"Just stuff we're supposed to do": Pope Francis' message and zingers

"A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

That was one of the many zinging one-liners in Pope Francis' speech to the United States Congress on September 24, 2015. He organized his remarks around the highlighting of four American figures: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. 

I had been looking forward to it since it was announced earlier in the year. Admittedly, I was watching not just for the content of the speech itself but for the image of lawmakers—wined, dined, and bribed by special interests—squirming in their seats at the sound of his words; words which combined dominant and non-sectarian Judeo-Christian themes with the highest principles of a free and democratic society.

What should most disturb us is how deeply fundamental are the principles which the Pope mentions compared to how controversial or political they are now considered, and how much we have forgotten them. Fox News's Shepard Smith, during an interview the day before, bemoaned how issues like economic opportunity for all and stewardship of the environment have now somehow become political and controversial. As he said, that is "just stuff we're supposed to do."


The Pope began by reminding Congress of what their job is:
You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.
It's hard to find bills that are advanced "based on care for the people" and lawmakers who are in a "tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good." We function out of a mindset of scarcity, not abundance. If our federal budget is any indication, we are in a position of debilitating fear, our proverbial fists clenched, spending unspeakable amounts of money on weapons and defense while we penny-pinch and cut our education system, infrastructure, and other things that we once knew made us prosperous and secure. The Pope mentioned this reality at the end of his speech, calling out our endless selling of the tools of destruction:
Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade. 
If our goal was to destroy terrorists, we would be hearing just as much about Central Africa as the Middle East, perhaps more. Or consider that Saudi Arabia, one of the most religiously extremist countries in the Middle East and from which 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers came, is one of the U.S.'s closest allies. Their government possibly beheads more people than ISIS. They are rich in Islamic extremism, but also rich in oil, and are willing to flood the market when we tell them to. National security and fighting terrorism, as the Pope seems to know, are only a small part of what is actually going on.

Be it individuals or nations, fear and insecurity drives us to try to take over or control situations that are not going our way. But as Pope Francis brilliantly put it, "A good political leader always opts to initiate processes rather than possessing spaces."

The Pope lifted up, in less forceful words than I would have preferred, the daily struggle of the working poor. But he did more than just call attention to them; he told the truth about them, that they "sustain the life of society." It is here that he could/should have explicitly called for a living wage to be paid to all workers. He did, however, express appreciation for both the elderly and the young, two segments of the population that are more likely to be poor. In a largely unnoticed but great line, he encouraged visionary and ambitious young people whom he said "face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults."

The Pope also lifted up the dangers of religious extremism and fundamentalism...of any type. He did away with our culture's persistent narrative that a certain religion is necessarily bad or good:
We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. This means that we must be especially attentive to every type of fundamentalism, whether religious or of any other kind. A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms.
This "balance" he mentions is highly elusive but was nevertheless the vision of our country's founders who, having their own deep religious commitments, penned a religiously neutral Constitution that never mentions God or Jesus, never quotes from the Bible, forbids religious tests for office in its sixth article, and establishes a religiously neutral government in its first amendment.

In that same section of the speech, the Pope also smacked down a "simplistic reductionism" that separates the world's people into two categories of good and evil: "The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps." Then, in a nod to the many biblical passages that forbid revenge and the repaying of evil with evil, the Pope uttered a great line: "We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within."

The Pope's speech-as-prepared included a reference to the Declaration of Independence's affirmation of "inalienable rights." For whatever reason, he skipped these two sentences in his oral delivery, but picked it up with this affirmation: "If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good." Packed into these words are many allusions, including Jesus' teaching that we cannot serve two masters (Matt 6:24) and the "social contract" felt and affirmed by our country's early leaders, summarized in the final words of the Declaration of Independence: "...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor."

As he held up Martin Luther King, Jr., Pope Francis called us to remember and repent of the ways in which we have built our wealth on the backs of others, and said that "when the stranger in our midst appeals to us, we must not repeat the sins and the errors of the past." Warnings against oppressing foreigners are many in the Scriptures. He spoke of the current refugee crisis, and pleaded with us not to be scared away by the numbers but to "view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation." Then he said, "Let us remember the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would...'" But the assembled lawmakers started applauding before he could finish reciting it. I found it ironic that the applause started and interrupted the quote right at the point at which it is a much more accurate reflection of our practice: "Do unto others as you would." Might the whole thing just be too hard to hear? He started over and got the whole quote out. "If we want security, let us give security;," he went on to say. "If we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities."

