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Saturday, October 16, 2004

Furor over same sex marriage

DISCLAIMER: In this post, I made reference to an e-mail that I said was sent to me in response to a previous post of mine. It is in fact, a reply to my e-mail to a previous commenter who then reply to my e-mail, reponding to the post. The same commenter is also quoted in this post, but from reading it, it may appear that the writer of the e-mail and the commenter were two different people. In fact, it was the same person. My purpose in this post was not to argue with this Christian brother, but to respond to points made by the person, points that were generic enough that I thought was representative of wider beliefs held by enough Christians so as to be worth a response. But that is just my opinion. I am a fellow traveller along life's road who is struggling with God's purposes for the church and for myself. My post is not meant to point fingers but as a sounding board for reflection and making sense of God's priorities for us as a faith community.

Recently someone sent me an email in response to my post encouraging Christians to support the legalization of same-sex marriage. In part, the email read:

Those who practice homosexuality are deserving of death, not only those who do, but those who approve (and take pleasure KJV) of those who practice it. (Rom 1: 32).

The Romans passage is often quoted as the definitive New Testament word against homosexuality. People often use verse 32 to describe those who practice same sex acts as deserving death. When we read a little closer we can see that verse 32 covers much more than that. In fact, the immediate context reads:

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
True, in the previous three verses (verses 26 - 28) it pointedly describes how God has given those who reject Him...

...over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

Often I find that when people read the entire passage (from verse 18 onwards, actually), they zero in only on the homosexual sex passage and say, "Ah-ha, those gay people! They deserve to die! And if you so much as support them, condone them and be their friends, and provide them any comfort, give them any encouragement, so do you!" A commenter to my earlier post offered his theory

... why the Christian attitude toward homosexuals is oftentimes a condemning one. It is because gay sex is the one sin where most have a clear conscious before God. It is the one sin they have never committed, so they can rant all they want about it without being a hypocrite. They can have a compassion and an empathy for the drunkard or the talebearer, because they themselves have slipped in that area. But, they have very little love available for the homosexual because they are without understanding on the issue and have nothing in their personal experience to compare it to.

Many Christians I have found are uncomfortable with homosexuals and are uncomfortable with the idea of being their brothers and sisters in Christ, let alone with being their neighbors. Although they know all the pat answers and phrases when it comes to living out their Christian faith, such as "Love the sinner, but not the sin," they are uncomfortable actually dealing with what they consider as a sinner, and a blatant one at that. They are uncomfortable about the kind of message they are conveying by their behavior. For instance, my email correspondent asks:

Is supporting gay marriage approving those who have chosen that lifestyle?, you will have to decide that for yourself...

Whenever we talk about homosexuals, the question of their lifestyle often comes into focus. I will have a little more to say about this. My email correspondent went on:

You are focused on rights in a governmental sense. And of course gay marriage looks good on a humanistic level...and your sensibilities here are humanistic and not godly.

That I am focused on the legal issue may be the case, but I am not sure about my sensibilities being ungodly. I will let that point pass at the moment. I did maintain that legalization of same-sex marriage is a rights issue. I also maintained that if we were to agree that freedom of religion is a basic human right, then we should also agree that freedom to marry whomever one chooses is also a basic human right. Although some have suggested that those two freedoms are of different kinds, I will not, for the purpose of staying with the present discussion, worry about that at the moment. I do think that I can show that they are not different kinds. I believe that it is important for us to recognize that everyone in our society has a legal right to the privileges and protections that the marriage relationship provides, and if we deny homosexual and lesbian couples that right, we are restricting them a basic human right unjustly.

Does protecting someone of their human rights contradict our Christian commitments or betray our Christian ministry goals? Let me continue with the correspondent's email: does not rejoice in iniquity, and homosexual behaviour is iniquity, To support gay marriage is to add another stumbling block to the gay identified person's life, for now they have a spouse and kids to help them feel normal, and cover up the emptiness inside. ...To act an as enabler for homosexuals is not love...

I think the correspondent has confused ministry with civic duty. In my post, I argued that the Church ought to champion human rights and be in the forefront of the campaign. I also suggested that we ought to be ready to lay down our lives for our neighbor's rights. I may have been overdramatic in my choice of words, and my imaginations may have been that of an authoritarian regime whereby as Chrsitians we ought to have the courage to lay down our lives to protect the rights of our neighbors like those who hide the Jews in Nazi Germany. Without going to that extreme, I still believe that it is our duty as citizens to protect the rights of everyone and in this case, it is pretty clear that it is a rights issue and not so much a religious or moral question.

