"Peace be with you! This week we're sitting down with Rev. Austin Adkinson and theologian J.D. Mechelke to dive into the tricky topic of polyamory and Christianity. How is the Christian church handling shifting values around sexuality and non-traditional relationships? What about the church's bad track record with sex positivity? And what the heck is a sword drill?
J.D. R. Mechelke (he/him/his) J.D. R. Mechelke currently lives in Minneapolis, MN. He graduated from Augsburg University in Minneapolis, MN with a B.A. in Youth and Family Ministry. Currently, he is pursuing an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He currently serves as High School Youth Minister at an ELCA church in the twin cities. When J.D. isn’t studying Lutheran and Queer theologies he enjoys drinking beer on the deck and paddling with his partner Andrew in Minnesota’s BWCAW.
Rev. Austin Adkinson is the pastor of Haller Lake UMC in Seattle. He is a member of the leadership teams of United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus and the Western Methodist Justice Movement and was part of the 2016 General Conference delegation from the PNW Conference. Beyond the church they serve on the board of Seattle’s Pan-Eros Foundation (formerly the Foundation for Sex Positive Culture) where he has been helping launch the foundation’s Consent Academy (www.consent.academy). "
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Jase: On this episode of the Multiamory podcast, we're talking about polyamory, sexuality, and Christianity. We have two very special guests; Rev. Austin Adkinson, a Methodist pastor in Seattle, and J.D. Mechelke, who is a youth minister and theology grad student in Minnesota. We're talking with them about their takes on the current state of affairs regarding sex, and multi-partner relationships in the Christian church. Super exciting I've been wanting to do this topic with some actual theologians and pastors as guests for quite a while, so I'm really excited that we've found not just one but two people who are interested in coming on the show to discuss it.
Emily: Prepare to have your mind blown, I know mine was.
Jase: It's a very educational one for Emily. All right, with that, let's get to the interview.
Emily: All right. Well, Austin, J.D., thank you so much for taking the time to join us on the show today.
J.D. Mechelke: Absolutely my pleasure.
Dedeker: I guess we'll do this one at a time, can both of you introduce yourselves and let our listeners know a little bit more about who you are and what it is that you do? I guess I'll just call from the head of the class, let's start with Austin.
Rev. Austin: Alphabetical order gets me every time.
Dedeker: Exactly. [laughs]
Rev. Austin: I'm Austin Adkinson, I am a United Methodist pastor in Seattle. In the church world in addition to leading a congregation in North Seattle, I'm part of a leadership of the United Methodist queer clergy caucus, which is working for a more inclusive church. Also outside the church world I'm on the board of directors at the Paneras foundation here in Seattle and specifically, I'm mostly working with our consent academy project which is a new launch in the last, year and a half or so, where we're working on bringing consent education to a variety of different groups.
Jase: Very cool. How about you JD?
J.D. Mechelke: I'm JD Mechelke and I'm from Minneapolis Minnesota, I'm a grad student in theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul. I'm also a high school youth minister at a Lutheran church, a liberal Lutheran church here in the Twin Cities. My current projects are around sexuality education with youth in the church-
Jase: Is that a book, or a paper?
Emily: What does that mean?
J.D. Mechelke:- and also creating a kinky doctrine of sin, is my biggest project right now. It's just a long paper.
Jase: I'd love to talk more about that at some point.
J.D. Mechelke: What I'm doing is I'm putting the Christian symbolism into different roles, ethics in the BDSM community.
Emily: did you say the word Christian symbols? What is that?
J.D. Mechelke: Yes, it's like a theological jargon for the narrative of the Bible, the things that you hear. Like Shakespeare, people know these quotes from Shakespeare.
Emily: Some of us do
J.D. Mechelke: People know these quotes from the Bible, right? We have these ideas of what Christianity is within our culture and within western literature.
Dedeker: Okay, I see.
J.D. Mechelke: Those kinds of themes-
Jase: I think Emily was imagining runes.
Emily: I was. I was like, "There are different symbols?"
J.D. Mechelke: -it's Christian symbols.
Emily: I don't know, Austin, you looked like you had something to say
J.D. Mechelke: I don't know if that's helpful or not.
Rev. Austin: Yes, I just wanted to say to JD that there's an article I should point him to that just was written by a friend of mine, they're at Clairmont, that is right in that area so it's something that you should be aware of. We can talk about that after.
Dedeker: Let me just say I just have to interject, to say that this is so exciting. It's a first time for us to have multiple guests, if I had my way we would have five different faith leaders on a panel that would be recording right now, that'd be a little bit of chaos for a podcast, but it's just really nice to be able to at least get some variety of perspective here.
Jase: EM, as our designated person who doesn't know anything about any of this, can you start us off?
Emily: Yes, I'm definitely as you can see and anyone who knows anything about this podcast knows that I'm like the noob when it comes to all things like religion or Christianity or the Bible or anything. From my super limited knowledge, it does seem like things like the nuclear family or monogamy or fidelity are all super important parts of a religious lifestyle, so I don't really understand how something like polyamory, which for all intents and purposes kind of seems like in direct opposition to all those things or parts of all those things, how would polyamory in any way be okay to a religious person, let alone pastors?
Dedeker: We stumped them already [laughs] right off the gate.
