Progressives and the culture of sex
Liberals want to know how to win elections. Recently, you've heard a lot more of a clever but dangerous proposition about how to form a coalition of moderate Christians free from the claws of the radical right fringe cult. The proposition runs thus: we want progressives to work with moderates to build a more powerful political coalition, so we must jettison gay marriage and abortion from the political agenda.
I should know, because I've argued for that position myself. In the autumn of last year, I was working with a gay seminarian friend, and we had reached the same conclusion: gay marriage was not going to be one of the items in our political lobby. Poverty, yes; prison reform, yes; fair trade and foreign relations, absolutely: but gay marriage was too divisive, too narrow, and too domestic an issue to touch. Marriage: one man, one woman. It's dividing churches, and the noise of churches breaking loses voters. Meanwhile, Jesus called us to serve the poor and disenfranchised; progressives have a nation to save.
Maybe we also felt, secretly, that the gay marriage debate was going to be won without us: that the courts were acting in a fashion amenable to civil rights, that the rest of American culture was committed to a practical level of civic pluralism even if our government was not; that in any case, popular culture was so far ahead of the church in accepting gay relationships, that the church could only follow once enough of its older members, wary of Ellen and Boy George, died off.
So while we separated our political crusade from our concern for gay marriage, we felt that this was no betrayal of gay rights. I come from a family of gay rights activists within the church, and my friend is seeking ordination in a church suspicious of his orientation. We both felt extremely committed towards lobbying for gay marriage -- not just blessing but marriage -- within our churches. We cited Melanchthon and Luther about the use of marriage not just to produce children but to care for the souls of the individuals; we both see marriage in a committed relationship before God and a community as serving that function, regardless of the gender of the individuals involved.
We shied away from gay marriage for practical reasons. We saw case after case where this issue, raised in the media, gave way to the most limp and meaningless discussion of marriage. Some say progressive theologians don't have their theology worked out yet. Some say that progressives in general aren't skilled enough in discussing their point of view in pithy terms without hemorrhaging emotionality. Some say the religious right's soundbites are too strong an ammunition for us. Some say that divisions within the churches cripple convicted clergy on the left from speaking their own mind. Some say that the tolerant are actually a minority in this country. Some say that tolerance is a majority virtue, but never has a chance in the world of soundbites.
My experience carrying forward the banner of "progressive values without discussion of sexuality" made me change my mind. I personally got a lot of flack -- often from moderates I hadn't expected it from, even more often from close friends and respected clergy who felt a duty to challenge me -- every time anyone asked us about our position. Those who have fought for gay rights have felt betrayed time and again by the Democratic Party and other liberal organizations that count on their vote (because liberals are better than the opposition), and then, once in power, turned Judas on their supporters. There's a great deal of righteous anger amongst gay rights supporters. There's a great deal of appropriate suspicion, to the extent that many committed activists, reading a "moderate" post such as this at CrossLeft, may simply roll their eyes and click on to the next site.
To me, there is no question about the appropriateness of gay marriage or gay relationships within the church. To me, the foes of gay marriage run dangerously close to advocating a kind of marriage in which I, as a woman, would play the role of subservient to my husband. If gender is *so* essential that commitment, love, Godliness, and community are insufficient to marriage without the appropriate gendering of one man and one woman, the only correct marriage must be one in which women act as traditional women. Traditional women are, as we know, deferent laboratories for producing infants, not permitted to be ordained.
Jesus and his apostles overturned that notion of gender long ago: there is neither man nor woman in Christ. Amongst the early Christians of the first centuries of the church, women acted as ministers and took more active roles than they had under Jewish law. When he told Christian women that they should not commit suicide just because their husband had died, Augustine advocated the independent salvation and purpose of the Christian woman in a fashion utterly radical to his pagan, Roman context.
As Christians, we have no metaphysical use for gender. Our salvation is between one individual and Christ: a Christian woman is a woman who has found out all her callings - domestic, professional, political, romantic, and social - and acts with full liberty, confidence, and discernment in each of them according to the products of her direct and ongoing conversation with God, not the pre-packaged marriage instructions of a local sewing circle.
When he went undercover amongst a cabal of billionaire right-wing Jesus freaks, journalist Jeff Sharlet gave a good picture of the way this minority has defaced the Christian understanding of gender by adulterating it with something more like the gospel of Liz Claiborne:
They wore red lipstick and long skirts (makeup and “feminine” attire were required) and had, after several months of cleaning and serving in The Cedars while the brothers worked outside, become quite unimpressed by the high-powered clientele. “Girls don't sit in on the breakfasts,” one of them told me, though she said that none of them minded because it was “just politics.”
As Progressives, we may understand that individuals in our world are gendered, and we may make use of institutions that help them to function spiritually and ethically within this world. We don't insist that women are only free if they stop shaving their legs or shave their hair; we understand that there are a thousand different feminisms, and that women as individuals pursue paths as diverse as men do. But gender and gendered living are necessary to neither our salvation nor to Christian living, and so they *cannot* be necessary to participating in marriage as a Christian sacrament (amongst Catholic churches) or Christian ceremony (amongst Protestant churches).
But when our brothers and sisters in Jesus kick the girls out of the politics meeting, they betray our heritage, our culture, and our God. Their actions take on all the more significance when considered in light of international events. Gay Nigerian Christians have had their first meeting ever; a sign of hope to some and naivete to others. But the British media reports that the Nigerians just sound "scared." They sound scared because they have dared to discuss their sexuality openly in a culture that deems the openly gay unfit to live. I don't need to remind our readers of other societies where girl babies and widows are similarly deemed unfit to live.
