By Alan F.H. Wisdom (follow on Twitter)
Last week online was tough for me. With the Proposition 8 and Defense of Marriage Act cases being argued before the Supreme Court, there were tons of postings about same-sex marriage (SSM): large numbers declaring themselves for SSM, fewer against. The mainstream media were in full crusade mode, with daily sympathetic stories on same-sex couples in every section of the paper/website. (There was virtually nothing that conveyed any understanding of those who affirm traditional marriage.) Even sportswriters tried to get in on the action, profiling obscure athletes–at least I had never heard of them–who had spoken in favor of SSM and lambasting lunkheads who had spouted thoughtless remarks about people with same-sex attraction.
Many times I was tempted to respond. But it was Holy Week, and I couldn’t bring myself to jump into the fray. I wanted to focus on Jesus and his journey to the cross and beyond. That was more important than my opinions about Supreme Court cases. I knew I couldn’t balance being both a partisan and a pilgrim in this holiest of seasons. (Maybe others can.) This was one of many instances in which the old proverbs about reticence being the better part of wisdom have helped me navigate social media.
It’s not that I regard the redefinition of marriage as a trivial issue. Marriage is perhaps the oldest and most basic unit of human society, and de-sexing what had always been a union of the two complementary sexes is a momentous step for our civilization. I have written extensively about marriage (for the IRD and “Theology Matters”) and do have clear convictions that I would have been ready to voice almost any other week of the year. But not last week.
Nor is it that I think others should have been inhibited in sharing their convictions about marriage. Not everyone observes Holy Week. Not everyone feels the tensions that I do between worship and advocacy. It’s only natural that when the Supreme Court schedules oral arguments on the hottest of hot buttons for the middle of Holy Week, then Holy Week is going to be consumed with warring memes and sound bites seeking to push that hot button. People are entitled to speak their minds about changes that will ultimately affect all of us profoundly.
But why did the Supreme Court choose to detonate this predictable explosion of controversy during Holy Week? As I understand, the majority of the justices are practicing Catholics. Didn’t they understand that Holy Week is a sensitive time for traditional Christians? That our emotions might be on edge already? That just as you might not want to stir up Muslims during Ramadan, you might not want to throw Christians into a wrenching social conflict at the very time when they were remembering the agonies of Christ? That maybe it might have been smarter to hear arguments on–heck, I don’t know–some case involving water rights in the Desert Southwest?
During Holy Week especially, I cannot help connecting the scenes around me to the path that my Savior trod. When I see crowds cheering political leaders, I think of Christ entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. When I see dead bodies in the streets of Damascus, I think of Jesus slumped on the cross. And when I feel submerged under a torrent of insults, I think of the Roman soldiers who laughed as they mocked the Lord, spat on him, and buffeted him with blows.
I’m afraid that’s how I experienced a large part of last week’s debate. Granted, there were people who expressed themselves positively and respectfully. The arguments inside the Supreme Court were polite. I can understand why SSM supporters might want to rectify the injustices done to persons with same-sex attraction, and show them that we respect them, by equating same-sex relationships with the prestigious institution of marriage.
By and large, however, the suddenly triumphant pro-SSM advocates didn’t much bother to understand or answer the concerns raised by those of us who hold to traditional marriage. They did briefly harrumph that marriage couldn’t possibly have anything to do with childbearing or childrearing, since society recognizes marriages between childless male-female couples. That curt observation seemed to settle the matter for them. SSM proponents didn’t pause to reflect that pro-traditional marriage people might be aware that some M-F couples turn out to be childless and might offer reasons why the state would recognize such couples as married while denying that same-sex relationships constituted marriage. Otherwise, the pro-SSM forces declared that polls showing a 60-40 majority on their side proved that “the debate is over,” that our arguments were “beyond far-fetched,” and that we didn’t deserve a response. In the absence of such reasoned engagement, most of the discourse I heard from SSM supporters consisted in ad hominem attacks on those who still resisted their demands. They weren’t seriously trying to persuade us; they were trying to bully us with insults.
Reading in mainstream and social media, I was informed that I had a “blackened heart of bigotry” for maintaining that marriage was between a man and a woman. That I was lacking in sympathy, possessed by fear, unable to let go of my prejudices and love other people. That my views were “un-American.” That I was espousing “theocracy” because I wasn’t prepared to change the definition of marriage. (If the United States is a “theocracy,” which is the ruling sect? Did the Catholics take over when American voters elected the notoriously pious, Vatican-controlled John F. Kennedy? Or was it the evangelicals who seized power when we elected “born-again” Jimmy Carter? Was the United States a “theocracy” back in 1789 when the religiously diverse states all defined marriage as the union of man and woman? Were America’s Founders “un-American”? Were we all un-American theocrats in the 1960s when nobody had yet proposed SSM? Did we just start to become Americans in 2004 when Massachusetts recognized SSM? Are the 9 states that recognize SSM more “American” than the 41 that do not? What kind of anti-clerical cleansing will it take to end the theocracy in those 41 states?)