Rev. Austin: Just straight for the jugular. No, I would say it's absolutely a minority viewpoint within most of Christianity today. No one person can speak for all of Christianity, there are lots of different flavors and varieties, but even within each denomination there's actually very little discussion around polyamory in most churches. Most sexual ethics that are being debated in most denominations right now are just around homosexuality. At least, in my denomination the prohibitions that we're fighting against are self-avowed practicing homosexuals, the people who want to be discriminatory don't even know the range of things that they should be trying to prohibit.
Homosexuality is the level of debate that's happening right here. There are a lot of pastors though that have a lot more nuanced perspectives and there are a lot of pastors out there that will work with people where they are and not see this as a primary emphasis. There were a lot of layers to the question and I'm not really sure I'm going to hit all of them, but the nuclear family was kind of where it kind of got started as a lead.
That is certainly a value that a lot of Christianity has held on to. Its origins are not really something that comes from any of the passages directly from Jesus or from other places. In fact, most of the places where family stuff and gender roles within the family come in are much later writings that got attributed to the Apostle Paul after the fact and were really rooted in the Roman household code, so it was a secular basis for the nuclear family idea being passed along. As Christianity reached into beyond Judaism and into the more Hellenistic world that value and the patriarchy stuff kind of crept into some of the writing, but we're actually coming up on a lectionary cycle. Emily, for you the lectionary word, and maybe even for evangelicals.
Dedeker: For us too because that just sailed right over me.
Jase: No, I got it.
Dedeker: You got it?
Emily: I thought you were saying Electionary. I voted.
Rev. Austin: Yes, you voted today. [laughs]
Emily: That's not what you were saying
Rev. Austin: The lectionary is a scheduled set of readings that churches do on a three-year cycle to hit most of the bible in church readings over the course of three years, so most mainline churches are going to be preaching on similar scriptures any given Sunday.
Rev. Austin: So this coming Sunday, one of the scriptures is actually about Jesus' teaching in a group and somebody says, "Hey, Jesus, your mother and your brothers are here, don't you want to go talk to them?" He says "Who is my mother? Who is my brother? All those who--" I'm going to butcher the exact quote here because I'm not that kind of Christian, but basically saying, "All those who honor my Father in heaven are my--" The translations I would use are brothers and sisters in Christ, but I think the actual Greek is brothers.
So Jesus was actually saying our family is those who we are doing faithful love and working toward the kingdom of God with. That's not to say that Jesus was anti-family, although his mother and his brothers probably would've been hurt to hear him say that. It was a much more expansive idea of who we love and care for. It's a large part of Jesus' message. It's absolutely true that most of Christian history has focused on nuclear family, but I would say that's a secular value that got religified? Is that a word?
Dedeker: It is now.
Rev. Austin: Rather than the other way around. There's a lot of Christianity in general, and a lot of assumptions about what it means to be Christian that have come through the historical thing and rather than what Jesus was really focused on. So, when I do things that challenge people's concepts of what the Bible really says or doesn't say, you have to look a lot at the context of what each piece of writing; what was happening around it and not just take it face value. I bring a lot of nuance into it, that's how I get at it.
There's nothing in the Bible that's going to say polyamory is good because there's no such phrase for that, but challenges of who we love and who we're supposed to love and really loving everyone is at the center of things through all of Jesus' teachings. That's what I try to focus on. I'm less of a rigid, "here are the rules that Christians are supposed to follow," and more focused on how do we focus on loving the people around us better and seeking justice and caring for making the world more like God intends it to be.
Emily: Lovely. JD, do you have anything to say?
J.D. Mechelke: The thing I would say is you mentioned this religious lifestyle, is it compatible with polyamory? I think when at least in Minnesota maybe I'm not sure if it's the same on the West Coast, but when I hear ideas or discourse about Christian religious lifestyle, it's always co-opted by the religious right, by conservative Christians. Even when you start talking about the religious lifestyle, there's a lot of variance, I would say, within the denominations within the different parts of Christianity about what constitutes a religious lifestyle or we give a shit about a religious lifestyle.
I'd also say that in the history of Christianity there was a lot of, particularly in the monasteries in the monastic tradition that's where super cool Christians would leave their mother and father, they would take up poverty, chastity, obedience or something like that and they just hang out on a community, they'd pray all day, that's monastic life.
In that monastic life, particularly in medieval times, there's a lot of talk about sexual relationships in monastic life. It's not even uncommon at all even today. That in monastic life to have sexual relations with each other. In Christianity or at least the history of Christianity, the best religious lifestyle was this monastic life. They're the ones that are polyamorous in many ways. I could say a lot more about that little stuff.
Emily: That's great.
Jase: It's great. I can tell that you're working on your Ph.D. right now and on your thesis because I could tell your brain just has too much information. It's like, "How do I filter this all down?"
J.D. Mechelke: Forgive me if I'm being too precise.
Dedeker: Can you give us a citation for that?
Jase: We'll expect a bibliography at the end of this.
Actually, related to what both of you talked about, I actually wanted to take us back a second rather than talking about polyamory, but to talk about the more current debate as Austin was pointing out about homosexuality. I think when people start thinking about whatever it is family values or whatever about the Bible, that I feel like where most people's mind goes is to homosexuality; is that okay or is it not? I feel like maybe when I was a kid that debate would have been more just focused on don't cheat. I feel like now you bring that up, immediately where people's minds go is homosexuality.
For me, this was something that I got super fascinated with in college. We had a guest speaker come to our school and he was a former Catholic priest who was giving this presentation on what the bible really says about homosexuality and talked about things like how Jesus never says anything about it and in fact perhaps even helped to cure the centurion's servant boy who at that time most likely would have also had a sexual relationship with him. He pointed out little things like that as well as looking at some of the specific wording used in the old testament about that it's an abomination for a man to lie with another man.
