The Log in Our Eye (Divorce and Gay Marriage, Part 2)

Photo by Tangopaso and Musaromana, Creative Commons

Photo by Tangopaso and Musaromana, Creative Commons

Depending on which study you look at, divorce rates among Evangelicals or Born-Again Christians are either equal to the national average or well below it. But they’re never under 25%. So one marriage out of four, at least, ends in divorce.

Whether this is better than the national average or not, it’s still very high. Much higher than you’d think, given Jesus’s strong words against divorce.

Why is this so? I don’t know, but I have a few observations.  I’ll work through them in more detail in subsequent posts, but today I’ll simply give an overview.

Idolatry of Family – we Evangelicals see the family as paramount. We ignore the Apostle Paul’s words about celibacy (1 Cor 7:8-9), and we push everyone to get married early.

The pressure is so subtle, we don’t even realize it’s there, but we’re soaking in it every day of our lives. We get married before we’re ready, and it sets too many of us on the path to divorce.

Purity Culture – alongside the pressure to marry young is the overwhelming pressure (at least on girls) to stay “pure” for marriage.

The ugly flip side of this is that girls who have sex before they are married (and something like 80% do), are often shamed, treated like damaged goods. Elizabeth Smart’s story is a chilling example of this. The emotional scars this shaming leaves can affect marriage for years down the line.

Purity Culture’s Empty Promises – If the stick wasn’t enough, purity culture has an equally damaging carrot. It’s implied, and sometimes even stated outright, that if you wait until your wedding night, everything will be awesome.

The truth is, virginity is no magic key to a perfect marriage. This should be obvious, and it’s a sign of how messed up things are that it isn’t.

Having mystically high expectations set up that reality can’t realistically meet? Not a good foundation for a marriage.

Game Face Churchianity – you’d think that at church, among your fellow believers, would be the place to share your struggles, to show vulnerability, to be true and authentic, even when it isn’t pretty.

Well, you’d think that unless you’d ever actually been to church.

Pray Away the Gay – I went to a Baptist college as an undergraduate. Several men I knew there got married right out of college, just like they were supposed to (see #1, above). Some even had kids, just like they were supposed to.

Then, down the line, they realized they were gay. Or they admitted to themselves that they were gay. Or they just couldn’t repress the fact that they were gay anymore.

Reparative therapy doesn’t work. That’s been proven to the point that the APA and AMA are both resolutely against it. Marrying a woman and hoping it will all work out certainly doesn’t work.

Dragging a woman (and even children) through that unnecessary hell is just plain inexcusable, but the greater guilt is on those who pressured the gay man to do it.

So What’s Left?

Maybe the answer isn’t found in Jesus’ words about divorce, but in his words about self-examination and self-righteousness in Matthew 7:3-5.

3 Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?

4 Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?

5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

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Us and Them (Divorce and Gay Marriage)

Photo by Giulia Ciappa, Creative Commons

Photo by Giulia Ciappa, Creative Commons

Why do we, as Christians, get so worked up about gay marriage, to the point of spending tens of millions of dollars to fight it in the courts and in ballot initiatives? Better yet, why don’t we get that worked up about divorce?

Before I answer that, let me list all the times Jesus talked about divorce:

Matthew 5:31-32 It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (NIV)

This passage was during Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, during the “you have heard it said … but I say…” section, wherein Jesus ups the ante on the law-keepers, showing that a right heart was as important as outward righteousness.

In this same section, Jesus said that those who hate and curse others are guilty, just as those who kill are, and that those who look lustfully are guilty, just as adulterers are.

In Matthew 19:3-12, as in Mark 10: 2-12, Jesus is teaching and some pharisees and teachers come to talk to him. They ask him about the legality of divorce “for any reason,” a major controversy at that time.

Jesus’ response is similarly clear. Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of heart of the people, not because it was God’s will.

Luke 16:18 Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (NIV)

The passage in Luke is short and to the point. It’s right after Jesus says that no one can serve both God and wealth, and right before the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

NOW, let me list all the times Jesus mentioned homosexuality…

Well, that didn’t take long.

Don’t get me wrong, I know the Old Testament and the epistles mention various forms of same-sex contact. I don’t want to misrepresent what’s in the Bible. But neither do I want to ignore the gospels’ silence on this issue, and our silence on an issue that Jesus spoke up loudly about.