He briefly mentioned that "the Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development." This surely is a nod toward the Church's ongoing opposition to abortion. I've heard more than a few progressive folks express disappointment that the Pope takes this stance, but it is absolutely in line with a focus on protection and justice for the vulnerable. It has always been curious to me that progressives, who otherwise stand for many causes related to vulnerable populations, do not seem very interested in protecting the most vulnerable form of life there is: an unborn child.

But before anyone could think the Pope was only on their side, he immediately took this principle of the value of all life and applied it to the death penalty, calling for its abolition. He also gave a nod to the idea of restorative justice (without using that exact term), and said that "a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation." This is another point at which I wish the Pope had been more forceful. He missed an opportunity to call out the United States for incarcerating more of its population than any other country, and the practice of locking people up with no other goal than to get them out of "civilized society."

The Pope mentioned the crisis of "environmental deterioration caused by human activity," a reality about which the science is clear and the predictions apocalyptic. Quoting from his work Laudato Si', he put forth the apparently crazy idea that we can both "develop" and "limit" our power. "In this regard," he said, "I am confident that America’s outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead." In other words, we have the necessary tools to pull it off! It is amazing that the concept of caring for and preserving the earth has become controversial, but it is not a mystery why. Energy companies have much to gain and much to lose, and they are a strong lobbying force in Washington.

Pope's mention of Thomas Merton as a man who encouraged dialogue and peacemaking included a very important but easily missed line: The Pope said Merton was "a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons..." Some today see the Catholic Church, and often religion in general, as being too certain about the unknowable. Here, the leader of the Catholic Church just praised a philosopher who very much embraced mystery and challenged some long-held assumptions.

Finally, the Pope ended by affirming marriage and family. "How essential the family has been to the building of this country!" he said. He lamented that "fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family." He did not further explain this, but this presumably includes the Church's opposition to gay marriage. But here's what's important to note: instead of going on a tirade against the redefinition of marriage, he instead focused on the increasing dysfunction, abuse, and neglect seen in today's families..."traditional" or not. Even in the midst of his belief in "traditional marriage," he has his priorities straight and knows what the true problems are. The Pope seems to realize that there is more to be condemned about the Duggar family than about Jack and George.


It was a profound and historical speech. Of course, many will talk in the coming days about what he did and didn't say. Some have criticized him for being tone deaf on the priest abuse scandal of his Church, which was not mentioned at all in his speech to Congress. I wish he had been more explicit or forceful on certain things. But overall, the speech served a very important purpose, and I can only hope it was enough to make both lawmakers and citizens pause and think. I share his hope and prayer: "...that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream."

He ended by saying, "God bless America." I dare say that among the many who have uttered those same words from that same podium, he is among the few who know the meaning and purpose of being "blessed."


How a children's novel tells the truth about politics

Last year, my son was really into the "My Weird School" book series written by Dan Gutman. I used to read some of these books with him, alternating pages. They are very lighthearted and funny. The titles, which all rhyme, give you a sense: Miss Daisy is Crazy, Mrs. Roopy is Loopy, Mr. Docker is Off His Rocker, etc.

One of the books, Mr. Burke is Berserk, features a character named Mayor Hubble who at one point announces his plans for balancing the budget. Little did my son know as we were reading this part how true to life this piece of fiction is. Considering especially some state governments in our country right now, it's almost too true to life to be laughed at as satire or fiction. Depressingly, shockingly, amazingly true to life. Here is an excerpt.


