Why Christians are not the boss of marriage.
I’ve been doing some thinking about marriage lately, in light of the recent decision by New York state in the U.S. to legalise homosexual marriage, as reported by the New York Times just a few weeks ago.
I myself am married. I committed this act when I was all of nineteen years old. The person whom I married was eighteen, and we had managed to make a little baby together a year or so before. Of all the things we did in those few, heady years, technically, marrying was certainly the easiest. It was one terrific day. But getting ourselves a Christian marriage was definitely a lot harder.
We knew we wanted to get married pretty much right after we found out I was pregnant with the little baby. It never occurred to us we should have an abortion, or adopt. We wanted to be together, and we wanted to put things right. Right? Yes, we felt that our relationship had broken lots of rules, and violated people’s expectations of us at that time. Whose rules? Whose expectations? Well, our families of origin, the church, our peers at the youth group we belonged to. We wanted to let them all know we were prepared to do the right thing after being done with doing the wrong thing. And we knew that we could be together, and have people think well of us, by getting married. Christian-like. But it proved not to be quite that simple.
Just in case we’d made the grave mistake of thinking doing the right thing was as easy as doing the wrong thing, the leaders of our church youth group asked us to stand up in front of all our peers at the Friday night youth service and apologise to everyone for what we’d done. Right after vomiting from the sheer horror, we agreed to do so. We explained to everyone how we fully intended to marry and make a family together, and we thought the speech was going quite well, when the oh-so-very-compassionate assistant youth pastor stood up and remarked “Well, we’ll just see how it goes, won’t we?” Nice.
Getting everyone's approval was was clearly going to be more difficult than we’d thought. Ever hopeful for the blessing of our church on our relationship, right after our lovely little baby was born we brought him to our church to ask our pastor if we could have a public church dedication. We were told to come back after we were married. Their obvious delight to have us as part of their congregation was so...endearing. Not. I mentioned in my previous post Seven Pieces Of Advice On Marriage how our first piece of pre-marriage counselling included this gem.“So, seeing as you two had sex before marriage, one of your big concerns will obviously be what other contraventions of God’s laws you are capable of breaking. Jo, are you at all concerned that Ben may have affairs because his ability to do the right thing has already been demonstrated to be so poor?” We didn’t get any more counselling after that.
All of this hassle, just so we wouldn’t be living in sin. What do you call it when people take money for putting a young couple through that?
For years I had this morbid fear that perhaps the pastor who married my husband and I had forgotten to submit the paperwork to the authorities and we’d get a letter one day to say we weren’t really married at all. I would lay in bed and worry about it, then one day I realised that if this were true, God already knew. Maybe that’s why, I reasoned, everything was always going wrong for us? Maybe we never had any money and fought all the time because we were still "sinful" in the eyes of God?
Shame is a hard stain to shift.
I believe in marriage, but I do not insist others do. However, when people have said to me in the past that marriage is “just a piece of paper,” I have been known to reply “so is a drivers licence.” Christians have tried to tell people there are consequences for not getting the piece of paper and acting as if you are married, and have given it a dirty name to make people feel bad for doing it. They call it “living in sin”. But you don’t stop living in sin once you get married, I can assure you.
Many people in the church, particularly the very young, think that by marrying, they will avoid sinning by eliminating the problem of having sex outside of marriage. What they do not appreciate is that having sex outside of marriage is not the worst or even the only sin you can commit against yourself or against someone else. Screaming hatefully at someone in frustration, acting out arbitrary acts of utter selfishness and wishing your partner would fall under a bus on their way home from work are probably just a few sins one can commit well within the parameters of perfectly legal, God-ordained marriage. The piece of paper will not guarantee the level of maturity and wisdom required for a peaceful, non-combative partnership, but the way the church carries on you’d think a marriage licence was some kind of diploma for emotional intelligence. It certainly ain’t that.
When our marriage fell apart a few years ago, I went through the whole “what will God think of me now I need to get divorced?” thing. I’d seen friends go through the same, many times. Afraid to leave, afraid to tell, afraid to hit back, afraid to be the strong one. We’d learned that the only way a Christian can leave their marriage is as a victim. It’s a battle to see which one can out-passive-agressive the other into committing acts of outright hostility. I’d watched so many people I once respected manipulate and twist their relationships into warped, ugly versions of their former loveliness just so they could come out being the one done wrong, because Christians never, ever initiate separation or divorce. The problem is that in the end, someone has to. When our relationship broke down, I found the conditions imposed on me totally unacceptable and intolerable. I went ahead and initiated separation, and I went ahead and initiated divorce. I wasn’t afraid to be made out a perpetrator, although it took me a while to get there. In the end, I was not afraid God would strike me down for breaking up my marriage. I was more afraid of becoming a twisted, stupid little coward while continuing to stand upright in church and call myself by the name of Christ. I wanted healing, both for myself and the man I had married and once loved more than life, and I was prepared to get up on my damn feet, take up my bed and walk with my head held high towards it. And we both got what was coming to us. The healing - not the divorce. We're still married, and I'm grateful for that.
