Monday, June 22, 2015

Should Christians Divorce to Protest Gay Marriage part 2: The Culture Wars

OK, once again I have to start with some more ground clearing.  It has been observed that under the current Marriage Act the Jensens will not be able to simply obtain a divorce without proving that their relationship has irrevocably broken down.  Given that they are not planning to actually dissolve their relationship a judge would have no legal option but to refuse their application.  So is this whole discussion moot?  I have a few observations.  First, I am not surprised that there would be legal difficulties in getting this sort of legal separation through (indeed, I would have been shocked if it was just that easy).  I’m sure when they were constructing the Marriage Act they weren’t thinking about needing a Conscientious Objector category.  Second, since we are only dealing with potential legal changes regarding the definition of marriage there is no harm in thinking through what might be achieved if there was a consensus that this was the most ethical course to take.  After all, if one group can lobby for a change to the Marriage Act why can’t another?  Third, even if a divorce could not be legally granted in current circumstances, there is nothing saying that an application couldn’t be made anyway as a legitimate means of protest.  But moving on…

In my circles the questions surrounding marriage definition people have mostly been interested in the What questions:
·        What changes are being proposed?
·        What effect are they going to have on society?
·        What can we do to stop it?

Asking these questions is helpful.  We need to be clear about exactly what is happening and not be led by misinformation.  But there has been, to my mind, precious little attention to the Why questions:
·        Why are changes to marriage being sought?
·        Why did public support get mustered so quickly?
·        Why are so many heterosexual people taking an active part in championing these changes?
·        Why are “traditional” views of marriage now seen as incompatible with modern life?

Without wanting to pre-empt things by implying that I agree with their course of action, one of the positive things about the Jensen’s proposal to divorce is that it has helped bring the Why answers to the fore.  That is, the push for marriage redefinition has often been characterised as being driven by a desire for Equality, Inclusion, Tolerance, and Freedom.  If this were really the case then it would be hard to argue the point.  However, the sharp and often vicious reaction against this one couple’s questioning as to whether they wanted their relationship to continue to be regulated by the State has revealed some far less laudatory motivations at work.  It is only by realising what these motivations are that we as Christians can then ask the big question: What is the right thing for us to do now?

An illustration may help here.  Let’s suppose that you had been invited to a friend’s birthday party.  You had been to these gatherings before and it had all been quite pleasant.  However, a week after agreeing to attend, you find out that a new invitation had subsequently been issued to a person that your friend knows that you don’t personally get on with.  More than that, you have had vocal disagreements with this person in the past and if you were at the same party together it would be highly likely that an argument would start up again.  You go to your friend to explain the situation:

You: I didn’t realise that you were planning on inviting Him to your party.  I may not have agreed to come if I’d known that you were then going to invite Him as well, knowing that I’d be there.

Friend: Look, I know that you two have had problems in the past, but I think that it’s going to be a great night.  You are going to have a good time, the catering has all been arranged, there’s no reason for you not to come.

You: I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with this, or with the fact that you knew there were problems between me and Him and you still chose to invite us both.  Maybe it would be better if I didn’t come.

Now, what your friend says next is important.  If she says, “Look, I understand why you feel that way.  But I also think that there is a chance for the two of you to put your differences aside and enjoy a great party.  I’ll speak to Him and see if there is a chance that you could agree to disagree so we can all move on together, because it really wouldn’t be the same without you there.”, you see that this is an exercise in peacemaking and whatever your personal misgivings you lose nothing by being the bigger person and giving it a shot.  However, if your friend says, “Now you’re just being selfish!  All you want is to control who gets invited.  I’m not going to shed any tears if you choose not to come.  In fact, I think it will be a much better party without you.”, then you might get the impression that reconciliation and inclusion were not really high on your friend’s priority list.  In fact, it might just be that she was hoping that you might ultimately refuse to come.  And if that does happen to be the case, would you really want to go now anyway?

The analogy is imperfect, but I think that it explains a lot of what is going on in the disputes over the place of marriage in society.  As I have said previously, while the conflict is often perceived to be one between Legal and Christian Marriage, in actual fact it is almost entirely internal to Cultural.

