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Queer Home Economics

What do civil marriage equality and the debt default crisis have in common? They are linked by a deceptively simple word: economics.

Marriage clearly means much more than joint checking accounts. But let’s not assume that love, companionship, and sexual intimacy have no economic implications. If economics didn’t matter, we wouldn’t care how employers or health care providers or the Church Pension Fund treat same-gender relationships.

And while the debt default crisis makes great partisan drama, that’s just the tip of a vast ideological iceberg, which now threatens to sink the Ship of State on which all of us depend in countless ways, whether we’re single or newly married or somewhere in between.

Christians don’t have to be professional economists to notice that both the Bible and Church history are packed with economic images at nearly every turn. Those images do not a fiscal policy make, to be sure. But they can help to shape a Christian voice in the public square, as some religious leaders recently discovered as they get arrested in the U.S. Capitol rotunda for doing precisely that.

Biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann once remarked that he wished Episcopalians would take the Bible just as seriously when talking about economics as they do when talking about sexuality. But those are not separate concerns; they are deeply intertwined in what I like to call the Gospel vocation of “queer home economics.” I know that “queer” word is troubling, but I don’t mean it as just shorthand for LGBT people. I mean it more broadly as strange, odd, and just peculiar.

I think it’s worth remembering that the word “economy” derives from the combination of two Greek words: oikos, or house, and nomos, or law. In that sense, organizing the daily operations of one’s household, from grocery shopping to meal preparation and bill paying to laundry, describes an economic effort to create a home that functions for the benefit of all who live there – which is precisely what “homemakers” were taught to do in high school courses called “home economics.”

Professional economists do something similar but on a larger scale, with towns, cities, counties, states, and nations, and increasingly, how all of those interrelate in a global household – clearly much more an art than a science.

In Christian traditions “economy” has also been used to talk about God. This doesn’t make God a cosmic banker setting heavenly monetary policy. Consider instead “divine economy” in the more “homey” sense. If the world is not only God’s creation but also God’s household, then God-the-home-economist seeks to create a vast, lively household in which all thrive and flourish.

Insert Jesus into this mix and something rather peculiar if not rather queer happens. Consider the shepherd Jesus described who leaves ninety-nine sheep behind to find the one that is lost (Luke 15:4-7), or the man burying treasure in a field and then selling everything he has to buy that field (Mt 13:44), or the woman turning her house upside down to find one missing coin (Luke 15:8), or getting rid of all possessions to purchase the one pearl of great value (Mt 13:45).

Those are all economic images Jesus used to describe what he called “the kingdom of God” and by most economic standards today, Jesus was a lousy economist. It makes no economic sense to put ninety-nine sheep at risk for the sake of just one or to liquidate one’s resources for the sake of buried treasure or a single pearl, no matter how valuable, or to devote so much time and effort to recovering one coin.

Early Christians took the economic implications of those parables to heart as they blurred the distinction between private household economies and larger societal ones. In the Acts of the Apostles, those Christians understood such revolutionary economics as an indispensable component of their faith and, indeed, as a matter of life and death (Acts 4:32-37, 5:1-7).

Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for this economically peculiar work by reminding them that a wise householder brings out of the household treasure not only what is old but also what is new, surprising, and fresh (Mt 13:52). Even more pointedly, he reminded them what happens to old wineskins when they’re filled with new wine – eventually they burst (Mk 2:22).

I wonder whether it’s time for the U.S. economy to “burst” and make way for a different vision. Our political system is clearly broken. Both parties are deeply beholden to Wall Street and corporate balance sheets. Among the nations, the U.S. ranks 30 in life expectancy, 31 in infant survival rates, and 37 in quality of health care. That’s a short list in an economic situation that will take more than just a little tweaking around the edges or raising a debt ceiling.

Christians engaged in queer home economics will do so not only for the treasure, the pearl, and the coin, but especially for that one out of a hundred who is lost. Or perhaps those thousands who are “lost” without any health care because they don’t have a job or aren’t married to someone who does; or those millions starving in Somalia (currently the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet while the US debt ceiling grabs all the headlines); or the appalling conditions of the factory workers outside the U.S. who make our tech gadgets, like the computer on which I’ve written this blog.