I am actually still deciding if marriage is the “Christian” institution we have made it out to be. I’ve been doing some research trying to find out exactly when marriage as such began to be mentioned in the Bible. Old Testament marriages would certainly have been Judaic ceremonies, at least from the time Judaism began to be practiced. However, I find no evidence that leads me to believe Adam and Eve were Jewish, nor their direct descendants, so no such ceremony could have occurred. However, Adam is referred to as Eve’s husband, and Eve as Adams wife as early as Genesis 3. I also cannot find a text for a marriage ceremony per se in the Bible. Marriage, wives and husbands just seem to start to be mentioned at some point, right back early in Genesis, way before Mosaic law or Jewishness. Maybe this is sloppy apologetics. So sue me.
Today, Christians talk about marriage as if we invented it and only meant to loan it to the world, with the condition we reserve the right to decide who gets to do it. Yet, practically every religion, people and culture in the world has its own marriage rites. What gives us Christians the right to dictate the conditions of everyone's marriage, when marriage existed way before Christianity, before Judaism, even before people were separated by language, into tribes, cultural groups or nations or even before government? This is according to the Bible. I’m not making this up.
I’ve observed that Christians have a droll tendency to hoard up all the fun and special things in life, like marriage and Christmas and being a family, and call them Christian even though they’re really not. There isn’t any reason I can think of that supports Christians' view that they get to say some people can marry and some can’t unless we’re talking about allowing children to marry and live as married people. But otherwise, Christians not letting other people get married is just... well, mean.
While I can’t understand Christians meanness on marriage, I can understand why people who aren’t allowed to get married would like to. There are social and financial advantages for many couples, and I think everyone ought to be allowed to access these advantages if they are citizens of the society providing them. I do not believe that variances you were born with are sufficient qualification to exclude a person from marriage. The debate about variances versus conscious choices will have to wait for another blog, but suffice to say, even if being homosexual is a "lifestyle choice", it still doesn’t mean human rights are diminished, any more than choosing to become a Christian, which could also be argued is a "lifestyle choice”, ought to diminish a person's human rights.
The fact is, you don’t have to be a Christian to love someone, to be able to make a vow and keep it, to sign a contract or to even have a child. Marriage is not a Christian institution, it’s a human one. Therefore, it ought also to be a human right to be able to get married. Christians don’t get to make the rules for all humans, any more than Buddhists or Muslims do. Boy, do we kick up a stink when they try. Christians should not ever require that the human rights of non-Christians be diminished in any way, unless they are prepared to give up their own rights equally. A few months ago, a church in the town we were living protested publicly about a gay festival the council was considering approving. This church enjoyed the blessing of the same council for their public Christmas celebration in December, yet did not see that their protests against the homosexual event were absurd. They wanted the basic rights of gay people to gather and celebrate and run a legal, family-oriented event in their town to be denied, whilst their own right to do the same be upheld. The local business who sponsored the church event withdrew their support, and Carols by Candlelight was canceled that year. However, the gay event went ahead, and was a great success.
You know, in another time and place, not very long ago, people with dark skin were not allowed to marry one another, or anyone else. Instead, they were obliged to continue to live and work in an elite, aloof, and very Christian society that made them into pariahs and slaves. However, these people, the ones whom they said were not even qualified to be called human, married each other in secret and lived as married people just the same. The stupid, white, religious people who said they couldn’t just had to suck it up and get the hell over it.
I believe history may be about to repeat itself.
My marriage is one of the things that has made me the happiest, and also the most miserable, in my life, but if I have taken it for granted in the past, I do so no longer. This isn’t just because of the trials we have been through to stay together, but also because I cannot imagine what it might have been like if we had been forbidden to do so in the first place. Getting married was something we felt we needed to do, not just to right moral wrongs, but because we took the commitment we had made to bringing up our child in a family that included us both very seriously. In fact, the opposition we faced from people who told us “We’ll see” made our resolve to prove them wrong stronger. Our relationship became a point we had to prove, and our marriage a political statement against their contempt.
It was relatively easy for us to marry, perhaps deceptively so - it’s been much harder to maintain than it was to obtain. I appreciate that any opposition we faced was more skepticism than anything else - I think some considered us beneath such a noble, Christian thing as marriage. For me now to think that some in my community are denied the right to marry for what I consider vacuous reasons almost makes me want to divorce on principle. It’s not that I hold contempt for marriage, on the contrary, but I do hold contempt for the conditions others place upon it in the name of the Christ I follow, a Christ who had shown to me nothing but love, acceptance, leadership, support, forgiveness and mercy.
Marriage is an institution I have come to respect and revere, and which has afforded me social privileges which prior to now, I hadn’t even considered would have been withheld from me if the person I loved and had children with were a woman. My conscience prevents me from continuing to passively accept these privileges without ensuring they are also available to others if I can see no reason, political, moral or otherwise, why they ought to be withheld. Christians may continue to deny the rights of others in the community to marry, claiming marriage is a Christian institution. Biblically, marriage was a human institution way before it was ever a Christian one. I believe many Christians need to be careful they do not stray back into the stupid, white, religious practices which have alienated many people from the church in the past. I use a quote from Anne Lamott here, and state that you can be pretty sure your God is a god of your own invention when it turns out He hates all the same people you do.