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.

Author: The Rev. Dr. Jay

I'm an Episcopal priest, parish pastor, and Christian theologian as well as a writer, teacher, and occasionally, a poet. I'm committed to the transforming energy of the Christian gospel and its potential to change the world -- even today. Now that's peculiar, thank God!

3 thoughts on “Divine Dignity for All — Married or Not”

  1. Many problems with this. First of all, economic migrants are not forced to clean toilets or pick fruit. That is what we call a CHOICE. Yes, it can be said that all people are made in the image and likeness of God. Hitler was. Pol Pot was. Exactly how much dignity should they be accorded? Yes, there are many, many “relationship configurations” that are deeply satisfying and utterly scriptural, bur only one is “ordained” (for want of a better term) in many belief systems as having particular importance – marriage. And there is a very good reason for that. Not recognising same-sex marriages doesn’t demean anybody, in the same way as exclusion from, say, a chess club because you can’t play chess, doesn’t demean you. Perhaps there is a case for coming up with a better (and different) term for a same-sex relationship – it can’t really be called “marriage” for some pretty obvious physiological reasons. One thing is for sure though, all close relationships should be valued, recognised, and encouraged.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Simon. We clearly disagree about many of these things, but lots to think about. A few quick responses. I think if you interviewed some immigrants in this country, the meaning of “choice” would be a bit more nuanced. I also believe human dignity applies to all people, regardless of their behavior (including, to use your examples, Hitler and Pol Pot). That’s why I’m absolutely opposed to the death penalty in all cases. And it’s actually not the case that marriage is the only relationship in any religious tradition that has the kind of “ordained” importance you describe here. For nearly half of Christian history, the communal relationships of monastic communities were considered a higher calling than marriage (that’s just one example). The word “marriage” itself also has lots of historical baggage attached to it. (It has meant many different things over the centuries and in different cultures. Also, “obvious physiological reasons” have rarely been quite so “obvious” as you imply here and not nearly as significant in the history of marriage as one might supposed). The point for contemporary western culture is the way in which a whole slew of benefits have been attached to the contractual arrangement called “marriage.” My participation in a chess club wouldn’t come with health insurance, hospital visitation rights for my partner, and so on. The loving and faithful relationship between two people of the same gender and the family they create deserves just as much dignity (social, economic, and political) as any other couple.

      1. Hi Jay.I’d say the vast majority of immigrants in your country are of the economic variety. They are not fleeing oppressive regimes, they are simply trying to make a better life for themselves. They also know that what they are doing is illegal, and they make a conscious choice to break the law and seek work in the US. You can’t blame them for that, However, I really don’t see how they are being forced to do anything. I applaud your wanting to bestow dignity on everyone, even those guilty of genocide, child molestation, or worse. I’m more inclined to see dignity as something that is to some extent earned – the common definition of the word dignity is “The state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect”. Note the word “worthy”. Regarding marriage, it may not be the only relationship to be considered important in various religious traditions, but it IS the only one that is specified in scripture – monastic communities took the idea of marriage beyond the physical and considered themselves to be essentially “married” to Christ. Marriage may have some historical baggage, however the concept as laid out in scripture is simple and easily understood. I don’t really understand your comment regarding the simple physiological aspects of marriage not being significant in the history of marriage. I am unaware that marriage (particularly in the West) has ever been about anything other than a man and a woman – please enlighten me as to what I have missed. You say “the loving and faithful relationship between two people of the same gender and the family they create…” – but that’s where I disagree. A loving couple of the same gender don’t “create” anything. They use artificial means to bring a child into the relationship, often resulting in significant harm to the child. That is not to say, of course, that children in “normal” heterosexual marriages don’t also suffer harm when the family unit is dysfunctional; however, all the statistics I have seen point to a higher prevalence of psychological and identity problems amongst children adopted or otherwise introduced into same-sex relationships. I agree that the people deserve dignity, however you will have a hard time convincing me that the relationship itself deserves equality under the law. And I’m not even a fundamentalist, bible-waving, frothing-at-the-mouth type. Most (but not all) gay marriages aren’t a natural evolution of humanity, they are a lifestyle choice, pure and simple.

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