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.”

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.

The Danger of Being Right, Part 1

One of the worst temptations I’ve ever had to fight was the temptation of being right.  Let me explain.

 

When I’m right, when I really, truly believe I’m right, I am without doubt.

When I am without doubt, I stop asking questions.

When I stop asking questions, I start telling other people the answers.

When I start telling other people the answers, I argue with the ones that disagree with me.

When I argue with the ones that disagree with me, I really want to win the argument.

When I really want to win the argument (for Jesus!) I pull no punches.

When I pull no punches, I hurt people and bring shame to the cause of Christ.

 

And that’s why it’s dangerous to be right.

Chick-Fil-A day?  A great day for “freedom of speech,” but a bad day to be gay in America, and a terrible day for anyone who actually wants to bring gay people into the Church.  You want uglier examples?  The Crusades.  Slavery.  Manifest Destiny.  Guantanamo Bay.

Show me one place where Jesus or the apostles operated like this.  Well, Paul did, but back then, they called him Saul.  But one encounter on the road to Damascus changed all that.  When we’re right, and we really know it, we’ll roll over anybody who stands in our way, and we’ll do it in the name of Jesus.

Because if we’re right, and they’re not just like us, they’re wrong.  And if they’re wrong, then we have to defeat them.   And if we have to defeat them, we need to take the gloves off.  And when we take the gloves off, we hurt people and bring shame to the cause of Christ, whether it’s Guantanamo Bay, Chick-Fil-A, or arguing on Facebook.

Doubt is our friend.  Not doubt of Jesus’s resurrection, or God’s love and grace, but doubt of ourselves, doubt of our own rightness, our own righteousness.  After all, didn’t the prophet Isaiah say our righteousness is nothing but filthy rags?

The Violent Imagination 1: Self-Justification and Police Dramas

I really like Major Crimes, TNT’s The Closer spin-off featuring Mary McConnell as Captain Sharon Raydor, who’s replacing Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson (Kyra Sedgewick) as the leader of a Los Angeles police unit tasked with investigating murders, kidnappings, and other (drum roll please) major crimes.  I’m actually watching the show now, like I never watched The Closer.

And I think I know why.

Under Deputy Chief Johnson’s watch, there was a lot of “we’ll bend and break the rules, but it’s okay, because we’re the good guys.”  This escalated to the point of setting a gangbanger up to get killed because they thought he got too sweet a deal for turning state’s evidence.  The entire unit, Chief Johnson included, were effectively murderers.  How do we sympathize with that?  How does the use of police authority and resources for extra-judicial killings not disgust us?

The same kind of self-justifying evil leads to hatred from the pulpit, protests at gay soldiers’ funerals, pepper spraying peaceful protesters, beating suspects even after they’re handcuffed, indefinite detention, and waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay.

It leads a nation to declare its “manifest destiny” to spread “Christian civilization” from the Atlantic to the Pacific, no matter how many “savages” they have to murder along the way.  It leads a bunch of good religious folk to yell “we have no king but Caesar” and “crucify him,” until Pontius Pilate washes his hands of it all.

It’s a vile and insidious mindset, one that steals our empathy and threatens our very humanity.  Whenever somebody truly believes their side is “the good guys,” everyone outside that group had better beware. Self-righteousness, self-justification, self-idolization … they lead to cruelty, arrogance, and suffering.

This is utterly incompatible with Jesus’ teaching, yet it rings from pulpits and across the Internet.  “Slap the gay out of your children,” one preacher says from the pulpit.  “Build a fence and lock the gays away,”  another preaches.  Sure, when it gets that outrageous, people push back, but every day I see anti-gay rhetoric across Facebook and the web.  Quieter, sure, less extreme, but possibly uglier in its pervasiveness.

It doesn’t matter if being gay is a sin.  As Christians, we are called to be better than the world, to love our neighbors and our enemies [Matthew 5:44]   Instead we wallow in the spirit of the worst of the Pharisees, so certain that we’re right that we don’t even try to love our neighbors.

And I can’t stand to see it glorified on cop shows.  They stack the premises by making sure we, the audience, know the suspects are guilty.  They manipulate our emotions, creating the false dichotomy between “we break the rules to protect you and enforce justice” and “if we followed the rules, the bad guys would go free.”

The problem is in the real world, you don’t know who’s guilty and who’s innocent, not 100%, not ever.  Those rules are there to protect the innocent from false accusation, coerced confession, and brutality AND to protect the powerful from becoming corrupt, lazy, self-justifying tools of oppression.  And that’s exactly what the Major Crimes unit was under Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson.

But Captain Raydor is the very opposite.  Originally introduced in The Closer as a painfully by-the-book foil for the loose cannon unit, she’s not their boss.  And she’s made it her mission to make them obey the rules, come hell or high water.  She’s just as tough and strong-willed as Brenda was, but she serves the law, rather than acting like a law unto herself.  And that’s something I can admire.