Sunday, June 12, 2011

Marriage Equality for All


An article in Psychology Today a few years ago set out to provide an extraordinarily brief history of marriage. This is how the article began:

Through most of Western civilization, marriage has been more a matter of money, power and survival than of delicate sentiments. In medieval Europe, everyone from the lord of the manor to the village locals had a say in deciding who should wed. Love was considered an absurdly flimsy reason for a match. Even during the Enlightenment and Victorian eras, adultery and friendship were often more passionate than marriage. These days, we marry for love—and are rewarded with a blistering divorce rate.

For a while, Tina Turner sang what, to me, was a surprisingly popular song, “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” That’s an interesting and an appropriate question to ask of marriage throughout history including marriage today.

In numerous civilizations, politics and money heavily outweighted emotions. In ancient Greece, for example, love was indeed highly honored, primarily love between men. Marriage of “commoners,” if you will, was more concerned with family gifts on the front end of matrimony and strong inheritances for families when the wealthy spouse, usually the husband, died. Nothing like planning ahead. These carefully arranged marriages were the forerunners of modern pre-nups. Of course, the rules were quite different.

Here’s an interesting one for you to ponder. If a man died without any direct male heirs, I’m not sure what happened to his wife, if he had one, but his daughter would be required to marry the closest male relative--second or third cousin, uncle, great-uncle, whoever the closest male relative happened to be. She would have to join in this marriage even if she had to divorce the husband she already had in order to be able to honor the custom.

South of Greece, when Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, died, he left instructions that the rule of Egypt would be equally shared by his oldest daughter, Cleopatra, and his oldest son, Ptolemy XIII. The hitch, from modern eyes, is that they were required to marry each other. Cleopatra had to marry her little brother. Of course, this wasn’t an intimate arrangement; it was clearly a political arrangement, which--by the way--didn’t work out at all. She did not love or get along with her little brother, at least after the marriage was forced upon them. She was enamored with Julius Caesar, but the love of her life, I suppose we’d have to say, was Marc Antony.

Rome was another culture where men’s love for men was highly regarded. Wives were ostensibly useful tools or gifts. There was a deal, which would work out very well for Rome, it seemed; and it’s certainly something Congressman Weiner should consider. A noted Roman statesman, Marcus Porcius Cato divorced his wife and gave her as a gift to his ally, Hortensius, in order to strengthen bonds. When Hortensius died Cato remarried her. That was very sweet of him, don’t you think?

There was a sixth century Germanic warlord named Clothar who practiced polygamy, when it was not the thing to do. He was a devout Christian in an era when Christians on the whole certainly opposed polygamy; nonetheless, he took four wives. I can identify three of the four. One had been his sister-in-law, until his brother died. A second of his wives was that first wife’s sister. The third was the daughter of a captured foreign monarch; somehow this was strategically advantageous.

In twelfth-century Europe, there was widespread belief among the wealthy and the aristocratic that marriages should be arranged for reasons such as those I’ve already described. Not infrequently, a marriage was arranged and the deal already agreed upon by parents on both sides before the couple to be wed ever met for the first time. Peasants rarely had the time for such tom-foolery, but the upper crust types insisted that love and marriage are incompatible. True love could only flourish between man and mistress, those who could formally be designated as adulterers should anyone be so interested in keeping track of the intimate lives of others. Thank goodness we’ve given up on such sick voyeurism in our highly educated and informed era.

A couple of hundred years later, still in Europe, the lord of one manor decided that marriage was for everyone and, therefore, that all of his tenants, no exceptions, had to be married. Furthermore, since they were commoners and didn’t have the high intelligence he had, as he saw it, he would determine who among his surfs would marry whom. This pattern seems to have caught on, and when some of the peasants after a while began to cry out in protest, a provision was made that it was possible for a peasant male to choose his own wife; however, there was a bridal tax, the fee the peasant had to pay for the privilege of choosing his own wife. Naturally, that fee was paid to the lord of the manor. By the time, the Protestant Reformation got underway in Germany, one French essayist circulated claims that any man who actually did love his wife was such a bore that no other woman would ever give him the time of day.

In the years of Queen Victoria’s rule, the tide began to turn, and there was a noticeable societal approval of spouses loving each other. Still, passion was still reserved extramarital lovers. How untidy for a wife and husband to burn with passion for each other! There was another reason for a man not to have sex with his wife. Queen Victoria chose to wear white, the color representing purity, when she married Prince Albert. Many of her female subjects followed suit giving their grooms the impression that they were too pure and chaste to get rowdy in the bed chamber--immediately or later after the marriage had been solemnized.

