Monday, June 22, 2015

Should Christians Divorce to Protest Gay Marriage part 2: The Culture Wars

OK, once again I have to start with some more ground clearing.  It has been observed that under the current Marriage Act the Jensens will not be able to simply obtain a divorce without proving that their relationship has irrevocably broken down.  Given that they are not planning to actually dissolve their relationship a judge would have no legal option but to refuse their application.  So is this whole discussion moot?  I have a few observations.  First, I am not surprised that there would be legal difficulties in getting this sort of legal separation through (indeed, I would have been shocked if it was just that easy).  I’m sure when they were constructing the Marriage Act they weren’t thinking about needing a Conscientious Objector category.  Second, since we are only dealing with potential legal changes regarding the definition of marriage there is no harm in thinking through what might be achieved if there was a consensus that this was the most ethical course to take.  After all, if one group can lobby for a change to the Marriage Act why can’t another?  Third, even if a divorce could not be legally granted in current circumstances, there is nothing saying that an application couldn’t be made anyway as a legitimate means of protest.  But moving on…

In my circles the questions surrounding marriage definition people have mostly been interested in the What questions:
·        What changes are being proposed?
·        What effect are they going to have on society?
·        What can we do to stop it?

Asking these questions is helpful.  We need to be clear about exactly what is happening and not be led by misinformation.  But there has been, to my mind, precious little attention to the Why questions:
·        Why are changes to marriage being sought?
·        Why did public support get mustered so quickly?
·        Why are so many heterosexual people taking an active part in championing these changes?
·        Why are “traditional” views of marriage now seen as incompatible with modern life?

Without wanting to pre-empt things by implying that I agree with their course of action, one of the positive things about the Jensen’s proposal to divorce is that it has helped bring the Why answers to the fore.  That is, the push for marriage redefinition has often been characterised as being driven by a desire for Equality, Inclusion, Tolerance, and Freedom.  If this were really the case then it would be hard to argue the point.  However, the sharp and often vicious reaction against this one couple’s questioning as to whether they wanted their relationship to continue to be regulated by the State has revealed some far less laudatory motivations at work.  It is only by realising what these motivations are that we as Christians can then ask the big question: What is the right thing for us to do now?

An illustration may help here.  Let’s suppose that you had been invited to a friend’s birthday party.  You had been to these gatherings before and it had all been quite pleasant.  However, a week after agreeing to attend, you find out that a new invitation had subsequently been issued to a person that your friend knows that you don’t personally get on with.  More than that, you have had vocal disagreements with this person in the past and if you were at the same party together it would be highly likely that an argument would start up again.  You go to your friend to explain the situation:

You: I didn’t realise that you were planning on inviting Him to your party.  I may not have agreed to come if I’d known that you were then going to invite Him as well, knowing that I’d be there.

Friend: Look, I know that you two have had problems in the past, but I think that it’s going to be a great night.  You are going to have a good time, the catering has all been arranged, there’s no reason for you not to come.

You: I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with this, or with the fact that you knew there were problems between me and Him and you still chose to invite us both.  Maybe it would be better if I didn’t come.

Now, what your friend says next is important.  If she says, “Look, I understand why you feel that way.  But I also think that there is a chance for the two of you to put your differences aside and enjoy a great party.  I’ll speak to Him and see if there is a chance that you could agree to disagree so we can all move on together, because it really wouldn’t be the same without you there.”, you see that this is an exercise in peacemaking and whatever your personal misgivings you lose nothing by being the bigger person and giving it a shot.  However, if your friend says, “Now you’re just being selfish!  All you want is to control who gets invited.  I’m not going to shed any tears if you choose not to come.  In fact, I think it will be a much better party without you.”, then you might get the impression that reconciliation and inclusion were not really high on your friend’s priority list.  In fact, it might just be that she was hoping that you might ultimately refuse to come.  And if that does happen to be the case, would you really want to go now anyway?

The analogy is imperfect, but I think that it explains a lot of what is going on in the disputes over the place of marriage in society.  As I have said previously, while the conflict is often perceived to be one between Legal and Christian Marriage, in actual fact it is almost entirely internal to Cultural.

