On Marriage

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17

Hebrews 9:24-28

Mark 12:38-44

Because of the controversies in Vermont and Massachusetts over the legality of gay and lesbian people to marry, or have civil or holy unions, it is imperative for responsible preaching to address the issues and not duck them to avoid controversy. I apologize to those who believe it to be unseemly to discuss topics like this from the pulpit, yet feel obliged to do so because of their deep religious significance and urgency: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Council will decide the Commonwealth’s cases momentarily. Today I will conclude a series of four sermons about deep emotional moral conflicts within the Church, and also local society, illustrated with discussions of homosexuality. If you want copies of the previous sermons, they are posted on the Marsh Chapel website, or you can call, write, or email the chapel. Next Sunday I return to lectionary preaching in preparation for Advent.

The wonderful story of Ruth, part of which was read, testifies to the profound loyalty that the Moabite woman Ruth had for her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi after the death of her husband, Naomi’s son. In our texts from Ruth, Naomi tells her daughter in law to get into bed with Boaz so as to seduce him. Boaz, seduced, then acquires a field that belonged to Naomi, and with the purchase of the field he also acquires Ruth as a wife. The point of the story is that the child Ruth has by Boaz will support Naomi in her old age (and will be the ancestor of King David who is thus not a pure Israelite). Marriage is represented as the commercial transaction of buying a wife motivated by sexual attraction; the function of children is as much support of the elders as carrying on the lineage; and the only love in anything like the modern sense is that between the older and younger women who were in-laws through a previous marriage.

With regard to the legitimacy of contemporary gay and lesbian marriages, we need first to ask about that sense in which marriage is a civil union. The civil aspect of marriage does not require love but it does require a contractual agreement to function in society as a couple. In our society, the marriage contract does not treat women as commercial property. The marriage contract does define such things as tax status, rights to insurance, to health benefits, to disposing of estates at death, and to the care of and responsibility for children.

Like heterosexual married people, some gay and lesbian people, though by no means all, want to live together as couples, developing the domestic, economic, social, and legal roles of couples. Some political figures in Massachusetts who now oppose marriage in the full sense for same-sex couples have proposed to legalize civil unions that give such couples the legal benefits of marriage. This is the law now in Vermont. I see no reason whatsoever not to go along with civil unions in this sense. Viewed strictly as a civil contract, marriage makes a couple with roles of economic and domestic rights and responsibilities. If gay and lesbian people want to enter into such a contract there is no reason not to allow it. In fact, to disallow it deprives homosexual people of a legal right to enter into certain contracts solely on the basis of their sexual orientation, which is wholly irrelevant to their ability to observe the contracts, to benefit from them, and to contribute to society in the ways that justify civil marriages for heterosexual people.

For most people today, however, marriage means much more than a civil contract and this colors how they think about the matter of civil unions. Let me attempt to describe this richer reality of marriage in neutral terms. Imagine society, if you will, as composed of a vast ritual dance of interconnecting social roles. I use the phrase “ritual role” in a Confucian sense to mean a general form for interacting with other people and social institutions, like learned stylized steps in a dance. A ritual is a coordination of many such roles in a complicated social dance. A society has rituals within rituals within rituals. Within a society’s system of rituals lies a utilitarian core so that the economic, domestic, justice, military and other necessary functions are satisfied more or less. Yet the rituals are far richer than their utilitarian functions. They convey the emotional and value-oriented elements of civilized culture, providing both meaning for human life and ordered ways by which human aspirations can be cultivated and satisfied. A society’s rituals are dysfunctional when they do not convey the intense satisfactions of civilization, including religious ones.

A ritual role by itself is a kind of abstract form, like the role of being a “student,” which means fitting into general patterns of how to spend the day studying, having certain kinds of friends, dressing within the student dress fashions, living around libraries, dormitories, and the like. Each individual has to individuate the social roles in exactly his or her own way. No one is a student in general, only a student in particular, and many different ways exist for individuating student rituals. Personal identity cannot be defined fully in terms of the abstract ritual dances in which one engages, although that is the way we begin to get acquainted—“What do you do? Where do you live? Tell me about your family.” Full personal identity is the individuation of those ritual roles with one’s own impulses, chemistry, and inward life. In our individuation of social roles we play them more or less well, often very poorly, like D students.

Marriage in our Western society is a very complex ritual dance set among other social rituals. It has all the functional ritual roles outlined in the civil contract of marriage. In addition marriage has at least two more ritual elements. The first has to do with love, something more emphasized in the modern world than in the ancient Hellenistic world. Love begins as children feel themselves loved by parents. With the onset of adolescent hormones, love takes on an intense sexual dimension and marriage ritual includes being sexual partners as well as friends. Love also extends to the care of others the way the ritual says parents should care for children, with care directed in mutuality between the couple, and perhaps to their extended families, and also to the next generation. The next generation might be blood children or adopted ones, or surrogates in a host of other social rituals such as education by which older people care for dependent younger ones. The ritual roles of marriage are intrinsically involved in larger social rituals of care and dependency.

The second ritual element in marriage is that it is a fundamental defining element for personal identity: to be a person as one of a couple is different from being a single person, and this difference can be extremely important, perhaps the most important defining element of identity for many people. The religious importance of personal identity is that it is what we present to God. It is who we are in ultimate perspective.

