*On How Strange Is The Collusion Between Christian Marriage And Civil Marriage*
One afternoon in 2004, I got two buses across Dublin with my girlfriend and knocked on the door of a nice house on a tree lined avenue. A harried, welcoming woman showed us into the living room, littered with the debris of an abandoned board game and we waited awkwardly for the man of the house to return. This he did, within minutes. He was bearded and friendly and he was prepared with a set of forms that we were to sign in his presence.
He was a Presbyterian minister. We wanted to get married. He was the Presbyterian minister designated with taking care of the marriage forms on behalf of the Presbytery. Those forms needed to be dispatched to a government office and arrive there not less than six weeks before the well spoken woman sitting beside me agreed to become Wife-unit.
I am sure I have friends in the Anglican churches who can make a strong argument that there is something gracious and meritous about the fact that our covenantal commitment to each other on our wedding day was so immersed in form filling. But ever since Henry VIII decided he wanted to have a religion of his own, God has had to maintain an office building in heaven. Anglicans are eternal bureacrats and they get bored in paradise if they don’t get to photocopy things and file them.
The rest of Christianity suspects that the excellence of marriage might be somewhat diminished by having to stop in the middle and apply for a tax write-off.
Why did we start doing this?
*On How Biblical Marriage Is About God, Not A Political Campaign*
The Bible is almost as long as the Harry Potter books. So it is impossible to isolate particular themes and elevate them to supremacy. There’ll always be contestation about interpretation. But I think a reasonable Christian summation is that the overarching story is about God and the God in question is whoever it was who raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.
I think it is also a reasonable bet that Christians, who worship that insistently particular God who took on flesh and dwelled among a few hundred people in a small village in the armpit of the Levant, tend to be suspicious of big overarching stories. They will want you to show them how that compressed movieposter summation works out. When you look inside the books, you find very often that the story works out along the plotlines of marriage.
This is why Christians fall into the trap of talking about Biblical marriage. There is so much of it! They say that Adam and Eve is the beginning, even though they definitely didn’t meet Rev. Alan Boal and get their papers processed. The subsequent chapters of Genesis are full of horrendous polyamory and misogyny that is so brutal, it is a wonder we let our kids read it. Women are property and security and playthings. The first book of the Bible is full of dysfunctional families and it doesn’t improve from there. David killed a man to take his wife. Solomon kept a harem. The book of Esther tells the story of a kind of heroic divine prostitute, who wins a competition to become a concubine of a foreign king. God tells the prophet Hosea that he is to marry Gomer, a prostitute, and what happens next is the clickbait worthy book called Hosea. Even the Holy Family fails the tradition test. Mary is a teenager when she hears the news from Gabriel. There is nothing comfortable and suburban and sanitised about marriage in the Bible.
In fact, a sustained sensitive reading might lead one to believe that the Scriptures expose – in the brokenness of the stories it unflinchingly depicts – the ways in which marriage can break us, especially those of us who are women. It is an institution, and therefore Christians should be wary of it because institutions get corrupted. We are meant to believe that guys. Not just as a generally observable fact but as an eschatological reality. The powers and principalities with which we engage are not neutral.
Easy talk about God’s will for marriage is easy because it isn’t wrestling with reality. True language is hard fought.
Below the surface stories of marriage is a deeper narrative arc. God’s faithfulness to the promises made to the Iraqi pagan called Abrahm is again and again depicted as a marriage. Israel is to be the bride of YHWH. Israel is adulterous. The church is to be the bride of Christ. The church is adulterous. Marriage takes on a significance not because it is so romantic or because it is what human beings are made for or because of some natural law. It is significant for us because God uses it as an analogy to describe what his faithfulness looks like. When we consider the paltry trustworthiness we can muster for ourselves, by negative reflection, the Scriptures suggest, we can come to see what God’s gloriously reliable trustworthiness looks like.
Biblical marriage talk shouldn’t lead to a conclusion where we talk about ourselves. Biblical marriage should lead us to pay attention to God.
I am not opposed to us wading into public squares and getting all hypostatic about our unions. We should be unashamedly Christian in our political speech. The Gospel is public truth. We can’t stop being Christians when we come to deliberate as citizens. Jesus is Lord means Caesar isn’t! But if you follow the Biblical theology I am sketching out in the broadest terms, then you begin to see why “Biblical marriage” is not the engine of an electoral argument. It doesn’t result in a message we can put on a billboard, or even cram into a manifesto.
Living in a republic, we have theological reasons for not imposing our theology on laws. That is not a capitulation of theology any more than it is an elevation of republics (both mistakes can be made but are not necessarily going to be made!). When we take the deep story of divine marriage that comes to its climax in Revelation and instrumentalise it to a political argument about how people’s relationships can be recognised in a state with a dwindling number of Christian adherents, we might be making a theological, missional, and political mis-step.
