In case you were wondering, those who defend traditional marriage and oppose same-sex marriage are continuing the tradition of those who slaughtered the Jews and the Native Americans. They’re also perverts who are trying to theocratize America.
According, at least, to Wendell Berry. And no, I’m neither making this up nor exaggerating.
I write this post with deep disappointment. I appreciate Wendell Berry’s literary artistry, and I appreciate his spiritual insights. But he indulged in an epic rant against gay marriage opponents to a gathering of Baptist ministers on January 11th in Kentucky. His comments were relayed by Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press. While Berry repeats uncritically a slew of bumper-sticker arguments and engages in some serious straw-man pyromania, the people in the comments box nonetheless marvel at his genius. This deserves a response.
Bear in mind that I have openly suggested that the time may have come for evangelicals to drop their legal opposition to same-sex marriage, even as they uphold biblical standards for the morality of sex outside of wedlock and the theology of marriage in the true sense ordained by God. I’ve also been repeatedly critical of the ways in which evangelicals historically have responded to homosexuality, and called for a radical grace and extravagant love shown toward our GLBT neighbors and friends. Also, sincerely, I’m very tired of talking about this. But the constant onslaught of hatred (read the below and tell me that word isn’t justified) for those who affirm traditional biblical sexual ethics and who wish to defend legally the model of marriage instituted by God is so extreme that I find myself compelled time and again to respond.
This will be a long post. But let’s fisk what he has to say:
“My argument, much abbreviated [when he referenced it before], was the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples,” Berry said.
Fair enough, but defending the traditional definition of marriage has nothing to do with making “the sexual practices of consenting adults” subject to government dis/approval. It has to do with the divine creation of marriage and the family. The overwhelming majority of defenders of traditional marriage in America have no interest, none whatsoever, in outlawing homosexual sex. Many would also be perfectly fine with domestic partnerships that grant “rights, protections and privileges” enjoyed by married couples. But that is not what the advocates of gay marriage are seeking. They are seeking a legal redefinition of marriage — and I think it’s fair to say (though some will deny it) that the movement would also like to see an ethical affirmation that there is nothing morally objectionable with homosexuality.
Berry said liberals and conservatives have invented “a politics of sexuality” that establishes marriage as a “right” to be granted or withheld by whichever side prevails. He said both viewpoints contravene principles of democracy that rights are self-evident and inalienable and not determined and granted or withheld by the government.
Actually, no. Conservative Christians do not believe that marriage — homosexual or heterosexual — is a “right.” That’s the point. There is no right to join yourself to whomever you please and demand that the government recognize and reward it as “marriage.” The government does not define marriage. God does. But the government may have a compelling interest in recognizing and encouraging marriage. The only people who argue that marriage is a “right” are those on the Left. The “rights” language has infected the debate, turning everyone who believes in defending traditional marriage into the violators of gays’ “rights” and therefore not only mistaken or misinformed but gravely unethical, perhaps even criminal, equal to those who would deny their rights to women or racial minorities. I believe that gays ought to have – and as human beings do have inalienably – the same rights as heterosexuals, but I do not believe that either gays or straights have a “right” to compel the state to recognize their relationships as marriages.
“Christians of a certain disposition have found several ways to categorize homosexuals as different as themselves, who are in the category of heterosexual and therefore normal and therefore good,” Berry said. What is unclear, he said, is why they single out homosexuality as a perversion.
“The Bible, as I pointed out to the writers of National Review, has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality,” he said. “If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable massacre of innocents — as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion.”
It’s immensely disappointing to see Berry parroting these superficial points. First, no one is saying heterosexuals are “good.” None are good; all are sinful. We all stand as sinners in need of God’s grace. Second, the frequency with which a sin is discussed in scripture has nothing to do with whether or not it’s a sin. There are many things not frequently condemned in scripture — genocide, spousal abuse, child abuse, and even rape — that we would all agree are grave sins and deserving of our attention. The scriptures emerged from a Hebrew world in which the rightness or wrongness of homosexuality was not a live issue. And we need to attend not only to the scriptures condemning homosexual relations but to all the scriptures affirming the proper place for sex and the created definition of marriage. Third, Christians since the first century have employed a hermeneutic that distinguishes between ritual and ceremonial laws that were intended for a specific people at a specific time and place, and the moral law that is written into the order of creation for all people. To pretend suddenly as though Christians are being arbitrary when they choose to affirm the condemnations of homosexual relations and ignore the shellfish rules (or etc.) is disingenuous in the extreme. Fourth, Berry may wish to mount an argument that surface mining is wrong, but that has nothing to do with the proper definition of marriage and God’s design for human sexuality. Fifth and finally, yes, the Bible spends far more time encouraging us to care for the least and the laws than it does reiterating the moral law, which is why Christians and their churches spend a lot more time and effort caring for the least and the lost than they do defending their moral views in the public square.
“Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so,” he said. “Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses — not all of them together — has made as much political/religious noise as homosexual marriage.”