Breaking down the entire history would take up too much time, but simply put in the Western culture there existed for a long time compatibility between Cultural and Christian Marriage.  Not that they were identical, but that for those who wished to make a Christian affirmation could do so without compromising their principles and their semi-pagan neighbours would not have thought them “weird” for doing so.  This was partly because of the universality of basic Cultural frameworks of the marriage relationship – a contracted union of a man and a woman for life with the expectation of legitimate children.  Even when the Cultural boundaries were more liberal (e.g. polygamous societies) or an overt Christian affirmation would be frowned upon (e.g. Islamic countries) it was still possible to live Christianly within marriage in a way that would testify to the true identity of the relationship.  Even during times when the Cultural aspects of weddings were almost exclusively Christian in character (in church, blessed by a priest, etc) but the broader social expectations of marriage were driven by more secular interests, those who wanted to affirm Christian Marriage were able to do so and were broadly affirmed (or at least tolerated).  This is merely to observe that Cultural Marriage has never been completely dominated by Christian Marriage even in the most “spiritual” of times, and those who wished to affirm marriage’s Christian character have always done so in the expectation that this was done in the context of a sinful world that did not always truly share gospel convictions.  The Cultural and the Christian were mutually inclusive of each other as they affirmed some foundational principles.

But over the last 100 years those foundational principles have slowly been eroded within the Cultural sphere.  Those things which had bound Cultural and Christian Marriage together were re-evaluated in light of new social priorities that placed Individual Self-Determination at the centre.  The idea of a shared Public Morality was discarded in favour of Personal Freedoms, starting with the idea of Love becoming the default criteria for marriage suitability – “What does it matter if people don’t approve of my choice of spouse because of their Social Class/Education/Religion/Politics/Morality?  It only matters that I Love them.”  Love is, of course, important in a marriage and cannot really be Christian without it (Eph 5:29-30), but Love was always tempered by social parameters of appropriateness.  Many famous stories, such as Romeo & Juliet and Great Expectations, have as their foundation examples of Love that are unmoderated and unwisely pursued.  Yet now the very concept of Love itself was in the process of redefinition to the point where it could no longer be moderated – we do not choose who we love, and so attempts to place barriers around what is and is not appropriate expression of love are met with suspicion of underlying sinister motives.  “What could be the reason that they could object to Love except the fact that they are driven by Hate?”

Thus, by the beginning of the 21st Century, the space in which Christian Marriage could legitimately be affirmed in Cultural Marriage had drastically shrunk.  Behind this was a broader hostility to Jesus Discipleship that was beginning to be seen more widely again in society (e.g. Scripture in State Schools).  There are many factors at play here that we don’t have space to go into, but the reality behind Stage TwoExile is that for the last 60 years our semi-pagan society was content to hold a policy of benign neglect towards religion generally – “We don’t particularly want you here, but we can’t stop you directly.  So we will politely leave you to your own devices until you eventually collapse under the weight of your own irrelevance.”  When that society discovered that (by the grace of God) these Jesus Disciples had not just faded away as expected and were just as bothersome as ever, more direct action was deemed necessary.

To that end, Culture does what it usually does when it finds that its basic moral frameworks are not overtly affirmed – it seeks to change the Law.  On the topic at hand, Cultural Marriage looked at Legal Marriage and saw that it reflected the ethical framework of a bygone era that accommodated something that could no longer be tolerated.  Christian Marriage affirmed that we are not in charge of our relationships, that they are directed to ends that are not our own, and declares Christ’s union with his church.  This explains why the movement for a change that would seemingly affect less than 3% of the population has garnered such popular support – this is not about what Christians think about Gay Marriage, this is about what Cultural Marriage thinks about Christian Marriage.  By and large, the gay people that I have interacted with around this topic have been respectful and tolerant of differences of opinion, perhaps intuitively sensing the need to keep the broader Culture onside.  Their heterosexual supporters, on the other hand, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain are happy to act as the attack dogs and throw around terms like “bigot”, “fundamentalist”, “Nazi”, and so forth. 

Thus the nature of what Cultural Marriage has become demands a change in Legal Marriage.  After all, don’t just laws spring from the morality of those who are to uphold and follow them?  And if the challenge of Christian Marriage can no longer be politely ignored but represents an ongoing ethical and spiritual challenge for the new millennium, then how can it expect to receive the tacit affirmation of the laws of the society that it is calling to repentance?  Christian Marriage may still be practiced – heaven forbid that anyone should be directly excluded!  But if it is to continue, it will have to operate within the Cultural space now assigned, and the Legal regulation will now come with some very heavy strings attached.

Next time, is Divorce the way forward?  Do we throw in the towel completely, or are these still ways to challenge the Cultural with true Christian Marriage?