Whether or not the U.S. defaults on its debt next Tuesday, the Christian household of faith has a lot of work to do. We could start by imagining not just eleven but hundreds of religious leaders being arrested in the Capitol rotunda, and not just in D.C. but in every state capitol around the country.

If we did that, Jesus, the peculiar home economist, would surely be right there with us. And he would likely have some suggestions about what to do with all those money-changers’ tables (Mk 11:15-18).

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I Do and So Must You: Compulsory Marriage, Part 1

Full civil marriage equality for lesbian and gay couples now stands within reach. If the Roman Catholic governor of New York can get this done, so can everyone else. This is nothing short of amazing and cause for great celebration. If we’re not careful, however, this heady moment could derail a queerly Christian witness to the good news of the Gospel.

I worry, for example, that at least one diocese in the Episcopal Church has so quickly boarded the state’s marriage train that it left its theological luggage in the station. The Diocese of Long Island, responding to the recent marriage equality legislation in New York, is now requiring its clergy in same-gender relationships to get married. Some of these couples may have had their relationship liturgically celebrated and blessed already, yet Long Island is now relying on the state’s civil contract to make those relationships religiously legitimate. (Read more about those diocesan policies and their national implications here.)

In microcosm, Long Island casts the ongoing confusions between Church and State in bold relief. Surely Christians want to say something more about marriage than whatever the state says about it. But what do we want to say?

I recently heard feminist Catholic theologian Mary Hunt preach a wonderful sermon in which she applauded the inevitable march toward full marriage equality and then urged us to imagine how we can do better.

Marriage, she said (rather provocatively), is not a right but a privilege. Health care, on the other hand, is not a privilege but a right. We can do better than marriage equality if we detach the basic human right to health care from the privileging of just one kind of relationship. If we continue to make human rights contingent on a privileged relationship, then the “freedom to marry” quickly becomes the “necessity to marry” just to get affordable access to a physician.

In a similar vein, Christian ethicist Marvin Ellison has noted that the divorce rate is so high in the United States because the marriage rate is so high. Ellison would have us notice, in other words, that marriage has become the default position for what it means to be a grown-up, a rite of passage into being a responsible, contributing member of society. Here the “freedom to marry” becomes the “pressure to marry” just to look like an adult.

In the midst of this ever-shifting cultural landscape, the Church has good reasons to applaud the freedom to marry as a matter of social justice. But is that all? The Church can and should do better. The Church can and should bear witness to something other than the economic necessity to marry or the social pressure to marry, and the Church could do this by turning to its own theological traditions.

To be sure, there is no single, coherent theology of marriage in Christian history, but there are rich theological themes in that history that we can still tap today. Christian traditions, for example, invite us to consider marriage as a vocation to which some but not all people are called. There are many other vocational paths through which we can bear witness to the good news of the Gospel and the Church can and should celebrate them as well.

Other themes in Christian history also come to mind to provoke our spiritual imagination – the creation of households (of many various types), the significance of covenants (rather than contracts), how relationships of all kinds empower us for ministry in the world, to name just a few.

Most of all, perhaps, many married couples know what the Church seems rather strangely to have forgotten: marriage is not the best thing we can hope for. Yet over the course of several centuries in the modern West, the Church has baptized marriage as the apex of human fulfillment – just ask the modern wedding industry how much it costs to celebrate that fulfillment.

Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul would find such exultation of marriage rather strange indeed, as both of them suggested something quite different: rather than marriage, union with God is the apex of human fulfillment. At its best, marriage can only reflect and point to that hopeful promise and, thankfully, other types of covenantal relationship can do the same.

Everyone who wants to enter into a civil marriage contract should be able to do so. The Church should say that, loudly and clearly. The Church could also say something else: no one should feel compelled to get married for economic or social reasons. And to those who don’t want to get married, the Church can offer some queerly Christian hope: you can live a full, meaningful, responsible, adult life – even if you’re not married.

Will the Church say those important things? Only if it ends its collusion with the State. And I’ll say more about that in Part Two. Stay tuned.