The defense of traditional marriage is not about “hating your neighbor” but about defending biblical truth and preserving a clear understanding of what God has said. Caring for the poor does not create “noise” because no one wants to tell the stories of Christians doing daily heroic work through Catholic Charities or the Salvation Army or World Vision or Compassion or any number of organizations whose budgets individually are several orders of magnitude larger than any budget for any organization defending traditional marriage. And Christian organizations do advocate for the policies they think will best care for the poor and for all people. Nothing would please us more than to see this issue go away, but it remains a constant because those interests are seeking to redefine marriage, which we hold sacred, and constantly seeking to brand the defenders of traditional marriage as hateful and bigoted.
Another argument used, Berry said, is that homosexuality is “unnatural.” “If it can be argued that homosexual marriage is not reproductive and is therefore unnatural and should be forbidden on that account, must we not argue that childless marriages are unnatural and should be annulled?” he asked.
“One may find the sexual practices of homosexuals to be unattractive or displeasing and therefore unnatural, but anything that can be done in that line by homosexuals can be done and is done by heterosexuals,” Berry continued. “Do we need a legal remedy for this? Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve and certify their sexual behavior? Would they like a colorful tattoo verifying government approval on the rumps of lawfully copulating parties? We have the technology, after all, to monitor everybody’s sexual behavior, but so far as I can see so eager an interest in other people’s private intimacy is either prurient or totalitarian or both.”
Colorful images, but again disappointing. Has Wendell Berry never actually read a defense of traditional marriage? It’s not as though we just discovered the problem of childless couples. Has he never heard of the Catholic Church, which has a very sophisticated theology around this question? If he has heard it, he chooses to caricature it instead with colorful images of backside tattoos. Once again, this is not about legally forbidding sexual behavior. Trying to turn this time and again into an effort to illegalize same-sex sex may be effective rhetoric, but it’s fundamentally dishonest.
“The oddest of the strategies to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals,” Berry said. “If this is not industrial capitalist paranoia, it at least follows the pattern of industrial capitalist competitiveness. We must destroy the competition. If somebody else wants what you’ve got, from money to marriage, you must not hesitate to use the government – small of course – to keep them from getting it.”
One wonders how a mind as supple as Wendell Berry’s can accept these talking points so uncritically. Christians and their churches devote enormous amounts of resources to marriage ministries in an effort to strengthen marriages. A favorite target of the left, Focus on the Family, is almost exclusively focused on building up marriages and families. The lion’s share of effort does go toward strengthening heterosexual marriages. But just because heterosexual marriages are struggling is not a reason to abandon the biblical definition of marriage. There is no fear that homosexuals will “corner the market.” This probably ranks among the most ridiculous things Berry has said in a long series of ridiculous things. The concern is that, in a society where marriage is already suffering, altering the fundamental definition of marriage will only hasten the disintegration of the God-given family structure and therefore of society as a whole. Whether or not we find it convincing, let’s be honest about the argument.
“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians,” Berry said. “When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”
Accusing churches that are trying to hold fast to how (they believe) God defined marriage of perpetuating the same “Christian blood thirst” that led to the annihilation of Jews and American Indians is calumny of the highest order. Wendell Berry should be ashamed of himself. Worldwide, homosexuals historically have been persecuted. Christians, who have been persecuted worldwide as well, should be sensitive to this. But tying those who believe homosexual sex is wrong and that God made marriage for male and female to the instigators of genocide and religious warfare is truly beyond the pale.
“Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred,” Berry said. “Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.”
“Perhaps the most dangerous temptation to Christianity is to get itself officialized in some version by a government, following pretty exactly the pattern the chief priest and his crowd at the trial of Jesus,” Berry said. “For want of a Pilate of their own, some Christians would accept a Constantine or whomever might be the current incarnation of Caesar.”
Now the defenders of traditional marriage are likened to those who crucified Jesus. Apparently no blow is too low here. Even though Christians today are not advocating laws against adultery, or against premarital sex, or homosexual sex, nonetheless Christians are trying to get Christianity “officialized.” (I think he has a point here, but it has to be much more nuanced and qualified.) And what would Wendell Berry say of condemnation of habitual adulterers or environment-destroyers “by category” (which really means to say that those actions are sinful)? My only point is to underscore the ridiculousness of the charge that “condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred.” While I do not disagree that there are some out there who are simply hateful bigots, the great majority of people I’ve come to know who wish to defend traditional marriage are not hateful but simply attempting, in the face of epic slander such as this, to uphold what they perceive to be the truth of God’s Word.
“Finally,” says one commenter, “sanity in the discussion.” Says another, “We have been blessed with such a profound mind.” Comments like these, in some ways, sadden me even more than Wendell Berry’s comments themselves. Have we lost the ability even to recognize a sane and balanced and nuanced discussion? Because Wendell Berry, in this case, offers neither sanity nor profundity. There is no nuance here, no attempt to understand the arguments on both sides — really, there’s no grace here whatsoever. There is a raging condemnation of one side of the argument as the “perverts” who indulge in “the lowest form of hatred” and can be justly identified with the perpetrators of genocide and inter-religious slaughter.
Tell me again who is engaging in “condemnation by category”?