"Cuts!" Mayor Hubble shouted into the microphone. "We need to cut the amount of money we spend so we can balance the budget!"
Just saying the word "cut" seemed to make Mayor Hubble's eyes light up with excitement. He had a crazy look on his face, the kind of look that evil geniuses in the movies have when they explain how they're going to take over the world.
"The first things we're going to cut," Mayor Hubble told us, "are the art and music programs."... "You kids are here to learn," said the mayor, "not to sit around drawing pictures and singing silly songs"...
"From now on the teachers will have their pay cut in half," the mayor continued. "You teachers make way too much money"...
"But we hardly make any money as it is!" yelled Mrs. Yonkers, our computer teacher.
"What do you teach?" Mayor Hubble asked Mrs. Yonkers.
"I'm the computer teacher."
"Well, you're fired," said the mayor. "I'm replacing you with a computer. A computer should be able to teach a computer class much better than a human being anyway"...
"You crybaby teachers should be thankful you have jobs at all," said the mayor. "Oh, and I want the coffee machine and the hot tub removed from the teachers' lounge."
"We don't have a hot tub in the teachers' lounge!" said Mrs. Jafee.
"You don't?" said the mayor. "Hmm. Then put a hot tub in the teachers' lounge and then take it out...After we get rid of the hot tub in the teachers' lounge," he said, "get rid of the tables and chairs in there and sell them on eBay."
"Do you expect the teachers to sit on the floor?" asked Mr. Granite.
"Yes!" said Mayor Hubble. "It will be like a picnic every day. You like picnics, don't you?...Come to think of it, why do you teachers need a lounge anyway? You don't have time for lounging around in hot tubs and having picnics. This is a school, not some beach resort."
"But we don't have a hot tub!" yelled Miss Laney, our speech teacher.
"Not anymore you won't," said the mayor. "Not after I get rid of the one we're putting in. All these cuts will help us balance the budget. And when the voters see how much money I saved, they'll vote to reelect me in November."
"Are you going to take a pay cut too?" asked Mrs. Jafee.
"Don't be silly," said Mayor Hubble. "I'm giving myself a raise for coming up with these great ideas to save money!"


What, after all, is marriage?

Love and Marriage 298/366 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Dennis Skley, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio
We'll call them John and Lisa. They've been married more than 60 years. He served in World War II, she was a cadet nurse. They've gone through a lot together. He still calls her "dear," she still makes him laugh, and I've caught them holding hands a time or two. John talks fondly of the ways Lisa has cared for him through his many health struggles, some the result of war. He talks about struggling with his purpose and wondering why God chose to keep him here when so many of his brothers died. It was Lisa who brought him to know Jesus Christ and it was through her witness that he found his place in this world. Lisa jokes of John's stubbornness, but you can tell that he has always bent over backwards for her, perhaps more so than he always does for friends and people in need. She values his work and his servant heart. They read scripture together and pray together. They are very open with each other.

Service. Faith. Openness. Respect. Love. Commitment. Perseverance.

Those are the things of a good marriage. John and Lisa have them. Unlike some couples their age, I really think they would be fine going another 60 years together.

In 2013, Morrie and Betty Markoff celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary. Betty was asked what their secret was. She said, "You have to speak each other’s language. And I don’t mean French or Spanish. I mean, listen to what they’re saying."

When I lead couples through premarital counseling, we discuss such things. We discuss the tremendous gravity of committing to another person for a lifetime, a person who will undoubtedly change over that amount of time. I tell them the story of one of my seminary professors who always ended our evening class early so he could go eat with his wife, something he did every night even though she stared into space and no longer recognized him. We talk about things like agape love—love as commitment. We talk about mutual submission and this deep mystery of the joining of two souls who promise to walk through life together as one, promising to do so up until the moment one is left standing over the grave of the other.

That is the stuff of marriage.

But there's one thing I never hear. Whether talking to long-married couples or engaged couples, there's something that never comes up. And yet, this one thing that never comes up in substantive conversations about marriage is the one thing that took the question of marriage all the way to the Supreme Court and is dividing the country. This one thing that no couple thinks about with their own marriage is apparently the litmus test for the marriage of others:

A complementary set of genitalia.

Now, make no mistake, I'm not saying that gender doesn't matter in any area of life. It does, and gender identity is arguably a separate issue. But it's not gender per se that precedes falling in love; it's attraction. You don't fall in love with someone to whom you're not attracted—physically, emotionally, or otherwise. I'm attracted to the opposite sex. But for a small portion of the population, that attraction is to the same sex. But we both have deep, inexplicable things going on inside of us when we fall in love. We both long for companionship. We both want intimacy. We both want someone with whom we can share anything and make mistakes and still be loved.

But up until June 26, 2015, it was legal in the United States to say to a couple that their state will not recognize their love and commitment and will not grant them benefits simply because they use the same public restroom.