In the years leading up to the founding of a new nation on these shores, the Brits living here brought with them their disdain for passion in marriage. Even preachers who dared not get too graphic with their sermonic points and illustrations let their congregations know in no uncertain terms that wife and husband must not love each other too much, especially physically, and that using pet names for each other was a no-no since the manly, husbandly authority that had to prevail in every good home would be undermined if he lowered himself to use such nicknames for his wife and if she sweetened him with “honey,” “baby,” and “my big Puritan teddy bear.”

While a revolution was brewing here, back in England love as well as passion within marriage begins finding greater acceptance among the movers and shakers. Still in the influential ladies-only debating societies, the gifted female speakers did not blush to say that, when choosing a partner, it was perfectly in order for a woman to take into account her husband-to-be’s financial standing. We’ve equalized things in our time and place because many men now too wish to marry a woman only if she has the proper pedigree and portfolio.

In the mid-nineteenth century, there was a custom in place called a “bridal tour,” which had the bride with her groom leaving the wedding ceremony and marital festivities and immediately heading out to visit those relatives who hadn’t been able to attend the ceremony. Typically, many of the bridesmaids accompanied the couple on their tour, and there was no consummating of the marriage in such contexts where bride and groom had no privacy and, in many host’s homes, weren’t invited to sleep in the same room, much less the same bed. Only when the bridal tour custom began to wane did a new custom show up here and there; it was called “the honeymoon.”

A number of psychologists and marriage counselors say that many twenty-first century US Americans, despite a consistently high divorce rate, worship the ideal of a monogamous couple, sharing intimacy only with each other. This led the rank and file citizen to believe that, as in numerous ancient cultures, she or he HAD TO get married or be regarded as a spinster or a bachelor--a little sad, and somewhat eccentric if not relationally desirable, part of society.

Lesbian and gay Americans grow up absorbing the same values and pressures, and when they fall in love, they many of them feel that they, too, should get married except that the laws in most places forbid it. Civil unions allowing for the same spousal benefits that marriage ensures are perfectly acceptable to some gay and lesbian citizens; others, though, feel that while the legal benefits such as being carried as a legitimate dependent on a partner’s health insurance policy are nice as well as appropriate, if marriage is an option for heterosexuals, exactly the same opportunity should be afforded homosexual couples who desire it. Obviously, not everyone agrees.


Many of those at Jenn’s and Dave’s wedding are going to be on cloud nine. This terrific young couple has chosen each other with care. They have loved each other over several years. They have loved each other through sickness and health, and they want to say to their families and their friends and to their pastor, “This is what we want for life.” I will happily give them their vows and bless their union. Then, while the guests are beginning to sample the wine that they have so painstakingly chosen, I will be at a table tucked away somewhere finalizing the marriage license that originated in the office of the Clerk of the Peace, authorizing me on behalf of the state to legalize their decision to be wife and husband.

I sign the paperwork for the State of Delaware, or whatever state in which a wedding ceremony occurs, as an act that has no meaning for me whatsoever. I don’t hate doing it. I don’t mind doing it, but I bless their wedding, the marriage, their life commitment not because I work for this state or any state. I do what I do with them because I am their pastor, and I love them. I delight in their love for each other.

The state, again, should have nothing to do with monitoring, blessing, or even noticing how consenting adults couple up or not. The papers I sign will be in triplicate. One copy will go to Jenn and Dave to keep so they can prove they are legally married if someone asks for the license before serving them champaign or renting them the honeymoon suite.

Another copy will go to Clerk of the Peace Ken Boulden for permanent filing in state archives. In the years ahead, if either Dave or Jenn ever runs for public office and someone in the press wants to know if they are really married, Mr. Boulden will have a copy of the certificate they can present to the press post haste.

The third copy goes to me for my permanent files so that in my old age, I guess, I can sit back at home or at the home and flip through a notebook trying to remember who the heck all those couples were whom I had a hand in marrying. Most I will likely not remember though I will remember unusual events that occurred at certain ceremonies such as the Baltimore bride who was an hour late for her wedding, but I will remember Jenn and Dave forever. I’ve already forgotten the names of the Mafia couple I married a few years ago though I may be able to call them back to consciousness when I see the card from the father of the bride I paper-clipped to my copy of the marriage license. It’s a nifty little card that reads, “Will fix one complicated situation for you if you ever need that done. I guarantee that it will disappear for good.” Such a sweet sentiment. I thought about using it a couple of times at church, but thought I might wait to see who all signs on to run for president of the United States next time around.

