Several people have been pestering me to write something about last month’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges where the court found a constitutional right to marriage regardless of the gender of those getting married, effectively allowing same-sex marriage across the country.
I haven’t written anything about this because, to be honest, I’m deeply ambivalent on the whole matter. Now, that said, many people I know and love will benefit tremendously from this decision. It recognizes their relationships, their adoptions, their families, and affirms those things no matter where in the United States they go. Since I’m not that concerned about the civil law reflecting “God’s law” (whatever that might be in this case, given that the teaching of scripture sits in clear and distinct tension with the story of scripture), I’m not bothered by this case. Or affected.
So, despite my ambivalence, I will celebrate with my friends.
But I am ambivalent. Because I am generally sympathetic to the conservative critique of the sexual revolution, and what is emerging as a general conservative critique of modernity (belated as it is, and limited as it is). I agree with Michael Hanby here when he writes at First Things:
For in its enforcement of the sexual revolution, the state is effectively codifying ontological and anthropological presuppositions. In redefining marriage and the family, the state not only embarks on an unprecedented expansion of its powers into realms heretofore considered prior to or outside its reach, and not only does it usurp functions and prerogatives once performed by intermediary associations within civil society, it also exercises these powers by tacitly redefining what the human being is and committing the nation to a decidedly post-Christian (and ultimately post-human) anthropology and philosophy of nature.
The conservative argument here, as I understand it, is that marriage — monogamous, heterosexual marriage — is an artifact of the natural order that pre-exists anything that human beings might arrange. Thus, the state has no business — or, more to the point, risks eventual disaster by “meddling with the primal forces of nature.”
I agree with Hanby. But I am troubled by the broad conservative argument, and that goes to my concern with natural law — that it is, effectively, an ideology, an ism, focused so intently on an idealized nature that it completely ignores actual nature. To quote scripture, “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27 ESV), is to ignore all those human beings who are clearly created in-between. It is to attempt to impose purpose and uniformity on everyone regardless of who and what they were actually, physically created to be.
We cannot ignore the evidence of the creation in front of us, and cannot attempt to shoehorn it into a purpose for which it was not meant.
So much of what conservatives and traditionalists seem intent on doing, and have done so since the 1970s, is a vociferous defense of the “natural family.” Catholics have clearly been at this, as have conservative evangelicals. And as they continue in the post-Obergefell world, conservatives are doubling down on this defense of the natural, biological family.
Completely missing from all this valorization of marrying and begetting is a sense of the tragic in both marriage and family. For all the denigrating that some conservatives make of romantic and companionate marriage, they have clearly romanticized, idealized, and valorized a certain kind of marriage. And they have elevated family life to a status I’m not certain it deserves.
Conservatives have always acknowledged difficulties in marriage and family, they’ve rarely dealt well with the fact that many marriages cannot be fantastic, and family life can be downright miserable and awful.
A lot of this has to do with whatever your notions of “traditional marriage” are. For most human beings in most places for most of history, “traditional marriage” was your father talking to your uncle and arranging for you to marry your cousin. (I have stunningly beautiful cousins, but I suspect they would have rather clawed my eyes out and tossed me off a cliff than marry me.) Mostly, marriage came first, then love — if it came at all — came later. Under most circumstances, these marriages were considered permanent, but they were also supported by a dense culture that made sure there were uncles and aunts close at hand to provide for children what fathers and mothers could not (this is socially acceptable and even expected; a cool uncle was also likely someone else’s asshole father), and no one relied solely on their spouse for emotional and spiritual support and comfort.
As a Muslim, I had the fortune of actually seeing how this kind of thing worked, among the Saudis, Palestinians, and South Asians I knew and worshipped with. Many of the marriages I knew had been arranged. Marriage didn’t exist by itself — it existed in the context of extended family (two sisters marrying two male cousins, for example) in which one’s kin are just as important as who one has married. Some marriages were good, most were middling, many were bad, and a few were awful.
What made their permanence socially supportable (divorce is allowed in Islam but is culturally frowned upon) was the reality that husbands and wives could find friendship, support, counsel, and chaste companionship outside the marital relationship when needed (almost exclusively in same-gender groups). A wife was not expected to be everything to a husband, and husband was not expected to be everything for a wife. There was also a harsher reality — women who are divorced or abandoned (or simply widowed) tend to have little or no social support (even in America). And so, I suspect many women tolerated lonely, abusive, or violent marriages simply because the alternative — begging in front of mosques (and I saw a fair number such women in both Dubai and Jeddah) — was grim.
The marriages we have portrayed in scripture (and they aren’t many) are not particularly good marriages. Abraham and Sarah have an interesting relationship; she give her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham as a concubine in order to fulfill the promise of God for many children, and when Hagar has a child, Sarah becomes violently abusive, and Abraham does nothing to protect the mother of his first-born child. (Abraham is a stunningly bad father.) One rabbinical commentary on Genesis noted that Sarah’s death is related in the chapter following God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, suggesting that Sarah may have died of a broken heart in response.
The best marriage we have in scripture is that of Isaac and Rebekeh (and they are cousins). “Then Isaac brought her her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.” (Genesis 24:66) It took divine intervention to tell both Pharaoh and Abimelech that Abraham was lying when he told them Sarah was his sister. But when Isaac does the same thing to a (likely different) Abimelech, the king of the Philistines looks out a window “and saw Isaac laughing with Rebekah his wife.” This is, according to a footnote, a likely euphemism for something brothers and sisters ought not to do with each other (but remember, Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister).
