This essay was first published by Graham Young in On Line Opinion, December 2010
In view of the scare tactics employed by the Australian Christian Lobby in their new petition to prevent the legalisation of gay marriage, it seems timely to publish it again.
by Danny Hammontree via flickr
Judging from the flurry of articles that have appeared recently written by Christians against same sex marriage (as well as same sex adoption, in which many similar religious justifications are invoked) one can be forgiven for thinking that many Christians believe their god invented the institution.
This could not be further from the truth. Marriage has existed a whole lot longer than Christianity. The Chinese philosopher Confucius, born in 551 BC, offered this delightful definition: “Marriage is the union of two different surnames, in friendship and in love.”
Indeed, there is considerable historical evidence that in Greece, Rome, China and Europe same-sex marriages were celebrated along with the heterosexual unions deemed necessary either for economic purposes, or for men to ensure (they hoped) the parentage of children.
For a period in our history marriage had little to do with romance and love, and much to do with economic and physical survival. The spiritual and emotional dimensions of marriage that many Westerners feel are at its core are relatively recent developments.
Christians imposed their beliefs on an institution that was already long in place, and called this fallacy god’s will. Instead of acknowledging that Christian marriage is but one example of that institution, they appear to deny validity to any other and thus attempt to reify their singular take on the concept.
So successful has this reification been that there are people who want to marry in churches, even though they never set foot in them before or after the ceremony. Many people feel an understandable desire for their marriage to be “blessed,” and there’s no doubt the Christian ritual can be quite beautiful.
I’ve no wish to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
But people marry for all kinds of reasons. For example, it’s estimated that some 200,000 marriages per year take place in the United States expressly for the purpose of obtaining a Green Card for the spouse who is not a US citizen. There are marriages made in Australia for the same pragmatic reason. These unions apparently disrespect the Christian god’s purpose for marriage, and ought to cause offence to believers. However, they don’t appear to be anywhere near as offensive to Christians as are same sex marriages, chosen on the basis of love, and the desire for commitment and family.
On the other hand, marriage between blacks and white in the US southern states (miscegenation) was illegal until 1967. Not only did the Christian god demand that marriage only take place between a man and a woman at that time, apparently he needed them to be the same skin colour as well.
It took that country’s Christians some 276 years to overthrow that particular racist injustice.
Christian beliefs about marriage change, as the above example demonstrates. Presumably, this is as a consequence of god changing his mind, and somehow relaying that change to the faithful who then update the law.
But what a truly intolerable state of affairs, that the lives and futures of many same sex couples are at the mercy of the arbitrary decisions of a transcendental exteriority that many citizens don’t believe exists at all, or not in the form touted by Christians.
This state of affairs is undemocratic. It breaches the human right to have freedom from religion as well as to have freedom of religion.
As some 60% of Australians are in favour of same sex marriage, it is puzzling that the two major parties continue to believe they can afford to ignore this majority. One can only conclude their mutual fear of offending the religious vote is stronger than their fear of offending the 60%, who they probably assume will not rate this issue highly on their wish lists of what they want governments to change.
One person’s god is another person’s superstition. Christians are not renowned for their democratic principles when it comes to the many varieties of spiritual practice at work in the world. Who can forget the scary tale of Mother Theresa baptising dying Hindus who were too ill to protest? An act of spiritual terrorism by stealth if ever there was one.
The problem with many believers (not just Christians) is that their belief prevents them from respecting another person’s point of view. Non- believers are dismissed as simply wrong headed. They’re on their way to hell in a handcart, and they will be sorry when they get there that they didn’t listen when they had the chance.
There’s no reasoning with this mindset. Once you come up against the tunnel vision of implacable belief (often known as “faith”) you’ve come to the end of the discussion, and all that’s left to do is to walk away.
Then there’s the question of Christian credibility. The churches currently have a very bad reputation to overcome. The appalling incidence of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children in their care, and the equally appalling attempts to cover up and deny these abuses, have gone a long way to undermining the churches’ credibility in any thinking person’s mind.
It was Jesus who said “It were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he be cast into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones.”
Yet while ordinary Christians are more than willing to speak out against same sex marriage and same sex adoption, among many other issues of which they disapprove, they are bone-chillingly silent when it comes to protesting the evils perpetrated in their own back yards. Has there ever been a better illustration of Burke’s maxim “All it takes for evil to flourish is for good men [sic] to remain silent?”
Perhaps what is required from Christians these days is a little humility. An acknowledgement that they haven’t got everything right, indeed there are things they have got horrifically wrong, and that there is a collective as well as an individual responsibility for this that must be addressed before they can legitimately turn their rigorous attention to the maintenance of a broader human morality.
If I were imagining a god, she/he would care a whole lot more about believers destroying the bodies, hearts and souls of children than about preventing same sex marriage, and same sex adoption. If my god was going to smite anybody, I hope she/he would be smiting the perpetrators of those crimes against children, and those who enabled and protected those perpetrators and denied their crimes. I hope she/he would take positive action to enlighten those who would deprive children of love and legal security, solely because these people are unable to personally deal with the concept of love between same sex partners.
My god would teach that loving one another is the only thing that matters, and from that all else will grow.
She/he would also be smart enough to admit that loving one another is the hardest thing we’ll ever have to do on this planet.
“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” said Christ.
“We must love one another, or die,” said the poet, W.H. Auden.
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” warned St Paul.
It’s time to reclaim marriage from the Christians. They can’t claim it as their own. It belongs to everybody. Marriage in Australia in 2010 is about loving one another, whatever gender the other happens to be. It is about hope, and deeply good intentions. It’s about wanting to be the best a human being can be. It’s about wanting to create a living, breathing mystery, day by day, with the person you love and who loves you.
It doesn’t always work. Hearts get terribly broken. We dust ourselves off, and sometimes have another crack at it, because we are very brave, and we are full of hope, and we have a vision of enduring love that keeps us going, no matter what form our marriages take, or even if they end.
We do this whether we are Christians or not. We do it because we are human beings who at our best are capable of living out these wonders regardless of gender, and oftentimes in spite of the difficulties gender can create for us.
I’m perfectly happy to let Christians conduct their marriage ceremonies according to their beliefs. And every other religious group as well. They don’t have to celebrate same sex marriage in their own places of worship if they don’t want to. This is one of the freedoms our democracy guarantees. I don’t wish to take that freedom away from Christians or any other religious group.
But what no democratic government should tolerate is Christians, or any other religious group, defining marriage and dictating its practices in this country. Government decisions must not be based on religious belief in our pluralist society. They must be based on what is fair, what is just, and what is non-discriminatory. Democracy is inclusive. Christianity, sadly, increasingly demonstrates that it is not.
Same sex marriage and same sex adoption are not dangers from which governments need to protect us. But the tyranny of religions destroying anybody’s democratic rights to these things, most certainly is.