Marriage is not for everyone. Marriage is made up of layers and complexities related to commited, long term relationships between people. I’m not really into the idea of marriage being ‘good for society’ and instituted in that way. I think that probably less people should get married than do, and that they certainly should think long and hard about what it is before getting married in order to avoid the heartache and separation for couples and children that comes with broken or failed marriages.
We’ve had a lot of media, political, theological and social comment in the last couple of years about equal marriage – making the long term commitments that couples make to each other the same – the same name and the same status regardless of gender – today in Northern Ireland it will be debated by the assembly (devolved government) for the second time and I am really hoping the vote is YES.
Northern Ireland is a conservative place, both socially and religiously. By conservative in this case I mean there is a sense of valuing the ‘way we’ve always done things’ and that it has been protected from change: globalisation, pluralism and postmodernism and this is seen as a good thing. Whilst there is a lot of lovely and heartwarming investment in families and communities that goes on across it’s cities and towns, there is also a lot of ugly language and interpretation of other groups, identities and relationships who perceive change to threaten the families and communities living with and loving each other in Northern Ireland. There is a systematic and institutional sectarianism, othering, sexism and alienation at the heart of Northern Ireland society and leadership and the way that the Equal Marriage conversations play out continue to highlight these. Commonly you will hear equal marriage talked about politically and publicly by civic and religious leaders as:
- a perversion of the created order
- a threat to society and families
- a watershed to child abuse, bestiality and polygamy
- an aggressive equality and human rights lobby that’s gone too far
- an undermining of biblical models of family
The first thing most people will suggest to get round all these objections is to make an argument for the separation of church and state. Yes it’s true in Northern Ireland there is still a significant muddying or blurring of the edges between political, legal, ethical and theological views and the equality and human rights lobby will be very quick to point out the law and the precedents set and the discrimination inherent in this debate. However, this is where some of the most tense and uncomfortable moments are in any discussion about equal marriage because it highlights that ways that we cannot separate out these areas/mediums because whole people are the leaders and decision makers about the status and participation about other whole people; and we are as humans are the sum of many parts. Where the law perhaps has become about ‘tick boxes’ and ‘political correctness’ and details and pedantics it actually operates from a very strong ethical base: justice.
I’ve a friend who articulates human rights law so beautifully and movingly by describing the way that political leaders mid 20th century viewed the piles of bodies inside the concentration camps in Europe. After viewing these distressing images they began to talk about ways to legislate around human dignity. Asking the question: ‘what can be done to prevent bodies being treated without dignity and without personhood?’ ‘What universal laws bestow honour upon the human being?’ This ethos is often lost in what is interpreted as aggressive, angry, sharp, articulate argument that oppressors find persectuory. I think anger is valid when it comes to oppression, but how do we talk about oppression in a way that invokes quiet and strong dignity? The inspires a view of personhood and justice rather than legal or political argument?
One way should be by talking about marriage.
Marriage is currently understood by those who are opposing redefinition and those who are requesting redefinition as being between two people. Those who oppose redefinition say it should be between a man and a woman that they don’t want a genderless marriage, those who are requesting redefinition say it doesn’t matter which gender is in the marriage. If marriage equality proceeds people will still be able to choose whether and which gender plays a part or role in their marriage. Similarly if it proceeds people will still be able to pursue their interpretations of ‘biblical’ ‘perverted’ etc in both they way they execute their marriages and judge other people for theirs.
Gender is important when it comes to talking about marriage and particularly equal marriage. In both secular and religious contexts there are people who believe gender (how you identify, express and perform your maleness or femaleness) is central to the way that the world works, thereby marriage too. For some, gender prescriptions, constructions and roles are helpful ways to make the world work for others they are oppressive, limiting and unhelpful. This is true of the marriage relationship where some couples embrace gender roles and others reject and redefine them. For this reason it is no coincidence that many who oppose equal marriage base much of their belief about marriage and the created order in a created gender order – this significantly influence their interpretation of politics, scriptures and the law etc. There is an explicit relationship between beliefs and values about gender construction and beliefs and values about sexual orientation.
Marriage for me is covenant, it’s about commitment to each other, helping each other be the best they can be, going further for the other person, learning to be a bigger and better person, living with some of your ugliness on show and still being loved and learning to love yourself for that. It’s about experiencing intimacy and seeing how this secure base shapes you to be the person you are in the world with other people. It informs how you think about marriage in principle and because my views about marriage and my experience of marriage are really little to do with the presence of two different genders in my marriage I am strongly in favour of equal marriage.
I have been appalled at the Christian lobby (Coalition for Marriage) finding it to be manipulative and narrow in its representation of Christian views, faith and marriage experience. I find at this juncture in Christian history that people of faith have a choice to make – be a positive influence or a negative influence. I choose to rate marriage (for some not all) I choose to value it regardless of gender and I find that placing a same gender relationship as slightly less important symbolically/status wise as incredibly dismissive of the personhood and dignity of those people working at a life long relationship. It’s theologically and ethically skewed, I find the ethos base for human dignity and rights law to be inspired by a sacred prompting about the image of God within all flesh. The Christian response to marriage equality should not be resistance, homophobia and other forms of ‘othering’. It should be prioritising what legacy the faith holds about covenant, hope, patience and love above all in order to share it with the world and the other people who wish to pursue this path. Marriage is hard and beautiful enough without it being regulated and defined only according to gender or sexual orientation.
Christians should be leading the move to value and name other committed relationships as marriage. This is about informing and leading society and culture to value the vows and relationships undertaken in marriage.
It is because of, not despite, my Christian faith and my own marriage that I’m in favour of equal marriage – what about you?
People are not topics: a problem in biblical interpretation by Neoprimitive
My own Why Marriage? series
There is an Equal Marriage seminar being run by the Accepting Sexuality group (Irish Methodist Church) on Wednesday 22nd May 2013 in Skainos, Lwr Newtownards Road, Belfast where journalists, clergy and members of the gay community will discuss Equal Marriage issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to RSVP.