Saturday, March 09, 2013

Sex & Power and a self-diagnosed epidemics in religious community


While Internet Monk is running a series of pieces on scandals in the contemporary church this is not necessarily about those scandals.  Instead this is a sidelong rumination on conditions that are described as setting the stage in social and economic terms for certain kinds of scandals in a specific church.  While Christians will obviously and understandably want to frame the scandals in spiritual terms there are things that will ensue that can be framed in social and economic terms and it is those timebound and placebound elements that are of interest because different Christian communities define different things as a scandal or a crisis.  While some of Wenatchee's blogging associates have written extensively about the crisis of sexual abuse that is not reported among the neo-Reformed churches in the last decade Wenatchee has noticed that when given the time to voluntarily air grievances about what they consider to be a crisis the neo-Calvinists have, often enough, considered the problem with today's culture (over the last ten years) to be ... some kind of epidemic of singleness.  Let's get to that after a lengthy digression on some historical background to church careers and family options in Ireland over the last few centuries, though, shall we?

Martha of Ireland has written at some length on the subject of abuse scandals in the Catholic Church.  She provides a lengthy (if still curtailed) history of the Irish Catholics in relationship to England.  One of the things she mentions is the Catholic Emancipation Act. This act, in 1829, opened doors for middle-class Catholics to hold public office. Catholics could leave property to heirs instead of subdividing estates before death. 

When the Great Famine of the mid-19th century hit  Martha writes a bit about the significance of the famine and I'll quote selectively.

... Now, what is the point I am trying to make here in relation to the reeking mess of scandal in latter-day Ireland? It’s this: due to political and social circumstances, in pre-Famine Ireland the tendency was for early marriages and high fertility, particularly amongst the lower orders and the poor. Since Catholics could not inherit or will property from or to other Catholics, if a man had a farm or any sizeable amount of land, he would divide it up amongst all his sons. They, in turn, would further sub-divide what they had amongst their children and so forth. Because of the high yield food crop – the potato – this made it feasible for a man to marry and raise a family on a small patch of land; if you had an acre of potatoes and a pig, as the saying went, you could make a living. It wasn’t sustainable, of course, but the system staggered along pretty well until a crisis hit – a crisis like the Great Hunger.

After the Famine, this all changed. The poor, the farm labourers, the landless, were the ones who suffered most. This meant that those who had land wanted even more land for economic security. A farm had to be a certain size to be viable. And since Catholics could now inherit property, a man could leave all his land to his eldest son upon his death instead of sub-dividing it during his life. It also meant that to be marriageable, a woman had to bring a dowry with her.

What this meant was that one son (and maybe only one daughter, who had a dowry to marry on) were provided for. The rest of the children? There was always the emigrant ship, since there wasn’t the industrialised base to absorb their labour.

Or there was religion. Yes, I’m finally tying it all together.

Remember, Irish Catholicism has become very respectable in response to pressure of political and public opinion from the British government and public. Couple that with a tendency in 19th century Irish Catholicism towards Jansenism, which meant a very rigid and rigorous and unforgiving parade of public piety, and the fact that some earnest British officials did actually blame the Famine as the just punishment of a rebellious and ungrateful (and even worse, papist) Irish populace by a wrathful God, and the urge to prove our probity and respectability and innocence of wrongdoing was even more pressing.

So any kind of slip, any kind of perception of sin, was not just dishonouring yourself, it was bringing disgrace on your family and on your nation. It was proving that the Irish were drunken, lecherous, criminal, rebellious types whose only hope of salvation was to turn towards becoming good British subjects and adopting the Protestant religion. Poverty was not a misfortune, it was a crime. And crime itself –- unforgiveable!

On the other hand, having a priest or a nun or a religious brother in the family brought good repute, gave the family high standing in public respect, and was a pledge of virtue in this life and heavenly reward in the next.

So a combination of lack of opportunity, lack of a mature understanding of sexuality, and social pressure meant that a lot of men and women who were not suited for the religious life entered monasteries and convents and teaching orders and seminaries. If they found, in the middle of their novitiate, that they were unsuited, there was little they could do. The disgrace of leaving – of being a “spoiled priest” or a nun who dropped out – meant that their families would be shamed and that they would have to emigrate anyway, with little or no formal education or trade to fall back on. So by default, they stayed where they were.

And since the State was not operating the range of social services we now expect them to run under the umbrella of public service, it was the Church and the religious orders who took up the slack. So untrained people were given responsibility and authority that they didn’t know how to handle in a culture where suffocating social conformity and outward respectability was the norm, and any deviation was seen as meriting firm discipline.

I don't mention these things to revisit the interminable Protestant/Catholic debates. I bring it up as a matter of observation about the economic opportunities and restrictions Catholics dealt with in Ireland in certain areas of land options and marriage.  And here's why.