Those sorts of things went into the nitty gritty about all of that. I feel like I gave a super quick little summary there. If you could bring us up to speed on is that what the debate is centered around right now within the denominations, at least the ones in the United States that you guys are part of? Is that still the debate about this specific wordings or has it moved to some other place than that?
J.D. Mechelke: I could speak to the theologicalship that's going on, but Austin might be more equipped to deal with what's actually going on in the church because my church is super gay, we've been marrying same-sex couples since the '80s-
Emily: So, no problem.
J.D. Mechelke: Right, Austin might be better to talk about socially what's going on in the church.
Rev. Austin: Maybe.
Because every denomination, then there are a lot of churches that are non-denominational as well. Every situation, whether it's denominational or congregational, is going to have its own area of focus on it. I would say most of it's happening at the congregational level. It usually starts with caring for individuals who are part of that congregation. A child grows up and comes out whose family has been a long part of the church and it forces congregations to re-think their values. Then they go through and then there's already good solid research that is going through this, it's looked at the nuance of all of those passages that you were referring to earlier, Jase.
We have solid academics behind how none of that is a real condemnation of a loving, committed same-sex couple in our current context. It's not a direct fit. You can't lift an ancient concept and shove it into the modern era. Most of those things are in the old testament, by the way, which we understand a lot of the laws that Christians are not required to follow that came through ancient Judaism or even pre-Judaism Jordanian religion. Most of those provisions are understood to be extended by the grace that we have from Christ that we don't have to follow the letter of the law from those places.
I see the evangelicals nodding a little bit in memory. Talk about grace. That gets us past a lot of the old testament and there's some new testament passages some things that are just bad translation and other things I could go on. We call them the clobber passages in the progressive circles and the text of terror.
Emily: The terror.
Rev. Austin: I would guess both of us are well enough versed that we could go through those one by one, but we could also point to written materials out there that people could just sit and read on their own and not run through them one on one. It's more about understanding context and nuance. In the same ways that a lot of churches have moved past and understand women clergy where it was thought to be that the Bible excluded that as well. We've moved past on that, but the forefront of the debate is around sexual orientation. Really, what it tends to come down to is there are large sections of the church that get focused on the Bible being the literal word of God and inherent and you can't change it in anyway and it's absolute.
That's usually done not with integrity from my point of view, but that's the claim on the one side.
Then there's large groups of Christianity that says. "We really respect the Bible by giving it the attention and the study and understanding the nuance in it by giving it that kind of respect. We're actually lifting it up in a way that doesn't just leave it as something that--" Anyway, it's really more of a debate about how we understand the nature of the Bible more than homosexuality, but this is the place where it's really coming to a fore in a lot of Christian circles these days.
Jase: As far as applying a similar way of looking at this to polyamory, the only thing that I've found about this at all are there's one sermon that someone sent me a recording of online and a couple writings that are part of the United Church of Christ that talk about polyamory. One of the pastors comes out as being polyamorous. There's two of them doing this particular sermon and the other one talks about maybe a few passages in the Bible making parallels to polyamory with the way that God loves us and the way that God teaches us to love. I was curious, you said that the debate isn't really on this, but it seemed like the research was being done about homosexuality before the debate, even really started being the thing that's happening.
Is there a similar thing with polyamory or non-monogamy or other types of non-traditional relationships that people are starting to critically analyze Scripture with that in mind?
J.D. Mechelke: I would say, totally. There's definitely and I could point you to some academics that are writing about polyamory within Christian theology, at least, and using the Bible. The big kind of claim that they're making is that God's love is very polyamorous in nature. There's this, the polyamorous Christ is this new term that's gaining traction which I'm all for.
As an anecdote to give that some boom to it. You know of communion? This is my body broken for you, blah, blah, blah. In Jewish tradition, there's this idea when you propose to somebody, in this situation it's a man and the woman, unfortunately, the guy gives this cup of wine and he says, "This is my covenant for you." If the girl drinks it, well then she's accepting that proposal.
Some would say that the Last Supper, Jesus is proposing to the 12 friends and so it's very gay and very polyamorous.
Dedeker: Sorry, Emily I feel like your face was so shocked when you realized how many drinks you've accepted from strange men.
J.D. Mechelke: I know. Yes and I'm glad not Jewish.
Emily: Oh, my God. Just like anyone being like, "I'm, going to use that now."
Jase: Here's a drink we're married now.
Rev. Austin: Cheers.
Jase: Sorry, we cut you out.
Dedeker: Yes, please continue J.D.
J.D. Mechelke: Obviously, I'm going to say that there are a lot of symbols going on in the Last Supper, but that's just one of them. There's this common symbol in the Bible, and in a lot of New Testament theology that says that the church is the bride of Christ. Even so, it's very interesting to me.
In the evangelical world, there are a lot of the songs and prayers that are used talk about, there's this very intimate, individualistic relationship that people have with God and it's very erotic sometimes. My favorite example is this old song. It's not old, but '90s, "In the secret and the quiet place, I want to touch you. I want to see the--"
Dedeker: I know that song. Oh, my God.
J.D. Mechelke: You start to think, "That's kind of erotic and yet it's evangelical." It's that we're doing that, which is fine. There are queer theologians that are taking that and saying, "Maybe we have this erotic thing going on with Jesus." Also thinking about it, "This is my body." You're taking somebody's body in your mouth, and so there's some phalic-.
