"Yes, there is a lack of dignity in what has happened to [Congressman Anthony] Weiner—but only because what was meant to be private became public." That's from Andrew Sullivan, the Daily Dish, who is attempting to curb our reaction against online activity that many of us, not only Christians, would call sin. Sullivan wants to us to believe such behavior is actually "a vital part of the human experience that we call 'play.'"

As I finished Sullivan's article, I sat stunned. This is how he concludes:

From Angry Birds to anonymous chat rooms to World of Warcraft to Chatroulette or Grindr or OKCupid, this is a safe zone for unsafe things by virtual people. That's why we call it play. It is often a balance to work or lack of work. It is not the end of civilization. It is, in fact, the mark of one.

It's not that Sullivan thinks adultery and illegitimacy is perfectly acceptable. He just doesn't think pornography, sex chat rooms, and online flirting by married men falls in that category. He argues, "if a married man [masturbates] to porn, I don't think we should consider him an adulterer." He goes on to say, "Ditto if someone 'kills' real-people-acting-as-avatars on World of Warcraft."

Did you catch that reasoning? If we are going to call watching porn adultery, then killing avatars is murder. This logic cannot possibly hold. The amount of abuse women receive, sexually and physically, to produce this pornography is horrifying. Watching a staged gang-rape of a woman by four men is heinous and unspeakably wicked. The fact that Sullivan can call this industry "playful," as if it were Dungeons and Dragons, is simply irresponsible, absurd, and morally reprehensible.

But Sullivan continues:

What if he is just playing at wooing or preening with online strangers or fans but with no real intent to, you know, have sexual relations with any of them? In the grand scheme of social ills, these do not rank high on my list. The real-virtual distinction is a meaningful one (emphasis mine).

Sullivan's flippant tone is stunning. And yet he must offer relief to many when he says the virtual world is safe for flirting, fantasizing, fornicating, killing, or anything else we want to do. Problem is, this "real-virtual distinction" Sullivan makes doesn't exist.

Ask a wife if she's comfortable with her husband staring at a surgically enhanced woman having rough sex. Will she be comforted with Sullivan's "real-virtual distinction"? No, she's probably already experienced what recent studies have confirmed. Husbands hooked on porn lose interest in their real-life wives.

Or ask the same woman whether she's pleased with her husband typing words to women online that he's never said to her. If she just realized this is merely "play" and, as Sullivan explains, truly the "mark of a civilization," then would she not be devastated when her husband complains he's bored, because she doesn't say the exciting, playful things the paid sex worker purrs over the phone?

If Sullivan is right, then why have so many expressed sympathy for Weiner's wife? Would she be wrong for feeling the sting of betrayal? Or would this response betray an uncivilized sense of "play" in the internet age?

The online sex industry offers cheap-and-easy passion. You don't work for the attention and thrill you receive. How that is the mark of a civilization, I'm not sure.

Sullivan's point doesn't make sense of reality. Of course our virtual habits have consequences in the "real world." Just ask any online-gambling addict. As if what we see with our eyes and invest with our emotions and passions cease to matter once we log off.

As humans we act from motive. Or to say it like Jesus, "For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander" (Matt. 15:19). Weiner may not have violated his marriage with his body, but he has dishonored God and disgraced his wife with his heart. "But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28). This is no light thing.

Sullivan gives us a little insight into how he can draw such shocking conclusions. He says,

I tend . . . to think that human nature is so flawed that a sane moral life cannot and should not insist on constant perfection/abstinence, but constant attention to morality, to conscience, and to what human beings can reasonably expect to achieve (emphasis mine).

This is a new morality, accustomed to these strange times. We've relieved ourselves from accountability to God, who cast a pall over our perfectly civilized play. Now we've set our standards to a level that "human beings can reasonably expect to achieve." And just who is the judge of what is "reasonable" for our standard of morality? Her name is Bambi, but you'll have to pay $0.99/minute to talk to her.

John Starke is lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.

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John Starke


John Starke is lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. You can follow him on Twitter.

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