Later in Genesis, however, we have Rebekah conspiring with her younger (and far less manly) son Jacob to cheat his older twin brother Esau out of his blessing and his birthright. This definitely goes against the rules of good parenting, and likely says little good about the state of Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage by that point. (I can imagine the bitter, resentful, and defensive conversations they would frequently have afterward.)
That’s marriage in scripture. A reflection of the human reality, of deep and abiding “dysfunction,” though I put that in quotes because if dysfunction is the norm, how can we call it dysfunction? Scripture is staunch in its opposition to divorce, mostly because marriage is, I suspect, supposed to mirror the faithfulness God has for Israel — faithless, adulterous, idolatrous, Israel. It’s faithfulness in an awful marriage, not a good one. Much less a great one.
(I still believe this is the description of Christ’s marriage to the church — faithless, adulterous, and idolatrous. The Bridegroom has not abandoned his faithless bride. That says something very important about our God, our relationship to God, and to each other.)
And yet, when I consider no-fault divorce and the fact so many marriages now end that way, I wonder — is this new, or is it merely telling us something about the historic nature of marriage? That many were barely tolerable, and then only because a wider community provided alternatives? Not every marriage can be counseled into something resembling healthy, or even tolerable. Some people should simply never be married to each other — and absent the kind of social arrangement that supports people in these awful marriages — it’s just as well some marriages are ended. Few would expect anyone to stick out an abusive or adulterous marriage. So, if a marriage is ended these days, can we say God really made it in the first place?
(The Madness cover of “Shame and Scandal,” a bit a calypsonian doggerel from 1943 describing how some traditional families have always worked.)
So, unless you are prepared to, in some way, rebuild a social structure that supports people locked into even the worst marriages, the kind of deeply woven communal and social relationships that allow people to find meaning and comfort of some sort outside marriage (including adultery, which has always been accepted and tolerated so long as it is discrete and secret), then you have no business trying to impose “traditional marriage” on anyone. We live in a modern society which long ago shattered and destroyed the kinds of social relations that make this possible, and that kind of rebuilding is the deliberate work of generations. Work we’ve not even started.
Conservatives and traditionalists have also abandoned any sense of the tragic regarding the family. Families are all, somehow, supposed to be perfect and heroic endeavors, especially if they are big, Christian families. (This predates the Duggars.) There is an ideal, one that seems to ignore the reality of cruelty, abuse, neglect, and abandonment. Or even just ordinary, middling parenting and the clash of personalities — not all children and parents are fit for each other. Scripture gives us few examples of good families at work, and like marriage, the families we see at work in the Bible — Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, Jonathan being more loyal to his friend David than his father Saul, Absalom’s response to the rape of his sister Tamar by his half-brother Amnon (and let’s even talk about Absalom’s very public defiling of his father’s concubines) — are not happy entities. They may be the inevitable places where children are begotten and raised, but they are also difficult and and frequently violent.
However, where the conservative valorization of the family goes off the rails for me is with the Gospels. Jesus has lots to say about familial relationships, and almost none of it is good. Stuff like this:
37 “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:37-39 ESV)
48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:48-50 ESV)
The old testament also has some examples of this kind of adoption. Samuel becomes Eli’s heir and successor when it becomes clear Eli’s own sons are worthless. And Samuel anoints two kings as successors to his own worthless sons. Ruth emphatically and passionately adopts Naomi as her kin, even though whatever formal relationship (and obligation) the two had ended when Ruth’s husband died. Jesus himself is an adopted son — very publicly claimed by the God who begot him, and by the earthly father who accepted his charge to care for his betrothed, pregnant with a child that was not his.
The church, this assembly of the followers of Jesus, is clearly a fictive family, people who become kin because we belong to Christ in baptism. It is Jesus looking upon his mother and the beloved disciple from the cross and saying, “Woman, behold your son! Behold your mother!” This is what propelled early Christians to rescue unwanted newborns abandoned to die atop city junk piles. To embrace each other as brother and sister, to care and nurture those brought into our midst regardless of whether or not we had begotten them the natural way.
Now, I realize, I do not have children of my own. So the kinds of worries parents have — about education, the general tone of society, and the things the influence their children’s faith — are not things I worry about. I’m worried about other things, about how those for whom the world already doesn’t work (especially young people in bad or very difficult family situations), about how those discarded and wounded by the world are going to find some place to belong, some people who will care about them. I appreciate families are important, and am truly impressed by parents who parent well. And families where there is indeed love, support, and care.
I just lived in a world where that wasn’t true. So I am sensitive to that reality. Fictive family is important to me. It’s how I have brothers and sisters. It’s how I will have children. It’s how I will care for and nurture others. And the church has always, on some level, been a place where this fictive kinship can be lived out, because it has understood who our Lord is, how he claims us, and how we relate to those around us he also claims. If you’re going to demand both celibacy and life-long indissoluble marriage (and I believe scripture does), than you have to be a place where other kinds of “kinship” can exist, where people can find love, support, and belonging. Where they can find family.
This task of caring for the wounded and abandoned is actually going to be a bigger job for the church as those used, abused, and discarded by the hedonism (both sexual and economic) of our world seek to find and live redeemed and renewed lives. Where they seek to find meaning as children of the Living God, rather than as things to be used. And where a social gospel response of some kind — we are called to change the world — simply will not work. Unless we accept we are family first and foremost because Christ (and not nature) has claimed us and makes us family, then we don’t truly confess a redeeming and resurrecting faith.