Emily: Pretty erotic.
J.D. Mechelke: I know.
Jase: It's either erotic or cannibalism.
Rev. Austin: Who's to say not both?
J.D. Mechelke: Either way, it's kind of crazy. There's this idea of the polyamorous crisis that's gained traction, but usually the safe way to say it is that God loves everybody. This isn't very safe to say, but God's a total slut in that sense.
Dedeker: I'm sorry, I just have to say--
J.D. Mechelke: No, that is funny again.
Dedeker: The 12-year-old Christian girl in me is still alive, apparently because there's a part of me that's like- I didn't think she was still in there, but she is. Sorry, please go ahead.
J.D. Mechelke: That's always fun to find.
Emily: It comes out sometimes, Dedeker.
Dedeker: It does come out sometimes.
Jase: That actually brought to mind the part from the Bible where the Pharisees, I think, are quizzing Jesus, trying to catch him up on things. They ask the question about, if a woman is married to a man, and he dies, and then she marries his brother, and then he dies and then she marries the next brother. She ends up during her life being married to all the brothers because that's what you would do. When she died, who would be her husband in heaven?
J.D. Mechelke: Wow, you've read your Bible. My gosh.
Dedeker: He was almost going to go seminary.
Jase: I did.
J.D. Mechelke: What?
Jase: Yes, I came very close.
Emily: You basically put a very different life you're leading me now, Jase.
Dedeker: Here you are running a polyamory podcast.
Jase: I actually think it's more similar than--
Dedeker: We could discuss that another time.
Rev. Austin: Amen.
J.D. Mechelke: Mark 12 is what you were quoting.
Jase: Okay, thank you. Yes.
Emily: Whoa, that's impressive too. That's fine. I'm sure a lot of people know that. I'm just like, hell.
Jase: I didn't plan on that.
Emily: There's a lot of things. There are verses.
Dedeker: You were leading up to something using that verse.
Jase: I was just curious, is that one of the ones that comes up? Are there others like that I've maybe missed out on? To kind of bring it back to polyamory which is something I was curious to hear both of you talk about on this show because, like I said, it's something that I don't feel like is being talked about as much as the homosexuality thing.
Rev. Austin: I don't know if that passage has been done in academic circles around this.
J.D. Mechelke: Not really, no.
Rev. Austin: Maybe fruitful for somebody's new paper if they're looking for a project.
J.D. Mechelke: Actually, no. Robert Gass, a great theologian, he did do-.
Jase: I'm doubting my Scripture-quoting now. They ask him the question like, "Who of these would be her husband in heaven, or in the kingdom of God?"
Emily: Who is it?
Jase: Jesus' answer was that it doesn't matter.
J.D. Mechelke: I can read it for you.
Jase: Yes, that'd be great.
J.D. Mechelke: The answer of Jesus. I have my Bible on.
Dedeker: Some of us are doing their sword drills over here.
J.D. Mechelke: Right.
Rev. Austin: Oh my God that was good.
Emily: Smart drills?
J.D. Mechelke: Verse 24 is where Jesus has this answer, "Jesus said to them; "For when they raise from the dead, they neither married nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. As for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses in the story about the bush?" Oh, God, I love when Jesus says "bush".
Dedeker: The bush of God.
J.D. Mechelke: I know, right, I don't think of the burning bush, I think of something else.
Emily: Yes, I think of the discussion.
J.D. Mechelke: Yes, the point is that there's no marriage in heaven. Conservative circles make marriage to be this big thing.
Emily: Yes, there's no marriage in heaven?
J.D. Mechelke: No.
Rev. Austin: It's just one big poly party.
Dedeker: I think it's more just like one big solo poly party where it's like, you can be autonomous. You don't have to be with anybody.
Jase: I guess I always thought of Jesus' answer being a little more Buddhist of like you become one with all things, and there is no separation between one thing and another.
Dedeker: That makes sense.
Rev. Austin: That's probably a little closer to it. It's not about the body at that point. I think more of what Jesus' answer is roughly around. Still, it's about we are at the point where the human barriers that prevent us from loving each other are things that we should be trying to work to break down here, that's already broken down in the concept of heaven. Jesus is saying we're beyond that.
We would get a similar question now because we don't have that Biblical marriage concept where the widow has to be cared for by the siblings.
J.D. Mechelke: No.
Rev. Austin: You hear people ask questions like, "I was an amputee, do I get my arm back when I'm in heaven?" I think Jesus' answer would be pretty similar. It's like you're thinking in the wrong areas, it's more about a much more broad love than about this level of human focus detail.
Dedeker: Interesting. Yes, it's like, we're past the point of having this individual identity that is separate from God to a certain regard. We kind of get closer to, I guess, that oneness or something like that.
Jase: Yes. You have some other questions?
Jase: I was just curious if there were any other sort of hit passages.
Emily: These are the hits.
Dedeker: Some top 10 hits and verses.
J.D. Mechelke: Pro polyamory?
Rev. Austin: Before we move away from this particular piece, I was talking about the more generalized love, the thing that we should be striving for as Christians. For me, it's not even the finding the Bible passages that might justify it. I feel like there are enough barriers that keep people from finding a religious community that will help them have that kind of growth. That, that is something that's so many people need and even if you did think it was simple to pick one thing and to focus on sexuality, and I would do that in broad strokes too because there are a lot of folks that would condemn premarital sex and we know how much that is happening out there.