Let me be blunt about marriage and the state. It shouldn’t be any of the state’s business who marries whom--unless siblings or cousins start marrying again, which isn’t likely to happen again except in Tennessee and Arkansas. Should someone need financial protection if and when a marriage dissolves, that should be raised if and when there’s a dissolution of a marriage.

If straight couples can get married, then so should gay couples. Trying to draw any distinction whatsoever there is purely homophobic, but civil union has been used as at least a step in the direction of full equality; and some homophobes aren’t as offended at the thought that gays and lesbians are civilly united as they are when the word “marriage” is used with the words “lesbian” and “gay.”

The government should stay out of it altogether. I want to tell you, as I believe I have told most every couple I’ve ever married, that the papers I sign and file with Mr. Boulden’s office do not for a minute make them a couple. There are two factors that will make them a couple: 1) selfless love; and 2) daily care to make sure that the love grows and takes deep roots.

Except for trying to ensure rights for one’s lesbian or gay love partner such as the health insurance I mentioned earlier and to that I add the right to be treated respectfully as family by the medical community when decisions are being made for a partner who cannot at this moment speak for herself or himself. I could also add to that another potential legal issue: the automatic rights of inheritance.

Aside from those issues, I would not give the state any role in my love relationship. It’s none of the state’s business if I begin such a relationship or end it. Those who are fighting for marriage rights for all are justice seekers, and I fully stand with them. Still, if every state offered full marital rights to homosexual and heterosexual and asexual people too, the most the state can do is to ensure rights. That may be needed at times, sad to say, but I want to tell you as someone who has signed a couple of hundred marriage licenses that the paper doesn’t make the marriage whether you’re homosexual or heterosexual. Only love makes the relationship take shape and endure.

One thing that can’t legitimately be done to try to get civil unions or gay/lesbian marriages tossed is to reshape Jesus as a homophobe. This is not to say that all enemies of the arrangement will give up and walk away. Plenty of people will keep on trying to limit freedoms for anybody and everybody who isn’t like them--like the goofy, racist Justice of the Peace in Louisiana who got away, for several years, with refusing to perform weddings for couples who were not of the same race.

Times are changing, though. Very significant new poll results from the Human Rights Campaign were released about three weeks ago.

Sixty-eight per cent of respondents said they support laws banning discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the areas of employment, housing and public accommodations. Twenty-two per cent of respondents said they don’t support such laws.
A near universal majority of Christians (86%) said government should treat all people equally, including LGBT people.
A large majority (70%) said religious-based anti-gay rhetoric does “more harm than good.”
Finally, a previous HRC-commissioned poll found fifty-two per cent of respondents said they oppose the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Clinton-era law that bans federal agencies from recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, while 36 per cent said they favor the law.


I believe that a healthy marriage or civil union is a beautiful thing, and few pastoral tasks thrill me as much as uniting a couple in marriage. I’m so excited about Jenn’s and Dave’s wedding coming up in about a week and a half that I was prepared a year ago!

My most favorite pastoral task is conducting family dedication ceremonies and presenting babies to the congregation as their spiritual charges. Hint! Hint!

That said, we have to recognize that the Bible does not establish one woman/one man monogamy; nor is marriage necessarily recognized as the ideal state in which to find oneself. If said it before, and I have to say it again today. Both Hebrew and Christian scriptures that comprise what we call the Bible assume the possibility, yeah the probability, of male-maintained polygamy. That is, a husband could have as many wives and concubines as he could afford. I couldn’t afford one--wife, I mean, but I’m not bitter!!! Women, however, couldn’t be married to more than one man at a time. A woman’s faithfulness to her husband was enforced with deadly punishments prescribed for women who had sex outside the bonds of marriage. The laws provided equally stern punishments for men who cheated on their wives, but those punishments were rarely upheld for men.

One of my favorite comic moments in the collection of Jesus stories passed down to us is certainly not funny for the woman at the heart of the story, but indeed IS funny in how the story is set up. The story has a nickname: “the Woman Caught in the Act of Adultery.” That’s a great name for this story because it’s about a woman caught in the act of adultery! To test Jesus’ faithfulness to the ancient Jewish law by which he and his brother-sister Jewish contemporaries were supposed to be living in addition to the demands Rome made upon them, some of Jesus’ ever-present male detractors drug a woman through the dust and threw her at Jesus’ feet. They said to Jesus, “Here is woman we caught in the very act of adultery. The law demands that we stone her to death for this offense. Do you join us in keeping the law, or are you too good to get your hands dirty doing what God told us to do?”

This is tense and tragic, and what I find funny isn’t funny ha-ha but funny how-typical. This woman had been caught. You know what she got caught doing. I know what she got caught doing. Bill Clinton knows what she got caught doing.

