I was reading an advice column the other day, in which a mother wrote in to say that she overheard her young adult daughter speaking to her teenage sister about her (the older's) sex life, and about having casual sex with multiple partners. The mother was very troubled by her daughter's behavior, and by her sharing it with her younger sibling, wondered what to do. The advice columnist told her, basically, this was none of her business and that other than reminding her girls about (physically) safe sex, she would have to take her worries and 'be uncomfortable about them in private.' I have to admit that this advice perplexed me. Have we come to a place where it is not permissible to say 'I think this behavior is wrong', or unhealthy, or at least not consistent with my values? In a world where we are increasingly careful to respect people as they are and where they are, and where there is such concern about 'shaming' others, have we not left space to be able to discern our behavior, especially within our families and communities?
Religion, and especially Christianity, has a reputation for being moralistic, for harshly condemning certain actions or even certain people. There is much to repent of when we use our beliefs to tell others there is something wrong with them, or that they should not be who God is calling them to be. However, this does not mean that Christianity has nothing at all to say about our behavior, or does not offer us a framework around which we can consider our life choices in light of what it means to love God and love our neighbor. And I think there are situations in which we are called to bravely say, 'this behavior does not seem to be loving.'
As Christians, I think we are not so much called to worry about who we love, but much more so to be concerned about how we love. Everywhere and always, but especially in intimate relationships where there is so much more possibility of pain. And with due respect to St. Paul and St. Benedict, we have some idea of what loving relationships ideally look like: mutual, respectful, stable, kind, forgiving, self-giving, trustworthy. This is what we strive for in our relationship with God, others, and ourselves. This is how we weigh the spiritual health of our relationships.
Of course, not all of us live up to this ideal always (or ever!), and of course, not everyone is a Christian, but I think one thing we may be losing as fewer practice religion of any kind is the idea that there are any boundaries at all to our behavior, other than what feels good and right to us. Unfortunately, we are not very good moral authorities all by ourselves, especially when it comes to our own comfort or pleasure. And so I think it is not a bad thing to be able to ask ourselves, 'how close does this relationship come to manifesting love: for God, for others, for ourselves?' Or in the words of former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, 'how do we intend for this relationship to reflect our relationship with Christ?'
'Love first, then do anything you please.' This is a beautiful summation of Christian theology by Augustine of Hippo, who did a lot of both. I think it is easy enough to focus on the second half of that sentence and not on the first - how is what I am doing about love?
And within a community, or a family, I think it is perfectly appropriate to ask that question of each other. I would have advised the mother above that it would be very loving to talk with both her daughters about what was making her uncomfortable - that this behavior did not fit in with her own understanding of what is spiritually healthy. Physical safety is not the only concern in relationship - emotional and spiritual safety factor in, too. Being able to talk about this is part of our relationship with God.
'All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial', Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, a few chapters before he more famously says, 'love is patient, love is kind...'. We can do anything we please as Christians. But when we love first, we may not want to do everything.