Who Owns Marriage? (3) counter-cultural witness

Nick Park, Evangelical Alliance Ireland Executive Director, has written a short book which was published this week called Who Own’s Marriage? as part of a dialogue leading up to the Same-Sex Referendum on May 22

Who_Owns_MarriageAlongside his four chapters are contributions from a pretty wide range of other people including Atheist Ireland, LGBT activists, Christians of various perspectives (including me).

Here are my comments on chapter 2 in which Nick unpacks evangelical beliefs and values around marriage, sex and society.

Nick’s discussion of four core values for evangelical thinking about same-sex marriage forms a really helpful and honest chapter. I particularly liked the description of relationship-based morality which gets to the heart of evangelicalism ‘at its best’. At the end of this discussion Nick concludes that

“an Evangelical passion for holiness, and our search for morality, should lead us more to self-examination and repentance than to an obsession with judging and condemning the actions of others.”

This is so refreshing to hear! In a ‘culture war’ any admission that ‘our’ side might not be completely in the right is an admission of weakness. Nick’s appeal for evangelicals to be self-critically reflective shows that he has no interest in scoring points or trying to control culture. The most significant challenge for all Christians in this debate is not winning a vote ‘from the top down’ but embodying the transforming beauty of loving marriages from ‘the bottom up’. For the reality is that Christians of any hue are fooling themselves if they think that marriage can be ‘saved’ by defeating the same-sex Referendum in May 2015. Trusting in the law to preserve or enforce ethical or moral good is a Christendom instinct and is, I believe, a profoundly mistaken way to witness to the gospel of Christ. Ireland’s recent experience of Christendom should have taught us that. For the reality is that traditional heterosexual marriage is already in deep trouble in Ireland. Over 50% of children in Limerick Ireland are now born outside of marriage (the figure nationally is about 35% which is similar to EU averages). Relational breakdown is pervasive. The Referendum is only a symptom of a much deeper process of cultural transformation driven by the West’s embrace of capitalism and consumerism: the autonomous individual; freedom of choice; privatised morality; the pursuit of happiness; and the right to express our own identity – whatever it is (within the law).

The 1937 Irish Constitution was framed in a culture where the individual’s rights were circumscribed by family, faith and nation. It was assumed that the state had a ‘maximal’ role in shaping law to reflect the Catholic values of the vast majority of the population. Remember De Valera’s vision of his ideal Ireland? It was a place of frugality, spirituality and simplicity in which Ireland’s isolation protected the people from the unspiritual forces of modernisation, materialism and capitalism. Those hopes now seem quaint in a globalised world. Let me illustrate it this way. At the top of O’Connell St in Dublin you can go the monument to Charles Stewart Parnell. At its base there is a quote from him saying “No man has a right to fix a boundary to the march of a nation.” In his day, the individual was subordinate to the greater cause of the nation. Today, we could paraphrase Parnell to say “No man or woman (or anyone on the gender spectrum in between the two) has a right to fix a boundary to the onward march of the individual.” Now the nation is subordinate to the rights of the individual – and is legislating accordingly.

It is in this sort of context that Christians are to live and witness. This is where Nick’s call for repentance and self-reflection is so important. First we need to look at ourselves. How well are we living up to the high ideal of Christian marriage that Nick describes? The American ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas argues that treating marriage as a private relationship of mutual satisfaction is a very modern development that has led the church to neglect the public and political nature of sex in Christian theology. If marriage is nothing more than a union of two people ‘in love’ with each other then the church’s reluctance to grant this status to homosexual couples seems arbitrary, hypocritical and prejudiced. It also makes a breakup more likely when this mutually enhancing relationship goes wrong.

Of course love is a pretty important part of Christian marriage! But I like the way Hauerwas challenges popular perceptions as he talks about a minister asking a young couple getting married if they love one another;

“What a stupid question! How would they know? A Christian marriage isn’t about whether you are in love. Christian marriage is giving you the practice of fidelity over a lifetime in which you can look back upon the marriage and call it love. It is a hard discipline over many years.”

If this sounds strange maybe it is because we have been more shaped by our consumerist and individualist culture that we would like to admit. This isn’t the place for detailed discussion of the development of Christian marriage since Bible times save to make a few brief points. For centuries marriage was a communal and political ‘institution’ that provided the context for sex, the raising of children, giving them legal status, and the ordering of property rights. Interpersonal love had no significant place in Christian marriage from the New Testament, up through the Middle Ages to the Reformation. For much of this time marriage was seen as a lower spiritual option than the religious life of celibacy. After all, both Jesus and Paul (a widower?) were single men and Paul, while seeing both marriage and singleness as good valid options, preferred the latter (1 Cor. 7). More negatively, Augustine’s theology of sex as the means by which original sin is transmitted and the only legitimate sex within marriage being for the purpose of procreation would cast a long shadow over Christian attitudes to sex. It was at the Reformation that marriage received a new theological assessment. While rejecting the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament, Luther considered marriage a God-given and most natural form of life, to be lived in faith by the grace of God. Sexuality is a good gift of God, to such a degree that Luther could not imagine a woman or man living without sex unless they had been given the rare gift of chastity. He also spoke against forced marriages and the need for the couple to have desire for each other. This was a new appreciation of women as marital partners. He, with other Reformers, saw marriage as a high calling, a vocation for a couple to bring up their children well. Marriage in this sense is far more than mere legitimation of sexual desire or a private partnership for mutual fulfilment.

