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Civil Rights and the Bride of Christ

Christians have good reasons to celebrate today’s landmark ruling on marriage from the U.S. Supreme Court. Not least among those reasons: social justice. As a civil contract, marriage carries responsibilities and a host of financial and legal benefits to which lesbian and gay couples should be granted equal access; at long last we now know that the Supreme Court agrees.roland_marriage

While today’s ruling clearly advances the cause of justice as well as the dignity of loving, faithful relationships, Christians have still more to say about marriage that has nothing to do with legislatures or courts. The “more” we have to say presents a rich opportunity for Christian faith communities to delve more deeply into three important and interrelated topics concerning liberty, gender, and hope. A brief word about each:

Religious Liberty
Recent pizzeria and cake decorating debates aside, the freedom of religious expression in the United States has always exhibited a great deal of complexity and generated more than a little consternation. Nineteenth century Mormons could give us an ear-full about the religious practice of polygamy (or “plural marriage”) and the so-called “separation of Church and State” – or more pointedly, the judicial limit on the first amendment right to religious expression.

More recently, prominent Southern Baptists joined dozens of others in an open letter to the Supreme Court urging them to decide against marriage equality. They asked more specifically that the justices not force them to “choose between the stbible_us_flagate and the Laws of God.” I find that request quite astonishing. Why would clergy worry that a secular court of law would “force” them to choose between the State and God? Should there really be any question about that choice? Perhaps that question could inspire more Christian communities to ponder anew the relationship between patriotism and faith, or between nation-state and religion. How Christians do or should think and act about such things is not nearly as clear-cut as the public debates about them would seem to indicate.

Religious Gender
This topic exhibits as much if not more complexity than religious liberty. Consider, for example, that San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone recently outed himself as transgender if not perhaps “gender queer.” At a conference in New York earlier this month, Cordileone warned his listeners about “gender ideology” while simultaneously (though likely accidentally) referring to himself as a “bride.” The whole biblical story of faith, he observed, is all about marriage; God establishes an “eternal covenant between him, the bridegroom, and his bride, the church.” So, should the archbishop, as a member of the Church, wear the garlands of a bride? Or should he, as a representative of Christ, insist on being the bridegroom? Can one person be both? Wouldn’t that be, well, rather queer?

If nothing else, Archbishop Cordileone’s observations can remind us that the history of gender rarely presents the kind of tidy, binary approach to maleness and femaleness that has emerged in the modern West over the last couple of centuries. Witness the ongoing exultation and near panic concerning Caitlyn Jenner.

Religious Hope
The first two topics lead nicely to this: There is more to hope for from human life than marriage. While that should be obvious, one might struggle to find evidence for that hope in the marriage equality debates that have been growing in both volume and consequence over the last fifteen years.

Consider Justice Anthony Kennedy’s observations, writing for the majority in today’s ruling. “No union is more profound than marriage,” he declared, “for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were.” Justice Kennedy not only sets a fairly high bar for marital satisfaction and achievement (no pressure!), but one could easily read his comments as denigrating all other forms of relationship.

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“The Song of Solomon,” He Qi, ©2001

One of my favorite theologians, Elizabeth Stuart, lamented back in 2003 that both “conservatives” and “liberals” have missed entirely what Christian traditions have tried to say about marriage: It helps to awaken our desire for God and to stir our hope for the heavenly wedding banquet yet to come. The purpose and fulfillment of human life, in other words, is communion with God and with each other. Marriage, at its best, inspires that hope – and many other forms of committed, loving relationship can do so as well.

In short, I’m grateful that the Supreme Court has made clear what should be obvious: civil marriage equality is a matter of social justice. And perhaps this ruling will spark deeper conversations in Christian faith communities about the very essence of the Gospel: the deep desire and abiding hope for divine communion.

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The Squeaky Gate: Holy Week and Social Transformation

“Cosmo, you’re gonna die.”

That’s one of my favorite lines from the film “Moonstruck.” The line comes from Olympia Dukakis’ character, Rose. She says it to her husband, who has been seeing another woman. Cosmo quite sensibly replies, “Thank you, Rose.”

Left unaddressed in that great exchange is whether there might be anything worth dying for, or whether it matters if there is, and how it might make a difference, to anyone.

Those are some of the profound themes of this “holy week” that Christians in the West are living through just now. The Internet machine is abuzz with images for this week, ranging from the traditional to the kitschy, while clergy scramble to find ever better ways to tell that familiar story (in more worship services than they usually care to count).lamb_slain

In a high-tech, globalized world of smart phones and Google glasses, the story of this week can seem not only familiar but a bit quaint if not worn-out and tired. Returning to this story year after year feels a bit like the cattle gate I encounter in the regional park every day with my Australian shepherd dog, Tyler. When I unlatch it and swing it open, the hinges squeak…loudly.

