There is an age-old neighborhood prank that I have never executed myself, but have heard of from older, braver pranksters than myself. The prank goes thusly:
One places dog-doodie in a paper bag and then lights that paper bag on fire on the doorstep of a particular unlucky neighbor. The elated prankster, after lighting the bag aflame, rings the doorbell of the unlucky neighbor (who is likely the father of some young woman who was probably of of the prankster’s league anyway…) and runs away. When the unlucky neighbor opens his door, he is left with the unlucky choice of either letting the bag burn, posing what threat fire may be or stomping out the flame, thereby putting his or her foot in the poopous caninous.
The more I read about and wrestle with CA Proposition 8, the more I feel like that unlucky neighbor, left with a choice between two rather unsavory options. A “Yes” vote or a “No” vote on this Prop equally misrepresent my worldview. In fact, I am of the opinion that this conversation or debate is taking place in the wrong arena and at the wrong trajectory altogether.
My decision to abstain from voting on Prop 8 is not a matter of the marital rights of homosexuals or even the preservation of the institution of marriage (though I will say more on this later); it is strictly a matter of the relationship between the Church and the State.
That marriage is a union between a man and women, approved by God and held together by His Grace and His People is a uniquely religious understanding. In fact, part of the sacred nature of marriage is derived from the very fact that marriage’s blessedness is rooted in this religious understanding and NOT the laws of the land. In the eyes of the state, marriage is not sacred and has never been. The case for the sanctity of marriage is lost the moment we attempt to make it on the State’s terms.
It is greatly unfortunate (though understandable) that the language in California’s Family Code uses the world “marriage” at all. I think much of our issue originates here. The word is culturally convenient, yes; but it is also loaded with a long history of religious context and content. The State’s definition of marriage does not include this unique context, making the use of it, as it pertains the the States responsibility to its citizens rights, rather messy. Oh, how things would be if in 1977, when the Code was written they had used any other word… Civil Union… Banana Pancake… Anything.
Tony Campolo simplifies this thought when he writes:
“I propose that the government should get out of the business of marrying people and, instead, only give legal status to civil unions. The government should do this for both gay couples and straight couples, and leave marriage in the hands of the Church and other religious entities. That’s the way it works in Holland: If a couple wants to be united in the eyes of the law, whether gay or straight, they go down to city hall and legally register, securing all the rights and privileges a couple has under Dutch law. Then, if the couple wants their relationship blessed – to be married – they go to a church, synagogue or other house of worship.
“Marriage should be viewed as an institution ordained by God and should be out of the control of the state. Of course, homosexual couples could go to churches that welcome and affirm gay marriage and get their unions blessed there, but isn’t that the way it should be in a nation that guarantees people the right to promotion religion according to their personal convictions?”
I believe in the sanctity of marriage and that the biblical definition of this relationship, including the exclusivity of male and female relationships, is the most complete and best definition and understanding. But I do not believe the state’s responsibility extends to the defense of that understanding or definition. I believe that a case needs to be made for marriage but only in the same way that I believe that a case needs to be made for the whole of the christian life and marriage as a part of that. But I do not believe that the case is made well by Proposition 8. A “Yes” vote seems to ask the state to affirm a uniquely religious definition of marriage and that is not the State’s role and, if anything, this lessens the case for the goodness of the christian life by asking the State to affirm and defend the sacred nature of our way of life rather than simply protecting our right to live that way.
Meanwhile a “No” vote makes the issue no clearer and is no progression towards “tolerance.” It is not in the State’s power to bestow the blessing of God upon a marriage and meanwhile there are numerous religious communities who recognize same sex unions as “marriage.” Let me also be clear here in saying that “Yes” voters are not bigots by default. I realize that it is simpler to rally against a mass of the simple-minded. But the people who wrote and defend the proposition hold to a particular knowledge of marital relationships. As a believer, I see the world as working in a particular way and believe that when we move in a way contrary to what is designed or intended, we do violence to ourselves and our world. For the vast majority of “Yes” proponents there is, at heart, a sincere motivation to shape the world around them to the best and healthiest way; for them it is not about hate or bigotry at all.
