Warning: Excessively long post. If I were a better writer and less actively involved in wrestling with the topic, I could write a lot shorter.
I really wasn’t going to post on this past week’s Tempest in a Chickenfryer. As if we weren’t polarized enough around the issue of marriage and what it means to society and to religion! The blogosphere has been a-boil with a dipping sauce comprising equal parts of vitriol, grandstanding, and pain, into which we dunk our nuggets of hard-fought belief and personal experience. It’s a recipe for heartburn and soulburn on a national scale.
The weird thing is, all this was precipitated by Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s semi-public (made uber-public by his opponents) support for a vision of marriage that, in this society, is as radically outside the norm as gay marriage. “We are very much supportive of the family—the biblical definition of the family unit,” Cathy was quoted as saying in a business profile for a Baptist magazine. “We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.” Forget proponents of gay marriage, who actually had to read between the lines to take umbrage with that statement—I still can’t figure out why the divorced and remarried of America didn’t rise up at that smug and bigoted “married to our first wives” thing (can’t you see the mayor of Reno refusing to allow a Chik-fil-A franchise because the CEO discriminates against divorce?), but oh well.
As a Catholic revert attempting (however incompetently) to live my Church’s teachings, I recognize that Dan Cathy’s minority view of marriage (grounded in Jesus’ teachings, defined by the complementarity of man and woman, lifelong) has come to be my own. That doesn’t mean that I or my Church share with some of the organizations Dan Cathy chooses to fund the notion that homosexual persons are less endowed with human dignity, less entitled to equal protection of the law, less capable of heroic moral virtue than heterosexual persons.
That’s hard to explain, as I’ve had to this week, to people who confront me with their experience of living in loving and faithful and life-giving same-sex partnerships. It’s not something I can even bring up with two women whose commitment to one another I witnessed and prayed over, at their request, several years ago, whose bond is stronger and more selfless and more conventional than that of any hundred Kardashians, and whose three children are in no way less richly gifted with love, faith, and care than any children of a Catholic textbook family.
It’s even harder to explain to the women I myself have loved, including the woman I asked to marry me once upon a time. (That she refused was a blessing beyond measure to both of us, but the ask is not a matter of regret.)
It’s hardest to explain to myself. That I’ve lived and loved in just about all the ways that violate the norms of sexuality and marriage I now espouse makes me, even to myself, an enigma, a person called to perpetual conversion of life, a sinner standing in the need of prayer. What upholding an ideal of relationships more honored in the breach than in the keeping doesn’t make me, however, is a hypocrite or a hater or a judger of any conscience but my own.
That’s an awfully long preface to a very long post, one triggered only tangentially by Chickengate. All this ‘splainin’ and wrestling and praying leaves me snappish, no matter how hard I want to be charitable and sensitive. I reserved my anger, this week, not for the sincere debaters or even the passionate opponents, but for the snarkily ignorant—the proliferating Facebook memes that attempt to school Christians on their inherently “unChristian” beliefs about marriage. This one, 10 Things I Wish the Church Knew about Homosexuality, credited to jimrigby.org, was the straw that broke my patience’s back. Snark called to snark. In fisking the meme, I don’t mean in any way to do what the meme itself does: reduce the complexity, the importance, the grace of our wrestling with the Christian and societal meaning of marriage to a handful of zingers. I just want to fact-check the zing. So if you’re still awake, here goes (meme points in bold, my responses below):
1. If Jesus did not mention a subject, it cannot be essential to his teachings.
While this is a specious argument—there are lots of things Jesus didn’t mention by name that are essential to Christianity—I will give you this one. Homosexuality (whether we’re talking about the small percentage of humans for whom same-sex attraction appears to be hard-wired, or the much larger percentage of people who engage in same-sex relations at one time or another) is not essential to Jesus’ teachings. Chastity—the call to live God’ gift of sexuality joyously and gracefully according to one’s state in life—is, however, essential to Christian belief and practice, though Jesus didn’t use that word either. When Jesus talks about sexuality, he does so to affirm the complementarity of male and female in marriage, the intimate relationship for which humans were created. There are many, Jesus is aware (being one himself), who are not married: some by choice, most not so. For those of us not married to pretend we are—to exercise the full expression of sexuality in any way other than within that lifelong covenanted relationship open to the transmission of new life—is to go against the purpose for which we were created. That’s sin—not unforgivable, and not always of the same level of seriousness, but “missing the mark” still. Hard teaching, not just for LGBT folks but for any of us not living what Jesus expressly taught is God’s intention for human relationships, but essential. Because Jesus didn’t just “mention” marriage—he was very, very clear about defining it.
2. You are not being persecuted when prevented from persecuting others.
Persecution? Like Inigo Montoya, I do not think that word means what you think it means. Proclaiming the truth of our faith is not persecution, it is the free expression of religion. Defining marriage as Jesus himself defined it, and refusing to bless or sanctify or applaud notions of marriage that violate that definition, is not persecution. Government authorities’ threatening to take away our constitutionally enumerated rights of free expression, now that’s closer to persecution. So is denying a man’s company a business license because he’s a Baptist and not afraid to say so.