Remember that I am speaking about the ritual roles, not about their actual individuated performance. In an actual family one or both of one’s biological parents might be missing during the formative years, and whoever functions in the parental roles might be unloving. Love between the partners might be deficient in emotional quality or sexual fulfillment, and people’s better friends might be outside the marriage; similarly a couple might be terrible actual parents for their children. One might individuate one’s personal identity as a married person as a horrible marriage partner—abusive, codependent, emotionally absent, or adulterous. How people individuate the complex of roles defining the
ritual character of marriage might be very different from what the rituals themselves call for in terms of ideal performance. Yet I believe that what I have described so briefly is in fact the cultural definition of marriage in contemporary Western society—a definition based on a ritual dance of roles for social functions, love, and personal identity but understood always to be actualized in ways that individuate the roles in better and worse ways. When people talk about the real meaning of marriage, they mean something like this.

The problem for our rancorous debate about homosexuality is that the way we commonly identify such ritual complexes as marriages is with quick images, paradigm cases or outstanding models. These images are nearly always too one-sided, too selective, to be faithful to the complex social reality. When we think of “captains of industry,” the images that come to mind are usually of men, sexists as we are, not of women despite their prominence now in business. With regard to marriage the image, reinforced in literature, art, and tradition for centuries, is of a man and woman married lovingly to each other, each with parents, grandparents, and an extended family and together having children who in turn will mature and marry. This is the dominant image of marriage in our society. Even when we call to mind the vast complexity of marriage, and the distinction between its ritual roles to be performed and the actual performance of them, our thinking of marriage is focused and filtered through the dominant quick image.

Surely those people who claim to be social conservatives are right that few institutions in our society are as important as marriage, for purposes of domestic social function, the satisfactions of love, and ultimate personal identity. But social conservatives also claim that the heterosexual image of marriage is the only and definitive image of it. They believe that marriage itself, that wonderful ritual complex for human civilization and individual satisfaction, needs to conform to that image. In point of fact, however, same-sex couples can play all the roles that heterosexual people can in marriage. They can fulfill the contractual economic and domestic roles, the ritual connections to their own parents and extended family in learning love and care, the rituals of sexual love and fulfillment, the joining of careers and friendship, growing old together, and caring for the next generation, perhaps even in raising children of their own. No reason exists to believe that gay and lesbian people will individuate these roles more or less well than straight couples. There are winning and losing examples of both. I believe that anyone who can bracket out the short-cut images of marriage and think about its complex of ritual roles would agree that people of same-sex desire and commitment can enter faithfully into those ritual roles just the same as people with other-sex desire.

Of course most people are not going to think of marriage always with the analytical tools of sociology and ritual theory. We usually engage complex social realities by means of our images. Given the facts that about 95% of the population here and around the world is heterosexual, and that heterosexual marriage is far more efficient that homosexual marriage in matters of procreation, the dominance of heterosexual images of marriage is perfectly understandable. So is the passion with which those images are defended: what is under attack, as understood by people whose sole images of marriage are heterosexual, is not the mere image but the complex institution of marriage itself. Gay and lesbian people make up only about 5% of the population, and by no means all of those seek fulfillment in marriage. Very few models or images of same-sex marriages are well-known beyond the gay and lesbian communities. The resistance to same-sex marriage, resistance fueled by very great passion, is a noble defense of the very important social institution of marriage.

But it is misguided, I believe, by its association of the ritual complex of marriage with exclusively heterosexual images. Homosexual images can also be faithful to the complex reality. In time, perhaps not too much time, gay and lesbian couples will be more conspicuous in the community and will be depicted in the media so as to take on iconic functions. For gay and lesbian people to be denied either the legal right to marriage or the social respect of being able to enter into real marriages in the richest sense is unjust. The injustice is based on a confusion of the heterosexual image of marriage with the actual ritual complex of marriage roles that can be played equally well by same-sex couples. Same-sex marriages do indeed threaten the exclusivity of the image of marriage as between a man and a woman. But they do not threaten the reality of heterosexual marriage: the only complement heterosexual ways of individuating the roles of marriage with alternative same-sex ways that are satisfying for people with same-sex desire.

A final point is in order to reflect on the Christian significance of marriage. The Christian gospel is that as God loves us as creatures in our own right, so we should love one another and love God. Jesus taught the ideal of friendship in loving communities as the best context for cultivating love of God and of the others in creation. No evidence exists that he thought of marriage as a particularly good form of loving community, and given the social patterns of dominance and the economic definition of women prevalent in his day, this is understandable. Our own society has developed to the point, however, where marriage, set in the ritual context of family, economy, and cultural life, is a highly prized form of loving community. To be sure it is not for everyone. But for those who seek to find their personal identity as married people it is perhaps the richest kind of community of love in our culture. Therefore, to deprive gay and lesbian people of the opportunity to enter into marriage and have that blessed by the Church is an arbitrary betrayal of the Church’s mission to foster communities of love.

Let us therefore bless those people who fight for the integrity of marriage in all its complexity, praising God for the passion required to sustain it in a consumer society that would sell it for a profitable mess of pottage. Let us bless those people who recognize that the image of heterosexual marriage depicts only one way of individuating the complex ritual character of marriage, a way fulfilling for those with other-sex desire but devastating for those of same-sex desire. Let us bless those people who provide images of marriage individuated in the multiple ways open to gay and lesbian people, and bless those who learn from these new images. Let us bless those who move our social consensus forward with patient but firm conviction to do justice to the gay and lesbian members of our community who are marginalized regarding marriage because our social images are too limited. Let us bless the God who forgives us our mistakes when we remain obdurate in the face of this injustice or when we push so fast as to threaten the social stability within which the precious institution of marriage is meaningful. Let us praise the God who creates from the depths of complexity in the institution of marriage, and yet who makes all things new to bring all his children to life. Like Jesus at the wedding at Cana, we revel in joy for life and love. Praise God! Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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