Tyler looks up at that latch every time as if the sound annoys him. The story we Christians tell in this holy week can seem just as old and squeaky.

palm_sunday_queerBut there’s more than one way to tell that story, and the wonderful sermon I heard two days ago on Palm Sunday reminded me of just one of those ways. The preacher, Christine Haider-Winnett, is also the co-president of the Women’s Ordination Conference, an organization founded in 1975 to advocate for the full inclusion of women in the Roman Catholic Church (watch Christine talk about her work on HuffingtonPost Live).

Christine invited us to see the so-called “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem as a protest march, an uprising against the imperial power of Rome. In contrast to the parades of soldiers on horses with spears and swords, Jesus rides in on  a donkey with palm fronds. She reminded me, in other words, of where to look for God this week – in movements of resistance to institutional and state power.

As the Supreme Court of the United States hears two cases this week on marriage equality, Christine helped me find traces of that first century uprising in the rallies for justice taking plmarriage_march_carsonace throughout the country. (My friend and colleague Susan Russell wrote about this very thing.)

But Christine reminded me of something else as well: my own privilege as a man who can be ordained in my church and who also enjoys the comforts of an upper-middle class lifestyle. The institutional power of the Church and the imperial power of the U.S. have treated me pretty well indeed.

The squeaky old story we Christians tell this week invites me to walk beyond the gates of my privilege. They invite me to walk not just with Jesus but with all those with whom Jesus would walk today – and that’s a long list.

If the palms from this past Sunday can serve as signs of resistance to empire, the cross this Friday reminds us of the cost of that resistance. Telling the story that way requires courage, something I can rarely muster on my own. That’s why I’ll be gathering with others this week. I need to hear the old story told in multiple ways and I need help in figuring how to live because of it.

Like Cosmo, we’re all going to die. So this week urges me to live a life that matters, and that could well come with a hefty price tag. That’s why this coming Sunday matters, too. Love-making and justice-work are never wasted efforts. As Christians will declare on Easter, love will always have the last word, which will also become the first word for new life.

gate_regional_oarkI actually like that squeaky gate in the regional park, even if Tyler finds it annoying. Beyond it I see green pastures and clustered trees full of birds and creek-lined gullies. This week I hear the voice of God in that squeak: walk this ancient path; cross through the gate; I’ll go with you.

When I say something like that to Tyler, he’s always glad he listened.

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“Behold thy Mother” — Marriage, Family, & Salvation

Jesus created a family. Would voters in North Carolina or at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church recognize it?

That question occurred to me as I read the full transcript of President Obama’s interview this week about marriage equality. He mentioned the word “families” or “family” explicitly at least five times and referred to the various families he knows even more. (Read the transcript of the interview here.)

In fact, Mr. Obama talked about families more often than he talked about fairness and equality. And that’s exactly where the emphasis belongs. Fairness and equality matter so much because families matter so much.

Those who are opposed to marriage equality seem to worry most about what will happen to the “traditional” family. So on this Mother’s Day weekend, Christians might want to pause and consider just one traditional biblical family, the one Jesus created.

Go back to Good Friday for a moment and to John’s gospel. As Jesus is suffering the throes of an ugly death, something quite beautiful happens. He looks around and sees only a few of his intimates nearby, including his mother. And then he speaks to her: “Woman, here is your son.” Then he turns to the “disciple whom he loved” who is also standing there and says, “Here is your mother.” From that hour, the disciple took Mary into his own home (John 19:26-27).

So who is this “disciple” in the story? Is it the same one, the “beloved disciple,” that reclined so tenderly against Jesus’ breast at the Last Supper? Is it the author of the gospel itself, who recounted the first miracle of Jesus at a wedding? And by the way, where did all the other male disciples run off to at this moment, leaving just this one man with some women at the foot of the cross? (About that question, many gay and lesbian people could offer hundreds of anecdotes in response; but I digress.)

This is a rather peculiar moment. In the midst of profound suffering and on the verge of death, wouldn’t Jesus have other more pressing things on his mind than family planning? On the other hand, what else could be more urgent than what will become of those he loves once he’s dead? Could families be a matter of life and death? And isn’t that how many Christians would also describe “salvation”?

In this wonderfully peculiar gospel moment, Jesus explicitly creates a family. I would guess that this particular family had already been formed prior to this moment, but here Jesus doesn’t want to leave any doubts.

Nor should we have any doubts about this: only a very few jurisdictions in this country would even recognize what Jesus created as a family. And I wonder what would happen if Christian churches took a vote on it. Would our synods and general conferences and assemblies vote to recognize the mother of a dying man and that man’s male companion as a “family”?

The beloved disciple took Mary, the mother of Jesus, into his own home. Today, that household arrangement would face significant hardship without social security survivor benefits, IRS allowances in the tax code, and access to health insurance. These aren’t obscure social policy details, which is exactly why Mr. Obama spoke so frequently this week about families.

Some gay and lesbian couples cried as they watched our President declare support for marriage equality and “straight” allies shouted with jubilation and many religious leaders voiced a hearty “Amen.” They did this because of the most biblical and traditional reason there is: family.