Which brings up a question I've had for a while and have written about in other places: why is the government in the marriage business to begin with? Marriage is a deep spiritual reality woven together by the intangible values I listed above. What has Uncle Sam to do with such things? We could have solved this problem simply a long time ago: have government regulate contracts of joint property ownership, etc., but don't call it marriage. Leave marriage—a spiritual commitment—to the religious institutions, where it belongs. That way, a church can decide who to marry and the government can treat all citizens equally under the law as the Constitution says it must. Instead, our Supreme Court has rendered another decision on marriage which is only going to divide our country further and spur more conflict, hatred, and violence.

Let each church and pastor speak to marriage as they wish. This raises the question that I've never directly addressed in writing until now: How should pastor and church speak of marriage? Allow me to offer a perspective.

There's a widely held assumption about marriage, often repeated but nevertheless false: the notion that by allowing gay couples to marry, we are redefining marriage for the first time in history. When most people use the term "traditional marriage" they are referring to a relationship that is: 1) between only one man and only one woman, and 2) freely chosen by both partners. Defined this way, traditional marriage is not a historical precedent but a recent phenomenon. In biblical times and places, marriage was never chosen by the woman and was little more than the transfer of property for the purpose of being fruitful and multiplying (Gen 1:28). The male's lineage was paramount. Having many wives and concubines, a frequent aspect of Old Testament stories, was a sign of wealth and status; a man could have as many as he could afford. As one bumper sticker facetiously put it: "The fact that you can't sell your daughter for three goats and a cow means that we've already redefined marriage." In the 1967 case Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court said that the institution of marriage must expand to include interracial couples. People used to appeal to scripture and "God's natural law" to argue against interracial marriages. There were even occasions on which the courts did so. Marriage was redefined. In a rarely cited case in 1981, the Supreme Court struck down a law in Louisiana that recognized the man as the "head and master" in a marriage. Throughout history, men always had that status, "for millennia." Marriage was redefined.

Scripture and culture are always in dialogue with each other. We have now allowed biblical principle to speak louder than biblical precedent, and have come to believe that by allowing both the man and the woman a choice, we honor their equal status as being made in the image of God (Gen 1:27). By allowing biblical principle to speak louder than biblical precedent, we see that while procreation is certainly a gift from God which many heterosexual couples are endowed with the natural ability to do, there can be many other high purposes. We have seen that marriage can be a prime place for realizing the difficult but blessing-filled work of mutual submission (Eph 5:21), self-sacrificial service (Phil 2:3-4), and loyalty (Rom 12:10). For this reason, few people anymore speak of denying marriage to elderly couples or infertile couples, even though they can no more naturally produce children than a same-sex couple.

We now recognize that deviations from what is "natural" are acceptable, or even necessary, for the nurture and well-being of children. It may be more biologically natural for parents to raise children of their own flesh and blood, but every day children are brought into more God-honoring situations by adoptive parents. When it comes to same-sex couples adopting children, it is often argued that it won't be good for their children because of all the stigma, stereotyping, and bullying they may face. But those negative factors are our fault. Children of gay parents only face such things because we perpetuate that cultural atmosphere. As a TV personality likes to say, "Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining."

Jack Evans and George Harris have been a couple for 54 years. They have loved and served each other for longer than I've been alive. They never once wanted to damage any heterosexual couple's marriage. They've never been sexually promiscuous or abusive to children, which people long assumed was true of all homosexuals. They've lived life together, paid their taxes, and contributed to society. Such a reality was nowhere in view for any of the biblical authors, even when they appear to discuss homosexuality.

Psalm 137 from Flickr via Wylio
© 2013 Raffaele Esposito, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
Leviticus 18:22, in the King James Version, says, "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination." The same Hebrew word that is here translated "abomination" is also used for other things in the Levitical law that we today consider silly, like the eating of anything from the sea that doesn't have fins and scales (Lev 11:10). This has led to the hilarious website "God Hates Shrimp," in response to the "God Hates F**s" slogan employed by the Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church.

Scholars can explain this better than I, but the ancient Hebrew law codes express a profound sense of order and strict categories. Certain things had "their place," and these ancient peoples who lacked any knowledge of biology operated with great caution in the face of things that were "out of place" or didn't belong. For example, blood was highly respected as a person's life source from God. It was not to be handled carelessly or eaten in animals (Lev 7:26-27). Blood belonged in the body, and so men were not to approach women during their menstruation (Lev 18:19). Likewise, in sexual relations, the sense of order dictated that the man was the dominant actor and the female was the passive receiver. Some scholars have convincingly argued that the problem was more about the idea of a male playing a passive role than the two being the same gender, which would explain why there was no correlating command for women.

