‘1 in 20 adults are sexually attracted to children’.
The speaker behind this statement – a child protection expert – is explaining to a roomful of Anglican Pastors and gospel workers the horrifying reality of child sexual abuse. Like many organisations impacted by child abuse, churches have ensured children are better protected. And according to the speaker, it begins by understanding the mind of an abuser.
‘Not all of these adults act on this desire: some are disgusted by it’, she continues. ‘But others are not and try to gratify it: whether by consuming child exploitative material, or abusing children’.
It’s a confronting talk, and I feel sick in the stomach (I’m sure I’m not the only one). Paedophilia is one of those topics that gives us moral revulsion. Whether paedophiles carry out their abuse in childcare centres, schools, homes, or churches, we Westerners are outraged by such abuse.
We instinctively recoil. We get angry. We demand paedophiles are brought to justice.
It’s one of the moral certainties across the West.
But here’s something disturbing I’ve learned: such outrage against paedophilia is not universal, neither through history nor through many cultures around the world today. Christian author Glen Scrivener has written about this in his latest book, ‘The Air We Breathe – How we all came to believe in Freedom, Kindness, Progress, and Equality’. As the title suggests, the West has come to believe in specific moral values, which we now accept as normal, including that paedophilia is morally repugnant.
But it wasn’t always this way, as Scrivener explains:
1. The Ancient Graeco-Roman world tolerated and even celebrated paedophilia
The ancient Graeco-Roman world was sophisticated in so many ways.
It gave us philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. The Romans built an empire that spanned the Mediterranean. They built buildings and roads that stand to this day.
And along with that, they practised paedophilia. Scrivener writes:
‘In the ancient world sex with boys and girls was not merely tolerated; it was celebrated by writers like Juvenal, Petronius, Horace, Strato, Lucian, and Philostratus. The word they used was ‘pederasty’: love of children.’
Today we think paedophilia is self-evidently wrong – what could be more obvious? But like so much of the morality we take for granted here in the West – human rights, equality, freedom – it is not obvious; it relies on a particular view of humanity and sex.
So what changed? How did Western culture move from celebrating paedophilia to being morally outraged by it?
2. Jesus and his followers revolutionised the ancient (and thus modern) world’s view of sex
While much of the ancient world saw sex as a bodily urge that people (read: males) had the right to relieve as they saw fit (with high-born males having the most freedom in this area), Jesus’ sexual ethic upended the ancient world’s view of sex.
In Jesus’ view, sex was exclusively for marriage, between a husband and his wife (Matthew 19:1-12).
It was mutual and consensual (1 Corinthians 7:1-6). And it was a way for a married couple to serve one another like Christ serves his church (Ephesians 5:22-33).
Sex – even sexual desire – outside of marriage was condemned by Jesus (Matthew 5:28).
And Jesus showed the dignity of children in the way he cared for them. In the strongest possible ‘tie a millstone around your neck and be thrown into the sea’ kind of way, Jesus condemned any that would harm children (Matthew 18:6).
This teaching was alien and revolutionary to the ancient world.
And so, when it came to the ancient world’s view of sex with children, Scrivener writes:
Christians were uniformly disgusted by the practice and called it by a different name – paidophthoros: destruction of children. What the classical world called love, Christians called abuse, “thereby construing all sexual contact with the young as an act of corruption”. In the reign of the Christian emperor Justinian (527-565), pederasty was outlawed and could be prosecuted well after the abuse took place. Here church and state – preaching and legislation – worked together as a one-two punch against the sexualisation of children.
3. But isn’t it obvious that paedophilia is wrong? Only to those influenced by Jesus
Today, of course, the Western world condemns paedophilia. But it’s because of Jesus, as Scrivener points out:
The evil of child sexual abuse represents perhaps the moral certainty of our day. But our day needs setting in historical context. We view things on this side of the Jesus movement: “the single greatest breakthrough against child abuse”. Before and without Jesus, it is not always clear to people [that paedophilia is wrong].
For abuse to be abuse we have to believe certain things: that bodies should be treated as temples; that sex is sacred; that children are valuable; and that the powerful should not exploit the weak but serve them. These values constitute the straight line against which we judge [a paedophile’s] actions as crooked. But such values are by no means universal. They are not the way that the animal kingdom operates, and they are not the presumptions of other human societies. They are Christian beliefs.’
4. But what about child abuse in the church?
Many will rightly point out that abuse has occurred among Jesus’ followers.
Here in Australia, we’ve had a Royal Commission (investigation) into child abuse within churches, with several Christian pastors (and priests in the Catholic church) found to have abused children under their care.
Some of Christ’s followers have fallen tragically short of Jesus’ teaching.
And that’s the point.
Whether Christian or non-Christian, we’re upset whenever we hear of children being abused. But we’re upset because we now hold to Jesus’ sexual ethics about child abuse. In other words, being upset at child abuse within the church is a Christian thing to do. The ancients wouldn’t have cared about your local kid’s church worker or the neighbourhood childcare worker abusing children. To the ancients, paedophilia was a ‘nothing to see here’ act.
Seeing paedophilia as morally evil is the ‘air we breathe’, thanks to Jesus. But this raises an urgent question: what happens to a culture that starts losing Jesus’ influence?
5) With Jesus leaving the Western Building, will paedophilia keep being condemned?
If 1 in 20 adults are sexually attracted to children, and Christianity loses its grip on the moral imagination of Westerners – being replaced by another sexual ethic like Queer Theory – it’s hard to see paedophilia remaining condemned by the mainstream.
I don’t see this happening soon (although it might – think about how quickly society has adopted other aspects of Queer Theory, like gender fluidity). But let’s face it: We’re living through another sexual revolution right now, and it sees Jesus’ teaching on sex as not good, but oppressive.
Time will tell where this will all lead.
Update: A friend emailed me this journal article, which aims to explore new names for paedophilia that have less stigma attached to them.
Article supplied with thanks to Akos Balogh. Akos is the Executive Director of the Gospel Coalition Australia. He has a Masters in Theology and is a trained Combat and Aerospace Engineer.