3. Truth isn’t like wine that gets better with age. It’s more like manna you must recognize wherever you are and whoever you are with.
Nice refrigerator magnet. But bullsh*t. Truth is truth, unchanging and revealed by God. The ways in which that truth is understood and expressed and clarified change with the times, but those ways are no better because they are newer; every age expresses the eternal in the way best suited to it. If the truth were like manna, evanescent as dew and rotting after 24 hours, defined only by what the last person said or by the last airport you landed in, we’d be living in a lunatic asylum. Which maybe we are, but still.
That would be true if we were talking about rights. But marriage is in no society a universal human right. For the state, marriage is a privilege, like driving or voting. It comes with attendant rights and responsibilities. To be married in the eyes of the law, you must meet certain requirements and be free of certain impediments. You must request the state’s permission to exercise this privilege by applying for a marriage license, just as you must secure a driver’s license or register to vote. If you are interested in legislation to extend the privilege of marriage to couples of the same sex where that extension does not now exist, whether it is called domestic partnership or marriage, you (and Jeff Bazos and Howard Schultz) are free to lobby for that, to pour money into campaigning for it, whatever—just as Dan Cathy is free to lobby against it and to pour money into campaigning against it. What you cannot do is make a privilege into a universal human right, no matter how hard you close your eyes, cross your fingers, and wish. In terms of religion, of course, marriage is more than just a privilege—it’s a holy rite. That’s not a right, either, though by claiming a universal human right to marriage you may hope to be able to sue churches and synagogues and mosques and temples into according you “special rites.”
5. It is no longer your personal religious view if you’re bothering someone else.
Fourth grade much? “You hurt my feeeeeeeeeeeeelings. Jesus would NEVER hurt my feeeeeeeeelings! Religion isn’t supposed to BOTHER people!” For God’s/gods’/goddesses’ sake, the personal religious views of every one who’s got any personal religious views bother someone else at some point. The personal religious views of many of my fellow Catholics piss me off to no end, as I’m sure mine do them. My personal religious views bother me quite a bit of the time. Suck it up. Bothering is not persecuting, or hating, or irreligious, or anything else worth bothering about. Close your tender ears, and just listen to your own unbothersome personal religious beliefs all the time in an endless self-gratifying loop.
6. Marriage is a civil ceremony, which means it’s a civil right.
See #4. You might as well say Working for the Department of Motor Vehicles is a civil service job, so it’s a civil right. Building highways is civil engineering, so it’s a civil right. The War Between the States was a Civil War, so it’s a civil right. This is civil silliness. In any case, the “civil” part of marriage is the obtaining of the license and the swearing before an authorized representative of the state. Ceremonies are religious or pseudo-religious in nature.
7. If how someone stimulates the public nerve has become the needle to your moral compass, you are the one who is lost.
I’m not even sure what this one means, but if it makes any sense at all you’ve just indicted yourself. The movement to equate same-sex marriage with an advancement of civil rights is a great example of the stimulation of a public nerve—a lot of twitching and moaning for the transitory gratification of a small but loud public claque, which just yesterday was declaring marriage to be an oppressive tool of the bourgeoisie designed to Borg all our beautiful queerness into bland vanilla suburgatory. If a Facebook meme has become the needle to your moral compass, you’re not just lost, you’re clueless about how to find your way back.
8. To condemn homosexuality, you must use parts of the Bible you don’t yourself obey. Anyone who obeyed every part of Leviticus would rightly be put in prison.
I’ll let the Orthodox Jews take up that last part with you, after they get through praying the daily prayer of thanks to G-d for having blessed them with the joy of carrying out all 613 commands of the Torah. As for the first sentence, sure. I’m a Catholic; we don’t take the Bible as a big nasty pill to swallow whole in one gulp. There’s a hierarchy of doctrine, and Scripture is interpreted in the light of Tradition. As for whether the condemnation of homosexual relations is essential to Christianity, see #1. And by the way, some people who call themselves religious condemn homosexual persons. Nobody in my Church, or in any other communion worth the name of Christ, does—or asks of them any special sacrifice not asked of any other Christian, either.
9. If we do not do the right thing in our day, our grandchildren will look at us with same embarrassment we look at racist grandparents.
There are no grounds for drawing a parallel between racism—which discriminates against people for who they are—and laws or customs restricting what people of all races may do. All people are equal under the law and deserving of dignity as children of God. All people are not entitled by existence to be married—and no one has ever died from not being married, or from not being sexually active, for that matter. That’s not discrimination. This grandparent who fought for civil rights has nothing to be embarrassed about.
10. When Jesus forbade judging, that included you.
Which advice, thanking you for your patience, I am now going to shut up and try to follow.