Breaking down the entire history would take up too much time, but simply put in the Western culture there existed for a long time compatibility between Cultural and Christian Marriage.  Not that they were identical, but that for those who wished to make a Christian affirmation could do so without compromising their principles and their semi-pagan neighbours would not have thought them “weird” for doing so.  This was partly because of the universality of basic Cultural frameworks of the marriage relationship – a contracted union of a man and a woman for life with the expectation of legitimate children.  Even when the Cultural boundaries were more liberal (e.g. polygamous societies) or an overt Christian affirmation would be frowned upon (e.g. Islamic countries) it was still possible to live Christianly within marriage in a way that would testify to the true identity of the relationship.  Even during times when the Cultural aspects of weddings were almost exclusively Christian in character (in church, blessed by a priest, etc) but the broader social expectations of marriage were driven by more secular interests, those who wanted to affirm Christian Marriage were able to do so and were broadly affirmed (or at least tolerated).  This is merely to observe that Cultural Marriage has never been completely dominated by Christian Marriage even in the most “spiritual” of times, and those who wished to affirm marriage’s Christian character have always done so in the expectation that this was done in the context of a sinful world that did not always truly share gospel convictions.  The Cultural and the Christian were mutually inclusive of each other as they affirmed some foundational principles.

But over the last 100 years those foundational principles have slowly been eroded within the Cultural sphere.  Those things which had bound Cultural and Christian Marriage together were re-evaluated in light of new social priorities that placed Individual Self-Determination at the centre.  The idea of a shared Public Morality was discarded in favour of Personal Freedoms, starting with the idea of Love becoming the default criteria for marriage suitability – “What does it matter if people don’t approve of my choice of spouse because of their Social Class/Education/Religion/Politics/Morality?  It only matters that I Love them.”  Love is, of course, important in a marriage and cannot really be Christian without it (Eph 5:29-30), but Love was always tempered by social parameters of appropriateness.  Many famous stories, such as Romeo & Juliet and Great Expectations, have as their foundation examples of Love that are unmoderated and unwisely pursued.  Yet now the very concept of Love itself was in the process of redefinition to the point where it could no longer be moderated – we do not choose who we love, and so attempts to place barriers around what is and is not appropriate expression of love are met with suspicion of underlying sinister motives.  “What could be the reason that they could object to Love except the fact that they are driven by Hate?”

Thus, by the beginning of the 21st Century, the space in which Christian Marriage could legitimately be affirmed in Cultural Marriage had drastically shrunk.  Behind this was a broader hostility to Jesus Discipleship that was beginning to be seen more widely again in society (e.g. Scripture in State Schools).  There are many factors at play here that we don’t have space to go into, but the reality behind Stage TwoExile is that for the last 60 years our semi-pagan society was content to hold a policy of benign neglect towards religion generally – “We don’t particularly want you here, but we can’t stop you directly.  So we will politely leave you to your own devices until you eventually collapse under the weight of your own irrelevance.”  When that society discovered that (by the grace of God) these Jesus Disciples had not just faded away as expected and were just as bothersome as ever, more direct action was deemed necessary.

To that end, Culture does what it usually does when it finds that its basic moral frameworks are not overtly affirmed – it seeks to change the Law.  On the topic at hand, Cultural Marriage looked at Legal Marriage and saw that it reflected the ethical framework of a bygone era that accommodated something that could no longer be tolerated.  Christian Marriage affirmed that we are not in charge of our relationships, that they are directed to ends that are not our own, and declares Christ’s union with his church.  This explains why the movement for a change that would seemingly affect less than 3% of the population has garnered such popular support – this is not about what Christians think about Gay Marriage, this is about what Cultural Marriage thinks about Christian Marriage.  By and large, the gay people that I have interacted with around this topic have been respectful and tolerant of differences of opinion, perhaps intuitively sensing the need to keep the broader Culture onside.  Their heterosexual supporters, on the other hand, who have nothing to lose and everything to gain are happy to act as the attack dogs and throw around terms like “bigot”, “fundamentalist”, “Nazi”, and so forth. 

Thus the nature of what Cultural Marriage has become demands a change in Legal Marriage.  After all, don’t just laws spring from the morality of those who are to uphold and follow them?  And if the challenge of Christian Marriage can no longer be politely ignored but represents an ongoing ethical and spiritual challenge for the new millennium, then how can it expect to receive the tacit affirmation of the laws of the society that it is calling to repentance?  Christian Marriage may still be practiced – heaven forbid that anyone should be directly excluded!  But if it is to continue, it will have to operate within the Cultural space now assigned, and the Legal regulation will now come with some very heavy strings attached.

Next time, is Divorce the way forward?  Do we throw in the towel completely, or are these still ways to challenge the Cultural with true Christian Marriage?

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