means that the partners bring roughly equal levels of power and autonomy to the relationship. Inequalities of power may come from differences in social and economic status, or differences in age and maturity. Teachers and their students have an inherent power inequality, as do counselors and their clients, ministers and their parishioners.

It’s not that all such inequalities should be wiped out. The inequality of teacher and student or counselor and client can be very helpful. But it does rule out romantic relationship.

The principle of equality also “rules out treating a partner as property, a commodity, or an element in market exchange.” There are a number of reasons one may favor legalization of prostitution. But making it legal doesn’t make it ethical.

Ethical sexuality may include all manner of role-playing, but if a partner is an actual element in a market exchange, that’s not playing a role. It’s an inherent inequality. Any overlap of the sphere of paying people for goods and services and the sphere of sexual relationship is unethical. On this point, I’m rather more categorical than Sister Farley is. I think any time those spheres blur together, our flourishing is compromised.

The ethical onus falls primarily on the party with greater power: the teacher more than the student, the counselor more than the client, the minister more than the parishioner, and the person paying for sex more than the person paid. The side with less power should also avoid such entanglements as they are able, but, having less power, they are apt to be less able.

Equality, like mutuality, is rarely perfect. The ethical concern is that the power be balanced enough “for each to appreciate the uniqueness and difference of the other, and for each to respect one another as ends in themselves” (Farley) – and not a means only.

Five: Commitment.

Brief encounters are not ruled out. It’s not that all one-night stands are necessarily unethical. The important consideration is that they be entered into with an openness to the possibility that the encounter may lead to long-term relationship. If there is zero prospect of leading to long-term committed relationship, the brief sexual encounter is ethically suspect. As Sister Margaret Farley writes:
“Sexuality is of such importance in human life that it needs to be nurtured, sustained, as well as disciplined, channeled, controlled.... Brief encounters...cannot mediate the kind of union -- of knowing and being known, loving and being loved -- for which human relationality offers the potential.” (Farley)
The rhetoric of commitment can get overblown, and it’s worth remembering that “particular forms of commitment are themselves only means, not ends.” Nevertheless, as Sister Farley reflects:
“Given all the caution learned from contemporary experience, we may still hope that our freedom is sufficiently powerful to gather up our love and give it a future; that thereby our sexual desire can be nurtured into a tenderness that has not forgotten passion. We may still believe that to try to use our freedom in this way is to be faithful to the love that arises in us or even the yearning that rises from us.”
Six, fruitfulness.

The ethical sexual relationship bears fruit. Traditionally, this has meant procreation. The procreation imperative, however, expressed a deeper underlying principle of fruitfulness.

The relationship must not close in on itself. The sexual encounter occurs behind closed doors, but not in a social vacuum. Making babies is one way to be fruitful, one way for the relationship to contribute to ongoing sustaining and building of the human community. There are other ways.
Raising adopted children is certainly fruitful, where the parents’ sexual relationship is an integral part of the loving household that makes for healthy child-rearing. Even without children in the picture at all, a romantic relationship may be fruitful.

Love brings new life to those who love, and that new life is to be brought outward to the nourishing of other relationships. A relationship of just love strengthens the partners, and encourages them in their work in the world. Thus is love fruitful and for the good of all.

Finally, we should note that sexual ethics isn’t just ethics for people in sexual relationships to follow. Sexual ethics also includes obligations that everyone in a society bears to affirm for its members as sexual beings. There are claims of respect that all of us are called to honor – respect for the many forms that human sexuality may take:
“single or married, gay or straight, bisexual or ambiguously gendered, old or young, abled or challenged in the ordinary forms of sexual expression, they have claims to respect from . . . the wider society.”
The ethic of Just Love requires not only that we bring certain principles to our own romantic and intimate relationships, but that we participate in making a society that honors and respects romantic and intimate relationships.

The principles of justice do not stop at the bedroom door. In fact, they go through that door in both directions: entering to inform the sexual encounter, and, strengthened and affirmed there, exiting to inform all our relations.

Justice, as Cornel West said, is what love looks like in public. Recognizing, however, that love can take corrupted forms – can be manipulative, domineering, and abusive -- we need to add that love must look like justice in private.

May it be so. Amen.

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