What if there is a win-win approach to settling the debate over same-sex marriage?
As I mentioned yesterday (see “Stanley Hauerwas destroyed my hermeneutical paradigm.”) I am perplexed by the unspoken methodology with which Christians approach addressing the matter of the legalization of same-sex marriage. I think most Christians use the logic of (A) Scripture forbids homosexuality + (B) same-sex marriage (SSM) affirms homosexuality = therefore, (C) we should vote against same sex marriage. There are more complex, well-argued versions of this, but most Christians don’t seem to have given adequate attention to formulating their reasoning for their views.
Last year Kurt Willems wrote a satirical piece asking Christians to sign his petition banning divorce (see “Sign My Petition for a Constitutional Amendment to Ban Divorce!”) that strikes at the heart of the problem I have with evangelical jargon on this subject. We use language regarding something being “biblical,” therefore we determine what should be “legal,” but we are inconsistent, especially regarding sexual ethics. Most of us would not want a constitutional amendment to ban divorce, even if Jesus gave very little wiggle-room on this matter. Why do we want people to have the freedom to divorce legally when divorce stands in opposition to a Christian understanding of marriage? While someone may ignore Willems’ post as being too tongue-in-cheek there remains an unanswered question: “On what premise do we fight against same sex marriage in the courts, but not against divorce?”
Today Bob Hyatt–pastor of the Evergreen Community here in Portland, OR–wrote a fine short piece titled, “Last Chance for a Win-Win on Same Sex Marriage” wherein he presented a view I share on this matter (a view that Tony Jones alluded to as a “common sense solution”). He wrote,
On one side, the Church is going to have to realize that gay men and women, in wanting what everyone else has, are asking for something reasonable. Rights of inheritance and property, custody and visitation- all of the rights granted currently by the state in marriage are good things, things we can affirm, even in relationships that we wouldn’t necessarily endorse. After all, even if we hold a more conservative view on divorce, I don’t see many churches advocating for divorced couples to lose the right to have custody over their step-children should something happen to their spouse. We may not endorse the relationship, but we can certainly try to understand the desire of those in it to have the same legal rights as other couples. And more than understand it- I think we can advocate for it, and practically demonstrate that we do in fact “love everyone.”
Then he acknowledged the deep sacramental and religious significance the word “marriage” holds for Christians:
On the other side, those pushing for SSM need to understand the depth of feeling involved in and around the word marriage- what is for many Christians a sacrament and for all Christians sacred. To have the State legislate an understanding of what is essentially a religious term, and to legislate it in a way contrary to the faith and practice of so many is profoundly offensive. This goes beyond legalization into the realm of endorsement and definition, and as such, is qualitatively different than many other culture war issues.
Then he provided his solution:
The State needs to get out of the “marriage” business. It should recognize that as long as it uses that term, and continues to privilege certain types of relationships over others this issue is going to divide us as a nation, and is only going to become more and more contentious. We need to move towards the system used in many European countries where the State issues nothing but civil unions to anyone who wants them, and then those who desire it may seek a marriage from the Church. When I pastored in the Netherlands, this was the system- you got a civil union certificate at the courthouse and then a Marriage ceremony at the church. This division largely negated the culture war aspect, and allowed those churches who objected to same sex marriage on biblical grounds to not only opt out, but to be able to continue to teach their biblical view of marriage, uncontradicted by the State.
I recommend reading the whole article. That this approach is being use elsewhere, successfully, ought to peak our interest. Sadly, I think many on both side are blinded by their desire to “win” this debate. There are Christians who think marriage is compromised unless the state reflects their views on the matter. There are others who think the “fundamentalist” win if they settle for anything short of the use of the word “marriage.” But if the heart of the matter is found in Hyatt’s first paragraph–that homosexuals want equal rights when it comes to sharing property that is their’s, or custody over children they raised together, or various tax benefits, then this isn’t about whether we say “civil unions” or “marriage.”
Let us leave “marriage” to the churches, synagogues, and mosques and the civil unions to the state.
If someone finds a religious body who will acknowledge same sex “marriage” then let that be a difference between various religious bodies, not a difference of civil standing in a pluralistic nation.