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Divine Dignity for All — Married or Not

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (a federal court) just issued a theological statement on February 7. Christians might want to take note. This is what they said: “Proposition 8 [which stripped same-sex couples of their right to marry] serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples.”

The phrase, “to lessen…human dignity” is the theological statement I have in mind. To be clear, I don’t mean that this is only a theological statement; it can easily be a completely secular, non-religious statement, too. But it is also a deeply theological one. Jews, Muslims, and Christians (among others, I imagine) readily claim that every human being is created in the “image and likeness” of God. Well, how much more dignity does anyone need than that? (My friend and colleague Susan Russell has a great post on her blog about human dignity, both religious and constitutional.)

Human dignity, in all its many forms and applications, seems in rather short supply these days. Do we really believe that people living on our streets without homes or food are treated with “human dignity”? Do we really believe that immigrants forced to clean our toilets and pick our fruit but are vulnerable to deportation at any minute are viewed with “human dignity”? Oh, the list goes on and on.

Here’s one more item on the dignity list: There are many people who (to use Christian language) exhibit the “fruits of the Spirit” in their lives but who do not feel called to marriage. In countless ways, these “unmarried” ones contribute to the mission and ministry of the Church and to the common good (remember that?) of our society. So, yes to the dignity of marriage for all; and yes to the dignity of those whose relationships just don’t fit that model but are precious gifts to the Church and to the wider society nonetheless.

It really is possible to keep insisting on the dignity of every human person and supporting the dignity of marriage at the same time. Let’s call it spiritual multi-tasking. To suppose we can only talk about one thing at a time is to relegate all those supposedly “secondary” concerns to, well, secondary status.

I recently floated more deliberately an idea that I hatched a year ago to put some of these observations into practice. I call it “Dalantine’s Day.” It’s my modest attempt to affirm that there are many different kinds of relationship from which we all benefit in countless ways and which don’t rely on romantic pair-bonding. The deep intimacy of close friendships, for example, or the affection among colleagues, or the activism of neighborhood groups, or single parents raising children, or children caring for elderly parents, or those particular moments of extending hospitality to a stranger, or relationships of care with non-human animals of all kinds.

All of those various relational configurations are actually lauded by biblical writers, but few would realize it by listening to the religious rhetoric on both the “right” and the “left” today. Both sides perpetuate the idea that the most dignified form of human relationship is marriage. How many churches, I wonder, celebrate any other kind of relationship in their liturgical lives and ritual practices?

We can do better. The peculiar faith of a peculiar gospel people can do much better. In my view, achieving same-sex marriage is a worthy, laudable, and completely Christian cause for celebration, because it’s about justice, fairness, equality, and of course, love. But if we don’t say something more, then we religious folks are falling far short of the standard that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals set for us all yet again on February 7: human dignity.