This is the time of year when, for entertainment, my wife and I explore Oscar winning films that we missed (or had never even heard about) from the year before. Our first foray into this round of award-winning films was the Dallas Buyers Club (2013) for which Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor, and Jared Leto Best Supporting Actor. Based on a true story, it tells about the plight and triumph of Ron Woodruff, a blue-collar Texas electrician and devoted Rodeo hobbyist, whose diagnosis with AIDS and struggle for survival transforms him from a self-serving homophobe to a courageous advocate for the gay community, as he fights to start and protect a business that imports experimental HIV treatments that were not yet approved by the FDA.
While the movie is disturbing (and shocking) in its depiction of lewd sexual activity (both hetero- and homosexual), it does not portray these in a way that glorifies or trivializes sexual deviancy, but rather shows vividly its potentially destructive effects. And though Ron Woodruff is not portrayed as a Christian, his response to sexual brokenness – his own and that of others – is in some ways quite Christ-like.
Here are some lessons people who take seriously the Bible’s teachings on sexual morality can learn on dealing with sexual brokeness from this film:
1. Loving ‘the sinner’ may be very costly
Christians often employ the distinction ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ to explain how one can accept a person while rejecting their sin. While I believe this distinction is valid (because of the belief that a person has a core identity that is deeper, more fundamental than his desires) and possible to put into practice, I also believe that it entails a greater obligation than many people realize. Loving a ‘sinner’ is more than just passive tolerance (not harming, not excluding, etc.) but an active seeking of their good, which often requires sacrifice.
After experiencing for himself the benefits of experimental AIDS treatments, Ron Woodruff initially sees an enormous business opportunity in importing and selling these to AIDS patients, and profits tremendously at first (charging $400/month for membership to the “Buyers Club” to avoid the charge of illegally selling unapproved drugs directly). But as his business encounters resistance from powerful corporate and government interests, his battle becomes much more than about the money: it becomes about justice for his clients, most of which are powerless and destitute. He risks his own health and treasure to ensure that the AIDS patients get the help they need to prolong their lives.
When Christians say they need to ‘love the sinner,’ they should consider that doing so truly, in the manner of Christ, may require enormous personal sacrifice.
2. One’s own sexual brokenness should shape one’s relationship to ‘the sinner.’
When Woodruff learns of his condition, he denies it and is outraged at the doctor because he believes the doctor was insinuating that he himself was gay. He explodes with all the incendiary language used to describe gay people. language that was acceptable in the mainstream at that time. As he researches the disease, believing at first that it only afflicted gays and drug addicts, he discovers that it can also be spread through unprotected, heterosexual sex. His memories of his own reckless sexual dalliances flood his mind and in a dramatic moment he cries out in despair, suddenly recognizing the awful consequences of his sin. This awakening to his own sin represents a turning point in his attitude toward homosexuals. Soon after, he begins to experience cruel treatment from his heterosexual friends, as they make ignorant inferences from the fact of his disease to his sexual orientation. Clearly, his understanding of his sin, which was acceptable to him and his friends, helps him to identify with and have compassion for the sin of others, which was not.
Christians should not be ashamed to proclaim what the Bible teaches about sexuality. They should not cave to the pressure to deny or change the meaning of the Bible’s content to make it suitable to the norms of the times (otherwise how could they maintain reverence for the Bible as an authoritative book?). Doing so erodes the foundations of the religion and thus threatens the religion itself. At the same time, they should not regard other forms of sexual brokenness, as classified in Scripture, as somehow tolerable, or rationalize their own sexual sin by comparing it to others forms they consider more heinous. The gay community is right to call Christians out on such hypocrisy. While some Christian communities are consistent in their condemnation of all kinds of sin, others are not, turning a blind eye to adultery, pre-marital sex, etc. The result is a form of sexual self-righteousness where, like the Pharisees justifying himself by comparison to the tax collector (Luke 18), religious people justify their own sin by saying, “Well, at least I’m not like that other person.” The right response to others’ sexual brokenness is to have a deep self-awareness of one’s own that generates compassion towards others as ‘fellow sinners’ and humility with regards to oneself. This is the only way to avoid the kind of judging that Jesus speaks against in the Sermon on the Mount. This is not, as some misconstrue it, a warning against discerning between good and evil, and calling evil for what it is (not doing so is the opposite problem of hypocrisy – tolerating all sin including your own), but is about not condemning others as sinners, because we ourselves are under that same condemnation, apart from the work of Christ.
3. Defining the meaning of ‘morality’ is foundational
One of the main reasons, I believe, that the conservative religious community is losing out in the public debate over sexual orientation and ‘rights’ is that they have allowed the other side’s basic conception of morality to prevail and largely go unchallenged. That concept, simply put, is this: morality is that which does no harm (or in an inversion of the Golden Rule “don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you). This simple dictum is used to justify all manner of sexual deviancy with the logic that any kind of sexual behavior between two consenting adults is moral (or not immoral) because it does no harm.
I do not have time to deal with this comprehensively in this post, but to say that the Bible offers a much richer, powerful, beautiful concept of what makes something good, right, and just than simply avoiding hurting people. The main problem with this view of morality is not its basic assumption that immoral behavior causes harm, but that none of us are objective or honest enough to admit all the harmful consequences of our immoral behavior, especially when we enjoy said behavior. This is one of the moral lessons of the show Breaking Bad. While we the audience see plainly how destructive Walter White’s drug making enterprise is, he is blinded to it by his own pride, rationalizing it by imagining only good consequences coming from it. The AIDS epidemic is unmistakable empirical evidence that even sexual behavior between consenting adults can do much harm, but virtually no one will admit that their own sexually immoral behavior has detrimental effects. And if another tries to point it out to them, they can simply retreat behind skepticism (‘that’s didn’t happen because of what I did; you can’t prove that, other things caused that!).
If you end up watching this film (and I’m not necessarily commending it; it certainly does not fall under the category of ‘edifying’), and you happen to be a Christian, I hope that these lessons will be clear to you as well. If you have seen it, please critique or add to my commentary.