Rev. Austin: There's just so much focus that if people are having loving consensual sexual practices and they're not doing it as a way of thinking of rebellion against the church or they're rebelling against God, like where does their heart fall already. That if they're really just focusing on caring for other people, why should that be a barrier to somebody being able to get the things that we say that we value out of our faith in the ways it's helped us in our own lives? I don't want to break that away for anybody.
I don't think that homosexuality, and not just homosexuality, I'm just caught in the language of the church again, but I don't think that sexual orientation is a barrier, I don't think that any sexual identity is in itself sinful, but how we engage in it. Even if I did think it was a sin, I wouldn't focus on one sin and make that something that precludes somebody from being able to try to grow in all of these other areas.
We're all in our own paths spiritually, and if somebody is at a different starting point, than where you are, that to me is more about why we break away those barriers rather than find a scripture that says, "That makes it okay." It's, how do we live into that loving example that Jesus set more than the letter of the law?
J.D. Mechelke: I would also say that you mentioned like sin there's no specific passages that say it's sinful necessarily. In our idea, what Christians in the West think about sin is very unbiblical at least in my opinion. The ideas of sin in the Bible are more about there's this other thing going on. It’s not like an action you do with something that's done to you, like in Leviticus again, there's is this idea where they put all their sins under this goat and the goat just goes into the wilderness and dies. It’s not like you did this bad thing, so you sucked up, and fucked up, and so you're sinful. It's more nuanced than that, and it’s not on ethics, that's one thing that it says.
Sin does not equal ethics in the Bible. Sin is something else and so it’s hard to say, "Is polyamory a sin in the Bible?" Well, I don't know, who cares, but because sin in the Bible is very different than in ethics.
Dedeker: Gosh, I have like five billion things that I want to say in response to that.
Rev. Austin: That's literally where scapegoat comes from by the way.
Jase: I just had a quick side note. I just love how JD and Austin would be talking about things and I’ll see in the video here that Dedeker and like, "Mm, right," and Emily is just like, "What the fuck is happening?"
Rev. Austin: Oh, my God yes.
Jase: Sorry, I'm sorry, please go on.
Emily: Speaking about goats and sin.
Dedeker: Yes, you're going to get used to the goat and the whole animal sacrifice thing Emily. It happens a lot.
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The reviews don’t just make us feel good and make us feel like what we're doing is worthwhile, they also help us to show up higher in search results and they help other people to make the decision to give the show a listen. All right, there's a gazillion podcasts out there and it's often hard to decide which ones you’re actually going to take the time to listen to. Your reviews about our show, talking about what it is you get out of it, why you listen to the show, what benefit you’ve gotten from it, will really help other people to make that decision and decide, "That applies to me too. I'll give this a listen." That just takes a few minutes and just do that at iTunes or Stitcher and write us a review.
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Dedeker: Yes, I was going to say that I finally got my placement head along with a battery and honestly, I have to be honest that at first, I was skeptical I was like, "I don’t need replacement head that soon," like, "Whatever," but then once I switched it on, and once I switch out the battery, it was like, "Whoa, mama."
Emily: Well, mama.
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Emily: What was I missing?
Emily: So much.
Jase: I want to say about the subscription thing is that because I'm traveling a lot like, when I'm in the states, I'll reactivate my subscription so that I'm getting the new heads and I also do the refill of the toothpaste as well because the prices are great. I’ll get those and then I’ll stockpile and then when I'm traveling I won't do that, and maybe if I'm coming home for a little bit I'll just order like one more replacement head or something like that, so it also very easy online to just activate it, reactivate it, turn it off for a while, order a new cover for travelling or whatever.
Emily: Which I need to do.
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Dedeker: I want to start talking a little bit about sex a little bit generally outside of just the specifics of homosexuality or multi-partner relationships or things like that because obviously, the Christian church is not had a great track record with sexual moralism or sex-positivity. I was wondering and especially, Austin, since it seems like you're really in the thick of this, are the both of you aware of if that's changing or if that's evolving; the stance the Christian church, on the way that it handles just sex in general? I don't know, I lost the thread of what I’m trying to ask, but what's the stance now unlike what healthy sexuality is while still living a Christian lifestyle?
Rev. Austin: Yes, I’m in the thick of it I guess and I’m actively working on trying to break that down. I think that mostly, it’s something that a lot of church folks have gotten really good at not talking about, partly because they know it's divisive. That's going to vary from context to context, and so by not talking about it in some contexts, it upholds the status quo, and in other ones that holds to more of a libertarian live and let live kind of mindset. I would say it's actively part of the tension that it's around. It would be hard to say how widely that is being shifted, but I'm part of trying to actively break down what I think is harmful sexual ethics. Particularly, when all we tend to focus on saying in most churches is that it's okay after marriage, but bad before marriage. That's really all we're going to talk about.
For me, breaking it down, it's like, that leaves a whole lot of what people around us are actually engaging in the way that they live their lives. Where we have seeded ground to have no moral authority whatsoever, when the church could also be focusing and saying, "Rape is bad, sexual assault is wrong." Trying to get and move it towards how do we be able to have a voice.
I think it's also a large part of what does keep people away from church is that they know that their lives; straight, queer, whatever, they think would not be approved of in a church. That alone means that the church is so hypocritical that they wouldn't be able to find a place there. I'm trying to find ways of being able to say, without pulling the carpet out from under some folks, that really it doesn't matter who you're sleeping with, but how you take care of those people.
J.D. Mechelke: Preach it.