We who hold to man-woman marriage were taunted as losers “on the wrong side of history.” Republicans were advised that people like us are an embarrassment to the party and should be thrown overboard as soon as possible. (The Democrats tossed us long ago, and the Republican establishment—never fond of social conservatives in the first place—may well follow suit.) Church leaders were told that folks like me are driving young people away from Christ because we couldn’t get past Jesus’ words (quoting Genesis) about how God ordained that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”
One Facebook friend suggested that people like me shouldn’t invite anyone to Easter services until we renounced such “hateful” beliefs. That same friend also opined that traditional Christians were hypocrites in opposing SSM, since we were supposedly “OK with adultery, greed,” and a host of other sins. (Exactly which Christian leader opposed to SSM has said he or she is “OK with adultery and greed”? Billy Graham? Rick Warren? Pope Francis?)
On Easter Sunday, preaching before the President, Episcopal rector Luis Leon used his pulpit to denounce “the captains of the religious right” for wanting “blacks to be in the back of the bus,” gays to be back in the closet, “women to be back in the kitchen,” and “immigrants to be back on their side of the border.” Of course, these vituperative remarks about fellow Christians were what made the national news–not anything the rector may have said about the resurrection of Christ. I’m no captain, but I suppose I’m part of what Leon would call the “religious right.” So I guess he thinks I’m racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic. (I’m not sure he knows that some of the leaders in the fight for traditional marriage are African-American clergy who are emphatically not in the back of the bus. Nor that there are a lot of conservative Christian dads who do a lot more cooking and family-oriented tasks than our fathers ever did. Nor that someone like Southern Baptist official Richard Land–surely a “captain of the religious right”–has championed liberalized immigration.) I have not seen any indication that President Obama (or any of the other SSM proponents) regrets this sort of demonization of traditional marriage supporters.
This kind of hostile rhetoric stings because it comes from people who are not ideological crazies. All of those I’ve quoted above are intelligent, conscientious, compassionate, empathetic people with whom one can have a civil, enlightening conversation about many other issues. But on this issue of marriage they seem to have decided that drawing sneering caricatures of their opponents is the way to win.
It’s the attacks from fellow Christians that hurt the most. Luis Leon and others have every right to differ with social conservatives on the treatment of same-sex relationships under civil law. But does it really help the cause of the Gospel to reinforce the negative (and largely false) stereotype that the bulk of this world’s practicing Christians are heartless, hateful Pharisees because they continue to believe what the Church has always taught about marriage and sexuality? Is that kind of invective going to bring people to the risen Christ?
Let me hasten to add that I have also heard demeaning rhetoric from my side, the pro-traditional marriage people. I have seen them suggest that pro-SSM people must inevitably support bestiality. This is nonsense. In focusing on marriage as subjective emotional attachment between adults (“two people who love each other”), revisionists have dropped or de-emphasized many of the characteristics traditionally associated with marriage. But the one characteristic that they have retained and reinforced is that marriage must be voluntary. The revisionists therefore have principled reasons to reject marriages where there is doubt about the capacity for consent, such as marriages involving minors or animals. There are enough valid reasons to resist the proposed redefinition of marriage without introducing red herrings.
The overwhelming cascade of insults had me down at points last week. The fact that it was Holy Week accentuated the feelings of abandonment by fellow citizens and betrayal by fellow Christians. I turned to Psalm 22, the psalm beginning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” which Jesus recited on the cross. The psalmist speaks of being surrounded by foes who “stare and gloat over me.” He laments:
”But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; ’Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver– let him rescue the one in whom he delights.'”
That last phrase, meant to mock, paradoxically points me back in the right direction. It helps me look beyond the SSM debates and back to Holy Week. It is to God that I must commit my cause–the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who raised him from the dead. Only God can lift me up when I am cast down. I do not have the strength in myself to set my own life in proper order, much less swim against the cultural currents that are carrying so many away.
It would not help to be defensive of myself. As a Calvinist who wants to deal with even the hard parts of Scripture and life, I can’t say that the insulting caricatures are entirely false. There is hatred in my heart. There is fear. I confess that I do too often lack empathy for women, those of other ethnicities, and people with same-sex attraction. I am a hypocrite in numerous ways.
Striking back against the pro-SSM people who make these accusations would not help. Last week I needed to listen to them and not rush to respond in anger. (Others may have been able to respond without anger.) Now I need to seek the right frame of mind to reflect and write further. (I hope that attitude is reflected in this post.)
It does not help to wallow in self-pity. The words that wound me are nothing compared to what Christ suffered for my sins. They fall far short of what fellow Christians endure elsewhere in the world–for example in Nigeria, where scores are dying each week at the hands of Boko Haram terrorists. Persons with same-sex attraction have suffered insults too–probably greater than those that trouble me.
The hope is the same for all who sin and who suffer, regardless of which side of the marriage debate they take. The hope is found at the end of Psalm 22:
”All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”
This is what Holy Week is all about. I shall live for him who lives for me. And lives for all. Even Supreme Court justices and impassioned Facebook posters.