Dec 9, 2008

The Biblical Case for Gay Marriage

Bible and Roses

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The great bigots exodus from the Episcopal Church continues, with the blessing of church primates.

Five Anglican archbishops have backed the introduction of a new Anglican province in North America, a significant, though unsurprising boost for the conservative-led initiative.

"We fully support this development with our prayer and blessing," said the archbishops, who are called primates because they lead regional branches of the worldwide Anglican Communion. "It demonstrates the determination of these faithful Christians to remain authentic Anglicans."

Last Wednesday (Dec. 3), a group of conservative dissidents announced that they were starting a branch of the Anglican Communion called the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). The group claims 100,000 members, including most of four dioceses that have split with the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the communion, in the last year.

. . .

In recent years, both the U.S. and Canadian churches have separately moved leftward on sexual orientation issues, including the election of a gay man as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 and the approval of same-sex blessings in some dioceses.

Well, go with God, as they say. But, by what authority do conservative Anglicans call these recent moves towards tolerance, a "false gospel." The Bible does say, after all, that male/male relations are an "abomination." Seems pretty straightforward. But, those who hold that tenant dear are pretty inevitably treating scripture as an à la carte menu, as much as anyone. Most of them don't even pass the shellfish test; let alone pork. The Old Testament wanders into such absurdities as to be impossible to adapt to modern life.

I quote, and not for the first time, Joseph Campbell:

[The Bible is] the most over-advertised book in the world. It's very pretentious to claim it to be the word of God, or accept it as such and perpetuate this tribal mythology, justifying all kinds of violence to people who are not members of the tribe.

The thing I see about the Bible that's unfortunate is that it's a tribally circumscribed mythology. It deals with a certain people at a certain time. The Christians magnified it to include them. It then turns this society against all others, whereas the condition of the world today is that this particular society that's presented in the Bible isn't even the most important. This thing is like a dead weight. It's pulling us back because it belongs to an earlier period. We can't break loose and move into a modern theology.

One of the great promises of mythology is, with what social group do you identify? How about the planet? To say that the members of this particular social group are the elite of God's world is a good way to keep that group together, but look at the consequences! I think that what might be called the sanctified chauvinism of the Bible is one of the curses of the planet today.

In the new issue of Newsweek, Lisa Miller takes on the challenge of examining the Biblical perspectives on marriage and concludes that it actually supports the idea of gay marriage. She points out that a traditional Biblical conception of marriage would be rejected today by church and state alike.

Let's try for a minute to take the religious conservatives at their word and define marriage as the Bible does. Shall we look to Abraham, the great patriarch, who slept with his servant when he discovered his beloved wife Sarah was infertile? Or to Jacob, who fathered children with four different women (two sisters and their servants)? Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon and the kings of Judah and Israel—all these fathers and heroes were polygamists. The New Testament model of marriage is hardly better. Jesus himself was single and preached an indifference to earthly attachments—especially family. The apostle Paul (also single) regarded marriage as an act of last resort for those unable to contain their animal lust. "It is better to marry than to burn with passion," says the apostle, in one of the most lukewarm endorsements of a treasured institution ever uttered. Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple—who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love—turn to the Bible as a how-to script?

So, probably, the most scripturally sound marriage model is still being practiced by splinter groups of the Mormon Church, who cleave to their practice of polygamy against all odds. The modern-day Church of Latter Day Saints have thoroughly disowned these dissidents and stopped the practice of polygamy, even as they have led the fight against gay marriage. Am I the only one who sees a delicious irony in their massive financial and political support for Proposition 8, in California?

Miller's Biblical argument for gay marriage continues:

First, while the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman. And second, as the examples above illustrate, no sensible modern person wants marriage—theirs or anyone else's —to look in its particulars anything like what the Bible describes. "Marriage" in America refers to two separate things, a religious institution and a civil one, though it is most often enacted as a messy conflation of the two. As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights; and inheritance. As a religious institution, marriage offers something else: a commitment of both partners before God to love, honor and cherish each other—in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer—in accordance with God's will. In a religious marriage, two people promise to take care of each other, profoundly, the way they believe God cares for them. Biblical literalists will disagree, but the Bible is a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history. In that light, Scripture gives us no good reason why gays and lesbians should not be (civilly and religiously) married—and a number of excellent reasons why they should.

So, as ever, it comes down to a choice between focusing on the more punitive and archaic scriptures or those that foster love, community, and generosity. Or as Paul wrote, in one of his more inspired moments:

1. If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

2. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

3. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

4. Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant,

5. does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered,

6. does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth;

7. bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8. Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away.

9. For we know in part and we prophesy in part;

10. but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.

11. When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

12. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.

13. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.

-- 1st Corinthians 13

It would seem that as a society, overall, we are moving towards the more compassionate view on gay marriage. According to Newsweek's recent polling, that's the way we're trending. They find that 39 percent now support the idea of gay marriage, up from 33 percent in 2004. Over half the country, 55 percent now support some type of civil union. The numbers only increase when polling addresses specific protections that should be afforded to couples.

When it comes to according legal rights in specific areas to gays, the public is even more supportive. Seventy-four percent back inheritance rights for gay domestic partners (compared to 60 percent in 2004), 73 percent approve of extending health insurance and other employee benefits to them (compared to 60 percent in 2004), 67 percent favor granting them Social Security benefits (compared to 55 percent in 2004) and 86 percent support hospital visitation rights (a question that wasn't asked four years ago). In other areas, too, respondents appeared increasingly tolerant. Fifty-three percent favor gay adoption rights (8 points more than in 2004), and 66 percent believe gays should be able to serve openly in the military (6 points more than in 2004).

Look, in particular, at the hospital visitation statistics. When we think of an illness coming between two loving partners -- that a hospital could actually deny a chosen life partner access to their beloved in a time of health crisis -- the vast majority of us are rightly disturbed at the heartlessness of it. It offends our inherent empathy, to a degree that overrides our bigotry. Isn't that the kind of love and compassion the church should encourage? What would Jesus do?

Martin Sheen breathes new life
into the famous letter to Dr. Laura
on "The West Wing."

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