Lust, Advent, and Foucalt’s Panopticon

Seven Deadly Sins Sermon Series, 7 out of 7 –11/28/2011
Text: John 3:19-21

So what do you do when your seven deadly sin sermon series spills over into Advent? And the only deadly sin that hasn’t been addressed yet is lust because it’s the most awkward one to talk about? Advent is the G-rated time in the Christian calendar. It’s about angels and babies wrapped in swaddling clothes and petting zoos with three year-old shepherds. It’s about Mary’s giddiness upon having her first child that caused her to rush out and tell her pregnant cousin Elizabeth so they could be pregnant-silly together. How can we bring an R-rated sin like lust into the G-rated world of Advent? It is pretty awkward timing, but I think this creates a unique opportunity for us to rethink Advent. Not to sully the warm and fuzzy side of it, but to reexamine the question we often fly past: why do we need a savior to be born to us in Bethlehem this year? Advent every year puts the coming of Christ in the present tense, because Christmas is not just a holiday; it’s a new chance to really make Jesus our king. We need Jesus to be born into our lives this year every bit as badly as his birth was needed 2010 years ago.

Why? Because we’re captives just like the Israelites were, and we need a messiah no less than they did; only we aren’t held captive by foreign emperors; our captivity is to a culture that makes money off our sin, a prime example being the way that it ramps up our otherwise natural instinct to make babies into a socially devastating frenzy of lust because that’s the best way to sell the most products. Lust makes money, lots of it, not only through the use of sex in advertising, but through the expectations engendered by this advertising, which bolster the fashion industry, the diet industry, the workout industry, the plastic surgery industry, and of course, the industry that creates dirty pictures and videos which are the most lucrative form of e-commerce today.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that modern life is like an 18th century prison in which the prisoners’ cells are organized in a circle around a central guard tower in the middle called the panopticon. The panopticon has a 360 degree window that is back-lit in such a way so that no prisoner can see where the guard is looking, which creates the illusion of always being watched. The guard is always invisible, and the prisoner is always exposed.

This metaphor applies perfectly to the way that lust has shaped our society. On the one side, there are those of us who are imprisoned by the pressure of always feeling watched and having our bodies evaluated, which causes us to spend far too much time and money on our appearance and even develop eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia. On the other side are those of us who sit in the dark and obsessively watch other peoples’ bodies, whether this happens at the gym, on the subway, or on our laptop screens late at night.

Both sides live in an imprisoning nightmare, the watchers no less than the watched. A culture of lust has caused both sides to be completely lonely and isolated from one another even within relationships in which we come together to do the one physical act that is supposed to make us feel loved and accepted. Thus, the gift that God created for us as a perfect means to experience intimacy and belonging has been corrupted by the world to become the very reason that we feel lonely. And that’s why this Christmas we need a Messiah to rescue us!

A traditional scripture used for Advent is taken from Isaiah 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Advent is the season that invites us to step into the light of Jesus Christ. This is how we are rescued from captivity to lust and all the other sins that our world uses to its profit. Walking into Jesus’ light is not an easy thing to do, but it is the most liberating thing that we will ever do. What Jesus says in John 3:19-21 captures the predicament we find ourselves in: “This is the verdict, light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done by God.’”*

When we’re living in sin, we prefer darkness to the light, especially if we’re enslaved to an ugly sin like lust. So we keep our struggles in the dark, stuffing them deeper and deeper into our souls while wearing the mask that everything’s just fine everywhere we go, especially when we go to church. The darkness feels safe – like sitting on the inside of the panopticon’s watchtower rather than being tormented by the spotlight of judgment on the outside. But the light of Jesus is not the spotlight of judgment; God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.

We see how Jesus’ light is different in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The story is grounded in a basic paradox about light: this woman went to fetch water in the brightest, hottest hour of the day because that was the best time not to be seen by anybody else. While our society might not make a big deal about a woman having five marriages, in Jesus’ day, this would have been scandalous behavior! And so this woman, hoping not to find anybody at the well when she gets there, runs into Jesus, and not only that, he’s a Jew, and Jews hate Samaritans like her. So what a surprise it was for Jesus to break multiple social rules at the same time by asking this serially polygamous Samaritan woman for a drink! And how much more of a surprise it must have been when it turned out that Jesus knew everything about her and still asked her for a drink!

Now let’s consider carefully what Jesus says. He tells the woman the truth about her life, but he doesn’t condemn her for it. He’s not fishing for repentance; he doesn’t try to get her to apologize for how she’s lived. Jesus’ approach is to give the woman a glimpse of a better way to live. The Samaritan woman has spent her life throwing herself at all these different men, chasing after a form of water that will never satisfy her thirst. So Jesus tells her about the eternal living water that He has to offer. It’s not a rebuke; it’s not a judgment; it’s an invitation to an infinitely more nourishing form of life. The world of lust sees beauty as a cheap and tacky thing – a set of measurements – how wide your waist is, how high your heels are, how short your skirt is. When we accept Jesus’ invitation to leave the world of lust behind, we discover a beauty we never could have imagined, because we learn to see things not according to their surface-level appearance but according to how they express the love of the God who created them. This Advent, Jesus invites us to drink the eternal living water that only He can offer and see the world with new eyes that only He can give us.

So what kind of Christmas season do we want to have? Will it be just another shopping season in which we let the marketplace tell us what stuff we’re supposed to buy to show our love for other people? The same profit motive that corrupts the meaning of Christmas is what has created the epidemic of lust in our culture and the prison of social expectations that has so many people in chains. And if we come to church as part of our duty to these same social expectations, then we’ll have the same pleasant, shallow conversations here that we do everywhere else while the wounds of our sin languish in the darkness of our souls. Or are we willing to step into the light of Jesus Christ, where His grace removes the need for anyone to hide in darkness?

If we want for this Christmas to really be Christmas, then it’s time for us to live in the light of the kingdom that is established by Christ’s birth. This call to step into the light comes to us not only as individuals imprisoned by sin, but as the community of people called to create a safe sanctuary for anyone who has been trapped by lust and other sins so they can come clean and step into a new life of freedom. As the body of Christ, this is our most important task, and it’s not something we should put on the backburner during Advent. Everything else we do this season – Christmas tree sales, live nativity scenes, or mission projects – is relevant only insofar as it contributes to our basic task of making Christian disciples and supporting each other in our battles with sin. It is sin’s secrecy which binds us in captivity. When we can confess our sins to people who love and support us, then Satan loses his power. So my challenge to you this Advent is to not let it come and go like every other Christmas season but make this the Christmas in which you make Jesus your king as you never have before by stepping into the light to receive your freedom. Amen.

3 thoughts on “Lust, Advent, and Foucalt’s Panopticon

  1. Foucault is one of the most important resources I’ve had for understanding American Christianity. His History of Sexuality is essential for explaining the middle-class investment in Victorian “family values.” Sexual purity validates middle-class existence in the same way that blue blood validates the aristocracy. Thus, the middle class conception of morality validates the stable, orderly way of living that is natural to us and invalidates the poor for their teenage pregnancy and the filthy rich for their decadence.

  2. Foucault’s “Discipline & Punishment” is a fascinating book. First he establishes the evolving methods of prisons. Then he lays out the stated purposes of prisons. Then he demonstrates how prisons fail to achieve every one of these purposes. And then he derives from all that has come before the true purpose of prisons. I won’t spoil the big reveal, but it’s a shocker.

    (p.s. – Whoever wrote the D&P section of Foucault’s Wikipedia page clearly either never read it or failed to understand it. The actual page for D&P is better, but gets vague at the end to avoid spoilers.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s