Anything happening in the news this week?

March 27, 2013

marriage_meme

Finally, a sensible Facebook meme!

Even if I supported something called “marriage equality,” which I don’t, I couldn’t change my profile picture to say so—unless I backed it up with substantial action. Otherwise, I’d feel like a hypocrite. So I give credit to the pastor of one United Methodist congregation in Winston-Salem whose church announced that it will no longer perform weddings until the denomination recognizes same-sex marriage. I strongly disagree with the church’s convictions, but at least they’re taking action. (Apparently, according to this article, such a stance doesn’t violate our Book of Discipline.)

The statement from the church’s pastor, Rev. Kelly Carpenter, regarding this policy change included these words:

It is unconscionable that our denomination denies ministry to some while making it available to others based on the God-given identity of LGBTQ people. The national opinion and political culture is rapidly changing on the issue of gay marriage. Our United Methodist denomination has failed to lead the way in this struggle for equality, and will once again have to catch up to the culture.

Oh, dear.

As for what I think about this mess, allow me to point you to the blog of Dr. Glenn Peoples, a theologian and apologist whose own country, New Zealand, is currently debating the identical issue. I can hardly recommend his most recent post more. Needless to say, my thinking on the subject mirrors his. Since he’s invested time writing his thoughtful post and doesn’t have an Easter sermon to write or Holy Week responsibilities, etc., I’ll excerpt relevant portions. By all means, please read it in its entirety.

Near the beginning of his post, Peoples writes:

As I hope is true of all sincere people, my values and beliefs about life, reality and everything inform the way that I evaluate any law, policy or opinion. I wouldn’t be a very honest person if I held to a range of beliefs that committed me to rejecting a policy but I pretended to agree with it because I felt that the culture expected it of me.

In other words, if I really believe what I say I believe—what the United Methodist Church believes, along with most of the universal Church—about human sexuality and marriage, how could I not think that redefining marriage would be a tragic mistake? I don’t believe that God gives us rules to follow just to spoil our fun. And if I believe, as I sincerely do, that God tells us through scripture (and tradition and reason) that homosexual behavior is contrary to God’s intentions for creation, then no one should be surprised that I oppose redefining marriage to say otherwise.

As for Rev. Carpenter’s concerns about our church “once again having to catch up to the culture,” I couldn’t care less. No Christian pastor should! Fretting about where our church stands in relation to our culture’s sexual ethics is laughable!

Peoples continues:

My beliefs about what constitutes marriage are no different. Marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Sexuality is part of the way that we were created to express love and to promote procreation. Like all other human functions, it can go wrong through no deliberate actions on the part of the person who has the dysfunction. Our auditory, visual, olfactory, nervous, hormonal and mental systems and functions can go wrong. We know this. Since our sexuality is a human function too it should not be difficult to see that it could go wrong as well.

Again, going back to Rev. Carpenter, Peoples is speaking to the question of the “God-given identity” of sexual orientation. Just because it’s this way doesn’t mean that this is what God intends.

If I’m right then God created everything that exists, and at the very least, he has intentions about the way in which human beings live. It’s proper (by which I mean something like “in accordance with correct function as intended by our maker”) for men and women to come together in marriage, which includes sexual union. Existing in the world are all sorts of dysfunctions too. There are mental conditions under which people hear voices that are not there. Some people have a strong disposition to addictive and also harmful behaviours. Some people are disposed to hold strange (but actually benign) beliefs. Some people are born with missing limbs. Still others find themselves sexually attracted to members of their own sex. Some people find themselves sexually attracted to people who differ radically from themselves in age (namely, children). All of these are dysfunctions because they depart from what our brains, limbs, nervous systems and sexual capacities exist for.

Of course all people, gay or straight, are people of “sacred worth,” as our United Methodist Book of Discipline affirms. To our shame we have often failed as a church to love homosexual brothers and sisters with Christ-like love. Nevertheless, as Peoples writes:

[W]e do not love people by lying to them. We don’t help blind people by telling them that actually blindness is perfectly functional after all. Instead, we help them to live a life that is as normal as possible in spite of their blindness. The same goes for people in all of the situations I described above. We do not love people who are attracted to people of the same sex by telling them that this is healthy or normal – even if it’s “normal” for them in the sense that it is all they have ever known.

But aren’t we still mostly arguing religion? Is there any comprehensible “secular” reason not to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples? Peoples argues that there is: “The union of a man and a woman is the basis of a family for it alone is the union that produces children. No other union fulfils this function in society (or even outside of society).” This is the “conjugal view” of marriage, discussed and defended in depth in this paper by Robert George, et al., published by the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. (You can download the .pdf file here.) In the paper, the authors’ write:

Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, including norms of monogamy and fidelity. This link to the welfare of children also helps explain why marriage is important to the common good and why the state should recognize and regulate it.

