Finally, we come to what I really wanted to talk about in the first place: what do we all do now? I have been a little slow in getting this final post out there because I wanted to absorb the popular reaction to the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to see if it conformed to my analysis of the situation. It has been interesting to see at least some of the public comment mirroring my concern for the challenge to religious practice that the change in marriage definition entails. Before going onto conclusions, perhaps a brief recap is needed.
In part 1, I attempted to draw out the three different types of marriage that are currently in tension: Cultural, Legal and Christian. It appeared to me that occasionally inappropriate labels were attached to the debate (e.g. Traditional vs Gay Marriage) which tended to either confuse the issue or reduce it to a matter of sexual orientation. In part 2, I proposed that the heart of the debate was really centred around broader shifts in the shape of Cultural Marriage rather than being solely located in the permission of homosexual unions. These changes, which pushed the primacy of the criteria of Individual Love to the almost exclusion of all others, meant that the space in which Cultural and Christian Marriage now were able to coexist had been dramatically reduced. In recent days, the proliferation of the social media tag #lovewins to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling appears to bear this out. The push for change in the form of Legal Marriage is thus based on a change in what is viewed as public justice – as the morality surrounding the entire institution of marriage has shifted, so the legal framework by which those relationships are regulated by the State must also be changed. Those who believe that marriage represents more than romance and that the relationship should support traditional social order (or point to the spiritual reality behind it) are ridiculed as bigots and are made to understand their views are no longer welcome. Whereas once Legal Marriage was able to accommodate both the Cultural and the Christian, the Cultural is now demanding changes to the Legal to express its disapproval of the Christian. No longer may the three dwell together in harmony.
So, have the Jensens got it right? If Legal Marriage no longer stands on moral foundations that Christian Marriage can affirm, is the right thing to do to get out of it altogether? Do we all sign our divorce papers and hand them in to let the courts know we mean business (even if they can’t approve any of them)? Do we pressure our elected representatives to create a Conscientious Objector category for those who can’t abide by the changes in Legal Marriage? Do we burn our marriage certificates outside the courthouse, like our fathers did with their Draft Cards?
I did not want to make a snap call on the proper course of action, and the more I thought about it the more complex it seemed to be. So here are my observations:
1) Legal Divorce is not in itself sin. An accusation that has been made against the Jensens, including by some Christians, is that in their plan to divorce they would be protesting one sin by committing another. This is simply not a fair evaluation of their intentions. While the breakdown of a marriage relationship will undoubtedly involve sinful actions by sinful people, an application to deregister the recognition of that relationship by the State is not in itself wrong, and may in fact merely reflect the reality that the relationship had in fact broken down. The subversive nature of the intended protest was that the couple did not want to break their commitment to each other or undermine their Christian witness, but simply wanted to remove their relationship from State oversight. In Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees in Luke 20 over the issue of divorce, Jesus pointed to the true sin was not in the issuing of a divorce certificate, but in the hearts of the people who wanted a way to back out of their commitments. My conclusion is that if it was possible for a Christian couple to legally opt out of State oversight, they could do so with a clear conscience.
2) Legal Marriage both Regulates and Affirms. At this point I feel that I am running counter to many fellow Christians who do not wish to concede the power of Legal Marriage too much authority. The argument goes that all Legal Marriage does is regulate the administration of relationships and to get too worked up about the exact boundaries of that recognition risks conceding the ground on defining what marriage is, which should rest with God alone. I agree up to a certain point (and there will be more to say on this later), but I fear that our focus on this issue has been too narrow, concerned only with What is being regulated rather than the Why behind it. Yes, the letter of the Law only has the power to regulate according to those prescribed boundaries and there is nothing to prevent Christian Marriage from continuing to be regulated exactly as previously. However, the broader shift in the public morality and philosophy of Cultural Marriage means that any changes in law will by implication affirm the truth on which the altered legal framework is now based. To ignore this affirmation is to accept the position of the proponents of change who couch their arguments in terms of Inclusion and Tolerance, which I have argued is far from the truth. We must, in effect, look beyond the letter of the law to the spirit which has shaped it in order to determine the most virtuous path.