Furthermore, whether the prop passes or fails, the opposition will take the issue back to court after which we will see another proposition and then another court case and onward towards the dull eternity of heartless, opposition politics. The hope of the christian community will continue to rest in a show of strength to stave off the wave of it’s “opposition.” This is, of course, how we find ourselves here.
I’d like to change the tone here and make a broader statement in the direction of my family, the Church. Whether you decide to vote “no” or “yes” on this proposition, do not be deceived by the notion that the conversation ends there. There is a case to be made for the life you have chosen…
A friend of mine who pastors a church in the Mission District of San Francisco where the church’s intersection with gay culture has been greatly publicized and often distorted has many stories to tell about his own church’s involvement in the collision of what many, if not most, would consider opposing cultures. My pastor friend (whom, in an effort to protect the identity of my subjects I will henceforth refer to as “Thor, god of thunder”) tells a story about his church’s more redemptive role in the relationship between gay culture and the Church right around the same time Mayor Gavin Newsom opened the doors of City Hall to gay marriages.
There had been a series of break-ins in the neighborhood around “Thor’s” church, including a break in at the home of a same-sex couple in an apartment attached to and owned by the church. The couple lost quite a bit and much of what remained was trashed. In the midst of all the clamorous noise created by the clash of opinions and agendas focused on the topic of gay marriage in SF, a very quiet, seemingly small thing happened in the direction of healing. A group of elderly women from the Thor’s church went shopping. They went out and bought gift cards from bed Bath and Beyond, from Crate and Barrel and from Pottery Barn. Then they baked some cookies (because that is what women over 70 do when they get riled up… they bake) and paid a visit to these young men, stating simply “We attend the church around the corner and we heard about what happened. We just wanted you to know that we love you and we’re sorry for what happened here.”
I do believe that the people of God need to make a case for marriage; much in the same way I believe we need to make a case for the christian life as a whole, and marriage as a part of that life. I sincerely wonder if, unless we are able to make the statement made by the elderly women of that church, that we are willing to actively share the burdens and joys of life with the homosexual community, we have any right to make any other statement at all. One of the principles I learned on Young Life staff is that one can only instruct a person (and how much more so and entire culture) so far as we are willing to love that them; That the effectiveness of transformational discipleship does not hinge on the strength of my case, my ability to make it or the volume with which I do, but on the depth to which the person I am working with knows they are loved.
Put another way
“…when these referendums come up in state after state after state, I think that the Roman Catholic bishops were right when they said, ‘We do not approve of this form of behavior but we will not allow anyone to take the rights away from those who are citizens of this country.’ Because I want to tell you something: After you say ‘You can’t live in my community’; after you’ve said “You can’t teach in my school”; after you’ve said ‘You can’t go to my church’ and after you’ve said ‘You can’t come to my college’… after you’ve said all of this stuff – don’t think for one moment it’s going to wash when you smile that plastic smile that I see in the Christian community and say, ‘But we love you in the name of Jesus.’
I fear that the case we have too often taken has been one of protectionism and fear rather than a sincere desire to see the transformation of the neighborhoods we live in; too often we’ve acted out of a desire to create an environment in which we feel safer and more comfortable to live the way we have chosen (this is actually the very topic that originally spawned the song “Safe“). This leads me to a final and brief word on fear…
Much has been made in the case for Prop 8 about the long-term consequences of a “No” vote: Marginalization of the church, law-suits, etc… The images amount to a picture of persectution. Have we grown so comfortable? Were we not warned?
18“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. 19If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’[a] If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. 21They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.
Christians have chosen to live in a way that is sincerely counter-cultural. There are consequences to this choice. Our King was crucified and we ought to expect no less for ourselves. I believe that part of living counter-culturally often means making our case in a different arena. The court and the state are very rarely that arena.