Can the Church Decide Your Panties’ Color? – Cape Town 3

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With this column I conclude a threefold reflection on the SDA Church Cape Town summit on alternatives sexualities. The first presentation (Sexuality and Human Developmental Identity - Cape Town 1) approached the topic from an anthropological perspective, affirming that sexuality is a positive human problem for everybody, not just homosexuals. The second presentation (Does the Bible Really Speak About Sex? - Cape Town 2), was a reflection from a biblical perspective, describing a legitimate shift from a text-centered to a reader-centered hermeneutics. It contested whether the bible can be reduced to an exhaustive, modernity-applicable, manual of sexuality. In this third presentation I will again reflect on sexuality, but now from an underestimated consideration: an administrative-institutional perspective. Within Adventist administration I perceive dissonance on the topic of sexuality. On the one hand the institution has become too rigid, omnipresent and sometimes just the incarnation of a rough striving for power and control. On the other hand, for an important topic like sexuality, SDA institutions have too often just become mute or furtive in their responses.

Let’s reframe this perceived double institutional anomaly – domination and unresponsiveness – more positively, as a dual challenge for Adventism today. On one side we need to understand that while the Bible is inspired, the SDA interpretation and administrative use of it can’t pretend the same. We can, at most, attribute to administrative decisions and policies good intentions and motivations. But then we need to critically assess them for what they really achieve. On the other side we need to be aware of the fact that, at some levels, church administration already implies a strong theological endeavor and for this reason we can’t dismiss it as just procedural. In this sense administration is not only practically necessary but also theologically necessary. But the question still remains: which type of administration? In order to better grasp the challenges today’s SDA institutions face consider two socio-cultural phenomena that have changed the environment: individualism and the massive diffusion of heterogeneous societies.

First, no one can doubt the fact that, in contrast to other cultural and historical contexts, we live today in individualistic-oriented societies. And post-modernity, after some serious analysis, has not really changed this situation. It has rather reinforced it (Gilles Lipovetsky). Now individualism isn’t just the anthropological or juridical affirmation of the equality of individuals. It also implies a strong re-interpretation and reframing of what an institution is and means today. It seals the passage from an absolute pyramidal organization to a more relativistic social contract understanding of institution itself. In practicality this means that some dimensions of our lives in which we formerly accepted and even demanded church intervention are now removed from ecclesiastical jurisdiction and entrusted solely to personal and individual discretion. And sexuality is one of these central dimensions taken away from church administration – even from pastoral care. Now the center of discussion is no longer the “ethics of sexuality”, as very often SDA institutions still believe, but rather its jurisdiction – who is entitled to speak on sexuality and where and how.

But this important and irreversible institutional shift lives paradoxically with the parallel and increasing demand of institutional voice – at a different level. Communities and believers ask persistently for more perspective and meaning while the church blindly keeps giving them more rules and recycled programs. Churches that have a homogeneous and monolithic profile will tend to see this double demand of the membership just as an unrealistic and capricious contradiction. But the wise churches should translate this double, complementary and tensional, request to mean: don’t be silent, tell the overall sound biblical perspectives on sexuality, but give us also the space to decide for ourselves. Here a question is crucial. Is it possible for institutions to give believers healthy and relevant biblical perspectives on sexuality but at the same time without telling them “which color their panties should be” – so to speak? Wise institutions will succeed in differentiating between principle and minutia. Hyper-pragmatic institutions tend to fail.

Second, diversity has always existed in human groups but today it presents at least two new characteristics: it has become massively inter-cultural (hybrid identities) and extensively de-contextualized (scattered identities). This trend has created human groups – today’s societies – that have become irreversibly heterogeneous. To administrate such a pluralistic, multicultural reality church leadership needs to go beyond the classic categories of unity, order and discipline that still presupposes a “machine-like” paradigm, and instead adopt a “biological-like” paradigm for understanding institutions. What is the main difference between these two paradigms? The first is a deterministic model while the second is open and flexible. This fact has enormous consequences in dealing with sexuality. Why? Because sexuality requires, on one side, “differentiated strategies”. Homosexuality can’t be considered and treated as a monolithically deviant heterosexuality or female sexuality cannot be viewed as an incomplete male sexuality, as Freud believed. Only a differentiated theological and administrative approach to sexuality can avoid such simplistic mistakes. But on the other side sexuality requires also a more “probabilistic-flexible” institutional approach. Because in the same community we have different age-groups and different gender-groups which cannot be treated the same. A too-uniform and over-pragmatic institutional strategy tends to overlook these two characteristics of today’s heterogeneity.

In order to emphasize the urgent need of transforming Adventist institutions toward becoming more inclusive and more experimental consider these perspectives from two recent and innovative books on institutions. One view is Daron Acemoglu’s “inclusive/extractive”, another is Abhijit Banerjee’s “contingent/deterministic” classification of institutions.

According to Acemoglu’s book,(Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty) it's not the vagaries of geography, climate, or culture that determine the prosperity or poverty of a nation. It is a nation's institutions: political and economic. The more inclusive those institutions are – pluralistic in composition, centralized to a degree, ensuring the rule of law and individual reward – the more likely and long-lasting a nation's prosperity will be. Not so with nations where an elite, aristocratic or political oligarchy extracts the economic assets – natural and manufactured – by means of monopoly, coerced labor, expropriation of land and exemption from taxation, enforced by the military, security, legislative and legal apparatus. Acting as a multiplier effect is the "virtuous circle" of activity generated by inclusive institutions in opposition to the "vicious circle" of extractive institutions that stop societal creativity. Depending on its institutional health, a nation can capitalize on, or be overwhelmed by, transformational "critical junctures" in history such as the Industrial Revolution, the rise in the Atlantic sea trade, or pestilence such as the Black Plague.

Somewhat in contrast, Abhijit Banerjee opposes a more probabilistic approach of what he calls the radical contingent character of all institutions (Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty). For some analysts, Acemoglu included, institutions are mainly products of historical logic and planning. But, according to Banerjee, the more meticulous the programming, the bigger and more certain are the results. It is the laws of history that decide what is to happen. But history and social and economic processes are never completely certain. Faced with this irrevocable uncertainty, what is a social scientist to do? Banerjee argues that given the possibility that policy decisions indeed make a difference, it makes sense to assume they do and thus try to improve policymaking.

One of the central implications of this more contingent view of history is that leaders will matter. Good leaders can provide coordination where there is a discordant direction or an excessive dispersion in the efforts given. Contrary to what the rather fatalistic views of history would suggest, economic and social outcomes have been improving for most people in the world, including the poor in developing countries. The grip of the elites may not be nearly as tight as these theories suggest. This view is reinforced by direct evidence that elites do not control all that much, as well as the fact that many rather modest interventions into political institutions seem able to successfully and durably relax the grip of the elites. An agenda that focuses on the identification and implementation of necessary reforms, both economic and political, therefore offers a possible way forward, the depredations of history notwithstanding.

These two proposed innovative economic models, that of “inclusive” and “contingent” institutions, represent an invitation for correcting the too “homogeneous/exclusive” and the too “static/definitive” model of today’s Adventist institutions. In this sense homosexuality can’t be a distraction, even less a danger, but rather represents an opportunity to test the validity of our institutions and an opportunity to update them.

Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher and physician. Currently he is Chair of the Systematic Theology Department, Dean of the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of “Villa Aurora” and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at