In this Easter season, Christians celebrate the promise of new life. Mother’s Day celebrates the traditional family. Jesus wonderfully blended the new and the old as he was dying, by reminding us what family really means, just as President Obama did this week.

So here’s a peculiar thought: Mr. Obama’s interview would hardly be newsworthy if more politicians and religious leaders alike actually read the Bible.

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Voicing a Vision: Compulsory Marriage, Part 3

Marriage is not necessarily sinful, just a distraction from the more important work of ministry. That was what the Apostle Paul seemed to think (1 Corinthians 7:25-32); and the Church has never figured out what to make of it.

While there has never been a coherent tradition of “marriage theology” in Christian history, we can say this much: the Church usually reacts to whatever else is going on in the wider culture or in its own ranks, whether in response to Greco-Roman marriage practices, the privileging of monastic vocations, or the emergence of an official state contract that decided how to divvy up property for legitimate heirs (which happened relatively late in European history).

Today’s complex socio-religious landscape threatens to lure the Church into that familiar, reactive pattern – either the Church embraces or rejects the State’s decisions about civil marriage.

Civil marriage equality ought to be a no-brainer for the Church – it’s a civil contract to which any couple should have access. But is that all the Church wants to say about marriage? Will the Church simply baptize Las Vegas wedding chapels and be done with it? Couldn’t Christians offer something a bit more compelling, something people want to hear but don’t expect the Church to say?

The Church has an unprecedented opportunity today to voice a vision of human relationships that speaks to how people really live their lives, and in the process, advance what Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” I don’t know everything about what that vision ought to entail, but here are just a few thoughts toward it, clustered around families, finances, and fidelity (yes, I like alliteration).

1. Families

A recent congressional hearing on the “Defense of Marriage Act” highlighted the paucity of coherent arguments among those who oppose marriage equality. Among the several absurd things now on the congressional record is this: “Marriage makes a family.”

No, actually, it doesn’t. Civil marriage makes a contract between two people. That contract comes with a lot of benefits, but “family” is not among them. My mother and I are a family, not because we have a contract but because of the love, care, compassion, and commitment of our relationship. That’s what “makes a family.”

The Church could voice a vision about families by, well, turning to Jesus. When told that his mother and brothers were waiting to see him, Jesus said, “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:50). And when he was dying on the cross, Jesus looked at his mother and his beloved disciple and said, “Woman, here is your son.” And to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27).

Let’s be clear here: The State does not (and probably never will) recognize either of those two Gospel forms of family as a family. But the Church can and should do that. If the Church did, thousands of people would be profoundly grateful.

2. Finances

If I lost my job tomorrow, my health insurance would become exorbitantly expensive. Linking health care to employment is among the more absurd features of American culture. And marriage matters here because of another absurd feature of American culture: If you’re unemployed but married to an employed person, you can get access to your spouse’s health insurance.

Why in the world should affordable health insurance be linked to whether or not you’re married? As I noted in Part One of this mini-series, health insurance is just one reason why the so-called “freedom to marry” quickly becomes the “necessity to marry” just to get access to a physician.

There are many other financial benefits that attach to marriage, and the Church might turn to Jesus (again) for developing its own voice. Jesus looked rather askance, to say the least, at the privileging of some types of social relation over others.

The Church could voice a different vision by insisting that we no longer live with economically or socially privileged relationships. Everyone should have equal access to what everyone needs to thrive and flourish, regardless of the relationships to which they are called – both human and other animals. I know that sounds like socialism. Don’t blame me; blame Jesus.

3. Fidelity

Everyone knows what “infidelity” means without having to spell it out – a spouse broke a sexual rule. But that kind of marital fidelity emerged in human history mostly to protect property inheritance rights for legitimate heirs.

Biblical writers had a dramatically different view: faithfulness is not about what one cannot do, it is instead what enables one to do something better. The Hebrew prophets denounced the “adulterous” practices of Israel because they weren’t caring for orphans and widows, or showing hospitality to strangers, or tending the land responsibly, or practicing economic justice for the poor. Faithfulness to their covenant with God would have enabled them to do all of that and more.

The Church could offer a compelling vision of fidelity by paying attention to Jesus (again). We know a good tree, Jesus said, not just be looking at it but by the kind of fruit it yields (Matthew 7:16).What does your relationship (of whatever type) enable you to do to make the world a better place?

Civil marriage contracts don’t make families, and they don’t create financial justice for all, and they don’t empower people with the gifts of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). That doesn’t make civil marriage “bad,” just short of the Gospel mark toward which the Church could and should aim.

But covenantal relationships (of various types), entered into deliberately and with spiritual intention, can create families, and promote economic justice for all, and bear fruit in households and communities of remarkable generosity, hospitality, and compassion.

That’s the vision the Church could be voicing today by saying unequivocally two things at the same time: 1) civil marriage equality is good and necessary for social justice; and 2) civil marriage equality is not nearly enough for a Gospel vision of human thriving.

If the Church voiced that vision, we’d see many more people saying “I do” to queerly Christian discipleship.