Sex in Public

2 Samuel 11:1-15 (Eighth Sunday After Pentecost)

So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.

For the next two Sundays, churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary will hear the familiar story of David and Bathsheba—a cautionary tale often invoked to warn against the dangers of sexual temptation in our own time and/or to demonstrate the humanness of the oft-idealized King David in his.

It’s interesting to note the military context of David’s sexual conquest. It is the time of year, we are told, when “kings go out to battle.” But David, after dispatching his general, Joab, and all his officers and regiments to the front lines, “remained at Jerusalem.” While his troops are ravaging the Ammonites and besieging the city of Rabbah, King David—bored and gazing about the neighborhood—sets out to ravage and besiege the married Bathsheba, a woman of the Bible like so many others: silent and helplessly complicit in her own victimization.

The pregnancy that results from the illicit affair sets off a complex, immoral scheme to get David off the paternal hook. But because this story of adulterous sex is framed militarily, the solution David proposes—one that begins dreadfully and ends violently—is understood by him to be consistent with a maxim of ancient (and contemporary) military culture: do whatever is necessary for victory. As Walter Brueggemann has noted, “the premise of violence [in the framing of the sexual story] legitimates the violence of sexuality, the violence of cover-up, the violence of required killing.”

It will take Nathan, in next week’s installment of the story, to reveal that “the thing David had done was evil in the eyes of Yahweh.” Nathan’s wise counsel will pierce David’s arrogance and his stunning ignorance of what his violence, in its many forms, has wrought.

The David and Bathsheba story begins with the lovely phrase: “In the spring of the year.” (Makes you think it’s going to be about lambs and singing birds, doesn’t it?). We are now in the summer of the year 2009 and the news of the sexual exploits of powerful men is as disheartening as ever. When the infidelities of famous politicians become common knowledge, public discourse resorts inevitably to the private language of lust, ambition, greed, and hubris. And because these media-hyped revelations are always politicized for partisan gain, the transgressor-adulterer du jour is either a fallible human being (if the guy is one of your own) or a betrayer and perverter of all things decent (if the scoundrel belongs to the other political party).

But to pose such matters as either public or private (or both), is to miss what social critic Wendell Berry calls the “indispensible form that can intervene between public and private interests”—that of community.

We might think that talking about sex-and-community doesn’t get us very far from the sex-in-public problem, but for Berry, sexual love is the heart of community life (an arguable point, perhaps, but stick with me here). By “community” Berry means, in short, an interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature sustained by the virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. (The preacher dealing with the texts this week might think here of the community of the ekklesia).

Within this kind of setting, sexual love, Berry insists, is the force that “connects us most intimately to the Creation, to the fertility of the world, to farming and the care of animals. It brings us into the dance that holds the community together and joins it to its place.”

In “public,” sex is a commodity—sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively (a way to sell more magazines, say, or to increase cable TV revenues). In community, sexual love is a “momentous giving” which depends, as Berry says, on the practice of love as opposed to the mere feeling of love. And the practice of love depends upon a range of other embodied habits—truthtelling, for instance, as well as friendship and accountability.

But feelings, as we know, are what we tend to prize most in the therapeutic culture we live in. In public, politicians air their private feelings, sometimes seeking forgiveness; sometimes just hoping for the chance to rescue their careers and reputations from the brink of ruin. We may be disgusted by the spectacle of it all, but it’s hard to turn away from the tearful, remorseful, feeling politician brought low.

King David’s private feelings certainly were the beginning of his very public troubles, and the violence he undertook to save his political skin was born of a view of bodies (women’s and men’s) as dispensable and disposable. That God had called into being a covenant community—Israel—to be the means through which all of Creation would glimpse divine love and glory was a truth David would learn in time. But this week and next we see the monumental failings of man consumed entirely with self-love and personal glory.

For our own time, the story of David and Bathsheba ought to function less as a vehicle for delivering isolated prohibitions about sex and more as a parable for our failure to locate sexual fidelity within a shared way of living and loving that resists all forms of violence and coercion, and that communicates something of the God who created us for community with himself and with one another. This kind of community, sustained by trust, patience, respect, friendship, and forgiveness—that is, by the practice of love—is what makes such fidelity not only intelligible but possible.

4 Responses to “Sex in Public”

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  1. Seth says:

    Hi Debra,

    I have been following the Ekklesia Project since I began following the seasons of the church last year and I find your reflections on liturgical readings a good way for me to ruminate on the seasons and their themes. So thank you and keep it up. I look forward to them very much.

    I am trying to muster up the resources (both inner and intellectual) to write a paper on marriage and wendell berry's fiction. I'm not sure if you are familiar with his novels, but they pretty much describe variations on the accountability of sex and marriage within a community and how it flourishes and corrodes the individuals and the "membership."

    Do you have any suggested readings to fill out this idea both on Wendell Berry and theologically? I would appreciate any help you could lend and thanks again for the reflections.

    -seth

  2. Debra Dean Murphy says:

    Hi Seth,

    In case you didn't get my earlier message (I've been in transition lately and my email has been iffy), I'll mention here that I drew mostly on Berry's "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community." My books are still packed up so other sources don't come quickly to mind–though you might find some help in the poetry ("The Country of Marriage" for sure).

    Brian Volck, Joel Shuman, and Brent Laytham are fellow EP endorsers who have delved into Berry's writings extensively. They could help direct you to other places in his work, I'm sure.

    Hope this helps a little. Thanks for the words of affirmation!

    Peace,
    Debra

  3. Chad Brooks says:

    Dealing with sexuality in a communal context is an arena where many in the church might be afraid to delve. But this idea seems to fit well in a non/de-churched setting, and I know my neighborhood (and church) has its issues regarding sexuality.

    In a place that has pretty much lost hope, I see sex used as a method to garner attention and self-worth. It is also seen as a way for young girls to break out of adolescence and use pregnancy as leverage to get out of school and to "grow up".

    I like the comparison between the military language and Berry. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. To the commenter starting a project on Wendell Berry’s fiction and its depiction of marriage: I suggest For Fidelity, by Catherine Wallace, as an excellent non-fiction work on your theme.

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