One fear that this correspondent, and some others as well, mentioned was the fear that if the church were to support the legalization of gay marriage, then it will lose its credibility in ministering to the gay community to help them with their dysfunction

...if the church supported gay marriage on one hand, how can they say on the other, Christ will set you free from this sexual bondage...

However, I maintained that if we take same sex marriage as a rights issue, there is no confusion. After all, the church does not oppose the legalization of alcohol, does it? Maybe it once did, but we know how that campaign went. True, some may say that this is sufficiently different because drinking is not sin per se, but there seems to be enough scriptural support for considering having sex with a person of the same sex as sin. As I said before, we must separate the marriage issue from the sin issue. If we think that homosexuality is an abomination in the Lord's eyes, that is different from our telling our fellow citizen that we support their basic human right to marry whomever he or she wishes, and we believe that they too need to have the full protection and privileges of a married couple. We may not agree with their sexual practices, we may not agree with their lifestyle, but we must love them enough as individuals to see that they deserve to have and enjoy basic human rights.

When we use the term gay lifestyle we often think about what goes on between the sheets of a gay couple, and we seem fixated at that sinful act, and are unable to think of a same-sex couple other than what happens behind closed doors in their bedrooms, or wherever else we imagine they are doing the despicable acts. At this point, we need to re-read the Romans passage. Paul did not single out homosexuals and lesbians and say that they deserve to die. He was singling out everyone who has "exchaned God for an idol." He then showed that the perversion of an idolatrous mind extends to one's religious life, one's sexual life, as well as one's relational life. In terms of one's relationship, Paul maintains that ungodly behavior encompasses all forms of human perversion, including

every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

We need to see that this passage is no longer talking about those who engaged in the acts of verses 26-28 alone. The entire passage is about the condemnation of those who have gone against God. Ungodliness does not belong to only a small group of humanity. This passage tells us that we are all under the condemnation of those who do evil and grieve the heart of our Creator. We all deserve to die. If we take this the passage teaching as a mandate to discourage gay people in their sexual sin, then we ought to also accept that we ought to discourage everyone else from envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. I guess we may not have any problem with murder, but what about deceit? Let's think of just one of this list of sins and concentrate only on what might be described as a deceitful lifestyle.

Perhaps, we ought to look closer at the practices of some of the corporations and their advertising practices. And if any corporation violates the standards of truth in advertising, then we ought to campaign against their company's products. If we were to purchase these products, we would be guilty of encouraging their deceitfulness. In fact, we ought to remove ourselves from the economic system because the entire system benefit these unscrupulous corporations and encourages their evil and ungodly practices. Further, we ought not to support our courts and legal processes because these very processes encourages evil doing, deceifulness, slander and so on. Perhaps, the Church should remove itself from mainstream society and not participate at all! Our mere participation within the process encourages the lifestyle that is systemically ungodly. If we think this is absurd, then we need to realize that Paul wasn't talking about such drastic actions. The Church's mission is to be salt and light in a society that is opposed to God and godliness. We are to permeate our society with the fruit of the Spirit by our ministry of reconciliation. We do not have to do this by being biased towards some sectors of society just because we think people are not able to too easily expose us of those sins that we are so fond of singling out for public condemnation.

The point is that part of the church's role is to bring heaven to us, and bring us to heaven. By that I mean, the church's role is teach, train and disciple people in the ways of God. By providing a community and teaching the people of God to live together in community--a community of the Word and a community of the Spirit--the church brings transformation to people's lives. And, it is not only those who are gay, or those who practice perverse sexual acts, who need transformation. We all do. The church's ministry of reconciliation to one another and to God can continue unimpeded by supporting the rights of same sex couples to marry. In fact, the church's stand in support of same sex marriage rights will be consistent in its support for individual rights and with the church's primary ministry of reconciliation - reconciliation with God and with each other.

A final concern of my email correspondent was the fact that the institution of marriage itself is sacred and cannot be defiled to include same sex marriage. In some circles the argument goes that marriage is established by God as a union between a man and a woman. Thus, if we admit same sex marriage, we would have defiled a godly institution.