Rev. Austin: I'm on the outside of that argument, but I'm trying to help make it more mainstream. Mostly, I think a lot of more progressive clergy would have similar thoughts, but don't really have the courage to jump in and put themselves on the line for advocating something that's going to shake the boat. Which makes it really hard for folks to find a church where they might feel accepted because it's something that is intentionally kept below the surface.
J.D. Mechelke: I would say, I'm in grad school at a seminary, so the majority of people they are going to be a pastor someday and a lot of my friends there are very progressive when it comes to sex. They're very against what at least scholars refer to as a lot of phobia. I think there's at least in this ELCA, liberal Lutheran wing of the church, I can see at least in the leadership of this shift moving from caring so much both where you put your genitals. A change from that to, "I value consent, and I want to treat this person in front of me as a subject and not an object."
I see that shift changing, but it's hard. Like in my denomination that I work in, the ELCA, the liberal Lutherans, there's this guideline for pastors basically that says you can have sex outside of marriage. Seems kind of obvious to all the people that pastors shouldn't do that, but there's a groundswell of people saying that, "Well, the focus shouldn't be on sex before marriage, the focus should be on things like consent and everything afterwards.
Jase: Wow. Yes, that would be a fantastic shift to see just in general.
Rev. Austin: Change is slow and change in church is slower.
J.D. Mechelke: Oh God, yes.
Dedeker: Of course.
Jase: Maybe you've heard something similar. I remember years ago, it's probably like 10 years ago or something, a friend of mine who did end up going into seminary after we went to college together and he is a pastor now, he talked to me about some statistic and I'm fudging these numbers, but it was something like 90% of pastors were raised in like a mega church type setting. The majority of Christians are brought up in those because they're so big, but that 90% of pastors end up being pastors in much smaller churches.
There's this sort of interesting thing where like, obviously, most of the pastor jobs are in all of these smaller churches, yet most of the Christians being brought up are in these more mega churches. I wasn't sure if you'd heard anything like that, but I could see that being a way that kind of slows down that change in a way if the people still in those more megachurches aren't the ones changing and it's just all the ones in these smaller churches that would sort of slow down the evolution of who the new Christians are being brought up, at least statistically. I don't know what exactly the statistics were, I just remember it being an overwhelming number. Is one and then they end up in the other.
Jase: Anyway, just a little statistics.
Rev. Austin: I don't know anything about that particular statistic.
Jase: Cool. Maybe it's all crap, I don't know.
J.D. Mechelke: Yes, maybe it is, I don't know, Jase.
Jase: Cool, no worries.
Rev. Austin: One of the other things that impedes progress in terms of what pastors talk about is also that a lot of pastors went to grad school a long time ago. So, beyond sexuality just in general, all of the things that are better understandings are things that have come up. Pastors have been out of school for a long time, and they're not seeing what some of the newest academic work is putting out.
Also, they're still afraid to talk to their congregations about what was edgy, even when they were in grad school. Clearly, listening to J.D. talk there's a lot more edgy theology happening now than there was 50 years ago, but they're still scared of the theology they learned 50 years ago. They're still kind of preaching the, "What can I do without getting run out my job? How far can I stretch people without alienating myself?" That's a fear that a lot of pastors have. If you're in an environment where they're not looking to be more extensive. I'm fortunate enough to be in a space where people are hungry for new information and new ways of thinking about things. That's not the norm in a lot of church settings.
Rev. Austin: A lot of pastors are more concerned about job security than about bringing change.
J.D. Mechelke: Yes, [unintelligible 00:47:35]. I would also say within the Bible, for instance, as far as a lot of phobia or sex before marriage, all these things go back to what we think in our culture of as virginity. In the Bible, virginity is only ever referred to women and that's only because virginity is an economic thing in the ancient world. It's not a sexual thing. Obviously, it refers to sex, but virginity was always put on women because men in many senses own women.
A virgin is much more economically valuable to a man than somebody who's not a virgin because you want to know that the babies that come out of this woman, you want to know that they're yours. There's economic implications of that. In the Bible, at least, in my opinion, there is not this overwhelming consensus that sex is bad, or sex before marriage is bad. It's my opinion that in the Bible sexuality is many times negatively tied to economics in some little harmful ways.
It's hard to put our ideas of what sexual ethics are onto the Bible or bring them out of the Bible because of how much economics was tied up in it all.
Dedeker: I feel like that actually leads into my next question pretty well, which is that, as you know, we recently recorded a fan in pretty silly episode talking about instances of polyamory in the Bible, which mostly turned out to be maybe troublesome and maybe nonconsensual polygamy. At least, mostly in the Old Testament. It was so interesting that when I was researching this, that there seemed to be three camps of interpretation that I saw. Either I think more extreme camp or either people interpreted as like, clearly, this is what God established. It's like the ideal setup for a man to have multiple wives and so that's what everyone should be aiming for. People interpreted as well, everyone who was polygamous in the Bible, something bad happened to them, so God is clearly trying to send a message that this is not the way that we should.
Jase: I did see that one too, yes.
Dedeker: That it should be just one man, one woman or people take the route of like that's what people did at the time and we don't need to worry about it. Is there any other kind of interpretation that people are throwing up there in talking about these instances of polygamy in the Bible? Is there any other conversation around that right now?
Rev. Austin: J.D.
J.D. Mechelke: I would say that, a simple way to think about it, when you read the Bible, the Bible isn't always saying this is the way things should be. You have to ask the question is the story you're reading, is the parable or teaching you're reading talking about the way things are or is talking about the way things should be?
