The Bible shares a sordid tale of twin boys, Jacob and Esau. The eldest, Esau, born slightly earlier than Jacob, ended up trading his birthright privileges to Jacob for a nondescript bowl of stew. Because of this action, Esau was forever branded as a profane man. Notoriously regarded as foolish for failing to recognize the value of his privileges and succumbing to the deceptive opportunistic ploy of his brother Jacob, the Bible reports that after that moment of weakness, Esau, “when he desired to inherit the blessing, was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” This story has always struck me as tragic for many reasons, but among them, Esau was simply hungry. He was attempting to satisfy a basic human need, and his brother took advantage of him in a moment of weakness.
And while it is easy to condemn Esau from a privileged vantage point of never having to be concerned about where my next meal is coming from, or to sit in judgment of his lack of discipline, patience, and general ability to delay gratification, my judgment of him only serves to indict my own daily behavior, as I do the same for far less pressing needs. Usually I eat when I’m bored, and I don’t know that there has ever been a time in my life when I have been genuinely hungry, certainly not on the level of Esau’s predicament. In my estimation this makes my collective bargaining for shiny trinkets in exchange for portions of my life quantitatively and qualitatively worse than Esau’s sins. Turns out, my appetites exceed those limited to food. I get hungry in all kinds of ways. . .and I eat perversely in attempts to satisfy the insatiable—an impossible task becomes more futile with each passing year.
My appetite is so pervasive. It encompasses all of my lusts, greed, fears, and passions which are too numerable and embarrassing to list. Suffice it to say, I lack discipline in so many areas of my life. These vices are complicated by my religious training that has conditioned me to condemn myself in ways perhaps only slightly exceeded by my condemnation of others. I am a hypocrite. And while this shouldn’t come as breaking news to anyone, it does continue to frustrate me. Like Esau, I’m hungry. I find myself in a perpetual state of famish, and yet when I feast with abandoned seeking to gorge myself on every available pleasure, I’m still not satisfied.
I do find solace in the fact that on more than one occasion, Jesus himself was condemned for eating and drinking in ways that drew the ire of religious types. Certainly, I’m no Jesus, and He’s no hypocrite, but I do find it comforting that Jesus did satisfy his appetite, often to the distain of the religious. On one occasion, Jesus and His disciples walked through a grain field and helped themselves to some heads of grain. This made the religious folks upset, as there was a religious rule against working on the Sabbath, even if only to feed oneself. In this instance, Jesus responded to His critics with the ultimate “Do you know who I am?” statement, reminding them that the Holy Day was made with Him in mind. “So like a boss, I do what I want!” (Ok Jesus didn’t really say this, but wouldn’t it have been cool if He did?)
I grew up in a tradition that impressed on us the importance of denying our appetites. Well every appetite it seems, except our actual appetite for food. Pentecostals, like most Christians in the American South, enjoy the Sunday buffet as if it were created especially with them in mind. In fact, the buffet has its America origins in Vegas, originally introduced as an innovation to keep patrons in the casinos. But over time it was widely adopted by many American food chains to offer more caloric bang for every hard-earned buck. But where certain appetites are fed to the point of gluttony, other appetites are discouraged, ignored, or otherwise starved. The problem is that repressed appetites have a way of emerging in inappropriate ways at inopportune times.
As a typical teenage boy my thoughts were beyond management at times, as were my physical responses to these thoughts. Even pedestrian Christian activities like singing in the youth choir took on a new level of weird tensions. Let’s just say my vocal cords weren’t the only strained organs. Upon reflection I now understand that the adolescent angst surrounding sex is something that everyone experiences. But what is problematic is how Christians deal with these issues as what is often unintentionally communicated are variations on a theme “Sex is horrible, bad, evil, dirty, so save it for marriage.” The church that I grew up in seemed obsessed at times with disproportionally calling out and humiliating those who engaged in consensual sexual relationships. I recall watching young people stand in front of the entire congregation and apologize for having sex. Of course, in addition to the public shaming of these individuals it communicated something nefarious about the gift of sex itself resulting in feelings of guilt that many reared in purity cultures carry into their marriages, resulting in a lifetime of misunderstandings, emotional stress, and lack of intimacy.
And by no means is my reflection here an indictment of traditional sexual perspectives or their value, but it is a condemnation of an overemphasis of such perspectives that shout louder and go further than the biblical texts that inform them. Nor should the church ever remain silent to those who have been sexually abused, assaulted, objectified or mistreated. However, many times what we intend to communicate and what is actually heard end up being worlds apart and the consequences may result in real harms.
For example, as a reflection of the Christian values that informed them, Victorian era newspapers would feature ads for male chastity belts, pills to dampen desire, and even metal clamps designed to contain any unwanted excitement. These items were advertised as treatments for “self-abuse.” Additionally, entire church doctrines were codified around the obscure Old Testament story of Onan. I’ll spare you the scandalous details (the story is in Genesis 38) but, spoiler alert, God kills Onan. When Pastors would share this story with me and other young men, the message we received, intentional or not was “Do like Onan, die like Onan.” Not to mention most of this instruction was reserved exclusively for men. The assumption was that women were only temptations to be avoided. Women could be objects of desire but never autonomous agents of desire. These philosophical underpinnings served to inform practices that would often dismiss women from the classroom because of what they were wearing but never address the boorish behaviors of men towards them.
The primal church did not shy away from such issues in a culture that was far more sexually liberal than our own, but rather confronted the culture and the church’s integration into it in with intentionality and helpfulness. Paul answered specific questions from the church at Corinth in open letters for all to read. While writing at a time that was hindered by many of the same kinds of prevailing attitudes that still plague the world, it may be argued that the way Paul addressed these issues and others like them was part of a larger Christian trajectory that will eventually arrive at its intended destination of truth, justice, and peace for all on a New Earth flourishing in righteousness.
As Paul encouraged believers in the ancient city of Colossae;
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such people also go into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”
This is equally good advice for those of us attempting to navigate twenty-first century America while still dealing with the specter Victorian and Enlightenment mores. Paul’s wisdom is a far better source to inform our behavior instead of the moralistic reflections of religious taboos. The former brings joy while the latter robs life of it. We should recognize that all these appetites are gifts from God to be enjoyed as they were intended. This is our birthright as the beloved of God, and far tastier than the unremarkable stew served up by mere religion.