The infamous story of Sodom and Gomorrah is sometimes cited in arguments against homosexuality. I still struggle to understand how people don't see the true pressing offenses in this story. First, this was attempted gang rape and sex for sport. "Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them" (Gen 19:5). Second, the men who came to Lot were supposedly angels (Hebrew: "messengers"), and for the men of Sodom to do this would have been to "go after strange flesh," as the original Greek of Jude 1:7 says. Thirdly, to allow this act of exploitation would have been a serious violation of their cultural code of hospitality, which Lot expresses: "Don't do this wicked thing...for they have come under the protection of my roof." Ezekiel 16:49 says, "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy." Of course, don't forget that Lot's solution to this conundrum was to offer up his virgin daughters to be raped instead (Gen 19:8). As hard as it is for us to understand, in that culture, the protection of his male guests was paramount and victimizing his daughters was the lesser of two evils.

One of many reasons you can't just quote Bible verses out of context.

In the New Testament, we meet more unseen cultural factors and unfortunate translations. Paul was writing to Greco-Roman cultures which were highly sexualized, and in which the predominant human sexual object was not the young, skinny woman of today's culture but underage, effeminate boys. Pederasty was common, and it was all jumbled up with Greek philosophy and gods. This is why Paul, in Romans 1:26-27, connects "unnatural" sexual desires as a consequence of idolatry. He was addressing this flaunting and abusive culture of idol worship (and body worship). Americans today are prudes compared to the people of that time. It's also clear that he's talking about the problem of "being inflamed with lust," not love.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9, the 1984 NIV says, "Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God?...Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders..." This verse is one of the few cases in which older translations like the King James Version did a better job. The KJV says, "...neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind." Wait a minute. That's pretty different. Effeminate? Yes, that's a fair translation of the original Greek word malakoi. The root word means "soft." It was a very common word (which, interestingly, is used in Matthew 11:8 as a euphemism for extravagant clothing). It was dishonorable for men to be "soft" or effeminate. Such men could have been born that way or been eunuchs, and were sometimes exploited as male prostitutes, as the NIV translation suggests. The word the NIV translates as "homosexual offenders" is arsenokoitai. Unlike malakoi, this was not a common word at all, and some scholars even think that Paul may have coined the term. Its meaning is very unclear, but later, non-biblical Greek documents use the word to describe different forms of abuse and exploitation that are not exclusively sexual in nature. The KJV word choice of "abusers" probably captures the essence. Also, notice that "idolatry" is slipped in the list. What is idolatry doing in a list of sexual sins? Again, the two issues were closely related in Greco-Roman culture.

The more I study the Bible, the more it becomes clear to me that it does not address same-sex attraction or same-sex relationships at all, because to them, there was no such thing. I can't help but remember then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad telling an American audience in 2007 that homosexuals don't exist in his country. If a modern leader can say that, it's not hard to imagine the mindset more than 2000 years ago. There was no such thing as a homosexual. Any such person would have been thought of as a heterosexual who was just deviant or perverted. Some scholars have suggested that ancient societies saw homosexual behavior as an expression of "lust overload," an excess of sexual desire, something people did when heterosexual sex was not enough to satiate them. Ironically, people today are more bothered by constrained homosexual relationships than they are excessive heterosexual expression.

Only without a coherent theory of morality can we say that Jack Evans and George Harris pose the more serious threat to the fabric of our society and our life with God. I remember one of my ethics professors talking about how, every semester, he has to deal with students who dismiss any philosophical conversation by saying, "God commands this" or "God forbids that." He figured out that the way to draw more out of them was to ask the question, "Why has God commanded this or forbidden that?" Indeed, the why question is crucial. Without it, we are engaging in what ethicists call "divine command theory" which cuts off all conversation. It's one thing to say that morality originates with God. That I affirm. It's another to think that one person's perspective or one verse of scripture encapsulates it. Chew on this question: is something immoral because God forbids it, or does God forbid something because it's immoral?