There's this story in Genesis 34, where this woman named Dinah who does not have any voice at all. In the narrative, she's raped by this man and in the Hebrew, there's this word "defiled", I forget the actual Hebrew word, but the word 'defiled is not put on her rapist, it's put on her. There's a lot of other horrible things about that story, but I'm not even going to go into. I would say that, that is a depiction of the way things are and not the way things should be right. When we read the Bible we have to ask that question I think. We get those screwed up. That pie doesn't answer your question at all.
Dedeker: No, it makes sense to me.
Jase: It's actually very related to a conversation the three of us were just having the other day because we've been recording some episodes for a new podcast that we're putting together where we're reading through the whole Bible.
Emily: On air.
Jase: Yes, it's going to take a number of years-
Dedeker: That's ambitious.
Jase: -but reading through it so Emily will finally know what the heck it's all about.
Dedeker: We'll finally know what the heck it's all about.
Jase: We'll finally know, I haven't read the whole thing. It's a fun project I'm really excited about.
J.D. Mechelke: Be careful.
Emily: Be careful, how?
J.D. Mechelke: It's the most dangerous book ever written, come on.
Emily: I thought it was the greatest story ever told.
J.D. Mechelke: Emily, so my partner's an atheist and he does the same kind of--
Jase: That's great.
J.D. Mechelke: I absolutely love it.
Emily: I'm just saying what people say.
J.D. Mechelke: I love that, totally.
Jase: We've been training her. Anyway, in that conversation, though I think Dedeker was the one who made the point that she said the interesting thing about the Bible is that it's both a cultural piece, it's a historical piece, as well as a theological and belief related one. That it is each of those. I think what you're getting at J.D. is if we think that this whole document is just like, this is how you should live your life, then we're going to get into some confusing territory.
We could read that and go, "I guess that means it's okay for this guy to do that and that women are defiled," rather than realizing, "This is also a history," and that this is also showing us what was happening in this culture at these various times throughout when it was written. I think that's interesting. I've been thinking about that a lot. Thinking of the Bible and putting it in place historically versus the way that at least I think the Bible is presented to a lot of us. Especially when we're children growing up Christian, or at least it was for me or like to outsiders like Emily, where it's sort of like, this is the book that has all the answers. This shows you how to live your life.
Dedeker: This is the instruction manual.
Jase: Right. It's funny because there are other religious teachings like writings by Siddhartha and stuff that are more of an instruction manual. I think it can be really misleading because we think the Bible must be that same sort of guidebook.
Emily: I saw both of you shaking your head at that, so, what was that about?
Rev. Austin: All of it. It's incredibly complicated. I shook my head I know a little bit at one point but mostly, yes. The note of it being a complicated document. It is not one document, it is a library of stories that were told without being written down for a long period of time, but told and written down over by multiple authors over a period of centuries. It's not a cohesive document and in fact, it's often in dialogue with itself.
If you talk about it as a whole, because an individual author is referring to something that a previous author said, but that they might have some disagreement with, and they get into other details. It's very complex and each of the different pieces has its own contexts and background that have from periods that we don't have a whole lot of sociological and anthropological information.
What we do have is helpful is getting at what more is going on, but if you look at it as a guidebook and like this is an instruction manual, that's scary. We just use the story of Dinah that J.D. was bringing up. Her brothers get revenge by forcing all of the whole city that the rapist came from and all of his servants to basically come into their family and which means they needed to become Jewish so they insist that they all have circumcisions as adults. I'm waiting for Emily's face on this.
Dedeker: Emily, I told you there are many instances of mass circumcision in the Bible. I told you about that.
Rev. Austin: They forced the mass circumcision on them and then while they're recovering from the surgery, they come in and kill all of them.
Emily: - part two or I get the part one.
Rev. Austin: If you read the Bible as an instruction manual that would say, your sister gets rapes so you go and kill the rapist and everybody else that's in close proximity to that person.
Emily: First circumcise them.
Rev. Austin: We're looking at broad strokes rather than fine points and it does help us. It is a very useful guide, but it is not an instruction manual. It helps us think about the complexities of how humans have been fucked up for centuries and the damages and people navigating. People around them being awful to them and trying to figure out how to scrap and survive.
It's multiple stories of people that were colonized, grappling with what it means to relate to their colonizers. Many things that are rich, but not universally applicable. That's what most of our lives are like.
If we look at the Bible as people who were struggling with their faith as we do in ways that happened, that have some universal human elements to them, that we aren't just going through everything new ourselves, we'd see their context and we see our own, we have to figure out how do we live in love based on where we are and based on the examples. Can we learn from other people's lessons? There's actually a lot of what the Bible is about and that's how I prefer to live. It's like, I'd rather see somebody else make a mistake and not have to make it myself, but human nature usually means we do need to fuck up in our own ways as well.
It's a constant work of recovery and that's where the apologies and atonement and grace come in. For some people, it feels like, "It means that we're being forced to talk about how bad we are." It's like, we know we've got our problems. I see it as a ritual that enables us to recognize that we can be forgiven. Not that we have to find ways to feel bad about ourselves, but to let go of the things that we already feel bad about.
I'm riffing on multiple tangents here and I'm sorry about that, but I'm seeing some nodding and I hope that that's useful.