In the great world of feudal corporate fiefdoms and third-world dictatorships, the woes of your individual lesbian couple in California might not matter much. But they do matter insofar as more powerful nations have, in realpolitik, the opportunity to influence the protection of human rights the world over.
Gay marriage in a small town in Idaho may not be our issue: getting mired by throwing Bible verses back and forth is not the way any of us should spend our precious time on the radio and tv waves. When we look at questions of liberty for political, social, religious, and economic action for people of every gender and sexuality, the United States and Britain make statements about freedoms appropriate for all people, whether they choose them or not.
Poor families in Pakistan and Nigeria and South Carolina can choose traditional relationships, courtship, and ceremony wherever they wish, but in every democracy where the light of Christianity (or indeed the secular Enlightenment, which took many of its values) has shown, the state as the will of the majority has prevented husbands, clerics, and churches from curtailing the property rights, legal rights, or life of the individual.
Protestant Christianity has always witnessed on behalf of the laws that protect individual freedom in this way. Its theology has, in the past, pushed the government to act in ways ever more protective of individual freedoms.
Thus it is profoundly embarrassing and sad for the church to claim that it can't take a position on gay rights because its theology will take a hundred years to develop, as Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams did recently; Luther started us on the correct path five hundred years ago, and we have had a hundred years since Havelock Ellis and Freud to understand how basic different forms of sexuality are to basic human identity.
How queer that once we have to talk about what particular acts of sex a committed couple takes part in, godfearing Christians turn pale and run away. In being asked to defend gay marriage, Christians are merely called to the same questions of individual freedom and conscience before God, to which they have dedicated themselves individuals, as married couples, and as churches.
Let me be clear: many things are not at stake here. At stake is not whether I, as a defender of my brother's freedoms, participate in them myself, am virginal or not, am married or not, wish to live in my brother's company or not, consider his choices well-advised or not, or wish to discuss his sexual life. At stake is not whether the individual priest is perfectly convinced that two people will forever adhere to the vow of chastity and commitment that they have made in due seriousness before him, although he may counsel and advise them according to his impression of the individuals in question.
At stake in whether a church marries too people is certainly not whether the individual priest judges that the individuals before him are actually going to heaven: what priest refuses marriage to the drunk or gluttonous or hate-filled man who stands before him with a future bride?
At stake is only a precept of freedom about whether the individual's rights will be curtailed on the basis of gender, a precept which has profound consequences for global freedoms in light of today's issues. We believe in a God that builds communities and sustains individuals, and an oath of marriage between two people -- any two people -- is, if nothing else, a vow to build a community as individuals who have made a free choice before God.
For in facing the question of how sexual relations are understood before God, the churches of United States and Britain have the opportunity with their theology to make a profound statement in favor of *human* rights -- including the fundamental right to life free from murder -- against regimes that devalue life merely because of an individual's gender.
For as dictatorships and corporate feudalism spread throughout Africa and South America, we stand on a precipice and look out at two futures. In one version, the discourse of women's rights and gay rights are jettisoned, as we argue instead about the necessity of traditional polygamy to maintaining the chiefs of African villages, of Sati to maintaining the wealth system of northern India, and of man-woman marriage to something vaguely called "traditional morality" in North America. In such a future, girl children will be exposed on hillsides as they were in ancient pagan empires; villages will throw screaming widows into the funeral pyres of their husbands; a tiny minority of the world's women will have legal rights over their property; the rest of the world's women will be legally subject to rape by their husbands and left penniless in case of divorce.
Remember that such was the legal condition of women in the West until about a hundred and twenty years ago -- until, that is, the age of Freud and Havelock Ellis and the modern understanding of human sexuality -- and you will understand how fragile is our concept of rights regardless of gender. You will understand how liable traditional local laws are to triumph in court and practice over the gospel of human rights.
You will understand how, in the spectrum of legal protections, gay marriage is a direct continuation of our understanding that men are free to serve God, and women are free to serve God, and traditions that restrict their freedoms because of their gender go flatly against Jesus's teachings. You will understand how discussion of gay marriage scares people away from realizing the peril in which their common values stand. You will see that, while Western Christians hesitate, the Christian-derived precept of human rights stands threatened the world over.
The other future before us is that path we were called to by Jesus, Paul, the early Christians, Augustine, Luther, and the progressives of nineteenth-century America. In this future, women the world over have the opportunity, if they desire it, to seek education, work, and political involvement. In this future, black and white marry -- even if a community deems it inadvisable, the church still supports them. In this future, a woman and a woman can marry, as can a man and a man, if their fascination with each other is romantic and sustained; if their mutual intention is towards God, and if they find a Christian community -- any Christian community -- willing to support them.
In this future, the churches of America and Britain are a safe house and a nurturing family to the African who happens to be gay or the Chinese who happens to be a woman. In this future, the Christian message of individual discernment runs so strong that it inspires freely-discerning individuals around the world to make their cause with God and face the fallen world with courage.
Rowan Williams has also spoken recently about what it means when a church says it needs leaders. Most people, he says, when they ask for leaders merely ask people to parrot back their own opinions for them. Leaders are instead individuals capable of holding together a sometimes fragile alliance for the purposes of some greater good that all have agreed upon.
Let's agree that the discussion of gay marriage in the American media has been fractious and confusing, especially to Christians and moderates. We can talk with them individually and in our communities. Church leaders will continue to huddle and argue about Bible verses.
But for political purposes, perhaps we can concede that the image of the altar, the procession, the wedding dress, the wedding ring, and the priest are so symbolically charged as to trouble people when the image is tweaked. Individuals of little experience find pictures of newlywed lesbians holding hands in San Francisco and Boston are visually jolting and confusing. Perhaps a good leader would spare them confusion, and direct them to a message that they can't be confused about: the rights of those gay Christians in Nigeria not to be lynched.