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Should Christians Divorce to Protest Gay Marriage part 1: Three Marriages

This post will need to start with a few caveats.  First, it will be simply impossible to address all the nuances of marriage and culture in what I want to achieve and in an effort to keep things clear I am going to lump a lot of seemingly contradictory social practices together without making any moral judgments.  This is not a post about What Should Have Been/Should Be, but more What Was/Is.  Second, this is not intended to be a theological defence of Christian Marriage.  There are plenty of those out there if you want to go and look them up, and I’m going to be operating on the assumption that the Christian definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman for life under God is both biblically defensible and internally consistent.  Third, I am aware that there are many other religious and cultural groups other than Christians who support the man-woman pattern of marriage, but as I am a Christian writing in the context of a Christianized culture I don’t feel that I can speak for them directly.  Nevertheless, I am sure that many people with whom I don’t share similar faith may still agree with some of these arguments.  Everyone good?  Smashing...

The debate over the legitimacy of gay marriage is very recent.  If you were to go back twenty years it was only in very radical corners that the topic was even mentioned.  The vast majority of gay people accepted this as natural and so their apologetic approach reflected this – “Marriage is for straight people, but gay relationships are special too.  We don’t want to destroy marriage, but give us the respect that you would give any other couple and we can get on together just fine.”  I am in my mid-30s and I can remember when this was the mainstream gay rights position.  It dovetailed nicely with the progressive views on relationships that had come out of the 70s, which had rejected any notion that the State or Church should have any business in defining relationships and declaring who was or wasn’t “living in sin”.  It was the philosophy presumably held by our famously unmarried former Prime Minister Julia Gillard – at the very least it seems to explain why she was hesitant about backing the push for marriage redefinition.

Then something happened.  Around five years ago gay marriage became a serious political issue.  Of course, there were already a number of legal protections in place and gay couples had for a while enjoyed “wedding ceremonies” at churches that were happy to participate.  But that became not enough.  The progressive philosophy had done a three-point turn.  Now the State was obligated to give any relationship that did not have equal legal and social status with marriage these same rights.  Civil Unions were not enough – it had to be marriage for any two people who wanted them.

This change by itself was not all that surprising.  In many ways, it was the logical conclusion to the normalisation of homosexual relationships that had been going on for some time.  But two things were surprising: the extent of mainstream public support for the change and the speed at which that support was mustered.  This is not a social change being driven by the 3% of the population who are homosexual, but a change that is supported by the fundamental views on the nature of relationships and marriage in a substantial proportion of the wider community.  Our culture is now working on some vastly different assumptions about these matters than their parents (or even their older siblings).  So how do we understand this?

It’s beyond my ability (or I think anyone else’s) to pinpoint exactly how this change occurred.  Who is responsible – the internet, social media, HBO, the Rolling Stones?  I can’t even begin to untangle that ball of fishing line.  But what we can do is examine the What of the situation in regards to change.  But first we need to consider some sociological factors along with our theology.

One of the main problems is that in the public debate the conflict is often painted in terms of Gay Marriage vs Traditional Marriage.  I have seen advocates for both sides use this distinction.  The problem is that it is simply not accurate or helpful to couch the issue in this way.  Nevertheless, I propose that there are three different philosophies of marriage at work here that aren't always easily identifiable in the public rhetoric with the tension between them generating the conflict.

The first is Cultural Marriage.  This is a society’s general view of what marriage is, how it is established and how it should be practiced.  It starts with questions of Suitability – are the two people of culturally appropriate age, social status, caste, eligibility, race or cultural group and so forth?  Will this match bring honour or shame on the extended family?  Do the couple have appropriate levels of commitment/love/money to merit the approval of society?  Then there are questions about the Wedding – what do these people have to do to make their marriage culturally valid in the eyes of society?  Do they need to be blessed by a priest?  Do they need to parade through the streets?  Does a special sacrifice need to be offered to the gods?  What vows need to be taken?  Does the celebration need to last a week or can you do it in an afternoon?  How many other people need to be involved?  Finally, there are the ongoing practices and behaviours that mark out a Good Marriage – are they acting in a way that is consistent with the values that people expect of a married couple?  Are they sexually faithful?  Does he make enough money to support his family (and does that matter)?  Does her behaviour bring honour to him?  Is there violence in the home? 
Cultural Marriage can vary greatly across time and place.  My wife and I have joked that if we had been born 100 years earlier our marriage would have been impossible because of the differences in our natural social class - she would have been a lady in a Society house and I would probably have been working in the stables.  The basis for a great trashy romance novel certainly, but it would have been a scandalous marriage.  Fortunately, times have changed and our relationship could be affirmed by our culture.  The particular society also sets boundaries for Cultural Marriage.  A small and isolated village would have very defined ideas as to what a marriage should look like, but in a large multicultural city there are going to be a range of ways that a marriage may be culturally affirmed with perhaps only a few taboos.

