How Skipping Movies with Sex Scenes Prepared Me for the Coronavirus

To my shame, the initial response I had to COVID-19 was selfish—something along the lines of, “This is no big deal because only the sick and elderly are in danger, and I am neither.”

Thankfully, a couple online articles shared by friends of mine helped me see the self-centeredness of my position. With the necessary course correction these articles provided, my family and I became willing participants in the self-quarantine precautions widely recommended by both church and government authorities. We found the adjustment to be far easier than it would have been a few years ago.

What happened a few years ago? I instigated a practice that we might call “sexual distancing.”

DISTANCING FROM SEXUALIZED ENTERTAINMENT

The connection might not make sense without some explanation. Several years ago, I experienced a paradigm shift in my approach to entertainment choices. Because we live in a pornified society, it used to be that my primary, and often sole, criteria for evaluating a film or TV show was whether or not its content would prove to be a stumbling block to me.
                                         
What I came to realize, however, was that my position, while not wrong in and of itself, was inadvertently narrow-minded. I had failed to also take into account the open secret of the entertainment industry: actors often experience discomfort, shame, trauma, and even coercion in the production of hypersexualized content, including nude and sex scenes. This truth is tragically illustrated by the examples of Margot Robbie, Jennifer Lawrence, Evangeline Lilly, and many, many others.

I first became aware of this reality through the work of pastor and author Wayne A. Wilson. In his book Worldly Amusements (see my review here), he shares his own transformation:

I went through a stage when I believed, as most Christians do today, that if a film is good enough, it doesn’t matter if some nudity or sex is thrown in. I didn’t like it, but I accepted it. I was wrong; it does matter. My approach was selfish. Though I didn’t want to see scenes like that, I was willing to tolerate them for a good time. I was placing my amusement, something completely unimportant, over my obligation to love, something of the highest importance. (111)

I too grew to find that the inconvenience of staying home from the theater on certain occasions paled in comparison to the opportunity to love my entertainer as I love myself. The “loss” of refusing to pay for movies and shows marred by actor exploitation is small; it doesn’t compare to the gain of experiencing and demonstrating more of God’s heart for His image bearers.

In short, I exchanged a self-focused paradigm for an others-focused paradigm, and the changes in my heart and life and marriage have been extraordinarily positive.

MARTIN LUTHER ON SOCIAL DISTANCING

It is this understanding that has prepared my heart to embrace the timeless exhortations of a famous figure from church history—someone intimately familiar with the dangers of a pandemic: Martin Luther. In one tract he wrote, Luther provides invaluable advice on the Christian’s role during a time of plague, when (as he puts it) “the rumor of death is to be heard in these and many other parts.”

Luther points out that the command of Scripture is, “‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ and in Matthew 7[:12], ‘So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.’” In fact, he says, “the command to love your neighbor is equal to the greatest commandment to love God, and that what you do or fail to do for your neighbor means doing the same to God.”

In light of these principles, Luther addresses two pitfalls for the Christian. The first is fleeing the coming sickness at the expense of your neighbor’s good: “Anyone who…forsakes [his neighbor] and leaves him to his misfortune becomes a murderer in the sight of God.”

At the moment, it doesn’t appear that this is the temptation we as the church are particularly susceptible to. If anything, our tendency is toward the second pitfall Luther addresses—what he describes as “tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague.”

This pitfall is unlike the first. It is not characterized by fear and anxiety so much as callous indifference. It is ignoring that we should, as Luther puts it, “shun persons and places wherever your neighbor does not need your presence” in order to halt, or at least slow, the spread of the disease.

Luther expands on this idea: “I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.” This is not the commitment to change your lifestyle ultimately to protect yourself. It is also not a willingness to change your lifestyle only if and when you know you’ve been infected. Rather, Luther espouses a commitment to change your lifestyle right now so that you avoid even the chance of unwittingly infecting and harming others.

Luther doesn’t use the term “social distancing,” but that is exactly what he is referring to. And just as he has strong words for those who forsake their neighbor and flee the plague, so he has strong words for those who fail to isolate themselves for the good of their neighbor. He says, “[I]f some are so foolish as not to take precautions but aggravate the contagion, then the devil has a heyday and many will die.” He adds that “this is a grievous offense to God and to man.”

THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP

Because my wife and I have been developing a more neighbor-centric posture in our movie watching habits, it wasn’t a hard pivot to change our recreational and dining out habits. Because we had already been preparing our hearts in the realm of entertainment (where others’ dignity is at stake), it was easier to instigate new habits in the realm of everyday life (where others’ physical lives are at stake).

Yes, social distancing comes at a cost—personal, professional, and financial. It’s not exactly a walk in the park (figuratively or literally). And yes, social distancing may seem like a superfluous chore especially if, statistically speaking, your physical health and strength might render COVID-19 nothing more than a minor inconvenience.

But the Christian’s duty is not to bemoan the inconveniences and sacrifices caused by the (physically) weaker brother or sister. We are not called to despise our neighbors who are vulnerable, but rather to protect them.

I recognize that not all sacrifices are created equal. There’s a huge difference between forgoing a trip to your favorite hamburger joint and forgoing your original wedding day plans. The former is barely worth mentioning, whereas the latter involves a justifiable amount of grief and disappointment.

Nevertheless, we would do well to heed the words and example of the Apostle Paul. In 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1, he explains that he would rather deny himself the most innocent luxury—or even what might seem an absolute necessity—for his entire life rather than lead a weaker brother or sister into sin and spiritual death. Should this not also hold true for us, in some form or fashion, when others are dependent upon us to keep from leading physical death to their doorstep?

The way of the Cross is not to let others die for our convenience. Quite the opposite. Disciples of Christ are called to take up their cross daily and follow Him—for love of God and neighbor. With the health and life of others at stake, surely we can sacrifice some of our freedoms for their benefit. Surely the little deaths we encounter as the result of lifestyle changes are worth avoiding the actual and literal death of our neighbors who are weak and sick and vulnerable.

We don’t lose our life in order to keep it lost; we lose it in order to find, and truly enjoy, it. In the counterintuitive economy of the kingdom of God, loss is often gain—in the long term, at least. Or, to paraphrase the words of our Savior in Matthew 19:29, anyone who forsakes conferences and parties and eating out and playdates and sports and frivolous travel shall receive a hundredfold blessings in return—if not in this life, then in the life to come.

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