Marriage Equality and the Bible

Gay Marriage White House Lit 
This past week has been a tremendous one in American history. We saw the Supreme Court uphold the Affordable Care Act. We witnessed perhaps the finest display of presidential oratory, certainly of my lifetime, in Obama's eulogy for Clementa Pinckney. We also saw the Supreme Court uphold marriage equality, providing the right for gays and lesbians to marry all across the land.  We have also seen calls for the removal of that hideous symbol of hatred, the confederate battle flag, from monuments and depictions all across the South. Sadly too we have seen a racist backlash, with nonsensical rallies by hate groups, the burning of at least six African American churches, as well as many right wing evangelicals coming out of the woodwork to challenge the Supreme Court's findings on marriage equality.

It is this latter issue that I'd like to engage here. Some of you are familiar with my stance on homosexuality and the Bible from my blog on the now defunct Amendment One that passed in North Carolina. Others may also be familiar with my post for ONScripture on the legacy of Dr. King for our divided culture.  I don't want to repeat myself here on these issues. But I do want to reflect on marriage and what the Bible may have to say on it.

Marriage equality of course is not described anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, the marriages described in the Bible are anything but equal. I teach through these texts year in and year out. I am hard pressed to think of a single case in either Old or New Testament in which there is an egalitarian marriage between male and female. So I'm not sure that the Bible presents us with an egalitarian ideal to emulate, when it comes to marriage. Now, one could argue that the rhetoric of the household codes in the deuteropaulines (see how many assumptions I make when I refer to these passages in Col, Eph, 1 Tim, Titus?) tones down the patriarchal understandings of the Greco-Roman world. I doubt, though, that would be of much comfort to twenty-first century women who are taking the lead in their marriages.

To be honest, I'm not sure what most conservative evangelicals are talking about when they speak of the "biblical view on marriage," as if it were some kind of ideal. When I look at the Bible what I see are stories of human frailty and brokenness. Let's talk briefly about one of the texts many conservative theologians take out of context when they claim that the ideal is marriage between a man and a woman.  It comes from the Yahwistic creation account, the story of Adam and Eve, in Gen 2:24.  "Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (NRSV).  As I teach my undergraduates in Old Testament, this is one of the many etiologies that can be found in the Yahwist's stories, particularly in the early chapters of Genesis. An etiology is an explanation about a current reality that is grounded in a narrative retrospectively. As I tell my students, the Yahwist is a master story teller and folklorist. Good folklorists color their stories in such a way that the stories explain a contemporary reality. It is as if  the Yahwist is telling a bedtime story to a child that has asked a question. For example, to the child's question, "how did the animals get their names," the Yahwist tells the story of how Yahweh shaped every animal of the field and bird of the air and gave Adam the chance to name them (Gen 2:18-20). Why did God do this?  Because Adam was lonely and God was seeking to make him a companion. It is a sweet story. Before God took a rib out of Adam to make him a wife, he tried to console Adam's loneliness with parakeets, sheep, and puppy dogs. As etiology and folklore, the story is lovely and charming. But is this the kind of story upon which folks really want to base their ideal for a lifelong commitment?

Some evangelicals are concerned about protecting the sanctity of marriage, or guarding marriage as a biblical institution. I fail to see how marriage equality threatens anything but the most patriarchal, and hierarchical forms of marriage. I'm also not convinced that the marriages presented in the Bible present us with something all that sacred.

How about Father Abraham? OK, he more or less raped his wife's slave-girl, Hagar.  I don't know what else to call it.  Sarai gave Hagar to him to sleep with (Gen 16:2). Hagar was a slave-girl! Given her position in the household and the likely fact that she was a young teen, consent was clearly out of the question. I don't see any marriage ideal here.

Well, what about Jacob?  He married Rachel and Leah; and, uh, they were sisters (Gen 29:15-30)! On top of that, he slept with their slave-girls, Bilhah (Gen 30:4) Zilpah (Gen 30:9), as well. If we are charitable, we might say that the house of Israel was the product of a very messy mixed marriage. Read from contemporary eyes, though, the house of Israel was the product of a horrendous conflict between two sisters who were fighting over a man whom today we probably would prosecute as a bigamist and rapist (could Bilhah and Zilpah have said no?).

I don't believe these stories help us to come up with an ethical ideal for marriage.  For the narrative imagination, actually, I find such biblical stories somewhat of a threat to the ideal of the sanctity of marriage. What I find praiseworthy for the narrative imagination is the kind of love that is shared between two people of the same sex who--in spite all the hardship, oppression, and prejudice they have faced--still want to make a lifelong covenant with one another!  Thank God this is now legal in this nation.

To the social conservatives who oppose it and those who are rejoicing over the Supreme Court ruling, I would offer the same word of caution. Theologically, I believe that the biblical narrative, time and again, portrays human beings as broken, deceitful, sometimes violent, covenant-making/covenant-breaking creatures. Apart from God's love and God's grace, we human beings are incapable of maintaining lifelong covenants; not with God, who has chosen to be in covenant with us, nor with the partners with whom we have chosen to be in covenant. I would caution conservative theologians to think very carefully about what they mean when they praise the sanctity of marriage.  Maintaining a lifelong covenant is a gargantuan task and there are bound to be times when we as humans fail our spouses in one way or another. If theologians are to take the Bible seriously, they ought far more to preach the messiness of marriage and the reality that there will be times when people we love and trust (whether they be spouses, parents, children, siblings, or close friends) will fail us and our expectations of one another. The biblical message is not the sanctity of marriage, but the brokenness of human beings. Only through God's grace can we even begin to attempt fidelity and approach sanctity.

To those who are rejoicing over the recent ruling, I say, I rejoice with you. Same sex couples should not be denied equal status and protection under the law. We should all rejoice that human rights are being expanded in our society; although there is still much to be done. Still, I would caution that marriage is no panacea. It certainly confers legal and economic protection for same-sex families. And for this, one should rejoice. This change of status, however, does not magically make a person any less broken.  It does not automatically heal one from past wounds or unresolved anxieties. As a believer, I think what I have said above holds true for married couples, regardless of whether they are of the same or differing gender. We are all frail and broken creatures. Only with God's grace can we attempt to maintain covenant fidelity to one another. My prayer is that those churches that have not already recognized marriage equality might follow this ruling. Instead of blocking it, the church should be a source for God's grace and comfort. Regardless of whom we love, the church should be in the business of blessing and enriching our covenants with grace and community, not condemning them with fear and lack of knowledge.    



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