Motes, Beams, and First-Century Divorce

Wedding Rings, Photo by Jeff Belmonte, Creative Commons

Photo by Jeff Belmonte, Creative Commons

There’s a  certain type of “following the rules” morality that we often cling to, a kind that makes us feel good and holy. It’s the kind that looks at other people’s problems. It’s the kind that looks at their motes, and misses our beams.

It orders/asks of those who are being crushed by the rules to be willing to suffer for what is right. But it does not, on a daily basis, require the majority to set up an environment where the rules can be followed without crushing anyone. It asks the world of “them,” but nothing of “us.”

Let me give you an example. Some churches have a strong anti-divorce rule (this was more common in the past than today – J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had their famous falling out because Lewis married a divorced woman). However, this usually ends up being (in practice)

  • “If you got married, and things are horrible, you have to just bear it, because divorce is BAD,” or
  • “If you do have to get divorced, you can never remarry, because that would make you an adulterer,” or
  • “If you divorce and remarry (or in some cases even just divorce), you’re no longer welcome in our church, because that’s a special type of sin that’s worse than the ones we good upstanding Christians do.”

Rarely does it mean: “We, as a community of believers, will take responsibility for teaching and modeling good marriage communication, helping couples work out problems, teaching and modeling financial planning and responsibility (since money troubles are the #1 cause of divorce) and even supporting couples emotionally and financially when they fall on hard times.  We believe marriage is sacred, and want to protect it.”

Look, we all know divorce IS bad.  Ask anyone who’s gone through one, or whose parents have gone through one.  It isn’t fun to sever your life from someone, to go to court and fight over who gets what, to have your years together reduced to bickering lawyers.

C.S. Lewis compared divorce to amputation: sometimes necessary, but never good news.

Nobody gets pulled into divorce by how awesome the process is; they get pushed into divorce by how awful their marriage has become.  And sometimes it’s not because the people, or even one of the people, in the marriage, is awful. Sometimes the people are basically trying to do good, but the relationship itself has been poisoned past the point of rescue.

The worst part comes when church leaders, writers, and culture warriors take a statement that protected women and use it to trap women in abusive relationships. They’ve taken Jesus’ intent and inverted it.

I know several divorced and remarried people. Their relationships are not the same as people caught up in adultery. Am I saying that Jesus was wrong? Hardly. When he spoke, in the first century, he was 100% right. But marriage has radically changed since then, and so has divorce.

In first-century Israel, men could divorce women pretty easily, but the reverse was not true. It was difficult, but not impossible, for women to obtain divorces. This was, in part, because of a debate between two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai over whether a man could divorce only for immorality or for “any cause.”

Further, there was no such thing as a career woman back then. A women from a well-to-do family who brought a significant dowry into the marriage would be able to take some or all of that dowry out, live on it, and likely even remarry.

But a woman of lesser means? A small dowry means less to live on and less chance of being chosen for marriage as compared to a virgin. She could easily end up begging, starving, or being sold into slavery. To divorce a woman without an extreme reason (such as adultery) was capricious and cruel.

Further, it was emblematic of the way the “righteous, respectable” religious men of Jesus’ day obeyed the letter of the law while still exploiting and oppressing the poor and vulnerable (I’ll leave any comparisons to today’s “righteous, respectable” folk to the reader’s imagination). Jesus wouldn’t let them call such a thing righteous.

At no point was it about trapping abused women in a domestic cage with the men who are beating and torturing them.

Just telling people who are in terrible marriages that they’re out of luck is passing the buck.  We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  We don’t get to put the hard decisions off on someone else, then sit around acting righteous. Especially when we do so little to help prevent these problems.

It’s a false morality, and it’s not fooling anybody. The eyes of the world see right through it. It brings shame on the church, and damages the reputation of God.

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