*On Natural Laws And Slippery Slopes*
I am writing this on a sunny Saturday afternoon because my friend sent me an email during the week and asked me to write. She had heard that when the referendum passes, all sorts of bills will automatically be passed. This is not how republics function. This referendum affirms a reorganisation of a clause in the constitution that has already been passed in the Dáil. It doesn’t do anything else. When that bill becomes law, it is like all other bills – passed by the representatives we elected. That will continue to be the case. We did not need to have this referendum. Because of the fact that the constitution never thought to stipulate gender in the marriage clause, the Dáil could have just passed this law. They didn’t do that because of a perception that this law is culturally significant and needs the unusual imprimatur of a general referendum.
One of the drawbacks of a yes/no referendum is that it can only ask a yes/no question. And as everyone who has ever been part of a home Bible study group can attest to, the conversation that follows from that kind of question is usually crappy. In this instance, the conversation has been full of inflated rhetoric about the inevitable march of liberty and equality and fraternity from the Yes campaign and ramshackle digressions about natural law and surrogacy and feminism and all sorts of distractions from the No campaign. If I was home for the vote, I’d be tempted to spoil my vote with a hastily composed cartoon of a dog marrying a cat and “MAKES YOU THINK” scrawled over it.
One of the concerns that Christians have is that this is a redefinition of marriage and that starts us on a slippery slope. Of course, in 1996 we redefined marriage when we permitted divorce. And we redefined it when we made the idea of rape coherent within marriage. And we are currently redefining it to make it illegal to arrange kinship marriages. We call that “forced marriage” and Christians gladly support that redefinition, even though it raises questions of religious liberty.
It is absolutely clear that the referendum presents a redefinition of marriage. I have tried to suggest above that our political goal ought not be to make the law look like our theology. So if the redefinition is occurring, Christians who are ambivalent about divorce and wholeheartedly against forced marriage need to justify some serious grounds for calling this redefinition a slippery slope.
And here I think it is useful for us to remember how law happens. It is not truly the case that after the referendum, gay people in Ireland will suddenly be able to form unions that fulfill all the requirements of civil marriage. There are gay couples living in such unions in every city and town and village in Ireland. The law is catching up with life as it is lived. We are not at the top of a slippery slope. We are at the base of a mountain of injustice.
I am an evangelical Christian. I am a proponent of the traditional Christian sexual ethics. I think marriage is for life and between a man and a woman and that sex should happen inside marriage. But I am an evangelical Christian. I am an heir of the nuanced and deep social thought we can draw on. I don’t expect my non Christian friends to see their marriages like I see mine, or to live their sex lives like I failingly try to live mine.
But while my friends who were married in a civil office approach their relationships with a very different set of justifications and hopes and desires than Wife-unit and I in our deeply Christian worship service, the end result in the eyes of the state is the same. The Republic of Ireland determinedly ignored Rev. Dr. Keith McCrory’s words at the end of our service: “What God has brought together, let no man pull asunder.” The forms we signed mean that there are a bunch of reasons for this man or my woman to pull the union asunder, because fundamentally, the state acts as if God doesn’t exist. We might lament that, or celebrate that, but let’s not be confused about that.
In a society that lives etsi deus non daretur, there are many people who have meaningful relationships that mirror marriage. They are marriages in the eyes of the state. They are monogomous sexual unions where intimacy extends to all material aspects of life. That people can selflessly serve each other for decades and then find at the end that there is no way to let the other care for them in their dying or that they can sacrificially give to each other and yet not have that bond recognised by the society is an injustice. Marriage redresses the injustice.
“But it is against nature!” say some. “But I am a Christian!” I answer! After Easter Sunday, after the Incarnation, after the call of Abrahm, we don’t make arguments from nature. There is no more secular argument.
“But what’s to stop people marrying 3 people, or their sister, or their garden fence?” query some. “Nothing!” I answer. We can live as counter-witnesses, faithful to what the Spirit calls us into. We can form communities where our distinctive and strange marriage is practiced. We can show grace to each other and grace to our neighbours. And we can hope things get better. But if they do get worse, law is one way we can limit excess and if in decades we need to make more redefinitions, we shouldn’t mistake acknowledging how things are with how we want them to be.
We’re Christians. Of all people, we should be invested in telling it as it is. We’re religiously devoted to the truth!
Here’s my mischievous question to the natural law folk: Why do so many gay people want to get married?
It used to be that homosexual life was a genuine sub-culture, forced into the shadows at the margins of our shared life. It is no longer the case now. Do we think that vice can flourish more easily today? Do we think that virtue is hampered by tolerance? Homosexuality used to be disparaged for the wanton culture that it was associated with. Now it is synonymous with gentrification and farmer’s markets. If you want to make an argument from some critical redefinition of how reality is, it seems that this radical community has been converted to desire the most conservative of institutions.
The Iona Institute should see this massive movement as its historic victory. Give people space, and they form society-constructing, economy-driving units of suburban flourishing!
I jest, but only in part.
And here’s my deathly serious question to the slippery slope folk: What else is a slippery slope?
My friend Geoff Lillis has shown that the Irish Catholic bishops seem to be unable to do basic moral calculus because they think gay marriage is a grave threat but couldn’t find the same potency in their words about systematic child abuse. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has issued letters about both the civil partnership bill in Northern Ireland and the marriage referendum in the Republic but has said absolutely nothing about seven years of the most depraved austerity. The Evangelical Alliance released a nuanced but ultimately cautious statement but for all the midweek events happening in churches ahead of the referendum, there has never been an event (that I am aware of) about how the Irish state colluded in the “War on Terror” alliance and so supported a global network of torture.
