Of Splinters and Glass Houses: Religion and Marriage Equality

So I hear New York State passed some law or something? I woke up this morning to find Crasstalk excitedly celebrating the passage of marriage equality in New York, and deservedly so. (Don’t get too excited though, New York gays. The associated taxes and fees that Albany will inevitably add to applying for a marriage license may cause you to reconsider your feelings on getting married there. You might be able to be legally married now, but it’s still New York after all. Everything is treated as an opportunity to generate new tax revenues.)

Since I’m from New York myself, and my family and most of my friends are located there as well, there’s been a smattering of comments on yesterday’s events popping up on my Facebook feed – not all of them happy. I grew up in a (mostly) conservative Christian home, and I’ve maintained friendships with many of the religiously oriented friends I had in my teens and early twenties.  Facebook postings have been either largely absent from this group or gently disapproving of the new marriage law. New York State marriage equality seems to be seen as A Bad Thing by my religious friends and family.

On the one hand, I understand where they’re coming from, because I used to inhabit that same space, both literally and metaphorically. On the other hand, I’ve grown out of that phase of my life, and it infuriates me to watch my former faith community continue to make the same logical, argumentative, and theological errors that I made as a Christian teenager working through these issues. I’m not referring to taking a position against gay marriage based on Biblical texts per se, but how horribly that position is reasoned and supported by the people who choose it. They’re generally good people taking a beautiful faith text and deploying it in ugly, ugly ways.

I’ve come to a place now as a thirty-something adult that I’m not terribly interested in trying to change my family and friend’s views on these matters, but I’ve also decided I’m not going to sit silently by when they start spouting Christian nonsense, misquoting and misinterpreting the Bible to support their views. From my perspective it feels as much like I’m defending the honor of what was a beautiful and meaningful spirituality for me as a young person, as it is an argument against plain old bad ideas.

To that end, I wrote up my thoughts on the disappointed reactions of my Christian Facebook friends and posted it to my personal blog, which in turn posts to my Facebook wall.  I chose to write this out because I saw this as an opportunity to give voice to a viewpoint that those friends otherwise may not hear in the echo chamber of what can be a pretty insular community. I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind, but I also don’t want bad theological nonsense to go unanswered.

I share it here for those of you who might not understand or be able to identify with the world of American conservative Christianity. I can’t speak for everyone, but the people I do know who live in that community are really no different than the average American. Maybe this will provide you with a little bit of insight into how otherwise good people espouse what might seem such plainly bad ideas. And it might give you something to counter with the next time you find yourself in an internet fight over gay rights.

Here’s what I wrote:

Today, New York State passed legislation legalizing gay marriage.  Or, as it’s now called, “marriage”.  For those of you who may not know, I am a card carrying resident of New York State.  I also have many friends and people I care about who live in New York State who would self identify as conservative or as Christians; often they’d identify as both.  They tend to feel strongly that this was A Bad Thing.

My responses in discussing this issue with them have taken a mildly mocking tone and displayed a certain dismissiveness.  I’ve chosen to laugh at their views on gay marriage not out of disrespect, but because I feel those views are in fact laughable. Laughing seems the most appropriate response. To my mind, it’s a bit like responding to a 2 year old’s temper tantrum:  From the perspective of the toddler, their anger is real, their feelings have been hurt, their sensibilities violated and they deeply, sincerely feel  an injustice has been committed. “What do you mean I can’t get a bag of Skittles from the grocery checkout line? THIS IS SO WRONG!” And then the shit storm begins.

The mature response, however, is not to take their tantrum seriously.  Rather, we compassionately identify with their anger and fear, while maintaining a certain bemused distance from their actual complaint. “Aww, it’s ok sweetie”, we might utter quietly while comforting the raging child. We don’t seriously engage them as if they’ve actually been wronged because they didn’t get their way.  As an evolved, mature adult, we know better.

This is basically how I see American Christianity’s objections to marriage equality – a juvenile, guttural response rooted in their Id and fueled by ignorance, bad thinking, and flawed argumentation.  The people I know – these are family, friends, people I respect and care about, and who care about me – would say they are driven not so much by anti-gay feelings as they are by a sincere desire to be faithful to what they understand to be God’s revealed Word.   I believe that they really believe this when they say it.  I believe that they honestly are striving to be the best Christians they know how to be, that their opposition to gay marriage is simply a side effect of a sincere Biblical commitment to their faith; they’re not simply practicing rank bigotry.  But I also call shenanigans.