I cannot find a substantive reason to call same-sex relationships sinful simply because they are same-sex. What the Bible addresses are situations of abuse, exploitation, or other cultural perversions that don't honor the image of God in a person. The Bible has much more to say about why Josh Duggar is immoral than why Jack and George are immoral. Scripture has much to say about what shows love for God and love for neighbor. We've totally warped our biblical priorities. As Dwight A. Moody recently asked, "Where is all this travail at the other signs of the wickedness of the world, the marks of society that run counter to the kingdom of God that have dominated our culture for many years?" How have we convinced ourselves that our LGBT friends deserve our ire while we are daily complicit in systems that perpetuate poverty and injustice, issues the Bible mentions hundreds of times?

Jesus was once asked a question about marriage (Matt 19:1-12). Some Pharisees wanted to know if Jesus followed the law of Moses which made it very easy for a man to divorce his wife (Deut 24:1-4). He reaffirmed the Genesis narrative of creation, that God "made them male and female" and that "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." Then he said, "What God has joined together, let no one separate."

There are many Christians today who may have softened their viewpoint on homosexual orientation but still cannot affirm same-sex marriage because of this clear reaffirmation from Jesus. I think that's fair and understandable, and no Christian should be called a bigot for struggling with this. But there's a very important part we miss. The Pharisees go on to ask Jesus why Moses gave men permission to divorce their wives for any reason. Jesus essentially explains that it was a concession at the time, but that it was "not this way from the beginning." Then he drops the bombshell: "I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." After this, Jesus' listeners came to the same exasperated place that Paul did: we might be better off not marrying at all (see 1 Corinthians 7).

The problem with using the Matthew 19 passage to oppose same-sex marriage is that Jesus wasn't talking about same-sex marriage, he was talking about opposite-sex divorce. He clearly and strictly forbids divorce for any reason except infidelity, and says that men who divorce their wives for any other reason commit adultery by remarrying, as does any man who marries the divorced wife.

Where are all the Christians trying to make THAT the law of the land?

Here's what Jesus did: he taught who God was. He taught what the ideal was. He told people to strive for that ideal. But he also offers as much grace as we need to fill in the huge gaps we leave. We know that life circumstances, imperfection, and even the fallen nature of creation itself (Rom 8:20-22) create a situation where we must do the best we can and offer each other grace along the way. That's why weddings of Christian divorcees happen all over the country without protests, lawsuits or courts despite Jesus' clear teaching. "No fault divorce," a widely accepted legal provision, is not "biblical" either. We often face situations where there is no "right thing" but only "the better thing." We now recognize that divorce and remarriage, though it may have never been God's ideal at the outset, is part of our world and in many instances represents a more God-honoring reality than the alternative. If we can do that with divorce in light of a clear and forceful teaching from Jesus, we're left with the question of why we can't do it for same-sex relationships, a topic Jesus never mentioned.

When it comes to human relationships, have you ever stopped to think about all the things Christians watch and support all the time that we consider benign but have been slowly eroding our vision for self-sacrificial relationships of commitment and loyalty? It's hard to find a sitcom, song, or movie that doesn't treat things like marriage and sex casually. We consume this entertainment all the time without a thought. Same-sex couples have been the scapegoat for the breakdown of the American family, even though that breakdown began long ago. If a family is in strife, it's more likely because they don't pray together than because their gay neighbors are together. I see lots of troubled relationships, and they're not troubled because Jack and George want to get married. I see marriages that are cold and distant in which the two barely even talk to each other any more, and I fail to see how that is preferable or morally superior to a joy-filled gay relationship.

This Is Us from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Sergei Tereschenko, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio
The church needs to reclaim its witness to self-sacrificial relationships of fidelity more than it needs to solidify its position on gay marriage. Much time and energy has been spent on shouting that marriage is between a man and a woman, a statement that says nothing about what makes a marriage rich, vital, and lasting. People who are hostile to homosexuality nearly always focus on the sexual aspect of these relationships, neglecting the fact that in day to day life they look much like our own relationships. As I listen to someone like Phil Robertson rant about same-sex relationships and focus only on the sexual part, I can't help but wonder if that preoccupation is telling of other things.

Let's live and prove what we believe about the sanctity of marriage. "Sanctity" comes from a word that means "set apart." We have a grand opportunity to show what this really means. We've lost our credibility. Let's get back to the real deal: Service. Faith. Openness. Respect. Love. Commitment. Perseverance. That's the stuff of "the narrow gate" that few find (Matt 7:13-14). Prejudice, judgment, and suspicion are easy. They seem to come naturally. It's time to reclaim our truly counter-cultural witness on marriage...and all human relationships.