The Senate Debates Marriage

There are a number of things to talk about this day. However, what piques my interest is the Senate's move to open the floor for debate about a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. They know they don't have the votes for it to pass, but they still want to have the debate in order to shore up their base of support for the November elections.

A kind of, "here, we've screwed most everything else up and wasted a lot of time and money, but we tried to ban gay marriage; that makes us okay, right?" The theological and the political are danger bedfellows. This leads me to wonder if there is any possibility for a future between these two important disciplines. I would say "yes" in general. However, given the current method of usage the marriage between these two is abusive at best.

I believe these two disciplines are married in a manner that can be described as the politically theological. This means that the primary modus operandi is political through which theology is then interpreted and applied. There are a number of problems with the method. First, it gives primacy to political concerns over theological concerns. The political culture in our country today is populated by fear, abuse and manipulation. For political gain, we will spin the meaning out of a subject (deconstruction) and then attempt to refill the concept with trivial applications that hold little or no value or grounding. When we do this with theological concepts it is called “relativism” and is eschewed by the common Christian. However when a politician does it, it is called appealing to a constituency. I call it pandering.

Take marriage for instance. The legal term, I believe, is a signification of a mutually agreeable union (a contract) between two people who seek to share lives, experiences, and property with one another. This is the political (civil) meaning as well. This legal and contractual view of marriage is the most relevant when it comes to history and tradition. Marriage, in the Christian community, was not formally conducted for many hundreds of years. Therefore, the civil meaning is the most historical and has undergone the most scrutiny throughout the ages (I doubt if every marriage in the Roman Empire was mutually agreeable).

Politically speaking, the civil meaning has been spun out and a trivial "Christian" meaning has replaced it. It is important to realize that the church has long recognized the importance and primacy of the civil contract of marriage. The theological importance of marriage is a latecomer to the dance, but nevertheless important to examine.

The theological meanings of marriage have their roots in two doctrines, the doctrine of creation and redemption (most of this information comes from the following source: Christian Marriage (1986) The office of worship for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Louisville, KY: The Westminster Press.). These two doctrines are applied in the following manner. First, "marriage is understood to be grounded in the doctrine of creation and thus the gift of God to all humanity" (p. 82). Second, "marriage is an issue of discipleship," whereby two individuals are contractually bound to one another and "allow their relationship with Christ to form the pattern for the covenant of marriage" (p. 82). To me, these two statements seem to be far away from the politically theological rhetoric that permeates the marriage debate.

In the politically theological realm, the roots of marriage as a civil contract are usurped and a fear-based theological justification replaces the historical meanings. Generally speaking, a theology of marriage has been constructed on heterosexist fears about gays and lesbians. Thus, the gift of God for all humanity is rationalized and replaced with a gift of God for some of humanity. Caveats about sexual orientation are added and gays and lesbians are demonized for committing to one another. Furthermore, by adding a fear-based theological meaning to marriage, the Christians that espouse it are no longer required to examine their own abuses of marriage. Heterosexuals are to be blamed for the problems and abuses of marriage. We have not honored the idea of covenant and discipleship, nor have we considered it a gift from God for all. Rather than examine this log that has created the broken family, we choose to skewer and lambaste the mote of gay and lesbian marriage. The politically theological does not work because it lacks responsibility, accountability and is devoid of theological, moral and ethical force.

I would propose that we reverse things and begin to examine policies through a lens of the theologically political. This imparts a primacy to theology as the governing impetus for examining policy. Therefore, we begin with theology, in this case the doctrines of creation and redemption and move to the political, the civil contract of marriage. Here is how I interpret this working.

The doctrine of creation is bound up in the idea of the Imago Dei, or the image of God which is said to be a part of all of humanity. Being bearers of this image, we all have particular rights, such as rights to food, to not be abused, to shelter, to love and be loved without fear, and so on. Bearing in mind that all are created in the image of God and each one of us in some way represents God on this earth, then the relationships and attachments we form bear this image as well. The gift of marriage from God through the doctrine of creation cannot support the exclusion of committed covenants between gay and lesbian partners, if we are to faithfully uphold one another as representatives of the Imago Dei. The doctrine of redemption as seen through discipleship is based on a commitment to the teachings and life of Christ. It is not dependent on sexual orientation; rather it is dependent upon the willingness to live under the constant umbrella of grace in a foreign world. Furthermore, unless one wants to limit God’s grace, then there is no theologically sound argument that would exclude gays and lesbians from the table as faithful witnesses in a hostile world.

Finally, as theologically political Christians we must apply the doctrines of creation and redemption to the civil contract of marriage. Rather than emptying it of its historical importance for the order of the state and applying vacuous fear-based theological constructs, we are to look upon the intent of the policy through the lenses of theology. In this case, a theologically sound view of marriage for Christians would be two people who, viewed as images of God and disciples of Christ, desire to covenant with one another, under the grace of God and authority of the state, in order to live full lives through the giving and receiving of their love for one another.

Theology and politics must mingle with one another if the world is to become a place of justice and peace. The question is, which discipline will lead and which discipline will follow...

grace and peace



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