Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Marriage Equality: The Loving Grandfather vs. the Biblical Exegete

My Uncle John and Aunt Dorothy are featured in a recent short video spot about marriage equality. So are my first cousins once removed, Jake and Caleb--but the focus here is an on a love story that's lasted more than 70 years. John and Dorothy know something about what a successful marriage is, and what it can mean for a rich and full life. And they want the opportunity for such a life-deepening relationship for all their grandchildren, including the two who happen to be gay.

John's career was as a Lutheran pastor--and there are some conservative Christians, of various denominations, who will be scandalized by the fact that someone who spent his life in Christian ministry would speak out so unambiguously in support of marriage equality for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation. And so, as I was watching Uncle John on the video (with a bit of a pang, given how much he looks like a beardless version of his baby brother, my father, who died in the fall) I couldn't help but think of an essay that a friend of mine called my attention to recently.

The essay, a manifesto against marriage equality by Robert Gagnon, appeared a little over a month back on Mystagogy, the blog of John Sanidopoulis. And given what Gagnon says there, I have little doubt that he'd be indignant about someone like my Uncle John--a retired pastor who not only supports marriage equality, but in support of this position says that "Jesus was about love."

Uncle John's support of marriage equality isn't born out of some kind of willful betrayal of his Christian faith. It's an extension of it. In fact, at least as I see things, his position here is what typically happens when, instead of paying lip service to the idea of loving gays and lesbians while thumping biblical passages and invoking philosophically dubious arguments, you actually focus sustained compassionate attention on your gay and lesbian neighbors--that is, when the neighbors you sincerely seek to love as yourself happen to be gay.

Some people live in an isolated world where, in order to really connect in a sustained and loving way with gays and lesbians, they need to step out of their comfort zones, set aside their judgmental filters, and deliberately overcome habitual aversions in order to practice sincere empathy. For others, it comes quite readily--if, for example, you're defined by a spirit of affection, especially towards the family you hold dear; if you're the grandfather of some of the gay neighbors you're called upon to love; if you've watched them grow since infancy, held them on your lap, and seen the future in their eyes.

Of course, I'm describing here my Uncle John--a sweet, compassionate man by disposition, a pastor and church-builder (and, later, organizer of "Reitan Christian Tours") by profession, and a grandfather of two gay grandsons by chance.

And it seems to me that the best refutation of the kinds of argument we find hammered out by Gagnon and others may be the simple testimony of someone like Uncle John and Aunt Dorothy.

That doesn't mean it's impossible to sit down and pick apart Gagnon's arguments. His main focus in the linked essay is the question of whether the Bible has elements which can be used to justify a systematic opposition to same-sex marriage--and Gagnon, as a biblical scholar, makes a number of valid observations. But I'd be the first to concede that the Bible has elements that could be invoked to oppose marriage equality. The Old Testament is dripping in patriarchy, so much so that, according to Deutoronomic law, a rapist of an unpledged virgin can erase the wrong of his crime by paying the father off and marrying his victim (Deuteronomy 22:28).

Such a rule makes sense if the crime of rape is that of taking a woman who doesn't rightly belong to you, and the chief victim of the crime is seen not as the raped woman, but as the man to whom she rightly belongs (the husband or, in the case of the unmarried, the father and future husband). It makes some sense if, in a patriarchal culture, women both depend on having husbands for their survival and will never find a husband if they are regarded as "damaged goods." But that such a rule makes sense on these patriarchal assumptions just goes to show how appalling the underlying cultural patriarchy, presupposed in so much Old Testament law, really is.

What we have here is a deep cultural blindness to the full humanity and dignity of women. And it should hardly come as a surprise to anyone that such a framework would not only have appalling implications for women, but appalling implications for the prospects of sexual minorities to live a rich and full life.

That Paul was inspired, by his revelatory encounters with a God of love, to shake off much of this patriarchal outlook doesn't mean he escaped it completely. And so it should come as no surprise that even in the face of transformative revelatory experiences--the moments of inspiration that moved him to say that in Christ there is neither male nor female--some vestiges of the cultural norms he'd inherited remained. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that one can find in Paul patriarchal ideas at odds with same-sex marriage.

The chief question here is not whether such elements exist, but how Christians today should understand the relationship between the collected writings of the Bible, the cultural presuppositions within which the authors were writing, and the revelation of God. Gagnon doesn't address this question. What he does do is supplement his biblical case with strained natural law arguments against same-sex intimacy. He concludes that because two men are joining together body parts that aren't designed to go together, they are violating their own dignity and harming themselves (resulting in what he calls "the degradation of the gendered self that comes from engaging in homosexual practice").

Such a line of argument begins with an abstract and contestable theory about human nature and human welfare to arrive at a conclusion sharply at odds with the lived experience of gays and lesbians. Rather than looking at how the lives of actual gays and lesbians go--a practice of compassionate attention which would lead one to conclude that those gays and lesbians are happiest who throw off the culture of condemnation and embrace an expression of their sexuality analogous to what we find in heterosexual marriage--Gagnon subordinates the lessons of such loving attention to a theory that affixes enormous moral weight on physical plumbing. Although I'm sure this wasn't Gagnon's explicit intent, this looks to me like a case of prioritizing the implications of a controversial human theory over the lessons that arise from living out Christ's call to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I could dig more deeply into what strike me as Gagnon's dubious assumptions and strange logic, but the truth is that what is on display in Gagnon's essay is what happens when biblical exegesis and moral theorizing take place divorced from the actual business of loving the people who are most directly impacted by one's conclusions. And to let loving attention and profound human relationships guide our moral sensibilities on this issue is to live out Christ's injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves, and taking seriously Jesus' call to look for Him in the neighbor who comes to us in need.

And so, while at some point I may have to sit down and dissect arguments like the one Gagnon offers more explicitly and rigorously, I think a truer refutation is offered by the voice of love speaking from a lifetime of love. Uncle John and Aunt Dorothy offer that voice in this video:


  1. Very moving and touching. A great example of your belief Eric that loving relationships are a primary means of learning about God.