Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision to allow resumption of legal same-sex weddings in California has right wing Christians claiming his ruling against Proposition 8 threatens “Bible believing Christians.” I’ve read the Bible pretty carefully myself (I read it cover to cover when I was in high school) and even taught it as a college professor. It is not a source I’d turn to defend traditional marriage. But I think it does offer ways to think about ethical marriage.
First, let’s just dispense with thinking the Bible offers us good examples of real marriages. What woman wants to marry under duress or by deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and/or murder? The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her—for this, she was supposed to be grateful. The ideal of a housewife that Diana Butler Bass recently lifted up in Proverbs 31 –as opposed to reality shows about nasty “real” housewives–suggests that a decent married life for women might have been possible in biblical times, but actual examples are as rare as they currently are on TV.
Jesus and Paul disagreed about marriage, radically. Jesus thinks of marriage as divinely sanctified while Paul thinks of it as an option for the morally weak who need to avoid fornicating. They lived around the same time, and both were Jews, so why did they differ so extremely? As extremely as, say, how some Christians today vehemently oppose marriage equality while others like myself think it is essential, if you are going to have marriage at all? Even evangelicals differ; poll data show that, in 2008, 84% of those under age 30 supported same-sex civil unions or outright marriage equality while only 54% of their elders did.
So let’s at least get clear about one important fact: there is no Christian view of marriage; there are different Christian views, even for Bible believing Christians. For over a millennium, the Christian church in Europe leaned toward Paul. It did not sanctify marriage but regarded it as a civil ceremony instead.
Paul, a citizen of the Roman Empire, spent time in jail for opposing that Empire, and his negative view of marriage was probably another form of resistance. Other celibate religious movements of his time also saw avoidance of marriage and procreation as a form of resistance to the Empire and a sign of a new kind of religious society. Why was marriage such a huge political issue during Paul’s time?
During the two decades before Jesus was born, the Roman Empire passed a slew of marriage laws that forced marriage on all Roman citizens. To have enough tax revenues and soldiers for its military legions, the empire needed an expanding citizen population, but the population was shrinking. The situation was dire because average life expectancy was only 25 years, and two thirds of all infants died. Just to stay even, the state required a five-child birthrate per woman. Many elite Roman families resented military conscription of their sons and found the tax burdens excessive. Hence, refusing to marry was a way to resist imperial exploitation.
In addition to such political pressures, Paul may also have rejected marriage because it separated sex and love. Under Roman marriage laws and customs, sex was a function of male domination and aggression. I was calmly reading Princeton historian Peter Brown’s study of this period, The Body in Society, when I hit a sentence that was the funniest description of young male lust I’d ever read: he wryly remarks that the Romans viewed male adolescents as ready to boil over, like “human espresso machines.” Now, I always smile when I order a latte.
On a more serious note, Bernadette Brooten, in Love Between Women, notes that a pater familias could have sex with anyone under his authority and economic control, which meant virtually any female, as well as boys and male slaves. The only people a head of household could NOT have sex with were his equals or superiors, including female superiors, like goddesses or his mother. E. J. Graff in her book, What is Marriage For, notes that rape of the bride was commonly expected, and in wedding ceremonies, the groom and father-in-law exchanged the vows. While marriages might have love in them, this was not expected.
For women in marriage, sex was for procreation—a dangerous destiny at a time without reliable birth control or adequate maternal medical care. That women had sexual desires and enjoyed sex was not doubted, but respectable women confined these to the marriage bed, even if their husband’s “marriage bed” was the whole household. Brooten found that, while homosexual orientations were regarded as immutably determined by astrological influences, lesbianism was regarded as a medical disorder because sex as domination and subordination were crucial. Women’s sexual relationships lacked a dominant inserter and subordinate receiver and were, therefore, an unnatural disorder.
The construction of sex as male dominance may be why today’s conservatives obsess over rare biblical texts against homosexual practices, while, like the C Street “Family,” they think of male heterosexual adultery, condemned in their beloved 10 commandments, as a lesser sin, since so many biblical patriarchs were adulterers. The sin most frequently condemned is usury, but I digress…
Paul believed love was the highest value, whereas sex was a problem. Paul advocated abstention, though this suggestion has led some to regard him as psychologically disturbed. Ironically, current judgments against his version of ascetic Christianity exist side-by-side with great admiration for monastic figures such as the Dalai Lama—in the same people. But religious asceticism is another discussion.