The inconsistencies that conservative Christians accept ostensibly in the pursuit of adhering to Biblical values and principles in the matter of condemning gay marriage are staggering.   Jesus Himself had 100% more to say on the topic of heterosexual divorce in the Bible than He had to say on homosexuality. Namely, He speaks out once in the Gospels on the topic of divorce (Matthew 19:1-11), and not at all on the topic of homosexuality. Yet American Christians are by and large silent on the matter of divorce in their churches, but speak against homosexuality with vigor and freedom of conscience.

The rate of divorce in American churches mirrors that of the larger population, and this is accepted as an unfortunate fact of life.  There are no well meaning Christian therapists arguing that if you just pray enough, divorced couples can get back together and live happily ever after.   If we can pray away the gay, then we can pray away divorces, yes?  Try telling that to the single, divorced mom sitting down the pew from you.  See what kind of response you get.

If we really believe that Christian Scripture is divinely inspired, that it has made its way to us today under the guidance of God Himself through the hands of men inspired by His Spirit, why aren’t Christ’s words on divorce taken to heart the way Paul’s views on homosexuality are?  Shouldn’t Christians place more weight on texts attributed to the Son of God Himself than they do to moral guidance from a mere man, inspired prophet or not?

Why doesn’t the Christian community have the same energetic response to divorce that they have to homosexuality and gay marriage?  Why don’t churches insist divorced singles stay single and celibate (or remarry the person they divorced) the way churches insist homosexuals must stay single and celibate (or enter into a heterosexual relationship) in order to comply with Biblical teachings?  There are divorced singles groups advertised in church bulletins all across America.  I don’t know of any gay singles groups being offered in these same churches.  Churches treat divorce as the highly personal, complex issue that it is, while applying blanket, stark moral reasoning to issues of sexual orientation.

We don’t we see Christian funded political action committees lobbying to make divorce illegal except in the case of infidelity.  There are no groups with names like “Protect American Families” arguing for Federal or state Constitutional amendments outlawing heterosexual divorce.  Certainly heterosexual divorce undermines the historical institution of marriage more profoundly than does gay participation.  Far more children are deeply wounded by their heterosexual parents divorcing than are harmed by knowing there’s an open lesbian married couple living next door.

I’ll tell you why this is.  I don’t think it’s necessarily naked, overt hypocrisy, although there is certainly an element of hypocrisy in it.  Rather, I believe it’s because divorce is something that can and does happen to every day Christians.  It’s “our sin”, not “their sin”.  We all can identify with being so wounded by a person that we love that we find it impossible to carry on in the relationship, infidelity or not.  Divorce happens to good, committed Christians that we know and respect; conversely homosexuality is easier to hide and ignore due to its highly personal nature.  And so the Christian community is hesitant to take a strong, principled position on divorce consistent with Jesus’ teachings.  Christians look at their fellow divorced congregants and very honestly say to themselves, “There but by the grace of God go I.”

Not so with sexual orientation.  We can keep homosexuality at a distance.  We have trouble identifying with different sexual orientations.  It seems so strange, maybe even mysterious!  We can’t imagine ever being attracted to a person of the same sex, much less falling in love or having a physical homosexual relationship.   Homosexuality is so foreign, so Other, so not a part of our every day life, that it allows us to enthusiastically and uncritically embrace Biblical passages condemning it, while gingerly tip toeing around the passages that clearly apply to our immediate communities.

I’m not suggesting that the solution to this dissonance is for Christians to forcefully and consistently condemn divorce with the same certitude that all things gay are condemned.   Not only would that be immoral, it wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit or intent of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, and of the overall moral imperatives of the larger New Testament authors.  What I would suggest is that the Christian community ought to abandon trite and convenient phrases such as “love the sinner, hate the sin” as a means of coming to terms with the very difficult challenges of fitting a first century Bible informed by a pre-modern Jewish Palestinian world view to a 21st century world informed by Enlightenment thinking and the scientific method.   It’s no small task, and doing that in a deep, meaningful , thoughtful, and loving way takes more energy than “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

Until conservative American Christians writ large start doing the hard work of serious thinking and serious moral reasoning, I don’t feel compelled to treat their objections to modern concepts of morality – or the forms that morality takes – as anything more than the mindless cries of a newborn infant, scared and unhappy that its formerly comfortable word is changing in ways it can’t quite comprehend.

“Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the log in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a log in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.”  ~Matthew 7:3-5

(Other articles by allgoodpeople)

(Image from edocharrette.com)

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