It's hard to escape the observation that among various types of Reformed bloggers and cultural pundits that in the last ten years no shortage of blogging and bloviating about the "epidemic of singleness" happened.  In many cases the diagnosis is that young men just won't "man up" and go take wives to the glory of Jesus.  Maybe feminism will get blamed for giving women unrealistic expectations about their biological clocks and the degree of career options they want before they try to have a baby in a panic as middle-age looms.  I've seen that happen, but for the most part it gets back to the young men having this need to man up.  As a certain preacher liked to put it if you get the young men you get everything, the culture, the women, the children, the money, the power to shape the future legacy in your area and if you don't get the young men you get nothing.

So that epidemic of single guys in their 20s or 30s who won't grow up is a big old crisis that has to get remedied.  How?  Well, you just tell them they're the problem and that they need to fix it already.  They know the solution because you tell them it's to love Jesus, get a real job, take a wife and make babies for Jesus' fame.

Curiously enough the middle-aged guys who are most likely to get on this soapbox benefited from the lending practices and housing market of a decade ago.  Building your stump speech on what you got to work before the housing bubble is building your stump speech on a set of circumstances that don't exist anymore. 

Ten to fourteen years ago the big spiel at Mars Hill was living in community.  What that meant was a bunch of young couples with foundational influence in the nascent church bought houses they probably couldn't have afforded on their two incomes, rented out every possible spare room to singles in the church, and used the revenue of that rental matrix to cover basic expense of the mortgage while the newlyweds built a nest egg to meet expenses on their own terms once babies emerged and the single tenants could be sent on their merry (and ideally married) ways.  Living in community was in some practical sense a shorthand for dispersion of costs that young couples couldn't afford more than a decade ago.  It was all good because over time earning power would grow. That was then, now is now.

And now is after the real estate bubble of 2008.  When economic times get rough the age of first marriage gets later and later.  Correlation doesn't always indicate causation but has any Christian cultural pundit noticed that the last time the age of first marriage got so late was during the Great Depression?  That might be worth noting.  It's not that people don't find each other attractive, personally appealing, and sexually desirable.  It happens, it's just that marriage and attaining that nuclear family has become more and more financially difficult.  In the early years of Mars Hill the Driscolls were known to rent their spare rooms to three or four single guys.  Wenatchee has met a few of them, for what that's worth. 

The "epidemic of singleness" or "adultescence" may not simply be because young guys won't "man up" but because there are more young people than jobs for them to do in the American economy.  What if a generation that got used to living on credit and trading tomorrow for today sunk a chunk of the jobs that today's young people could have had?  Whatever the moral problems of whatever "hook-up culture" is are not mutually exclusive to an economic climate in which people find each other sexually desirable but probably can't go build nuclear families without help from a panoply of programs that have existed since The New Deal.  Some of the middle-aged pundits who are opining about men in their 20s not manning up now may not realize that when they were that age they benefited from a set of lending and real estate options that today's young guys won't have access to.

Over generations Protestants and some progressive Catholics have proposed that if priests were simply allowed to marry that sex scandals would disappear.  Doubtful.  Anyone who has kept track of the scandals associated with sex in evangelical settings would find it improbable that merely letting Catholic priests marry would prevent sexual abuse from happening.  Many sexual predators may be married and have marriages that are a suitable cover from which to prey upon others.  The Eastern Orthodox permit a man to marry before taking orders and that may help some but it's impossible that the Orthodox scene is completely without sex scandals, either. 

But Wenatchee's not going to deal with that, rather Wenatchee's considering that sex scandals are no less legion in evangelical Protestantism in some parts.  What the difference is between institutional suppression in one realm and a lack of documented abuse in another may simply be a difference of the Catholics having better bureaucratic tools to measure what's already there that Protestants may sweep under the rug.  Sexual abuse can happen in any institution, whether schools or the military or hospitals.  It's more scandalous when it happens in settings where people are steadily enjoyed to flee fleshly lusts because while a person may like to have a lot of sex and work in the medical profession the requirements to manage risks doesn't include eternal reward or punishment in a lot of medical settings.

Here's an idea for consideration for the neo-Calvinists, go dig through economic histories and ask to what degree the American middle-class nuclear family and "working class" family existed prior to the New Deal.  To what degree has the American suburban family come about through the panoply of New Deal programs set in place before the Second World War?  What about removing the gold standard?  What about fiddling with interest rates?  What about these things existing in tandem with fractional reserve banking?  What about the G. I. Bill for education?  What about the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act, give or take wording in the title?  During the last few years in which Wenatchee has done job hunting it was an interesting discovery how much of the welfare net exists for families.  It's not as though I've never come across people even inside MH who were on food stamps or needed state assistance. I've heard of a case or two in which a family man could not seriously consider taking a job at Mars Hill because if he did he'd end up on food stamps, he didn't want that, and so he looked for work somewhere else.  At the tippy top where Black Dynamite fights Richard Nixon money may be plentiful but on lower rungs in the employment ladder non-profits are not places where employees roll in money. 