Our second category is Legal Marriage.  This involves questions of whether people are permitted in a legal sense to marry, have the conditions for legal recognition been met, and the regulating of the privileges and obligations of being in such a relationship.  It is sometimes argued that the State being involved in marriage is a recent invention (indeed, the Jensens appear to argue that prior to the mid-18th Century the State had no role).  However, I believe this is not accurate and doesn’t take into account the range of ways that Legal Marriage can be administered.  True, formal legal statutes and government departments to manage such matters are fairly recent, but chiefs, princes and magistrates were often called upon to make legal judgments on family matters.  They may have appealed to “natural justice” or established precedent, but Legal Marriage has been a long-standing reality.

Note that this category is not concerned with what should be done for a marriage to be valid (cultural or ethical), but what is obliged to be done in order for the marriage to be officially sanctioned.  For example, a modern couple may be very much in love and there will be no problem financially, but if the prospective bride is only 13 then there is no way for that relationship to be formally registered.  This example also points to a connection to the first category – the Legal is shaped and defined by the Cultural and its precepts must reflect the morality of the culture around it if it is to be regarded as just.  Regulations around the age of consent and the conditions by which that consent has been recognised have varied over time, as has the standard of proof by which a divorce may be obtained.  Each change in the legal regulations was reflective of a cultural shift about appropriate standards that had already taken place.  Not everything that is Cultural becomes Legal (e.g. there is nothing about wedding cakes in the Marriage Act though their universal acceptance could lead you to think that they were an official requirement).  Overall, government regulates what it feels that it needs to in order for the varied acceptable cultural practices to continue and leaves the rest up to us.

Finally we have Christian Marriage.  Contrary to what many believe, this is not a wedding that takes place in a church.  In fact, I have conducted several purely Cultural weddings (though in Christian form) and most of that which goes on in a wedding between two committed Christian people is merely Cultural.  Christian Marriage is fundamentally a theological commitment that recognises God’s eternal purposes for marriage from the Beginning and which undergird our Cultural and Legal categories.  It affirms that the pairing of male and female was God’s good plan in Creation (Gen 2), that our conduct within it speaks of our new relationship in Christ (Eph 5:22–33), and that our commitment to the relationship is eschatologically realised in the coming of Christ in the Kingdom (Rev 21:1–5).  Many people may partake in a Christian marriage ceremony but are not committed to nor will they practice Christian Marriage.  But those of us who have put our faith in Jesus and are married by necessity will.  And it is this form of marriage that Christians wish to see as effective and emulated in our society.  When we say that we want to “stand up for true marriage” we are not saying Man+Woman In A Church (because many people already do that), but rather Live In Christ.  Whether you've said your vows in a cathedral, walked around a table, had a large family celebration, or just registered your union with a magistrate makes no difference - what matters is the bigger Gospel story which your marriage testifies to.

So we have these categories of Cultural, Legal and Christian Marriage.  Where exactly is the conflict?  We may be forgiven for thinking that this is a matter of Legal vs Christian, but on reflection I've come to the view that this is not really the case.  In fact, the primary debate is what legitimately belongs in the Cultural and how the Legal is being used to implicitly affirm or exclude.  More on that next time...

P.S. For those wanting some concrete examples of the differences between Cultural and Legal Marriage, here is a link to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts which deals with ancient Roman wedding customs.  The presenter doesn't use these categories, but he does outline clearly the differences between who Could and who Should have married in the Roman period.  Plus, it is interesting to see how some of the ancient practices have adapted and persisted into the modern era.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Should Christians Divorce to Protest Gay Marriage: Prologue

About two weeks ago I went against my better instincts and joined a discussion on Facebook on the push for marriage redefinition in Australia.  I stated my considered position: that as a Christian I could not agree with the popular demand for a change in marriage definition and that I could live with a change in the legal definition if it should come to that.  I said that a consequence would probably be my handing in my celebrant licence to avoid legal complications and state intrusions in the future so that any marriage ceremonies that I conducted in the future would be purely religious in nature.  I also said that I was considering filing for divorce should these changes come, not because of necessary compulsion but as a sign of political dissent and as a matter of consistency (e.g. how could I in the future counsel Christian engaged couples that all that is required is a commitment before God rather than a participation in a State institution when I myself continued to participate in that same institution?).  

I’ll admit, at the time I hadn’t seriously thought this last radical course of action all the way through and wasn’t even totally committed to that particular path – it just seemed like the logical conclusion that if you are going to be Out of something then you should be all the way Out so as to avoid confusion.  Maybe this is a lesson to me to think everything through to the end first, but if I did that then I would never leave my office.

