"Defending" Marriage?: Some Reflections

This morning, the United States Supreme Court issued two important rulings in the gay marriage debate. Both decisions coming with 5-4 majorities, they referred back to the original district court ruling against Prop 8 in California (based on the legal issue of "standing"), and struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional. I feel the need to offer several reflections on this whole issue as there are many ways in which I believe we've missed the point. This post represents some repetition of and a follow-up to an earlier post I wrote three years ago after the original Prop 8 strike down by Judge Walker (who, by the way, was appointed by Reagan and at the time faced opposition from democrats over his perceived insensitivity toward homosexuals). What follows are several disjointed reflections on these issues, in no particular order.

LGBT people are not merely issues. When I was in college, the issue of homosexuality caused a conflict in my home church. During the upheaval, I watched as my good friend (who was gay) and his family, who had been committed members of the church their whole lives, were all of a sudden treated like a disease by the congregation's new moral police, some of whom the family thought were their friends. So I begin where we always should: 1 John 4:8 tells us that "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love," and Galatians 5:14 makes the sweeping declaration that "the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are not issues, they are people. Our supreme commandment to love, the thing that we are told over and over is the most important, has been the most neglected in all of this. In the current climate we've created, a victory is really a loss. As Christian ethicist David Gushee observed today, the damage to our witness has been done. "Christians have alienated gays and lesbians and their families, friends, and sympathetic allies, driving many away from the love of Jesus Christ and contributing to the secularization of American culture."

Myth: Marriage is being redefined for the first time in history. This is just not true. I'm amazed at how many pundits have gotten away with making the historically inaccurate claim that "traditional marriage" has always been the fabric of society. 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 parties. Defined this way, traditional marriage is not a historical precedent but a recent phenomenon. The idea of mutual consent--both parties freely choosing the relationship--is a very recent practice and arranged marriages are still the norm in some international communities today. In biblical times and places, marriage was never chosen by the woman and was little more than the transfer of property. Having many wives and concubines was a sign of wealth and status; a man could have as many as he could afford. Even the most admired and revered characters in scripture (David, Solomon, etc.) had women coming out of their ears and this did not seem to be a problem. Men paid a "bride price" to a woman's father to take her in marriage, something that was done even after a rape that took the woman's virginity (Deut 22:28-29). Even with the beloved biblical couple of Joseph and Mary, there is no reason to think that Mary chose the relationship. So, to put it lightly, the Bible does not put forth one exclusive marriage ethic, and 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."

Myth: Gay marriage is breaking apart the American family. I've got news for you: stable, healthy families were on the decline long before gay marriage became an issue. I remember one author arguing that the breakdown of the family began with the Industrial Revolution, a cultural swing that spelled the end of many families working and self-sustaining together. Not only did divorce rates experience a sharp rise long before any large-scale demand for marriage equality, but the logic is nonsensical (two homosexuals wanting to get married somehow harms the marriage of the heterosexual couple next door?). Ironically, the gay marriage debate has featured many Christians talking about the sacred institution of marriage in a way that is devoid of substance or value. The clear and loud assertion has been, "Marriage is between a man and a woman." But is an opposite set of sexual organs the only prerequisite to a healthy marriage? More than half of all heterosexual marriages end in a courtroom, so I'm pretty sure there's more to it. First of all, none of us choose to get married to someone simply because of their gender. Also, if you are married and you did pre-marital counseling beforehand, what kinds of issues did you talk about? What kinds of things make marriages healthy? It's commitment, communication, respect, and many other things that reflect deep spiritual values. Marriage is sustained by these things of substance, not physical prerequisites, yet how often do you hear substantive values affirmed by Christians in the public square these days? We've been so busy locking the gates on couples without complementary genitalia that we have totally neglected our responsibility of public witness to things like love, discernment and commitment.

We've totally warped biblical priorities. It is mind-blowing to compare the time and money that has been spent on fighting homosexuality with the fraction of a percent of page space the issue occupies in scripture. (I argue, by the way, that homosexuality as we understand it today is not addressed in the Bible at all, because when it does come up, it's intertwined with other issues like ritual purity, idolatry, or pagan religious practice and never carried the context of two people in a committed, loving relationship). Jesus never mentions the topic, and when he talks about marriage, he does so in the context of forbidding divorce (Matt 19:3-9), which leads one to wonder why some of these same Christians aren't out there trying to outlaw divorce. The preoccupation of some Christians with bedroom morality to the neglect of other issues that are pervasive in scripture is not only comical but tragic. Concern for the poor and the upholding of a just society are mentioned literally hundreds of times throughout the Bible, with the word "justice" occurring 421 times in the Old Testament alone. Jesus famously declared in Matt 25:31-46 that whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.--whenever we help and stand up for the vulnerable--we are doing it unto him. The book of James lists "looking after orphans and widows" as part of the criteria of "pure and faultless religion" (James 1:27). Not only have we neglected such concerns in our hyperfocus on homosexuality, but some of the same political figures that fight against gay marriage also support policies that violate the Bible's many calls for justice and concern for the poor.