And as I've intimated and hinted at throughout this blog the idea that 20-somethings can get married and start nuclear families is not economically realistic in most cases.  It wasn't even how things played out in the earliest days of Mars Hill and this many of us saw directly as the church was taking shape.  It was the expanded informal approach of extended family in which blood and friendship might overlap that a lot of marriages were able to thrive while the 20-something men and women got their footing secure enough to really own their houses and not just live in houses that were only financially feasible for couples who were renting every spare room to whomever they felt they could trust. 

In the neo-Calvinist scene I'd hear it said that Paul's instructions about marriage in 1 Cor 7 are conditional on a time of persecution, most likely.  We don't know for sure, so the presentation went, but the praxis is that unless you're smuggling Bibles into China you should be married.  But what if the "present distress" was a famine?  Then Paul's argument becomes a practical consideration, if you live in a time and place where financial resources and food are in short supply it may be wise to not marry unless you absolutely cannot prevent yourself from "coming together".  Some people abstain from sex not because they haven't given any thought to married life or attraction but because it wouldn't be financially responsible to seek marriage or appropriate certain famous privileges within married life in a given economic setting. 

In light of sex scandals even among neo-Calvinist churches that have come to light in the last few years it hardly seems like the most besetting epidemic to be dealt with in the new Calvinist scene has really been the old epidemic of singleness.  The last ten years the neo-Calvinists may have been barking up the wrong tree.


Martha said...

I'm very flattered to have given you something to use as a springboard. Thank you for quoting me, though I am now terrified to be considered any kind of authority on Irish history and culture.

So, as we were speaking of the Famine and of marriage, here is a poem:

by Eavan Boland

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking – they were both walking – north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

David L said...

How much of this issue is due to unrealistic expectations? Should a couple who are 22 to 26 expect to find a 2000sf house and drive new cars?

I didn't. My parents didn't. But it seems that many these days expect it. Or that the 30 + somethings who were able to do it expect that everyone can.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

David L, I think it IS due to unrealistic expectations, and I think it may be an unrealistic expectation unique to the primary and secondary descendents of Baby Boomers. The Baby Boom generation benefited from the US coming off the Depression via World War 2 and a panoply of New Deal programs that benefited G. I.'s allowed for the development of the nuclear family in a way that, played out in my generation, may have inspired middle-aged people teaching today's 20-somethings to reach for something that was a freak occurence in terms of economic possibilities.

To reframe this in terms of neo-Calvinist teaching, some of these guys think "I did it so by God's grace you should be able to man up and do it, too." forgetting that grace still means unmerited favor. In some cases that came in the form of housing loans these guys wouldn't have qualified for in any other time period. :)

David L said...

WWII win, yes. New deal programs, Somewhat.

Biggest thing was US was only really industrialized country still standing. So for 20 to 30 years we got to supply the rest of the world with stuff. Until they didn't need us. And we still haven't figured out how to run the economy for just us. Oh, we still sell lots of stuff to other countries, (mostly airplanes if you're counting by $$$). but we also buy more than we sell. We've been on the bad side of this equation for a very long time.

An all these people (NeoCals and others) saying I did it so suck it up and do it too are just delusional.

I think we mostly agree on the situation just not fully on how we got here.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Airbus was not good news for Boeing on our side of the US. When Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas did their merger thing more than a decade ago I was not thrilled by the prospect that the aerospace industry seemed to be consolidated into a big juggernaut in which real competition would be stymied. Fixed local monopolies weren't exactly great for Germany in WWI but I may be rusty on that history after so many years away from the topic. Even on airplanes we've got some decline and it doesn't matter what great innovations happen on the DARPA side of things where that's supposed to stay classified.

We've outsourced a lot of jobs that twenty years ago were options for local employment and there are a variety of jobs that are taken up by illegal immigrants that pay too low for official Americans to want to do.

Yeah, I think we mostly agree on the situation and differ on how we got here, but even that may be in emphasis.

Anonymous said...

It may be more than economics at work.

I'm a Christian female who has never married and am in my early 40s now. I fully expected to be married to a Christian by the time I got to my mid 30s, but it did not happen.

I was raised Baptist but have never been a Calvinist - this prolonged, unchosen singleness is epidemic among all of Christianity today, not just 20 something Neo Calvinists.

I am not the only one. There are many other Christian women around my age and older, some in their 30s now, and the the same thing is happening to them.

Another thing at work is that there are more unmarried Christian women than there are unmarried Christian men, and/or the males are not going to church, and we Christian ladies are usually told "church is the place to go to meet Mr Right".

We can't meet Mr Right at church and get married if he is not there.

It is common in Christian circles to teach young ladies when they are teens that if only they wait on the Lord and trust him for a spouse and have faith, God will send them a spouse.

I was told this as well, and it didn't work for me. I'm still single past age 40.

Thank you for mentioning that marriage does not make people immune from committing sexual sin.

I am celibate myself.

I get irritated or offended at how most churches or preachers offer their sexual purity lectures to singles, as though we unmarried Christians are all ravaging promiscuous trollops, or they behave as though married people are above reproach on sexual matters, when a lot of them have affairs or admit to looking at sleazy material online.