Though the Supreme Court is poised to hear arguments about Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, I remain optimistic about the future of marriage. For some reason, the desire of those who are in non-traditional relationships to marry does not represent an end to marriage.
Over the last few years, I have heard numerous times that marriage is under attack and that we are facing the end of the family unit as we know it. Often these statements are made by those who are opposed to gay marriage being acknowledged by the state. Oddly, it seems that the context for such discussions is in an election cycle, precisely the moment when it is time to gin up the conservative vote by embracing the fear tactics of old. They are the same kinds of diatribes that have historically been heard during the emancipation of the enslaved, or womens suffrage, or African-American civil rights, or Latino immigrant rights. Warnings that The sky is falling! were premature, for we remain here today, our nation intact after having granted otherwise disenfranchised groups rights that had been denied. Indeed, we are much better off for it.
I have to admit that I am perhaps not the best advocate for gay marriage. I have no stake in the defeat of Proposition 8 or DOMA. I am an African-American Baptist preacher. I am a straight married man and father confronted with the inevitable fear of what such changes could mean for my childs future. Further, I am a professor of the Bible, and frankly, there is no instance therein that any strong support can be found for non-conventional sexual unions, is there? Many better advocates who have more at stake can be found.
That said, I want to raise a few points that might serve as reasons for faithful Christian people to maintain hope amid the potential change:
What we think of as the biblical law of marriage as between a man and a woman was not the only kind of marriage that is seen in Scripture. We also have to note that there was polygamy (Genesis 29-30), concubinage (Judges 19), rape-marriage (Deuteronomy 22:28-29), forced-marriage of enslaved women (Gen. 16), marriage of vanquished virgins (Judges 21) and a host of arrangements (including the Pauline admonition not to marry in 1 Corinthians 7) that were biblically sanctioned. Many of these issues pose more of a threat to traditional unions (and to women in general) than does the union of same sex individuals.
Does the desire of those who are gay to marry weaken or strengthen the construct? While some see this as a threat, I think that in an age where rates of divorce are at an all time high, when adultery and fornication are fodder for our entertainment and prevalent in society, perhaps the desire of those who have been denied this right to marry will make this ideal more sacred and significant.
While many look at gay marriage as an erosion of our normative values, could it be that it actually represents an attempt by those who have been marginalized to adopt normative values? Could this further strengthen the notion of lifetime commitment with all the social benefits associated with that concept?
Further, why should the states determination of equal access to marriage impinge on the churchs decisions in any way? Churches opposed to such unions would not be compelled to provide them.
The Church should have its own conversation about what is acceptable based on its interpretation of Scripture and tradition, a conversation long overdue.
Finally, there is a need for a far more careful re-reading of key biblical texts to ensure that we have understood them. Does the Genesis 19 (sodomy) passage when read in context with Genesis 18 (hospitality) really condemn homosexuality or gang rape? Could the actual message be that we are not to abuse the socially vulnerable? In that regard, could the actual offense of sodomy, the offense of Sodom, be the way that we have historically treated the poor, immigrants, other socially marginalized people, even homosexuals? In any case, such discussions should cause us all to turn to our Scriptures to see what it really is that God is saying, not just what we thought God said on an initial, cursory reading.
Rodney S. Sadler Jr. is associate professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Charlotte.
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