I see no Constitutional way to justify denying marriage rights. We can't discriminate based on gender. We can't discriminate based on race. Now that most people concede that sexual orientation is also not chosen, how can we justify discrimination in that regard? Our governing document is the Constitution. The Constitution is a religiously neutral document that makes no reference whatsoever to God, Jesus, or Christianity, and it never quotes from the Bible. There's a lot of talk about the faith of the founding fathers as if it is somehow relevant in questions of governance. In the history classroom, yes, it is obviously very important. But those men - whether they were Christians, Diests, or whatever - penned a religiously neutral Constitution that renders their faith (and anyone else's) irrelevant in questions of governance. The Constitution is a wholly secular and largely boring document that lays out the structures and practices of American governance, going on to forbid an established state religion in its first amendment. Furthermore, majority opinions do not matter in questions of rights. Even if 93% of all the residents of Mississippi wanted to re-institute public school segregation or separate water fountains, they couldn't do it. As Justice Sullivan wrote in the majority opinion of Westbrook v. Mihaly, "Constitutional rights may not be infringed simply because the majority of the people choose that they be." Many early Baptists were coming from contexts where that was done, and they fought to make sure we didn't do it here. Thanks to church and state separation, churches can deny anybody virtually anything, including a wedding ceremony, based on their religious beliefs and policies. The state, however, must produce entirely different reasons for denying it. Prop 8's defenders tried out some of these other reasons back in 2010, and they did not hold up in court.

The DOMA decision should be applauded by people who place priority on states' rights. During the past few years, especially during the health care debate, we heard a lot about states rights and the contention that the federal government cannot dictate what states will and will not do. The Supreme Court's majority opinion on the DOMA case centrally relies on that very idea and says that the federal government cannot invalidate something that an individual state has recognized; in this case, a marriage.

How it all still misses the point for me. At issue here is the word "marriage," a word that I do not believe the government should even use in its regulation of legal contracts. I see much of this controversy as unnecessary. We can solve the problem simply: get government out of the marriage business. This whole thing, especially the practice of clergy signing state marriage licenses, is an entanglement of church and state and should be changed. Religious marriage and civil commitments should be completely separate, and such a separation would be a win-win solution. The state should simply grant contractual commitments (civil unions? - not sure what to call it) to any legal, consenting adult couple that wants one. Couples who desire to exchange vows within a religious context can then do so, and the churches can simply exercise a right they already have and decide who can get married in their facilities and with their ministers. Marriage is a deeply spiritual concept that wades in the most profound realities of human life. Most supremely, it is about love. Agape love; love as commitment. When on earth did we ever get the idea that deciding who I can fall in love with and how I relate to that person is the concern of Uncle Sam rather than the Great I AM?


Minority Report: A Reflection from Myanmar

A Baptist seminary president, a Buddhist monk, and a Catholic nun walked into a bar...OK, this time it wasn’t a bar, it was a monastery, but it’s not the beginning of a bad joke. Those three kinds of people actually came together in a beautiful moment during our Doctor of Ministry cohort's cross-cultural experience in Myanmar.

We were visiting the Wai Lu Wun monastic center, a beautiful, technologically advanced place of learning, healing, and spiritual practice about 2 hours outside of Yangon. This place is a dream become reality for Dr. Ashin, the Buddhist monk who is its founder and director. We had come to an open space in the middle of the center where at least 150 elementary school age children had gathered for their morning routine. Kids as young as 5 stood perfectly still with hands folded as our group listened to Dr. Ashin tell us about this monastic center which, among other things, educates children who can't afford an education elsewhere. Dr. Molly Marshall, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary, was there with us, and around that time, a Catholic nun walked over and greeted us. I quickly grabbed my camera to capture a shot of this interfaith trio smiling and talking. It was a beautiful sight, a sight I wish I saw more often. The Catholic nun shared that she and her other sisters commonly have a presence here, because of the many common goals they share with this Buddhist community.

Things are very different when you’re in the minority. In Myanmar, Christians make up about 5% of the population. They have learned, by necessity, how to play nice. In such a context, the Christian life looks much more like the sending of the disciples in Luke 10:1-9 who went out proclaiming the kingdom as dependent strangers, relying on the houses of peace and the hospitality and resources of those with whom they lived. Being in the minority requires you to serve with humility, share resources, and cooperate in your shared areas of concern. As several Myanmar Christian leaders told us, they must listen first, serve second, and preach last. This is much closer to the way of faith that Jesus modeled than the power grabbing and boundary marking that is too common among American Christians. Burmese Christians understand better than I the meaning of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 3: "All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God."

Being in the minority makes you ask questions like, "How do I sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" (Psalm 137:4). One of the reasons I knew the trip would be meaningful is because it was my first international trip to a country in which Christians are a minority. Not only was I out of place culturally (something I had experienced before), I was also out of place religiously. Myanmar, in many respects, was a difficult experience, and for that reason, it was a profoundly spiritual experience. In many respects, I was "lost." I was unfamiliar with the rules and norms. I was unfamiliar with the food (and didn't like half of it). I was unfamiliar with the language. I quickly missed my home and family. Perhaps even more significantly, I did not share many assumptions and norms with the people I was around. David Augsburger writes, “Anyone who only knows one culture knows no culture.” You realize how much that you take for granted is not a universal norm. In our case studies with other Christian leaders, before delving into the content of our case studies, we first had to take the time to find common ground and explain things that normally wouldn't have to be explained.

This kind of "getting lost" is something Barbara Brown Taylor calls a spiritual practice. In An Altar in the World, she writes, “God does some of God’s best work with people who are truly, seriously lost.” “Even if the odds were against you, there is something holy in this moment of knowing just how perishable you are.” I am convinced that it's in experiences like this that God shapes us and we become truly spiritual. We don’t become spiritual during our bedside prayer for patience but when God answers that prayer by giving us a practice session the next day. And we don't necessarily find God in the familiar and comfortable but in the real experience of needing God and having to depend on others. I'm thankful to Central Seminary, the Luce Foundation, and all others for making this trip possible and facilitating this experience that cannot be simulated. You must jump in with both feet, and I'm grateful for this cross-cultural learning requirement that forced me to do it.