3) Here is the kicker. After much careful consideration, I am not convinced that Protest Divorce is the appropriate Christian response. I think that the Jensens proposal (and my initial response) recognised something fundamentally true about the times we are now entering that does require action, but the path of Legal Divorce in protest (or even just a Quixotic attempt) does not seem to get us very far. Any action of this kind must be driven by two big questions: Is It Consistent and Will It Work? The divorce path seems on examination to fail both these tests. It is not the case that those who are already married will have to sign a revised Terms & Conditions in order for their marriage to continue to be recognised, and social and legal structures will continue to treat those who are already married as having entered into those arrangements under the conditions that were in place at the time. That said, if in some bizarre set of circumstances the government decided that everybody had to renew their marriage paperwork and that came with revised Terms & Conditions then I would have some severe misgivings. In short, I can see no real issues of conscience that should necessitate the breaking of Legal Marriage relationships. As to whether Protest Divorce would actually be effective in calling society to account, the reality behind the shift in Cultural Marriage that has prompted legal change which I outlined earlier in fact suggests the opposite. Rather than provoking shock and horror that same-sex relationships would not be considered “equal” even if legal change occurred, activists for change would like nothing more than a hasty and panicked retreat. They feel that we don’t belong within the institution of Cultural Marriage anyway, so why give them the satisfaction of confirming it?
4) Christian Marriage needs to find a means of expressing distinctiveness and dissent from Legal and Cultural Marriage. There are a number of options on the table, and to be quite honest I’m not sure that anyone has an infallible answer as to how best to be witness for Jesus in this situation. Even though Protest Divorce might not achieve the ends that it claims, the riskiest path would be simply to carry on as if nothing had changed. There are already serious discussions locally about how denominations(including my own) might respond to the legal challenges. I can understand the position of those who are hesitant about cutting Christian Marriage from Legal Marriage because of the risks of appearing to “concede the field” and leaving relationships without State oversight. However, I think that this view underestimates the depth of changes which are headed our way. But these discussions, necessary as they may be, only address half the problem. That is, the majority of the discussion about denominations and clergy refusing to be involved with Legal Marriage in the future is centred on protecting individuals and groups from possibly being sued despite all the legal protections that will apparently be in place. This is probably necessary, but unfortunately it does not address what individual Christians can do to counter the popular narrative about what marriages are and should be. The suggestion of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson, that civil and religious marriages be treated separately but equal under the Marriage Act appears to address the problem, but will probably only result in kicking the can down the road (though it is hard to say without seeing how exactly this might be framed legally). With that in mind, one possible path might be for Christians to elect not to register future marriages with the State. There are, of course, risks involved in not having the State involved in regulating relationships but in our present day most of the rights and responsibilities of marriage are legally considered part of non-registered relationships anyway. Some may argue that if the State will continue to administer heterosexual marriage as before then there really is no reason to withdraw. Yet the reality is that the underlying ethics of the whole game are changing – the legal contract will no longer be concerned with ensuring permanency in relationships or protecting the rights of children but instead on making sure that Love Is Free. Continued participation in the system by Christians will only indicate a capitulation to the new Cultural narrative that is imposing itself on the Legal framework. And make no mistake – more changes will come that will be even more challenging to Christian Marriage. If we will have to withdraw eventually, then we might as well do it at a time and place of our choosing, establishing our Cultural and Legal distinctiveness within marriage. There doesn’t have to be a big show about it, but as our churches stop filling in the government paperwork and our young couples make a point of not going to fill them out elsewhere, then it will become clear that Christians stand for a whole different framework by which the marriage relationship should be understood.
So we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Protest Divorce does not appear to be a solid starter, but we’re all going to have to learn how to live faithfully in some challenging new conditions. However, as has been said many times by others, all of this is fairly insignificant – God is still God, Jesus is still coming soon, and there are many good works that we can all be getting on with in the meantime. Have confidence in the fact that, as Romans 8 teaches us, that nothing can separate us from the Love of God in which we all (married or not) now live.