Emily: I so appreciate both of you saying all of this, because, again, from an outsider's perspective, what I know about Christianity is it's evangelical, and that you're supposed to abide by what this book says. In just the very little that I've read of it, which now has been more than I ever have before because of Jase and Dedeker, but it just seems like a lot of stories and some of them not very well written.
J.D. Mechelke: Hey.
Emily: Some of them.
J.D. Mechelke: I'm just kidding, I know.
Rev. Austin: Most people start off reading the Bible trying to get through Genesis and then you can't get past the begot after begot after so and so begot. It's just-
Emily: That's why I said that. My goodness.
Rev. Austin: Not great prose.
Emily: I so appreciate that there are going to be all these different viewpoints and still within like the context of faith and the context of God and this being an important thing, but still that there's a lot of leeway I guess. More so than I previously thought. Something that Jase and Dedeker have both said to me is even if you're not practicing religion, it seems like there is like a need for community and that space still.
Obviously, we still know people who are polyamorous who also are religious. From that, I was wondering do you have any advice that you can give someone who considers themselves still Christian and they may still go to church, but they are also polyamorous? There's all these things out there, like stigma, misunderstanding, backlash and that may potentially come from their community. Is it still possible for someone who's religious to come out as polyamorous or do you think that they're just going to have a really difficult time doing that? Do you have any good advice for them?
J.D. Mechelke: Yes, it's really hard. At least from my experience when I came out as polyamorous to the church leaders, to people that made sense to talk to them about, my youth know that I'm polyamorous and because they asked questions and that's fine. I would say a lot of people are totally okay, but it's the church, at least, the pastors sometimes. While I think they are open, I think they're worried about the replications it'll have on the church, the ministry et cetera, the reputation. It's like specifically if you're leadership in the church. Specifically if you're leadership in the church.
I would say it, at least for me, it hasn't been that positive, but I still have a job, so, I think that's a good sign. If I was trying to be a pastor at the seminary I'm at, and I was openly polyamorous, there would be a good chance, there's this thing called a [unintelligible 01:01:31] committee in the Lutheran church. There's a good chance that somebody would tell the [unintelligible 01:01:36]committee and they'd grill me about it and they'd be like, "Well, I'm sorry, it doesn't meet up to that document called guidelines and expectations," it's the rules for pastors, "[unintelligible 01:01:44] leaders" they call it.
If you're a leadership in a church, I think it's really hard especially if you're a pastor. Good luck is honestly what I would say, but if you are just trying to practice your religion, I think there are some churches that are totally fine with lay people with just regular old church folk being polyamorous. Obviously, that's the old liberal church.
If a church is openly for gay and queer folk, my guess is that you probably won't have that much push back polyamory, but if you start trying to become a leader xyz, you might still have problems, but that's at least my experience.
Rev. Austin: I would say it's really going to vary very much by congregation and what the local situation is and people will have to figure out their own setting for themselves about whether a space is safe or not. There's not a clear prescription that we can give, but if I was a person looking for a church and I was polyamorous, I wouldn't come out if I am at a church that wasn't already welcoming, explicitly welcoming of LGBTQIA folks.
Especially if they don't agree in women ministers.
There are clues you can look at is to how open a congregation might be. If you're looking for a new congregation, then you can start to look for those things and have a side conversation with the pastor to see whether it's a safe place to come in, but if you're already locked in on a congregation and you feel like that is your home community and you don't know whether you want to or not, I would probably recommend try to find a small group of allies maybe even have a study group together where you can create a little sub-section of the church that is open more so than just jumping out and scaring everybody's grandma for example. Figure out how much you can shift the system from within and whether if you're just going to be beating your head against the wall.
In some cases it might just mean you have to do have to find another church and that's unfortunate, but there are people who had leave churches for worse reasons than this.
Dedeker: Yes. I know there is a specific site and I'm not finding it specifically in my Google search, but it seems there's a lot of similar sites. There are databases where you can search for churches based on how LGBTQIA friendly they are.
J.D. Mechelke: Yes.
Dedeker: I know the particular database I'm thinking of will even reference, this is the language used on the church website and that's why we think that they're pro LGBT or they specifically say something about women ministers or whatever. There are a number of search engines out there to find this kind of thing, if you're specifically trying to find a church.
Jase: Yes, I imagine with Google these days, you can probably find some resources around you.
Jase: Maybe you'd have to drive a little further to go to church now than you used to, but hopefully that will be worth it. We've actually said similar things - if you're in parts of the country where it's hard to find a polyamory meet up or something like that, that it's worth it if you have to drive a few hours even to have some kind of community maybe once a month or every couple of months or just something to actually have a little bit of time where you can talk without constantly having to monitor what am I saying? Am I giving myself away? Am I going to say something that I'm going to regret?
To have that opportunity to do that even just for a little while, it's so important. So I can see where the church are being very similar, where it's worth it to drive a little further even if it means you can’t go quite as often. I could see that really being worth it to be in a space where you can really get the support that you need for your own growth.
Well, thank you both so much for being here. I feel like we can do a whole new podcast where we just talk about this stuff every week for an hour. Thank you so much for coming and talking to us about all this, it's been awesome, I've been looking forward to this episode for quite a while now.
Rev. Austin: All right, thanks so much.
J.D. Mechelke: Yes, it was great to talk with you guys.
Emily: Gosh, that was amazing. Again my mind is blown. There was so much to learn there for those of you out there who this isn't second nature because you haven't been indoctrinated with revival for years and years and years. It's lovely to just get some amazing perspectives from these two lovely people that we just talked to. We really appreciate you being on the show.
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