I know, I know, circumstances have changed. Women have jobs now, and don’t rely on men for their livelihood. Inability to divorce actually hurts women now, trapping them in abusive or miserable marriages.

Times have changed. Marriage is different now. The husband doesn’t own the wife. It’s two legally equal citizens entering voluntarily into a mutual relationship. Denying divorce hurts people.

But if “times have changed” is our only reason, we wouldn’t be spending tens of millions of dollars fighting gay marriage at the polls. After all, same-sex contact in the first century was master-slave, man-boy, or man-temple prostitute. There was always a profound power difference.

Times have changed. Same sex relationships are different now. The ‘master’ doesn’t own the boy/prostitute/slave. It’s two legally equal citizens entering voluntarily into a mutual relationship. Denying marriage hurts people.

No, that can’t be our only reason, or we wouldn’t be fighting so fiercely against the one and utterly ignoring the other. There’s another, uglier reason. One we don’t even realize, not consciously. One that sears our conscience in the name of our conformist culture. One that makes cowards of us all:

We fight tirelessly against legalizing gay marriage but ignore divorce because we aren’t gay, but we do get divorces. Fighting gay marriage gives us an other to feel superior to. Fighting divorce would tear our congregations apart.

Gay marriage is “us versus them.” Divorce is “us versus us.”

Amputations, Spiritual and Marital (an Analogy)

Prosthetic Arm

I think I may not have written clearly enough in my last post, and some of my point may have been lost. So let me try again.

Too often in the church today we focus on condemning “sin,” which in large part means condemning people after things go off the rails. But we need to be more open, sensitive, and helpful to each other so we can keep each other from getting into desperate situations.

I’ll address divorce again, using C.S. Lewis’s metaphor of amputation. Though I’ve never gone through a divorce, the thought of separating from Katherine is  horrible –  I’d rather lose an arm.

The thought of things getting so bad between us that severing our lives seems like an improvement? That’s horrifying.

Malachi 2:16 flat-out says that God hates divorce. That makes sense. He’s the Great Physician, and what doctor likes to perform amputations? Amputations are only indicated when injury or infection is so terrible that it threatens the life of the body.

Shouldn’t we, as a church, be washing each others’ wounds? Shouldn’t we be installing guard rails on the dangerous machinery? Shouldn’t we be doing all we can to prevent these amputations, instead of preaching condemnation at one-armed men and women?

I think so. But during my married life, I’ve never been a member of, or even a regular attender of, a church that provided active support for married couples.

One church, First Baptist Byram, did at least offer Financial Peace University. Though it wasn’t specifically aimed at “marriage support,” it does help people (or couples) come to terms with their finances, which are one of the top (if not the #1) causes of conflict and divorce.

But as much emphasis as the church puts on families and marriage, I just haven’t seen much on actually working to strengthen existing marriages.

But if we hate divorce as God does, shouldn’t we be working to prevent it?

Shouldn’t those of us who’ve been happily married for many years offer ourselves (without being pushy) as willing listeners to those who are newly married, or who are having troubles?

Shouldn’t we offer classes that focus on issues that come up? Or if the church is too small for that, shouldn’t we at least suggest books (like The Total Money Makeover and The Five Love Languages) and resources on the community or association/diocese level?

Shouldn’t we try to be proactive?

Of course, that would require us to be more honest with each other, and to create an environment in which people feel comfortable talking about their hard times and shortfalls, without fearing condemnation.

But that’s a problem for another post.

 

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.

An Old-Fashioned Kind of Love

Something to keep in mind when reading biblical passages about marriage, love, and sex:  for most of human history, consent was a foreign concept, and love was an afterthought.  Women were effectively their father’s property, and were “given away” to the husband upon marriage (often in exchange for a “bride-price” or to seal a treaty or agreement).

But it wasn’t all wine and roses for the groom, either: husbands-to-be often had as little choice in the matter as their brides.  The parents arranged the marriage, usually for monetary or political reasons, and the people getting married basically had to deal with it.  Of course there were exceptions (Ruth and Boaz, for example), and of course the practice varied over time, culture, and geography.  But the pattern was pervasive.