What about couples that are unable to have children? By this logic, if marriage is defined mostly in terms of procreation, why should the state recognize the marriages of infertile couples? The authors handle this objection in depth. Infertility doesn’t prohibit the organic union that takes place between opposite-sex couples.

It is clear that the bodies of an infertile couple can unite organically through coitus. Consider digestion, the individual body’s process of nourishment. Different parts of that process—salivation, chewing, swallowing, stomach action, intestinal absorption of nutrients—are each in their own way oriented to the broader goal of nourishing the organism. But our salivation, chewing, swallowing, and stomach action remain oriented to that goal (and remain digestive acts) even if on some occasion our intestines do not or cannot finally absorb nutrients, and even if we know so before we eat.

Similarly, the behavioral parts of the process of reproduction do not lose their dynamism toward reproduction if non-behavioral factors in the process—for example, low sperm count or ovarian problems—prevent conception from occurring, even if the spouses expect this beforehand. As we have argued, bodies coordinating toward a single biological function for which each alone is not sufficient are rightly said to form an organic union.

Thus, infertility is no impediment to bodily union and therefore (as our law has always recognized) no impediment to marriage. This is because in truth marriage is not a mere means, even to the great good of procreation. It is an end in itself, worthwhile for its own sake. So it can exist apart from children, and the state can recognize it in such cases without distorting the moral truth about marriage.

Next, Peoples tackles the question of legal discrimination. If the traditional view of marriage, by definition, is between a man and woman, then a law based on this definition does not discriminate against homosexuals. Gays and lesbians are free to get married to a person of the opposite sex. In fact, they sometimes do. And they even have children. That most homosexuals don’t want to get married under these circumstances doesn’t change the fact that they can.

He continues:

If we are talking about the rights of individual human beings to marry somebody else, then heterosexuals and homosexuals currently have identical rights in law. I do not have the right to marry someone of the same-sex and neither does a homosexual man. A homosexual man has the right to marry a woman, as do I. Here many people are reaching for the rhetorically powerful language of taking away other people’s human rights, which is satisfying at the level of public argument where the aim is to cast one’s opponents as opposing human rights.

And while we’re on the subject, Peoples argues, the state already discriminates against couples, for example, whose relationship would be considered incestuous or couples who are considered too young to marry. The state also discriminates against consenting adults who want to enter a polygamous relationship. Legal discrimination isn’t wrong simply because it’s discrimination.

Supporters of gay marriage will often say to their opponents: “How would gay marriage affect you or your marriage?” Peoples first rejects the premise of the question:

I’ll set aside the rather depressing impression this gives, namely that politically vocal people assume that everyone is motivated by nothing but self-interest. Unless something directly impacts you, you couldn’t possibly have a principled opinion for or against a given policy. To put it gently, I hope that people are able to be a bit deeper and more principled than this…

Assuming that civic involvement is a virtue at all and that we should care what our representatives do, it seems fairly obvious to me that if they are promoting a concept of marriage that I think is fundamentally mistaken and which would result in official public endorsement of this conception of marriage, it is merely a case of rhetorical bullying to suggest that I should keep my nose out of it.

Besides, he says, legally redefining marriage does change marriage for everyone.

Suppose the law was changed so that everyone who lived on the same street was automatically considered to be a married group, so that everyone (or at least everyone who lived on a street with more than one occupant) was married. Would that affect marriage from the perspective of a person who was married prior to the change? Quite clearly so. When everybody is married, everybody may as well not be married. Whereas prior to the change my (legal) marriage meant something, it now means much less. My relationship with my wife would still be as wonderful as ever – we would still, in a true sense, be married according to a conjugal understanding of marriage. But the law would now regard my marriage in such a way that the legal recognition meant very little

If you say that [legally redefining marriage] has nothing to say about opposite-sex couples who get married, then you are simply mistaken. You’ve got the facts wrong. These changes would not change the status of people who are homosexuals. These changes are to change marriage into something else – something that some homosexuals want instead of what it is now. The marriage of everyone is being changed so that marriage becomes a desirable thing to people who don’t currently want it.

Finally, Peoples goes on to complain about the shallowness of the debate in his country, which is clearly true in ours as well—hence the Facebook meme from the top of the post.

6 Responses to “Anything happening in the news this week?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Great stuff!

  2. Kristina McManus Says:

    Very well written, Rev White. Thank you for your thoughts on this issue. I absolutely agree with you.

  3. Clay Knick Says:

    “Catch up to the culture”? That’s the problem! Bad theology. But pretty consistent with classical liberal theology.


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