Also, gay marriage isn't really about homosexuality at all...pathological sinners, meaning those in continious practice who see nothing wrong with their sin, get married everyday...the talebearers, blasphemers, fornicators, etc. get married every marriage is about the marriage part, not the gay part...who can get married, and how God intends marriage to be...that is the marriage is a godly institution set forth by Him.

This argument is often brought up in discussions of same sex marriage. The idea is that marriage is an institution that is ordained by God as a state of union and relationship between a man and a woman. There is something sacred about this holy matrimonial state. The standard conception is that marriage as defined by God is to be between ONE man and ONE woman. No other practice is valid. It doesn't matter if you marriage is celebrated before a church, by a priest, a minister, or by a government official. As long as you go through that ceremony, your marital status is godly sanctioned and accepted.

Let me use an example to illustrate my point here. I often wonder what the church would say about my parents' marital relationship. They were married according to the law before a magistrate, but in their family only regarded their relationship at that stage as being "registered" but never as officially being "married" in the Chinese sense. They had to go through a Chinese wedding ceremony where among other things, they made some vows to each other by kowtowing to each other, and made vows to the family by serving teas to the ancestors and to the in-laws, and they kow-towed to the ancestral altars. Then they had the lion dance, and other rituals, and finally came the family feast. After a day of feasting and rites, they were finally considered a married couple.

In Western democracies, former Colonial outposts, and other post-Christian societies, church ministers, some government officials and other registered marriage celebrants are legally able to conduct a marriage ceremony. In fact, when I got married, we did not have an official Christian minister to officiate the ceremony. So what we did was have a ceremony conducted by Christian brothers and sisters, all laypeople. It was witnessed by a government offical. We even adjourned to the corner where the official whisphered his prepared questions to us and we answered our customary "I do's" and signed the marriage certificate to legalize the ceremony! So, what is it about the marraige ceremony itself makes it dvinely sanctioned? In God's eyes, when was the marriage official? When we exchanged vows at the altar, when we answered the government official's questions, or when we signed the marriage certificate? When were my parents' marriage considered divinely established? At the marriage celebrant's office when they were merely "registered" or when they went through the elaborate Chinese ceremony?

Perhaps it is not about the ceremony itself, but about the marriage relationship or the union. So, in God's eyes, only ONE man and ONE woman can marry. If that is the case, it seemed to me that God would then only recognize ONE of the marriages of Jacob, and accept only the offspring of one of those four relationships. Yet, all four relationships are apparently accepted by God. In David's case, his relationship with Bathsheba should not have been divinely accepted, because David had at least two other wives at the time, and yet not only did God seemingly accepted that marriage but also blessed it with his heir who was instrumental in building the Temple as well as writing some parts of the holy scriptures.

My point is this: our traditional intuitions about the nature of divinely sanctioned marriage relationship need not be defined as narrowly as we want it to be -- a monogamous one man and one woman relationship. The more important point is this: when we talk about legalizing same-sex relationships we are speaking about their legal positions as a couple and about their enjoyment of certain legal, financial and social rights and privileges.

In a way, it may not be about a marriage relationship at all. Perhaps, if society at large are not able to stand the idea of allowing same-sex couples to enjoy the full matrimonial state, we can create another legal state that enables same-sex couples to enjoy financial benefits, legal benefits and other protections and rights, such as property, taxation, divorce proceedings/protections, and so on. If we proceed along these lines, then, we satisfy those who are uneasy with thinking about marriage other than the tradtional man/woman monogamous relationship and yet provide legal standings and protection for same-sex couples.

In the final analysis, when we accept gay couples fully and "sanction" their relationships, we welcome them into our communities as our equals. We are offering oursleves and our fellowship as fellow sinners in need of God's grace and mercy. We accept them as our fellow sojourners in the faith and we accept the Holy Spirit in them as being Who He is - God, Who is able to work in and through their lives to bring blessing and mutual edification to ours also. Together we acknowledge each other's brokenness and together we let the Spirit minister to us as we minister to each other. In principle, we are asking people to come together as they are. We do not demand that they have to give up this or that sin just as we do not demand that from ourselves, before we admit them into full fellowship in our communities. We must learn to live and love together as God's creatures. We then can experience God's unconditional love and show each other that true love and acceptance comes from the Creator, who not only shows His people how to love, but also demonstrates this love, forgiveness, mercy and grace in authentic community.