One thing the groom did have going for him was the definition of adultery. Adultery didn’t mean cheating on your spouse. It meant sleeping with another man’s wife. A married man could visit prostitutes or any other unmarried non-virgin he could bed, and it was a-okay, even in the first century. The legal double standard persisted into the reformation (King Henry the VIII of England killed two wives for adultery, but always kept a mistress on the side. Funny, that). The societal double standard exists to this day.

This only started to change in the last two or three hundred years.  We’ve all read Jane Austen (or at least seen the movies).  But Austen wasn’t writing safe, posh romances. She used the romance novel to criticize arranged marriage, hypocrisy, and materialism in early nineteenth-century Britain. She wasn’t the first or only person to speak out, but it took a long time to get from arranged exchanges of property to what we currently think of as marriage.

And eighteen hundred years earlier, when the Apostle Paul was writing?  Or twenty-five hundred years earlier, when Queen Esther would have been alive? Forget about it. The wife was the husband’s property.  So were the kids and the slaves.

Nobody cared whether the bride wanted to get married. Nobody cared whether the slave wanted to become the husband’s mistress.  Nobody cared whether the male slave wanted to become the husband’s ‘lover.’ And though they weren’t slaves, nobody cared whether the 12 year old boys in ancient Greece and Rome wanted to have adult ‘mentors’ with a side order of pederasty.

So why does that matter today? Because it affects how we interpret the Bible. If we see marriage in our modern, 21st century light, or even in an idealized 1950’s light (as the complementarian movement does), we don’t see the reality. Biblical marriage, biblical adultery, biblical homosexuality – these things are all fundamentally different than their 21st century counterparts.

That’s not to say the Bible doesn’t speak to us today on these issues. It absolutely does. But if we ignorantly superimpose our own culture on the biblical text, we will fail to understand. We have ears, but if we cover them and sing 21st (or mid-20th) century love-songs, we will not hear. And as Christians, we must hear what the Bible says. We simply must.

Does Welcoming Homosexuals Mean Accepting Homosexuality?

Shaking hands

As Christians, we like to think that we’re unpopular because we take a principled, Biblical stand against homosexual sexual relations.  But the things that stain our reputation most are not at all theological.  They’re not about the belief that same-sex sexual contact is sinful.  They’re about the way we so often treat homosexual people.

There are plenty of churches that actively seek to welcome lesbians and homosexuals into to their midst, while still holding to the theology that homosexual sexual relations are sinful in god’s eyes.

They believe that those who are completely homosexual (and not at all bisexual or attracted to the opposite sex at all) should be celibate, and those who are bisexual should focus their romantic and sexual attention on members of the opposite sex, effectively living as if heterosexual.

These churches are occasionally called intolerant or anti-homosexual, but they actually have homosexual people in their congregations.  They love and worship with and share communion with people who are sexually attracted to the same sex.  They do not hold themselves sinless or blameless or better than their homosexual neighbors.  And so they are able to witness and minister to people who are so often excluded from the Church.

People act like the alternatives are the Family Research Council (which spreads horrible, often false, ‘information’ about homosexuals and works against all their civil rights) or the Episcopal Church (which ordained its first homosexual priest in the seventies, and has created an official blessing for same-sex marriages).

That is a false dichotomy.  You do not need to change your theology to change the way you treat your least popular neighbors (Don’t get me wrong: I believe you can be a faithful, prayerful Christian and not believe homosexual sexual relations are sinful.  But those Christians aren’t the ones I’m writing this post to).

In other words, the evangelical churches of the United States do not have to start blessing same-sex marriages and ordaining homosexual ministers.  But we do need to stop actively working to use the government to attack homosexuals.

In many states, homosexuals can be fired because of their sexual orientation for no reason.  In many states, they cannot adopt.  In many states, they are excluded from hospital visitation for their partners.  Until 2003, having homosexual relations was felony on par with forcible rape in many states.  That’s oppression: “if you’re gay, we treat you like a rapist.”

In other words, homosexual people are treated like second-class citizens, and it’s mostly because of political pressure from conservative Christians.

As Christians, we are called to love all sinners, not just sinners who sin like we do.  As Christians, we are not called to use the empire’s hammer to beat down people we don’t like.  That is antithetical to Christ’s behavior when He was on earth, and I believe antithetical to Christ’s message.