Jesus’ view of marriage in Matthew 19 was not the Roman version. He turned to the Jewish scriptures in Genesis 2. Conservatives like to use Genesis 2 to defend marriage as between one man and one woman for procreative purposes only, i.e. as authorizing sex between one dominant inserter and one subordinate receiver. However, I don’t think this is what Jesus meant.
A careful look at Genesis, provided by scholar Phyllis Trible, debunks “traditional marriage.” She notes that God creates an earthling, adam, i.e. a being made of earth, ha’adama, (adam in the Hebrew is not a proper name until later in the story) and breathes divine spirit into him to make him come alive. All the animals are insufficient to satisfy the earthling’s needs for a helper. Ezer kenegdo, translated “help meet,” literally means an equal helper. Help, by itself, referred to a superior, such as God. Hence, the addition of kenegdo, surrounding, modified ezer to suggest an equal. So God divides adam into ish, male, and issha, female. Made of the flesh of the earthling, Eve is neither superior nor subordinate to Adam–if she wasn’t there from the beginning, she certainly cannot be held accountable for breaking a command from God that was given before she even existed! Given that the woman’s subordination to the man and painful childbirth were a punishment for the two having sinned in Genesis 3, I think the decision goes against “traditional marriage” as divinely ordained. Inside paradise, God intended relationships based on equality.
Telling fact: Jesus had to go back to the paradise garden to find a model of what he thought marriage ought to be. Given that model, he observed that Moses created divorce because men behaved badly! (Really, he said that, or something close—he said they were hard hearted, ie unloving.) This might be understood as a condemnation of traditional marriage. He also suggested that the love and commitment of marriage was not for everyone, and remaining unmarried was OK.
Arguments for California’s Prop 8, which Judge Walker overturned, narrowed the purpose of marriage to procreation. However, neither Paul nor Jesus explicitly mentioned procreation (maybe because it is exactly what separates sex and love–even rape can lead to pregnancy). Given the nasty history of “traditional marriage” and heterosexist civil laws that are built on male dominance and female subordination, I think marriage equality means such gender inequality should not be inscribed as a necessary basis of marriage. While I don’t think Jesus was talking about same-sex marriages, his reference to Genesis 2 grounded marriage in equality and companionship.
While Jesus and Paul differ on marriage, they differ for the same reason: love. They uphold love as the highest divine good, not women’s subordination, and they do not make the purpose of marriage procreation, which separates sex from love.
In his carefully written decision, Judge Walker noted that marriage had recently been transformed “from a male-dominated institution into an institution recognizing men and women as equals.” (p. 112) The changes also reflect cultural ideas that marriage is a union of sex with love. They do not nullify marriage per se:
The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry. Rather, the exclusion exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed. (p. 113)
Judge Walker ruled that the state’s interest in marriage is guided by the rights of equal protection, not by religion, and that religious ideas should not determine marriage law. He has, for the time being, restored legal same-sex weddings as a right than cannot be decided by majority vote.
Some of the Judge’s critics have accused him of bias because it is rumored that he is gay. They thought he should have recused himself. I won’t even go into the number of times Scalia should have recused himself from cases. On the other hand, a heterosexual also has a possible vested interest, so I guess someone bi, or someone with no sexual orientation should be found to rule on this. In the meantime, let me out myself as a heterosexual who thinks marriage is being made more ethical with marriage equality. If he’s gay and I’m straight and we agree, does that equal a neutral middle?
A number of Christian groups in California, as well as Reformed Jews and Unitarian Universalists, would agree with me. Prop 8 denied us our religious freedom by prohibiting us from authorizing same-sex marriages, but, even worse, it denied the basic human right of marriage to a group of people based on unfounded biases about their sexual orientation. Same-sex couples, like heterosexual couples, offer each other love, companionship, and a stable family environment for raising children. If marriage is good for society, and equality is the ethical basis for marriage, then gender difference is irrelevant. Marriage equality is good for everyone, including Bible believing Christians. Thank you Jesus!