Violence against children, class war, and participation in torture machines – these are slippery slopes. You can be a No voter. You can even be a No voter and argue from natural law or slippery slopes. But I would urge Christians to ask themselves why certain ethical issues exercise them and others don’t.
*So What Should We Do?*
I don’t even have a vote. Irish citizens who live outside of Ireland are, inexplicably, not allowed to vote in referenda. If I was home, I would vote yes. But it would be an apathetic yes. I don’t think a yes will bring about the end of civilization, nor a utopia of mutual respect. I think it will lead to a lot of joyous days for couples whose relational bond deserves our respect and gratitude. It is good when people are good to each other. I also think it will lead to a lot of alterations in what future generations think is normal. But I carry a black piece of plastic in my pocket with a clear screen on the front. When I tap it, it answers every question I ever have. I take it for granted. If I showed it to someone from 1995 they’d think it so abnormal that they’d mistake me for a wizard. I suppose if I was time-travelling, that would make me sort of a wizard. My point is that what we think of as normal is always fluid. “Normal” is not a category Christians aspire to – just ask any nerdy friendless church kid. I am quite sure my grandchildren will think my habit of taking short-haul flights to be a habit of grotesque, selfish depravity. To me it is just normal.
We should change too. We should stop doing the state’s job. Christians have a fascinating and rich and complex approach to marriage that is a witness to God’s grace in the world and it is utterly obscured because it is ubiquitous. Why confuse it with civil marriage?
We don’t need a referendum, a campaign, or even little logos stamped on our social media images. We can just start having a civic marriage on an anonymous Wednesday afternoon when it suits us. And on a different, special day we can have a thing called a wedding and invite our communities to raise the roof in praise of the God who is faithful in a way that we can sometimes, vividly discern in the close friendship of marriage. What this does is reorganise our shared life so that we are less likely to think that it is our job to make the history of Ireland turn out well. It is a habit of reorganisation that would teach us that the vibrancy of our shared life and the legitimacy of our praise is not dependent on the state agreeing with it, or pretending to not disagree with it. We are followers of the one whose first miracle was to make 500 litres of wine for a wedding party. There were no forms filled in. There was no regard for tax individualisation. There was rejoicing.
Now is a good time to commit to a different way of being Christian. Whatever is coming after Christendom is going to be a place where we are set free to be irrelevant. Juicy things will come from that freedom.
There were other forms we filled in in 2004 that I remember. There was a referendum that drew very little attention from Christian leaders. Churches were not organising mid-week meetings to ensure that congregations were informed and prepared. That referendum passed as rampantly as this one will. And it was a travesty that I often reflect on. We collectively agreed that babies born in Ireland weren’t Irish unless their parents were.
Nobody made a fuss about natural law that time.
There were no prominent churchmen grabbing the mic and shouting about the slippery slope of dehumanization that this law represented.
The Irish constitution now says that babies born in Ireland aren’t Irish unless other factors are met. How’s that for pro-life? How’s that for love-your-neighbour? How’s that for welcome-the-stranger-and-the-orphan?
The Irish church needs to reflect on how they fail to be prophetic. This campaign, that I have observed from a distance, has so little light or laughter or good news in it, one wonders where the Gospel actually is. Why is God so feeble that we can be so afraid? We are screeching, not singing. We have gotten it wrong so often, we should maybe think about taking a break from telling society how to live. We have a lot of housework to do. We have a lot of repenting to do. We can’t listen for the Spirit if we’re always talking (says he after writing 100 lines!).
Parts of the Irish church seems to find itself looking around and saying, “Where are we?” We feel we have woken up in a foreign place and an alien land. We cannot comprehend the decisions people make. We seem to use the language spoken here with a thick tongue, confusing people and offending people and boring people. We are in a foreign land. We haven’t yet woken up. When we do, we will set off on the long walk out of exile, towards our home. When we do, we will have moments of clarity where we remember the riches we have squandered and fear for the reception we will get from our father. On that long walk we won’t have time to influence power, or make the world a better place, or protect the natural order of things. We need to go home. We need to find the embrace of our father again. We need to rediscover our identity – not as kingmakers, or entrepreneurs, or gurus – but as sons and daughters who are beloved and forgiven. The scandal of our sin has not yet struck us and so we are worse than charlatans as we lament the sin in others.
There are fancy political theologies that we need to develop. And there are serious liturgical reforms that we need to initiate. But the problem that the Irish church faces today is the same one it has faced in all the years I have been a Christian: we still do not believe that to repent is to be set free. We cling to power and status and rules and law and concepts of righteousness and the divide between in and out and pure and dirty and with all that feverish activity, we don’t stop to listen. The Spirit speaks. The Spirit persists. We don’t need to protect marriage. We don’t need to save the family. We don’t even need to have the right theology of sexuality. We need to listen.
Your Correspondent, Going back to shutting up