Civil partnerships and pluralism

As Ireland gears up in 2011 for the first Civil Partnership ceremonies, here is a very good post and discussion from a civil and sharp blog that I’ve only just started reading – Daniel Kirk’s (of Fuller Seminary) Storied Theology.

Here’s a key bit from what he says:

To my fellow Christians: when we try to make society after the image of the Bible as we read it, we become perpetrators of the injustice, impression, and baptizing of cultural status-quo that Jesus came to root out, free us from, and transform. The fight over legalized gay partnerships is but the latest in a long string of episodes where we have failed to bring to the “other” the freedom and justice we believe God wants for all people.

Or, if that language sounds too loosy goosy to you, try this. We have refused, in our fights for “religious ethics in society,” to love our neighbor as ourselves, we have not yet learned to “do unto the other what we would have done to us.”

I’ve just written an article on evangelicals and civil partnerships in Ireland and come down pretty much where Daniel Kirk is – that Christians are in a new post-Christendom context that requires much thought on what battles should be engaged in. And in this case, rather than ‘fighting’ to hold onto or impose our beliefs on others, it is the wisest (and most Christian) option to contribute to constructing a society that can embrace an inclusive form of genuine pluralism. It is ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ sort of question.

The law gives a framework for how we choose to live our lives in a plural and secular democracy, it is not to be confused with a tool to defend or ‘restore’ Christian morality to the nation.

The comments in Kirk’s post capture the tensions and real questionsno-one is saying that it is an easy or obvious issue. I appreciate the real concerns of those who take a different view.

One side is asking: Are we to expend most of our energy on defending the legal remnants of Christendom? Will such a defence in the courts even be possible anyway? When Christians do fight such battles, do they end up as the oppressors, too often justifying the (unjust) status quo?

Others respond: Is it not Christian’s duty to be salt and light? Is gay marriage detrimental for society and should be resisted? Has not Christendom brought much good that should be preserved? Is Kirk’s view (and mine) a weak retreat from the public square in the face of aggressive tactics from an increasingly antagonistic secularist legislature?

Have a read and make up your own mind – well worth it. This stuff ain’t going away any time soon.

15 thoughts on “Civil partnerships and pluralism

  1. Would you support legal changes to the issue of polygamy in the same way? And how does this approach/philosophy apply to abortion, euthanasia, or any other controversial issue you care to mention, like bankers and their bonuses?

    Patrick, I dont believe for a moment that there are not issues where you would stand firmly against one thing or another. Indeed, you want a radical change to the political system in Ireland. (Given the last week or so, I now agree with you on this… the entire Constitution should be re-written.)

    What’s wrong with Christians just declaring their dissent? There is no need for Christians who believe civil partnerships are not good to accommodate them into their political views.

    The sad thing in the blog thread you refer to is how little discussion is actually given to biblical norms. Daniel’s quote just doesn’t make sense… his claim about bringing God’s justice and freedom to the ‘other’ is merely his attempt to make society after the image of the Bible as he reads it, no?

    It is a sad day when Christians cannot state what is true and just and good for fear of appearing different.

  2. What does this mean?:

    >> “It is a sad day when Christians cannot state what is true and just and good for fear of appearing different.”

    Where do you get this from either Storied Theology or FaithInIreland?

  3. Dave, I’m arguing that Christians need to think hard about what it means to live in a plural society. That’s not saying there are easy answers, nor is it saying that they don’t stand clearly for what they believe. There is an ambiguity and tension here. I believe Christians can (and should) welcome and argue for an inclusive form of pluralism. And that might have to be hard fought by the way – there are plenty on both sides who want totally to exclude their ‘Other’.

    But it means dialogue, discussion, learning to live with the ‘Other’, creating a civil space where people of radically different faiths and behaviour can live together within the law. Not everyone can be a ‘winner’ and have their views preferred in a plural society. It will need to be a case by case approach – and that’s why I said “in this case”.

    Too often Christians jump on the ‘slippery slope’ argument that ‘If you say X (accept civil partnerships within a plural society) then you are really saying Y (accept an entire liberal agenda of abortion, secularism, exclusion of Christians from the Public Square etc).

  4. Living in a plural society does not mean accepting what that plural society thinks is good. To argue that Civil Partnerships are good and true and just it is then difficult to also argue what I assume to be a biblical and a Christian view of sexual relations: the only possible good and true and just sexual relationship is within a heterosexual marriage.

    So, again I ask, why do Christians need to contribute very much in this area? What’s wrong with simply stating that we believe civil partnerships are not good, because we believe that is a reflection or implication of God’s revealed will for human life? It hardly needs to be said that we have to recognise them once they are established in civil law… but that is different to supporting them and declaring them to be good.

