on the word ‘marriage’

All over the world, the word ‘marriage’ is being redefined.  Here in NZ it’s a peaking issue.  A friend of mine just shared a status that threatened de-friending if they didn’t act according to their views.  And when people threaten to de-friend, you know it’s huge…  So I wanted to take a post to clarify what I think and believe about not just the word ‘marriage’, but what it describes – or has up until recently.   But first, a mamby-pamby, wishy-washy, soft liberal (MPWWSL) comment about my take on politics.

((Begin MPWWSL comment: The kingdom of God, as taught (and inaugurated) by Jesus, is not merely a personal/private ‘kingdom in my heart’.  It is also political in scope.  Having said this, Jesus didn’t lead marches against Rome to get them to change their laws. ((Though, for example, Jews of the day would have been happy to edit the Pax Romana if they’d been given the chance))  Being ‘conservative’ (as I am on many issues) doesn’t mean that you automatically want to force your religion upon others via legislation.  Having said that, the slogan “You can’t legislate morality!” rings hollow, for everything is moral.  Show me an area of law that is amoral.  The point is that, whatever you are aiming for, social transformation a) takes time and patience, and b) happens at a level deeper than law.  So whilst you will find (below) a blog post on my (relatively conservative) views of marriage, you’ll not find me marching down a street against same-sex marriage.  And you will also find me opposing any marginalisation or persecution of gay individuals, who are paradoxically some of the most popular and at the same time most ostracised people in modern western society.  End MPWWSL comment))

So here are my thoughts on the word ‘marriage’:

Firstly, however defined, it should be obvious that whilst it is obviously one of the most basic and important human institutions, being married is not what makes a person human.  Non-married people are just as human as married people.  This, to me, makes it hard to frame ‘gay marriage’ as a human rights issue.  Whilst I can appreciate the strong desire (and hurt feelings) of those who want to legally call their relationship a ‘marriage’, it’s worth noting that we’re talking about the definition and use of a word here, not a withholding of fundamental rights that denies anyone their humanity.

Secondly, the word ‘discrimination’ is used a lot, and all I’ll say is that let’s remember that in all kinds of decisions we make in life, ‘discrimination’ is both a good and bad thing.  Strictly related to marriage, we rightly ‘discriminate against’ people wanting to marry who are too closely related or not of what we deem (rightly or wrongly) to be a sufficient age, or want to marry multiple people, etc.  It is not scare-mongering to ask the question: “Why not polygamy?”  If the only requirement for getting married is consent, then it seems a perfectly valid question.

Thirdly, all agree marriage is a ‘union’.  Vague enough for mass agreement.  Tick.  All (except zoophiliacs) agree between two people. Tick. But now the debate is over whether it must be only between a ‘man and a woman’.  The key shift here, which is almost never stated, is that the ‘marriage union’ referred to a conjugal (‘with-joined’) and ‘consummated’ (‘with-completed’) relational state.  Indeed, whilst this is not an argument in itself, in some places, marriages that are not completed via ‘consummation’, that is, sexual intercourse, or coitus, can be annulled on this basis.  This signals the bond (pun intended) between marriage and intercourse.  To state the obvious, whatever ‘sexual’ activity they engage in, same sex couples  are  not naturally equipped for the specific, singular, consummating, conjugal, and thus ‘marrying’ act of sexual intercourse.  This observation is hardly ‘discrimination’ in the pejorative sense.  It’s merely an observation that two humans of the same sex cannot – biologically – have a conjugal, consummated union.  This is why you will sometimes see quote-marks around the word marriage when it follows same-sex (i.e. same-sex ‘marriage’).  It is a (perhaps unhelpfully?) short-hand way of summarising the view that same-sex conjugal unions are not physically possible. Interestingly, this sense of the word ‘union’ would also have relevance for ‘civil unions’ as well.  Nonetheless, the issues here are inescapably semantic, so patience is called for.  However much I (or others who make these points) might empathise with those whose semantic desire is to use the word ‘marriage’ of their same-sex relationships, I cannot pretend that I’m not aware of the above. ((This is a helpful and detailed and conservative treatment: http://www.harvard-jlpp.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/GeorgeFinal.pdf))

Finally, there is the question of adoption, and I agree it is very much a part of the discussion.  A very clued-up gay friend of mine recently related to me over coffee his summation of research on best parenting combinations for children, that biological parents provide the most stable child-rearing environment, of course including that committed gay couples were better than (it would seem obvious to me?) a single parent with little community support.  But again, it seems uncontroversial to me that biological parents are best. ((someone can critique the sources cited in the bibliography here: http://www.acpeds.org/Homosexual-Parenting-Is-It-Time-For-Change.html))  Now, I don’t know what this spectrum from best to worst means for legislation.  Honestly.  I have no problem saying that a committed, socially stable gay couple would do a better job parenting than an uncommitted, criminal couple, whether gay or straight.  It does seem helpful, however, to delineate these qualifiers, though.  Committed is better than uncommitted.  Socially stable is preferable to criminal.  And biological parents are to be desired over a gay couple.  I think my gay friend would agree to these last few sentences.  The question remains, which qualifiers should be enough to lawfully un-qualify a couple for adoption rights?  A criminal record? Obviously.  Being gay?  Hardly obvious.  A useful solution might be for the birth mother (if possible – or the closest kin) to decide – which I think might be the current law in NZ.

So that’s quite enough words from me on the word ‘marriage’.  I’m a relatively conservative Christian, but with a liberal heart for real people with real emotions and feelings and desires, and most of all I want to see people discuss it patiently and honestly.  And frankly, I see more heat and aggression coming from the pro-gay-marriage side than the other side.  Certainly that was the case this morning on Breakfast when Labour MP Louisa Wall got more than a little incensed at Family First’s Bob McCoskrie.  Social justice does warrant bringing heat.  But again, over the definition and use of a word?  I’m not convinced the heat is necessary here?

None of the above, has touched (directly) the related issue of the morality of homosexual behaviour. My intent is that the above is stated in a way such that a homosexual – or homosexuality affirming – person could agree, and that therefore any discussion below will focus on the issue of the definition of marriage, and not on the ethics of homosexuality.

prophecy & politics

…funny how most (not all!) American Christians are happy to ‘get political’ when it comes to abortion and gay marriage (‘Oh yes, let’s fight for godly legislation!’), but scream ‘socialism’ when it comes to issues like benefits for poor, out of work, or infirm people – or (shock, horror) free health care…

Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims—
Laws that make misery for the poor,
that rob my destitute people of dignity,
exploiting defenseless widows,
taking advantage of homeless children.

What will you have to say on Judgment Day,
when Doomsday arrives out of the blue?
Who will you get to help you?
What good will your money do you?

Isaiah 10:1-3 (The Message)