Hopefully, this quick review helps explain Hauerwas’s comment. The emergence of love as the overriding motivation for marriage is a recent development, yet ‘mere’ romantic love or hopes of conjugal bliss will not sustain a marriage through difficult times. An authentically Christian view of marriage needs to be robust.

It’s time to make some concluding points (and I’ve run out of space to comment on chapters 3 and 4!):

First, an authentically Christian view of marriage stands in increasingly sharp contrast to the personalised romantic understanding of marriage as a private affair between two individuals of whatever gender that now dominates Irish and Western culture. The basic orientation of a Christian marriage is outward, towards the church community and wider world. The man and woman’s love is a transformative gift of God that goes beyond their mutual desire and enjoyment to serve and bless others. Marriage in this sense is a pathway of God’s grace. As Christians are by definition people who have been forgiven, so they are to be people of forgiveness (Roms. 15:7). For without forgiveness a marriage will not survive, grow and flourish. The calling of Christians to get married and stay married is a sign of the presence of God’s grace and forgiveness being worked out in everyday life. This vision of marriage demands my complete self-giving to my other and a willingness to be transformed by that relationship of difference as it is worked out in relationship with God and with others in the community of faith. All of this is to say that for Christians, sex and marriage serve a very different vision and purpose than they do in our contemporary society.

This is why I agree with Nick Park’s suggestions about civil partnerships for all and the state withdrawing from the marriage business in Chapter 4. For the state to take upon itself the right to extend a redefined notion of ‘marriage’ is exactly the wrong direction to be going. This is why I will be voting ‘No’. Justice and equality can better be served by civil partnerships for all. It is a very curious aspect of the Referendum debate how marriage is being viewed as an idealised status to which everyone has a right to aspire. The law should not be used primarily as a stamp of societal approval and recognition of personal desires – which is what the legislation is primarily about. (But neither do I believe the sky will suddenly fall in if and when it passes).

Second, more recent emphasis in Christian marriage since the Reformation on the necessity and high calling of marriage has actually marginalised the equally if not more valid Christian calling of singleness. As a result many single Christians can be made to feel second-class citizens within the church. We need to beware the ‘idolatry’ of marriage and the family of 2.2 children as the ideal Christian vocation. The fact that Christians are followers of an unmarried Jewish man should be a reminder that marriage and sex is not essential to live a completely fulfilled life! Also, Jesus’ teaching on the temporary nature of marriage in this life should also give us pause about unduly exalting marriage as the ultimate goal of happiness, personal fulfilment or affirmation of identity (Luke 20:34-5).

Third, it’s fascinating just how counter-cultural the early church’s practice of family and marriage was. The first Christians were accused of undermining the family structures of the Roman Empire by allowing men, women, Roman citizens and even slaves to be baptised into their community quite independently of the permission of the patriarchal head of the Roman household. The church became the ‘household’ of God (a word used frequently of the church in the NT) whose head was the risen Lord not the pater familias. It’s hard for us to imagine how radical this was in a highly stratified world. Just imagine a slave with the gift of teaching instructing his master in the church gathering! Or a woman prophet prophesying to a mixed gender community. The basis for membership of this new family was faith in Christ. Their common father was God whom they could even call ‘abba’. Anyone could join – across the great gender, social and religious boundaries of the ancient world (Gal. 3:28). It was to be a united household marked by love, acceptance and forgiveness not power or control. Significantly it did not require the establishment of biological families. The household of God was to be ‘propagated’ by witness and mission. The goal or hope of the new community was future orientated to a new creation to come.

None of this was to diminish family structures but it was a radical departure from a Roman way of seeing the family and the world. For this reason the early church was seen as a threat to accepted societal norms and posed an implicit (non-violent) challenge to Empire. In time, this challenge would result in violent persecution by the state.

I mention all this neither to suggest that Christians today are about to face state persecution nor to equate the Irish government with the Roman Empire! My point is that for Christians, family, marriage, sex and sexuality is part and parcel of their identity to live counter-culturally. Christians belong to a different story to that of the world. During Christendom this distinction got covered over and many Christians assumed the state would always be ‘on their side’. As we move more and more into a post-Christendom secular Ireland, the gap is widening fast. The same-sex Referendum is a reminder that the state does not remotely share a Christian view of marriage and the wider culture reflects the values of hyper-consumerism more than any other belief system. This should not be a surprise to Christians. The challenge it poses to us is what does it look like to be a counter-cultural community of Christians in 21st century Ireland?

Finally, linked to that last question and to Nick’s comments about evangelicals and social justice, I believe that there is a question that evangelicals too often overlook or ignore in this whole debate. Namely, how do we respond to those that are different to us; who have opposing objectives; whom might even be seen as ‘enemies’? Jesus’ command is pretty clear – love. At the very least love means listening well. It must mean opposing stereotypes and ‘doing unto others as we would have them do unto us’ in terms of how we speak and think. To love gay people will include building communities where everyone is welcomed and respected without fear of being singled out, shamed, embarrassed or judged. Can evangelical churches be places where people of same-sex orientation can feel secure enough to be open about their sexuality as they explore the Christian faith? Are Irish evangelicals ready or able to encourage, affirm and rejoice in an openly gay celibate Christian using his or her gifts in ministry in their local church?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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