If you ask most ministers the one thing they most dislike doing, I would bet nine times out of ten they would say weddings. Why? Well, there is the hyper-ventilating bride who has this picture in her head of the perfect wedding and, God help us, if the reality does not fit the image. There is the hyper-controlling mother of the bride whose inevitable attempt at creating the perfect wedding usually results in their daughter expressing a life time of resentment about their mother they have harbored over the years. There is the groom who is simply trying to not piss off his future wife by keeping under cover yet somehow finding a way to do or say the wrong thing anyway. And there is the minister who is striving to negotiate this minefield with some grace while trying to meet the expectations of the myth of the perfect wedding -- the ideal beginning to the prevalent myths about marriage.
Proponents of Prop 8 and other laws restricting gay marriage are based on myths about marriage. Their argument that marriage has always been between one man and one woman; that marriage has always been a state institution protecting society from disintegrating into chaos; and that traditional marriage has had a static definition since the beginning of time cannot stand up to the reality of history. The myth of marriage is much like the myth of the perfect wedding – an image that exists only in our minds.
Before I attempt to debunk these myths, I should introduce myself. I have been a Presbyterian minister for close to twenty years and am currently serving a congregation in Wisconsin. I will complete my PhD in sociology if I ever finish my dissertation with a focus on religion and culture. I am married to juslikagrzly and the grzly clan consists of three teenagers who have dispelled any illusions about the perfect family. I consider myself an ally of the GLBT community which means while I do not play for the team I could be thought of as a cheerleader (not a pretty image!). I find the whole debate about the sanctity of marriage argued by many socially conservative Christians to be less about biblical truth than a reflection of a world view arising in the latter part of the twentieth century.
The best resource for understanding these myths is presented by Stephanie Coontz in a book titled The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia TrapThe Way We Never Were. Her argument is that marriage and family has been a constantly evolving and changing institution throughout history. The current myths about marriage are more a reflection of an ideal articulated in the 1950’s (an image less real than you would think) rather than the diverse forms marriage has taken in the past. In the interest of space and time, I will not repeat her arguments but I do encourage you to read her book.
Instead, I will unpack some of the myths about the biblical record. It is an easy thing to open a bible to see the variety of forms marriage took in those times. Polygamy was practiced throughout the Hebrew Scriptures from Abraham to David, and none of these stories testaments to fidelity or faithfulness. Abraham got into trouble when he fathered a child by both Hagar and Sarah leading to the historical split between Jews and the Muslims.Genesis 21 David had eight wives and various concubines resulting in almost twenty sons (daughters weren’t counted of course)David. The Gospels do not explicitly describe the various forms of marriage though it is interesting that Jesus does not speak once about the issue of homosexualityJesus and Homosexuality. Paul thought the world was going to end in his lifetime so he discouraged marriage unless you really couldn’t control your sex drive and had to "do it" -- then you should get married.Paul On Marriage The Bible reflects the messiness of the human condition and any argument that roots traditional marriage in a literal interpretation fails to take the bible seriously.
The issue gets even more complicated when we look at the relationship between church and state in the marriage relationship. It wasn’t until John Calvin and his followers enacted the Marriage Ordinance of Geneva that there was a dual connection between "state registration and church consecration." From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion and Law in the Western TraditionThis association between state recognition of marriage and the church’s role in the formalizing this bond has been inconsistently observed throughout history. I must confess some ambivalence as a minister in acting as an agent of the state when I perform marriages, since this is the only time I do so as clergy. I can blame Calvin because he is part of my theological family, though like all families, we are stuck with the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The point is that marriage as being consistently defined between a man and a woman is a myth formulated in the minds of those who support Prop 8. I suspect it is more about control than any protection of societal standards. The more interesting and fruitful discussion, I think, would be about the nature of faithful covenant relationships and the qualities that make this meaningful whether they be heterosexual or homosexual. What is the character of a good marriage (fidelity, love, justice, sacrifice, etc.) in a world where relationships are not defined by a myth but by the lived experience of people seeking a partner and companion to share their journey? How can we deny this most basic right to those who simply want to connect to someone they love and have this relationship recognized institutionally and symbolically? What do you think?
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