Issue Number 12
Civics and Faith
The Inner Voice of Love
I'm sitting on my bunk (a lower bunk -- one of 16 in this room), after being here for just over 24 hours. My spirits are good, and I'm finding myself at times even cheerful. The cash I brought in has been successfully connected to my commissary account, and so I've been able to purchase paper, pens, and stamps (as well as other things like Vitamin C, a coat hanger, a lock, a hot drink mug, plastic slippers for the shower, tea, and my favorite purchase: 5 cans of mackerel, which is the currency of exchange here for things like haircuts and other transactions). ....
We made it into our rooms
around 3 p.m., and I started meeting my new roommates. A rabbi from Los
Angeles was the first to introduce himself to me. I switched bunks with
an older, blue-eyed Lebanese Muslim who needed my lower bunk (I was happy
to take his upper bunk). There was also an information security technology
guy who worked on Wall Street. We were counted at 4 p.m., and then dinner
was at 5:30. The food was edible, and included a simple salad bar, and
ample rice and beans. I have never experienced food dished out so quickly
and people moved in and out of the dining area so efficiently.
The inmates have reacted well to my story of why I'm here. A few have been interested in the politics of the matter. ...
The delightful part of yesterday was meeting Bill Streit, a Catholic worker and also a prisoner-of-conscience. Other inmates had told me that "the peace guy" was looking for me, and after dinner we were introduced. Bill had done lots of jail time since the early 90's, mostly because of plough-share actions. He was also in the early group of persons to "cross the line" on Ft. Benning. Bill is a very cheerful prisoner -- he is gregarious, has a playful manner, and has a way of engaging everyone around him.
Cliff would welcome a note from you:
On occasion I drive by a nondescript, sprawling building surrounded by oceans of empty parking. There is a sign outside:
Marriages are made in heaven.
The theology is actually pretty good. Traditional church language is "What God has joined, let no one put asunder." That's "what GOD has joined...," not "what the church has joined!"
Our Presbyterian Directory for Worship defines marriage as "...a gift God has given to all humankind for the well-being of the entire human family. ...a civil contract." [W-4.9001] As God has given many gifts, what is distinctive is Presbyterians understand marriage as a civil contract. The definition continues "...between a man and a woman." What would happen if the civil authority were to redefine the contract as being between two people? What if, as by all human standards clearly happens and has happened throughout the ages, God has joined two people of the same sex? It is time for Christians to think lovingly and justly about the meaning and nature of marriage. This is a matter both of justice and of faith.
The recent US Supreme Court decision overturning sodomy laws is cause for celebration and for careful reflection on committed relationship. The Justices found, "The petitioners [two gay men] are entitled to respect for their private lives." The principal was applied broadly.
Canadians also are thinking about marriage since several of their provincial courts have found the restriction of marriage to a man and a woman violates same sex couples' equality rights. Ottawa will vote soon on nationwide legal redefinition.
The civil contract aspect of marriage has profound consequences. There are literally hundreds of rights conferred on married couples that are not available to singles, whatever their relationships. Shared rights of adoption, hospital visitation, property ownership, inheritance, and tax treatment are some obvious issues. Civil law affects all aspects of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender life. It embodies the long standing dominant view that homosexuality is immoral. But, quoting from the recent US Supreme Court opinion, "The issue is whether the majority may use the power of the state to enforce these views on the whole society ...." [Lawrence v. Texas]
In Canada, the Pope has indicated to Prime Minister Chrétien and his probable successor, both Catholic, that their religion obliges them to apply Catholic doctrine to their multicultural nation. Calgary Bishop Fred Henry has warned Chrétien he is jeopardizing eternal salvation. Consider these editorial questions from the Toronto Star: "... how would [Catholics] react if Canada had a Muslim PM, who was told by a mullah that he has an obligation to impose sharia law on Canada? Or a Jewish PM, who had rabbis telling him that he had a duty to ban all non-kosher food from Canada?" [August 2, 2003] What's that about do unto others...?
As GLBT people have been asking for some time now, what possible harm can come from those few who are lucky enough to have found life partners and are interested in marriage? Wouldn't same sex marriage rather build up the morality of commitment and responsibility?
There could be a semantic solution. Make 'Civil Union' identical to marriage in everything but name. Vermont has done this. The Connecticut legislature is considering it. Court cases in Massachusetts and New Jersey may substantially effect it. While this might be an intermediate solution, it creates a separate but equal situation that's never truly equal. And those who oppose broadening the definition of marriage oppose it also. Are they less interested in protecting marriage than in enforcing their version of morality?
The religious arguments behind the dominant marriage morality all seem ultimately built on Genesis 2:24. "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh."
I can only wonder at how this text tradition was received in the polygamous Israelite culture where it emerged and which preserved it for all generations. Surely it was not understood as requiring lifelong one man to one woman marital fidelity (or chastity in singleness) demanded by American religious tradition!
Verse 24 is really an aside or parenthetical comment injected in the great story of the forming of humanity and of God's compassionate concern for us. "Then the LORD God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.'" [Gen. 2:18] How deeply tragic and profoundly ironic that the record of God's awareness of our need for companionship should be used to deny some of God's children companionship.
So what's to be done?On the civic side, become aware of the issues. At the Federal level, there are efforts to amend our Constitution – as if the "Defense of Marriage Act" Bill Clinton signed weren't enough. Make your voice heard. This won't be easy. There is a huge conservative campaign going on.
As people of faith, what can we Presbyterians do? We should change our Book of Order so marriage is defined as a civil contract between two people. That doesn't seem a politically immanent, but it will happen.
There is a completely within the rules witness any pastor and/or session can make right now to call the church to faithful humility and justice. Stop doing marriages!
Though it may seem a radical idea, it is really just recognition that the church does not 'make' marriages – never has. The church does not even know the predictive signs of a true marriage. No one does. Beautiful relationships sometimes end in divorce, even after lasting many years. Marriages of necessity may work for life. James Nelson, among others, has written extensively on this. What the church tries to put together may or may not stick. Marriages, anyway the aspects that are more than civil contracts, are made in heaven. God may, or may not, clue us in.
What the church does – what the church can do – sometimes pretty well, is provide a community of support for people in relationship. Indeed helping people be themselves in relation to God and neighbor – that's all the church has ever done. Every Sunday with the Benediction we bless people, a community of people as we/they go out into the world. At a wedding we celebrate what we believe God is doing in the lives of two people and commit ourselves to being their community of support.
From this recognition of what we, the church, actually do, it is a short step to deciding to offer (after pastoral counseling) a Service of Blessing or an Exchange of Promises to all couples requesting it. Rev. Hal Porter, elaborated this in his recent presentation to the Investigating Committee of the Presbytery of Cincinnati. The couple may well consider this a wedding – in the European fashion requiring a visit to City Hall – but it frees the church from promising what it cannot provide. It treats all couples identically. And we don't need an overture to GA to start acting justly!
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