Jesus ate with the outcasts of Jewish society – Samaritans, tax collectors, and more – and He loved them.  He loves them still, just like he loves the outcasts of our American society.  If we love Him, we need to suck it up, step up, and start feeding His sheep.

Things I Don’t Understand: When America Was Righteous (Part 3 of 3)

Homeless Child

In Part One, I broke down how no era, no decade in American history could really be referred to as “righteous.”  In Part Two, I spoke about the information overload that destroys our ability to not know about the evil the world, and how it pushes us to yearn for a simpler, more sheltered time.

I really think that’s the main emotional and psychological driver behind the “return to a more righteous time” meme.  But I’m being charitable here.  If I were being cynical, I’d say it’s just that people are angry at cussing on TV, and at “the gays.”  Kids these days!  Get off my lawn!

The truth is, even yearning for a simpler time is callous an inhumane. I can’t condone yearning for a simpler time, when respectable white people could be sheltered from the suffering of the brown folk.  Suffering that was often caused by  the respectable white folk.  “Eat your food: there are children starving in Africa.”  And African-Americans like Emmett Till getting lynched in America.

If our national morality rests on Mayberry RFD and stopping gay marriage, then we’ve already failed.   If our hope rests on  turning back the clock to a time when we could pretend we weren’t living in a fallen, broken, needy world, we’ve really failed. There’s a world out there that’s crying out in need.

For the price of dinner for two at Olive Garden, you could provide mosquito netting or school supplies that could mean everything to a child in Sri Lanka or sub-Saharan Africa.

If you want to make America a moral nation again, think of someone other than yourself .  Go to Worldvision and donate – sponsor a child or give a one-time gift to buy seeds, mosquito netting, school supplies, medical help, whatever.  Then go to Kiva and make micro-loans to help build businesses in the poorest countries, to build up their wealth and infrastructure so (in time) they won’t need our donations.

Your vote won’t make America a righteous nation again.  It can’t.  America has never been a righteous nation.  We’ve never been the hope of the world, the city on the hill.  Jesus is the hope of the world.

At our best, America has been an example to the world.  Our constitution with its bill of rights, freedom of conscience, and representative government gave birth to the modern democracy.  Nations across the world have followed in our footsteps, and been much better for it.  But remember, when the revolution was won and the constitution written, it only applied to white men.

 

It’s true that America’s been the world’s police officer, stopping rogue states and defending weaker nations from aggression.  Stepping up to fight the Nazis during WW2 was not only necessary, it was virtuous.  But even then, our soldiers were segregated, and thousands of Japanese were imprisoned without trial or charges, just because of their race.  We may do righteous things as a nation, but we are not a righteous nation.

America is and has been a great nation, an exceptional nation, but we’ve never been a righteous nation.  No nation ever has.  Even ancient Israel wasn’t.  They failed God time and time again, turning to pagan gods that demanded terrible sacrifices.  Solomon, that great wise king, enslaved foreigners to built God’s temple [2 Chron 2:17-18].  He sank to the level of the Pharaohs who’d enslaved Israel just a few centuries earlier.

Our nation runs on money and power, like every other nation in history.  The kingdom of God runs on faith, hope, and active, self-sacrificing love.  The best we can hope for is – as Christians, individually, and together – to be instruments of God’s grace and mercy within our nation, and beyond.

We can use our unearned favor, the wealth and power we have as Americans, to help those who suffer in abject poverty every day.  Whole families’ lives could be radically changed for the price of our cable TV fees.  We can use our time to reach out to our neighbors – our literal neighbors, not the circle of friends we have because they’re just like us.  We can take risks and build relationships with people who think differently than we do, look different, vote for the other side, are different ages, religions, and races.  We can try to love the world as Jesus loves us.

Maybe, just maybe, if we do all that, the world will look at us and say, “Hey, those Americans, they’re not so bad.  They actually take care of each other.  They even help the poorest of the poor, people who can’t pay them back.  I guess those Starbucks-drinking, McDonalds-eating, Wal-Mart-shopping folks maybe they are onto something.”

If we’re really lucky, they’ll say that about us as Christians.  No matter who you vote for, your vote won’t glorify God.  But your actions can.  Where your treasure is, there your heart is also [Matthew 6:21].  Will you put your treasure in the ballot box?  Will you store it in an idealized and inaccurate view of the past? Or will you give it to those who need it most?

The choice is yours.