Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
That’s Matthew 5:27-28, in the King James translation of the New Testament, the reference intended by Christine O’Donnell in her now-notorious pitch — made on MTV in 1996 — for teenagers to stop masturbating. Jimmy Carter quoted the passage too, in the famous poll-plummeting admission made when he was a presidential candidate in 1976.
O’Donnell told MTV, “The Bible says that lust in your heart is committing adultery. So — you can’t masturbate without lust!” She gives the second sentence a triumphant — and utterly adorable — “QED!” smile, clearly one who knows whereof she speaks.
Shockingly (not), I haven’t seen any criticism of the nubile O’Donnell’s faulty theology. She got Jesus manifestly wrong, but nobody seems to care what Jesus said. They care about what O’Donnell said, once, and irrelevantly to anything important now. The debate on this goofball topic, if it can be called a debate, or a topic, has come down to: “See? Jesus jumpers hate pleasure” versus “Damn, how did they find that stupid footage?”
But I think what the New Testament says on these matters is worth reviewing, and that Christians who misquote it raise questions, especially when they grow up to offer political leadership.
O’Donnell misconstrued Matthew 5:27-29 in multiple interesting ways.
Begin with the literal. Jesus doesn’t say that to lust in one’s heart is to commit adultery. He says that to lust after somebody is to commit adultery, in one’s heart, with that person. O’Donnell moves the phrase “in your heart” to modify the lust itself, and the re-location changes the meaning. Her unwitting revision suggests she meant to say that the Bible calls any feeling of lust tantamount to adultery. That’s not what she meant to say, or what the passage says. What’s sort of cute about her big QED moment is that she’s oblivious to inducing a foregone conclusion from a false premise and not saying what she means.
More important, though, is that the young O’Donnell appears to have no theological, spiritual, or intellectual context at all for her reference. The difference in sentence structure I’m parsing is important because it points at what Jesus was actually talking about, something you’d think would matter to young, fervent Christians. Yet we may infer from the O’Donnell footage that many of them have no idea what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount.
Her citing “the Bible,” not Jesus, reflects the important confusion — a big problem for the Christian right in general. In the Sermon, Jesus is referring to “the Bible,” too, in the sense that he’s reviewing the Ten Commandments. And Jesus is dissenting explicitly from the idea that scripture, as he and his contemporaries knew it, had all the answers. He distinguishes his message radically from that delivered by Moses. When it comes to adultery, murder, and loving your neighbor, he says, obeying the commandment, instead of looking at what’s inside you, will not help you. Masturbation doesn’t appear in the Sermon because it’s not mentioned in the commandments that Jesus was criticizing — and that’s because masturbation is not, literally, adultery, which is all the particular commandment concerns itself with. Masturbation does make an appearance in the Old Testament story of Onan — but Jesus was sharply rejecting over-reliance on that letter-of-the-law Old Testament stuff. (O’Donnell must reject it too, or she’d be keeping Kosher.) Jesus simply did not care to promulgate any new laws about masturbation. He was calling people to a new relationship with themselves and with law. To little avail.
O’Donnell was young, and poorly informed, and who cares what she thought about masturbating. But gesturing vaguely at “the Bible,” in an effort to support religious and political positions, is characteristic as well of many much older and better-informed people on the Christian right. The Bible, taken as a gigantic whole, tells you to do all kinds of things. What Jesus tells you to do can be quite specific, and you’d think anyone espousing Christianity might want to give it some close attention now and then. Maybe?
Perhaps the most irritating aspect of this story, to me, is that many secularist/atheist types, as uninformed about the Bible as O’Donnell was, consider her as good a source as any and reflexively accept that “the Bible” probably does prohibit masturbation. “See? That’s why we’re against religion!” People not thinking things through, everywhere you look.
One surprising note on Jimmy Carter. He’s routinely quoted as having admitted to Playboy that he’d “lusted in my heart.” (Maureen Dowd uses O’Donnell’s expression “lust in your heart” in her Carter piece today.) That would mean Carter had made the same misquotation, connecting “in the heart” to “lust,” not “adultery,” and it’s bugged me for years; I was going to goof on Carter for the error in this very post.
But then I looked up what he actually said. It’s Carter who has been misquoted. He got the verse right, from memory, and explained the meaning succinctly:
Because I’m just human and I’m tempted and Christ set some almost impossible standards for us. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Christ said, I tell you that anyone who looks on a woman with lust has in his heart already committed adultery. I’ve looked on a lot of women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times…. This is something that God recognizes, that I will do and have done, and God forgives me for it. But that doesn’t mean that I condemn someone who not only looks on a woman with lust but who leaves his wife and shacks up with somebody out of wedlock. Christ says, don’t consider yourself better than someone else because one guy screws a whole bunch of women while the other guy is loyal to his wife. The guy who’s loyal to his wife ought not to be condescending or proud because of the relative degree of sinfulness.
(Dig that “screw.” I haven’t wondered this for 34 years — but was he drunk ?)
Maybe the cultural memory of what we call, inaccurately, Carter’s “lust in his heart” moment affected how the young O’Donnell interpreted scripture. Maybe it was her only source! In any event, Carter shows us that people used to know their Bible.