Where’s the guy? You cannot commit adultery by yourself. It takes two to tango or adulterate. (I made up that word just for this sermon. How do you like it?) The point is, no man was brought with her and thrown down at Jesus’ feet because his buddies had given him a pass, just as he had and would again do for them when they got caught with their togas up.

Without saying outright that the old law was cruel and inhumane, not to mention theologically repulsive, Jesus saves this woman’s life and her dignity. He played along with her accusers and said, “Yep. She surely does, no question about it, look like one prime sinner, and the law teaches us as we’ve known since we were little boys that we have no choice but to stone her to death so that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Any of you who has never sinned in any way, you step up here to the front of the line and cast the first stone. Crush her sinful skull with the first heavy rock you throw. You be the one to maul her sinful face with the first throw of the afternoon. Come on, sir. Make yourself known; we bow before our sinless brother who will take the first step toward making this world a better place by smashing all we can of her and leaving the rest for the flesh-eating birds that will peck her bones dry. Let us praise God with our exemplary morality and thereby warn every other woman who dares to sleep with a man married to another woman or other women will know what’s in store for her too. Come on, now. Where is the sinless one among us? There’s a pile of perfect stones just waiting here for us; it’s as if God put them here for us.”

The self-righteous accusers slipped away one by one because not a one was sinless, and Jesus and all their buddies knew so for a fact. He said to the terrified and humiliated woman, “My daughter, go and live a healthy, wholesome life. No one is left to condemn you, and I certainly don’t.

My one time professor and mentor, and now my treasured friend, David Buttrick, loved to stir things up among his theological students, in his books, and in his sermons by simply telling the truth about what the Bible really had to say. Once in class, he had the homophobes in a multi-faith group of students all riled up big time. There’s another story about Jesus in material passed down to us about Jesus healing a centurion’s “son.” The centurion was a Roman soldier who had as at least a part of his job monitoring/policing the Jews at the Emperor’s command. He, the centurion, would have been the commander over 83 soldiers, and they followed his command to a tee.

Gospel writers Matthew and Luke tell the story as if the person healed, and that’s a spoiler for those of you who didn’t already know the story, was the centurion’s servant. The Gospel of John, however, says it was the centurion’s son, however. There actually is no discrepancy. John’s word for “son” is supposed to be translated “boy,” meaning servant, but not just any servant; instead, a servant with whom the centurion had a very special relationship, an intimate relationship to be precise. These centurions were away from home a great deal and sometimes engaged in battle; they were away from their one wife or many wives a good bit of the time, and some of these centurions, many of them in all likelihood, had a male consort, often a servant, with whom they’d fallen in love. Remember, as I reminded you earlier that men loving other men and women loving other women wasn’t looked down on in ancient Roman culture. Not only was it accepted, but also it was seen by many to be normative.

So the centurion comes to Jesus for help. Listen, he wasn’t used to having to humble himself in anyway, but for the sake of his lover he would. He wasn’t a dummy, and Jesus was no dummy. When he said to Jesus, “My boy is really sick. Could you heal him, Jesus,” he knew that Jesus knew he was talking about his lover, the man who traveled everywhere with him when the wives had to be left behind. He hoped that Jesus would be accepting of male with male intimate relationship, and based what he’d heard of Jesus’ affirmation of all people except arrogant, religious holier-than-thous, he was relatively confident that Jesus would not withhold his compassion from someone whose sexual orientation differed from his.

The centurion had pegged Jesus correctly. Incidentally, anyone today who wants to use Jesus to condemn lesbian and gay relationships, civil unions, and marriages are wasting their time. Jesus never spoke a single harsh word, never a condemning word; in fact, no word at all against or about homosexuals. And since it would have been in his face all the time interacting with Romans, had he disapproved or wanted to get it on a sin list he absolutely would have done so.

The centurion, still a little shy about how far a holy man could go in affirming a gay relationship especially when one of the partners, namely the centurion himself, was committing adultery when he shared intimacy with his boy, his servant, said to Jesus, “Your power is well attested. You don’t need to go to my home. You can say the healing word right here at a distance from where he lies in bed struggling for his life, and he will be healed just the same as if he were here sitting at your feet.”

Jesus didn’t stay away because he would have been uncomfortable at the centurion’s home, but he did agree to heal from afar. Jesus said, “Your boy is now well. By the time you get back home, you will find his health fully restored.”

So, Jesus didn’t say, “It’s OK to be gay.” Neither did he say, “It’s bad to be gay.” What he did do was to heal the lover of a powerful gay Roman military leader; that said and says worlds doesn’t it?

No comments:

Post a Comment