How are Christians supposed to react to the existence, and now exposure, of a website like Ashley Madison, which explicitly caters to married people seeking infidelity as an experience?
(If you’re just catching up, you can find more here.)
“Life’s short. Have an affair,” the website’s slogan explains, as if that somehow ought to be self-evident, as in, “You’re out of shape. Get to the gym.”
Yet if you think it’s just a billboard for swingers, apparently, you’d be wrong. This isn’t the online equivalent of slipping off your wedding ring before you walk into a bar.
Rather, Ashley Madison is seeking to build and curate a different kind of community. It has to do that.
After all, if shallow contact is all you want, it isn’t particularly hard to meet people.
If anonymity matters when you do, you can tell someone whatever version of autobiography you want to tell, fictional or not.
If you want to forget yourself in order to find yourself, go right ahead.
But Ashley Madison is betting that you don’t want to forget, and that’s where it gets interesting.
Rather, it’s making a much more subtle argument: namely, the argument that it’s desirable to live one’s life, not simply free, and not shackled, but somehow both at once. The wedding ring is slipped off for a time, but not discarded. Between the fear of being caught and the fear of missing out, you’ll feel remarkably alive. They promise.
To go by the numbers revealed in the recent hack, it seems millions of people are looking for love, or maybe life, on exactly those terms.
With numbers like that, Ashley Madison’s vision of modern love isn’t some outré niche experience from the same cast of characters we’re inclined to expect—the office creep, the barfly, the European cosmopolite down the hall who is strangely unsentimental about monogamy, or what have you.
Numbers like those reveal that yes, it’s all those people we would expect and also many more we never might.
That’s why this is an important moment for progressive Christians to refocus the conversation.
So far, the faith angle to the story has been little more than a titillating expose of Evangelical hypocrisy, with the emptiness of so much of its familiar “family values” rhetoric made plain as day.
I’ll admit I’ve enjoyed watching a few of the mighty fall, too.
Then I remember the numbers: 32 million users revealed. In all likelihood, if we dared look, we would all know at least a name or two on that list.
That’s why I’d like to see a better conversation emerge from this particular “technology-meets-privacy-meets-lechery” train wreck, with all its moralizing undertones about reaping the wages of sin.
Instead, it’s an opportunity to try to think about sin in its complexity, as a confusion of means and ends, as social and not simply personal.
Rather than talking about desire as inherently shameful, as the church so often has, I’d like to see us talk about that false sense of aliveness that marital transgression, (among so many different forms of temptation) seems to promise will be ours, however briefly, and at such tremendous potential cost.
The sin, I would argue, is not simply breaking one’s marital vows, bad as that is.
More to the point, it is also the distorted sense of reality that sees breaking one’s vows as a viable solution to our situation, whatever it might be. Further, it is the distorted sense of entitlement that says our own aliveness can come at the expense of others without consequences for all concerned.
The thing about the Ashley Madison hack that ought to get our attention as Christians is neither the hypocrisy of our self-proclaimed moral leaders, nor the power of lust, but rather the heartbreaking willingness we have to use one another as objects.
If you think about it, philandering is simply one particularly literal expression of that general willingness.
As Christians, we need to resist the false narrative of uncomplicated connection and continually affirm what our faith has always understood—that we are called to connection with God, self, and others, and that more often than not, this will be complicated.
It is supposed to be.
That’s why the vows we make to each other and before God matter, whether they are marital vows, baptismal vows, oaths of office, or promises that we have to reach out for in order to keep. Because we promise to hang in there together through all of that complexity. It is not easy.
The faith worth having is the one that can name that truth and offer the strength to live with it.
The church worth building is the one that isn’t afraid to say so.
Maxwell Grant is Senior Minister of Second Congregational Church, UCC in Greenwich, CT. He has served as a school chaplain in Manhattan, and a hospital chaplain in New Haven, CT. His writing has also appeared in Religion Dispatches and Bearings—the BTS blog. You can also find him at his web home: www.maxgrant.net. Twitter: @maxgrantmg