My views on resigning my licence were met with predictable disappointment, but my idea on divorce really seemed to provoke offence.  A number of people said that they were genuinely shocked and insulted that I would even consider such a step.   It was not so much, “Whoa, that’s radical.  Are you sure you really need to go that far?” but rather, “I can’t believe that you would consider doing something so hurtful!"

The reaction struck me as odd because it seemed to go against one of the main arguments of the Gay Marriage Lobby: “Marriage is a personal relationship between two people only.  How does a man-man or woman-woman marriage affect heterosexual couples in any way?  Why doesn’t everybody just mind their own business if gay marriage is not going to affect their relationships?”  If such an argument is true, then how is it possible for someone else’s divorce (whatever the circumstances) to cause social offence?  How would it affect a legal homosexual union if heterosexual people chose not to participate in the same legal process?  I figured that I had simply touched a nerve and let it go through to the keeper.

On Wednesday a Canberra local news outlet ran a story about a Christian couple who are planning to “divorce” should the Government officially recognise homosexual unions as valid marriages (note: the implication of the article was that the trigger would be an amendment to the Federal Marriage Act but it was unclear exactly where the “line in the sand” was to be).  The husband, Nick Jensen, stated that he was not intending to abandon his wife or family but would simply cease to have his marriage relationship defined by the State (which he points out is a fairly recent legal convention).  The motivation of the Jensens is simply one of conscience – they do not believe that a broadening of the legal definition would accurately reflect the reality of their relationship and do not wish the State to categorise them in ways contrary to belief.

The story was then picked up by Fairfax and NewsCorp where it led the online readership figures and comments for most of the day.  The stories were then shared via social media where they attracted even more discussion.  Not all the comments either on the news sites or social media were overtly hostile, but broadly speaking when the red herrings about Divorce Is A Sin Too and So Is Eating Shellfish (which suggest that the argument hadn’t really been comprehended) are taken out the negative reactions could be classified into three groups:

  1. This is just clickbait about people looking for attention.  Irrelevant!
  2. Marriage is better off without them.  Good Riddance!
  3. These people are bigots, just like you’d expect Christians to be.  Boo Hiss!

Once again, I was surprised by the reaction that the moral decision of one Christian couple (not prominent or in any way claiming leadership or representation of others) could generate.  And, once again, I was surprised by how that reaction was at odds with the stated mainstream philosophies that supposedly undergird the push for gay marriage – “There is room for us all in this tent if we mind our own business and accept our differences.”  It might be argued that this is reflected in Reaction 1, but I will note that this seemed to be the least common of the negative reactions and the tone of most (difficult to determine exactly online) was distinctly passive-agressive (less “This doesn’t really matter” and more “Who cares what they think”).  There was no-one (that I could find) who seriously thought that this Christian couple had got it wrong on a purely sociological level, that marriage is best served by including the progressives and the conservatives, and encouraged them to rethink their decision.

In fact, the most common of the negative reactions might be described as Good Riddance and Don’t Come Back!  Marriage in the 21st Century, it seems, is going to be much better off without all these pesky theists around talking about faith and tradition and man-woman exclusivity.  You get the picture that traditionalists in this debate are viewed by many as obstacles to be overcome rather than opponents to be persuaded and that they can all pack their bags if they can’t get with the program.  Once again, not exactly consistent with the oft-repeated claim that gay marriage will have no impact on traditionalists whatsoever...

Perhaps some in the Christian camp will wish that the question of Protest Divorce had never been raised and will dismiss it out of hand as ill-conceived and unnecessary.  But the more I consider the matter the less I am sure that position can simply be assumed.  At the very least, the discussion over the last 24 hours has revealed where the General Will around the question of gay marriage actually is rather than where it is claimed to be.  The public argument is that there is room for everybody, but when that assumption is pressed it is found wanting.  Do Christians then need to change their assumptions about how they might bear authentic witness to the true purpose of marriage and to the God who created it in the space we now occupy?

The topic is very big, but I want to focus on one particular question: in the event of marriage being legally redefined to include gay relationships, should Christians go through a legal divorce?  Would the rightness of such a course of action depend on whether the primary aim is Social Protest or Christian Witness?  Might particular context or roles within the Church determine whether such a step might be necessary.

I haven’t completely mapped out how I will proceed, but I am intending for my next post to be on the 3 Types Of Marriage, then move on to Church-State factors, and then issues of Mission and Witness.  I’m not sure how long this might take but I’ll try to be thorough and engaging at the same time.