Thoughts on Finding Our Place

I suppose I should know better by this time. There are more than enough opinions competing for market share in a ridiculously overcrowded blogosphere; why bother to add another to the cloud of unknowing, to borrow a phrase?

Perhaps that “unknowing” is a word that aptly fits where we find ourselves as confessing Christians in a world order we have not known. We don’t know what has happened to the world as we’ve known it in the west, and particularly in the USA. We don’t know what the ramifications will be, either for the church or for the society. We don’t know how to pray–at least it appears so in many quarters, especially those previously given to equating being American with being conservative Christian, or in some cases, vice versa.

I am, of course, referring to the Supreme Court decision declaring same-sex couples able to be legally married, with every pertinent right as enjoyed by opposite-sex couples. The present court, though deeply divided, does not appear to be of a mind to hear cases that would call the decision into further review. Before expressing my thoughts on how Christians might most redemptively respond to the ruling and the possible outfalls, it might be helpful to answer a question on the minds of many who do not pay particular attention to the Supreme Court, other than when warning sirens are sounded by certain interest groups.

What Just Happened?

The case was brought before the court on the grounds that laws prohibiting same-sex marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. For the sake of convenience, I include the text of that amendment’s first and fifth sections here:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

. . .

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.[1]

The amendment itself was part of the Reconstruction period legislation in 1868. As can be seen, it covers a wide range of interests. The most relevant section, of course, is the first. It was enacted primarily to protect the interests of former slaves. Since then, it has been used many times in an ever-expanding array of cases in which an aggrieved party believes existing laws restrict in some meaningful way their liberty to do something the state has unreasonably forbidden. In the cases at hand, same-sex couples argued that the state unreasonably hindered their liberty by prohibiting their ability to participate in and benefit from the legal benefits enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples, asking that their unions be placed on the same footing.

As everyone is now aware, the court agreed. To do so, however, it had to argue a different definition and understanding of marriage from what many people, particularly religious people, had assumed to be unassailable. In what can only be described as question-begging logic, the court acknowledged that marriage has historically and universally been thought to be a union of one man and one woman. It then argued that since changes have been made to the institution of marriage in the past, such as the decline of arranged marriages, allowing imprisoned persons to marry, and prohibitions against interracial marriage, change itself regarding marriage is a good thing. It seems to acknowledge on one hand that all the changes cited have to do with the practice of marriage and not the nature of the union; but it then argues that change of any kind can be good, and that to refuse this particular change would make the children of same-sex couples stigmatized and inferior, along with a few other unpleasant entailments.

What also becomes clear is that marriage is far more than a building block of society, as it celebrates and legitimates personal choices of intimate association and life choices pertaining to how one will choose to live. It seems far more important to the court to enhance personal satisfaction than to consider the interests of society. Let’s stop here for just a moment. Throughout history, all cultures, universally, have protected the union out of which children arise; it is necessary for the continuation of society in a cohesive fashion. And it is with that in mind that governments, particularly in the west, have extended certain legal priorities, privileges, and protection to married couples. The raising of the next generation is important to the public interest. Marriage may well be more than that institution by which new generations arise; but it is difficult to understand what interest the government would have in any of those additional characteristics. Simply referring to an evolution of understandings of marriage does not answer that question. Nor does it answer how one moves from changes in the way marriages are arranged and which men and which women can enter into the union to what that union is.

The majority opinion also spends considerable time speaking about the benefits to personal happiness of intimate association such as exists in marriage. But love may or may not be present in a marriage and it may well be present in a relationship between two persons who are not married. Formal marriage cannot create the bond; nor can its absence prohibit the bond.

Nonetheless, it has become the law of the land. For those people who complain that Christians or other identifiable groups of people impose their morality on others, two things should be noted. The one-man, one-woman nature of marriage was cross-culturally held for centuries. It was not imposed on people who wanted it to be otherwise. Secondly, it is the Supreme Court that has imposed a new definition of marriage upon the nation. Much of the criticism in the dissenting opinions from Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito is centered on precisely this point.

Finding Our Place

Now what? For many people, the questions surrounding same-sex marriage have been given far too much attention. They wonder what the big deal has been all along and are happy to simply settle the question once and for all. Just move on and do what you’ve always done. After all, no one is telling anyone that they must marry someone of the same sex.

There is some wisdom in this approach.  It is particularly tempting to adopt it when listening to those who address the issue with palpable hatred and disgust for the persons on the other side of the matter. As Christians, we never serve the cause of Christ well with anger, name-calling, belittling, and censure. Letting our speech be seasoned with grace somehow escapes far too many people as a directive for our interactions. And Paul does tell us to be subject to the governing authorities, to live quiet and peaceful lives, and to be know as people of hope. We do not serve, and we certainly do not owe ourselves to any earthly power. Not even one with the Constitution of the United States of America. And we should not expect any earthly power to substitute for the rule of Christ in our hearts and in our communities of faith, much less expect a secular government to require other to follow a way we don’t do so well at obeying ourselves.

On the other hand, we believe that God’s expressed desires for human living are not arbitrary, but are good for the flourishing of people–all people. He designed us and knows us better than we know ourselves. Thus fearing, reverencing Him by accepting his ways, even when we don’t understand the reasons, is the beginning of wisdom. I have a strong suspicion that it is the loss of the very idea that God made us, intentionally, that lies at the heart of the present debate. If we are the product of a random evolutionary process, then nothing can be forbidden. Blind and dumb nature can only produce things, not “oughts” or “shoulds” to guide our moral lives. We are on our own.

In finding our place, Christians need to pay far greater attention to a robust theology of human nature as the deliberative and purposeful action of the God who finally revealed himself in the person of Jesus. Christian anthropology (the doctrine of mankind) has for too long started and and finished with Genesis 3, skipping over chapters 1 and 2.  We do read there of the creation in the image of God, an image which is born differently by male and female; and it is in their union that the image of God is more fully represented to the succeeding generation. This has much to say about issues of gender equality as well as of gender differences. If we are to have a meaningful contribution to make in the continuing public debate (and it will continue), we need to do more than recite verses from the Bible. We’ve thrown far too many pearls before many angry swine. Instead we need to reflect on the contextual meaning of the text and on the understanding of the present age to see where we fit and where we don’t. Or, more accurately, where the thought of the day does and does not reflect God’s design for human flourishing.

In finding our place we must also be honest about what the text does and does not approve, what it does and does not condemn. I’ve said virtually nothing about homosexuality itself to this point, and I won’t say a lot about it here, either (though I am open to talking more about it in a subsequent post). We cannot refashion the text to comport with contemporary sensitivities and thoughts. To put it bluntly, Matthew Vines’ hermeneutic is demonstrably flawed. Homosexuality is not God’s plan for human sexuality. That is abundantly clear on a responsible reading of the text, one which has not decided beforehand to neuter any passages that indicate such divine disapproval. That being said, we are not thereby authorized to go about the business of condemning homosexual person, or even of denying that there may be underlying causes or tendencies toward homosexual desire–most of which we do not fully understand.

Finally, finding our place must be done in full recognition that the place we will occupy is one of the alien and the outcast. And we must accept that as our lot if it comes to pass. We have a hard time fully believing Jesus when he told his followers that if they hated him, they would hate his followers; or Paul when he said that those who live godly lives will be persecuted. I am not sounding alarms here. I am suggesting possibilities. We have heard dire forecasts of what will come next on the agenda of those who believe they have won the day. Perhaps some of it will eventuate, perhaps not. Let those who know Christ be fully committed to him and his kingdom, come what may. Paul learned how to get along in all circumstances; so must we.

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