    I think this statement must be close to the truth of the matter: Civil Partnerships cannot (easily?) bring God’s justice, freedom and truth to those who enter into them. Or, another attempt at the same: God is not pleased with the idea of Civil Partnerships. If these statements are not (close to being) true, then we are basically saying that homosexual sex is fine true and good in the will and moral judgment of God.

    The ‘slippery slope’ I am concerned about is not with respect to other areas or issues, as in your reply Patrick. It’s holding to the truth about what is good when we are in a society which accepts as normal what Christian teaching opposes. But, perhaps you can post on one of the other issues I raise, demonstrating how the “inclusive form of pluralism” approach that you advocate applies. Does the ‘Other’ have no rights when it comes to abortion and euthanasia?

  5. David, as Kevin noted I didn’t say Christians shouldn’t clearly live out and communicate what they believe – nor did I say that gay Civil Partnerships are good and true. I have not hinted anywhere that Christians need to water down orthodox faith in order to fit in.

    In fact quite the opposite – a genuine pluralism includes people as they are. It is a fairly pathetic (and probably oppressive) form of pluralism that only can accept ‘the other’ if that other agrees with you. I have no illusions that many would like to exclude Christians (and others) from a legitimate place in the public square and that this needs to be argued against.

    Sure it is one option simply to say ‘this is what we believe to be true’ and let society get on with it. Sounds like a form of disengaged pietism to me, while simultaneously appearing to assume that a non-Christian society should be ordered according to Christian values. If that is the case is it not consistent to be campaigning for a repeal of homosexuality laws (legalised in Ireland in 1993), or be trying to make adultery illegal, or pre-marital sex etc etc …?

  6. Dave: would you be happy to be described in these positions as “sectarian” (where we are using the sociological definition of sect as against the pejorative use applied in Northern Ireland)?

    There are many things about which God is equally unhappy with as Civil Partnership. Rampant profiteering and environmental destruction are two obvious cases that come to mind. If Patrick wrote a blog post calling on Christians to reconsider supporting Tesco or reconsider the eggs they buy, he’d get no comments and certainly no suggestion that he was on a slippery slope.

    There is a peculiar preoccupation with questions of sex.

  7. Kevin, yes, I am a sectarian of sorts I suppose. When I became a Christian in Scotland I joined a group that made up approximately 5% of the Scottish population… 5% is my very rough guess at the proportion of people in Scotland who might call themselves Evangelical Christian. Sectarian is how I understand the Christian experience in the world. Christians are the poor, we are the oppressed, we are oddities in the world. That seems to me a strain of thinking that runs through the whole of redemptive history. God’s people are always at odds with the social political world within which they live. That’s why I think some scholars are so keen on kingdom ethics and the Sermon on the Mount… it’s what Jesus and the apostles taught, and it helps Christians to understand their experience of frustration and struggle in a poor dark and lost world.

    The reason I am responding to the blog post on Civil Partnerships is because I believe the post is ambiguous and confusing. I could not tell whether Patrick thought Civil Partnerships were a good thing or not. If they are not a good thing I find it difficult to know how or why anyone should support their creation.

    Patrick, I dont quite understand the final paragraph of your last comment. If Christians should have campaigned more vigorously on the Civil Partnerships debate (i.e. if they should have avoided being disengaged pietists), what exactly should they have aimed to achieve? How did you contribute to the debate? And how will you contribute to the debate for gay marriage and religious services for gay marriages?

    I suppose my main contention is that there is no such thing as political pluralism. If we are living under a political pluralism, it is of the oppressive variety that you describe, Patrick. Every society exists under a dominating socio-political philosophy that sets the agenda. You seem to admit as much when you recognise that some want to exclude Christians from the public square. What is obvious is that Christians are not only not influencing political and legal changes in society, they are increasingly being forced to change their attitudes and behaviour to conform with laws they disagree with.

  8. “The reason I am responding to the blog post on Civil Partnerships is because I believe the post is ambiguous and confusing. I could not tell whether Patrick thought Civil Partnerships were a good thing or not. If they are not a good thing I find it difficult to know how or why anyone should support their creation.”

    And there it is!

    For whatever the reason is, on hot button issues like this there seems to be an unwritten rule that whenever you talk about the issue you must declare either your opposition or in-favourness of the issue every single time. You MUST be clear about where you stand. Talking about the issue and its contingencies and consequences without mentioning your stance seems to drive people bananas. I’ve noticed the exact same thing in myself. I think its a reaction to reading something that is clearly yet subtly undermining dearly held beliefs. I know for sure that Zoomtard and Patrick undermined a few of my own!!

