In these days of marriage equality struggle; I hear strange descriptions, limiting definitions and bizarre benchmarks about marriage, in defense of the ‘traditional’ and heterosexual norm:
- What did you get married for if you don’t have the same name/share money?
- The dictionary says that marriage is between one man and one woman
- It builds & strengthens society
- Everyone knows that marriage predates law, nation & church
- The Bible provides a stunning picture of what this thing called marriage looks like…
Here’s some of the reasons that I find these descriptions, definitions and benchmarks strange, limiting and bizarre:
- I took vows with my partner to pledge faithfulness & commitment to them regardless of what life throws at us, this is what I thought long and hard about before making those vows, marriage for me wasn’t anything to do with money, names, children, houses or institution. Our faith roots these vows and related myths and scriptures of our tradition in language and imagery of covenant, forgiveness, grace, patience and love – these enhance our vows for us (and others we know) but not everyone has a faith, not everyone views faith as liberatively as we do, not everyone identifies with, understands or needs this language. Despite our vows being influenced and enhanced by our faith they are not defined by it. When I speak about marriage I speak about my vows rather than a definition of our genders. (Gender and marriage… now there’s something people like to create norms & institutions about) Many people think about marriage as distinct from faith or religion, this is my story and my experience but I am fully aware and equally as considerate of those commitments made legally/secularly etc.
- Whilst I see strong, stable relationships, families and homes enhancing the people and communities and ‘society’ around them I don’t find that marriage is necessarily a prerequisite to this. Many marriages are weak, unstable, and in the middle of hurting/abusive/unhappy families and homes. It is not ‘marriage’ the ‘institution’ that is good for ‘society’ it is the relationships, families, homes and communities that make it up and the ways they find to work out their strengths and stability which is not always what is dictated by ‘marriage’ or institutional norms or rules.
- The ‘society’ that marriage the instiution has sought to build has often been/often is oppressive, discriminatory, serving the interests of the rich, the powerful, the white, the male, the healthy and the heterosexual.
- Even in conservative, traditional values communities people experience exclusion, anxiety and judgement for not fitting a ‘marriage’ mold that is mythical and unattainable.
- The marriage that we talk about in 21st century Western society is an institution that has developed, regenerated, evolved and established itself over time. Many would argue that it’s strongest supporters harken to a post-war 1950’s model of traditional family which is only sixty years old. Our written histories tell tales of women, children, slaves being traded and commodfied into sexual and childbearing transactions. These are our early descriptions of marriage; polygamy, slavery, violence, tribal culture, run by men and focussed on power and the survival of the human race. Any comprehensive study of marriage describes cultural differences, both Western & Eastern, the diversity of definitions, models and norms that have been constructed, altered and multipled over time, all this highlights the narrow, uniquely (white) Western, Christian and predominantly modern description of a marriage institution.
- Sexual relationships between men & women and the birth of children predate law, nation and (Christian) church but people have always tried to order and control these using law, tribes (that have become nations) and idol/theism (which has developed via religions into Christian church), the point is that ‘marriage’ the ‘institution’ isn’t a thing that has existed ever since people did its a product of people’s struggles for power and structure, something that we’re right in the middle of negotiating/renegotiating or defining/redefining these days.
- The Judeo-Christian Bible does not in any way provide a stunning picture of what marriage looks like, it is in fact one of the key historical & theological resources in describing the ancient world and the way tribes, families, women and slaves were arranged. The Bible (among other templates used to refer to marriage) is complicated, difficult and problematic in its diversity of relationships, structures and families it contains both very inspiring and very oppressive references to commitment, promises, ownership, law, sex, society and marriage. All these reflect cultures, thinking, structures and theology at the time but these are descriptive rather than prescriptive
I want us to be honest about what marriage is and isn’t, how we got here and where we’ve come from and then hopefully have some better conversation about the kind of strong relationships, families and homes we want to nurture in our society for good that in my view are not limited to only married, heterosexual ones but that’s for the conversation as we go on…