    • Richard, Patrick was arguing for an open and fair pluralism. And he chose to discuss that in the context of a tangible piece of legislation, where decisions have to be made about how to respond and react to proposed changes in the law. Makes sense that such a situation demands people to be open about their views on the issue, especially if the whole point of pluralism is that differences can and ought to be expressed, and should also be reflected in the law.

      That’s why I’ve asked Patrick to let us know how he understands the Civil Partnership debate. And it’s also why I asked him to apply his way of thinking to other issues, so that we can learn what it means to be Christian in a pluralistic political world.

      If I dont know for sure what Patrick’s view is on any given issue, and, if, actually, the pluralism ends up meaning that we all agree on and accept one of the options anyway… how is the pluralism any different to the social liberal democracy of the last century? It’s not. That’s what I’m also trying to illustrate. There is no pluralism when it comes to living under a common law.

      If we can’t identify the Other I’m not sure how pluralism works. In arguing against Civil Partnerships, and in voicing my opposition to them, I suppose I am claiming to be A.N.Other. In fact, I wonder if the theological truth we are missing is that Christians are the Other.

  9. Dave

    I still think your demanding stuff off him ’cause he’s freaking you out.

    Patrick has written before on this topic. His views (to me anyway) are clear enough. But just cause he don’t say them every time you recon he is doing something wrong.

    Here’s what i’ve learnt- by demanding to know a person’s “final word” on any given topic i have many times missed the various nuances, ins and outs and variables to said topic and only done myself a disservice.

    • Richard, I’ve just searched FaithinIreland blog for ‘civil partnerships’. The search came up with two posts, this one included. The other post was comment and reporting of what other people were saying about the CPB. It included this line… “A few observations:- leaving aside the pros and cons of the CPB itself…”

      So, I know what Patrick thinks about how other people have responded to the CPB. I still dont know what Patrick himself thinks are the pros and cons of the CPB.

      I suppose I should admit that I have not read the Evangelical Alliance Ireland’s statement on the subject carefully. But, even so, I cannot assume that that statement is Patrick’s own personal view on the subject.

  10. Haven’t had time to comment.

    Hi Paul – I stick by the original post – it actually is just laying out different approaches, saying where I agree with Daniel Kirk and encouraging readers to engage and think through the issues

    David, I affirm an orthodox & traditional Christian view of marriage. That hasn’t been an issue for me in the debate – more the challenges of living as a Christian is a society which does not (any more) see this as in any way normative.

    • Patrick, affirming an orthodox and traditional Christian view of marriage, you will understand the challenges which I am concerned about. I think they are numerous, and the more I discuss with you and others, the more challenges and questions I see. My concerns have little to do with Christian freedoms or rights or liberty of conscience.

      It is clear that in countries where Civil Partnerships have been created campaigns to open marriage up to homosexual couples develop. Sooner or later Evangelical Alliance Ireland will have to respond to such a campaign in Ireland. I dont know enough about the CPB in Ireland, but similar legislation in other EU states is by definition discriminatory, and open to legal challenge. See, for example, the current cases in the UK.

      There are huge pastoral questions which I think very few people have considered in relation to Civil Partnerships. For example, to what extent and how far should Christian pastors encourage or discourage people from entering into Civil Partnerships? It is not a small thing to bind yourself to another human being in legal covenant.

      What should churches actually teach about homosexuality in a society which supports and nourishes any monogamous sexual relationship? This is the bogey that will not go away for people who retain an orthodox and traditional view of Christian marriage.

  11. Indded David. It is one thing to teach, discern and apply Christian teaching on these issues within the church. It is another to wrestle with how to do so as a Christian in a fallen, sinful world, full of competing ideas of morality, justice and rights.

    There is an ambiguity and complexity here that, whatever our position, we aren’t exempt from.That’s why I said in the original post that there are few easy and obvious answers.

    I would want to affirm liberty of conscience and institutional independence and freedom for churches and religious organisations. The State has limits and should not exceed them by forcing one morality on all.

    In the public arena, Christians can’t just appeal to Scripture as if that solves debate. They will need to make arguments for the common good and work for a society that does not become totalitarian – either the state smuggling in enforced morality through increasingly broadly applied equality legislation, or in religious voices insisting that only their views should be privileged. That is not going to be easy – I have no illusions that such an inclusive diversity will be hotly debated.

    But I do think as Christians we need to be thinking hard and realistically about the type of plural society we would like to see – and be ready to at times to argue for diversity (which is what EAI did with the Civil Partnership Bill), and at times resist strongly an encroaching absolutism of the state into areas of individual conscience and institutional independence.

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