If we redefine marriage to include same sex relationships, what exactly are we leaving behind? In this thoughtful article, Andrew Errington* asks the question and challenges us to be informed about what we would be turning from. He injects some rational consideration into this highly charged issue.
The article is on the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) website. Just click HERE to access it.
*Andrew Errington is Assistant Minister at St Stephens Newtown (Sydney), and member of the Social Issues Executive of the Sydney Anglican Diocese.
To my mind the article highlights the huge gap between people’s motivation for seeking marriage, and how the society and the state relate to it as an institution. No one thinks in terms of an institution anymore—we can only really think in terms of our own individual rights.
I think we have become so focused on our own personal rights that we’ve lost sight of the fact that society is a web of different but interconnected people with institutions and measures in place to serve the collective, not just the individual. We no longer really care about a “society” or see ourselves as part of a collective. We only see individuals and care only about individual rights. As such, we try to banish anything that impedes those rights, even if it may be legitimately contributing to a common good. “Me” completely trumps “us”. This attitude that demands no barriers to marriage, and refuses to see children as having anything to do with marriage, is the same attitude that is hamstringing the US federal government in relation to gun reform: every “one” has a right, and it’s wrong to deprive any “one” of that right, no matter what.
We have so reified the concept of the individual that the concept of society—the coming together of different persons for a common good—is waning fast. The individual is becoming the new society, not just a unit of it. In other words, “us” is being replaced by “me”. We do not all hold the same ideals, and yet we still have to share the same space with each other. We are losing our ability to perceive an “us”, because we can only really think of our society as a bunch of “me’s”. We are no longer planets orbiting together around a common sun. We are stray meteors and comets doing our own thing on our own course. Occasionally we are colliding with each other.
In practice, we are no longer led by a principle that commends sacrifice for the other. Rather, we demand rights, and more of them, as something to be grasped, and cannot possibly conceive of emptying ourselves for the sake of others within a common good. Sure, we have Anzac Day next week, and we celebrate fallen warriors and their sacrifice. But we have absolutely no intention of emulating the ideal once the veterans’ parade is over. We momentarily enjoy the sense of togetherness and identity that these kinds of remembrance give us. We enjoy a day’s orbit around a common good and the warmth it gives us for a short while. But we are not willing to continue that orbit the next day. We each go off on our own merry way, determining our own individual course, and God help anyone who gets in our way. Our common system is unravelling.
The concept of rights, which was originally crafted to vouchsafe society and a common good, is ironically now undermining it. We have sacrificed personhood and society on the altar of rights and individualism. It’s the wrong kind of sacrifice to be making.
Society can no longer relate to us as the people we are—as men and women; as boys and girls; as husbands and wives; as fathers and mothers; as sons and daughters. Society can only address us as individuals: anonymous, genderless, ancestorless, and childless. The terms that define us and our identity, which also link us to each other, are being eclipsed by the great “me”—a concept whose only identifying link is “not you”. There is no room anymore for “us”. And when we lose sight of “us”, we actually start to misunderstand “me” as well, since as human beings we actually mutually define each other. We are losing our identity.
And we complain when the banks treat us as just a number!
In the lead up to the landmark cases at the U.S. Supreme Court considering ‘gay marriage’, I’ve noticed a few things on Facebook. First, a number of people have changed their profile photos to a red and pink equal sign in support of the push. Second, there have been a few memes, photos, and video clips that satirically portray gay marriage busting up hetero marriages in order to demonstrate the absurdity of the suggestion. Take this one, for example:
Or this humorous clip:
These media snippets are funny and satirically sharp. However, they actually miss the point by a long shot. Gay marriage will not bust up hetero marriages, but not because gay marriage is harmless. Rather, it will fail to do so because gay marriage is not actually ‘marriage’. It’s actually partnership recognition—something with a very different purpose.
Marriage is an institution—that is, a mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a group of people within a community. It’s a mechanism that is permanently arranged to achieve a specific purpose that is over and above the intentions and outcomes of the individuals within that community (this is a reworded version of Wikipedia’s definition). In other words, marriage has a specific purpose that stands over the concerns of individuals who enter it.
What is the purpose of marriage? It’s (1) to give legal space within society for a man and a woman to have a committed sexual union that allows for the natural generation and raising of children; (2) to allow for their children to be recognised as their own; and (3) to promote the survival and proliferation of the human race as a necessity. At its heart, marriage is birds-and-the-bees stuff that requires a man and a woman because of its familial generation-generating purpose. The biology on which the institution is founded is integral to the purpose.
In terms of procreation, nature has privileged the hetero relationship. Making babies is something that by definition requires a man and a woman. Two men, or two women, simply cannot make a baby. It’s a biological fact. That means nature has privileged the hetero relationship for the natural building of families. This is no comment on whether sexual orientation is innate or not. That’s a totally different issue. Nor is it a statement that only biological parents can raise their biological children, or that only biological family can function as family. My point is that marriage is an institution that has built a social recognition around a natural biological fact concerning the hetero relationship that leads to the proliferation of the human race. This purpose shows that there is a good reason why marriage is hetero.
Accordingly, ‘gay marriage’ actually doesn’t make sense. It’s like a square peg calling itself round. It just doesn’t make sense, and despite how you might reconfigure definitions, a square peg is a square peg and round peg is a round peg. But the mere fact that we are debating this issue shows that for many people marriage is no longer a relationship centred around birds-and-the-bees biology and family, but rather is about simple partnership. But partnership is not what marriage is about, even though it involves partnership within it.
Now there is a difference between why people decide to get married, or the outcome of their marriage, and what the purpose of the institution is. You can read an excellent (albeit long) paper on this at Alastair’s Adversaria. But there is a procreative purpose to the institution that cannot be subverted without landing you in a completely different institution. If the motive is out of step with the purpose, there’s going to be friction or hardship for those involved.
What gay couples are seeking is not actually marriage (i.e. a sexual union leading to the generation of family), but partnership recognition—a very different thing to marriage. By changing the definition of marriage, you’re not actually giving gay couples equality. Rather, you’re telling married people that they are not actually in a marriage, but rather in partnership recognition. You’re not bringing gay people up to equality. Rather, you’re shifting married people over into a different institution altogether. And yet, none of that alters the biological facts that give rise to the social institution of marriage. By definition, only a man and a woman can be married. Even if you change the definition, you can’t change the biology that nature has privileged on this particular count. Thus, in advocating ‘gay marriage’, we are creating a massive disconnect between the definition of marriage and the purpose of the institution. It doesn’t make sense.
Let me give you an analogy to illustrate. Fred is a vegan. He feels a natural aversion to eating meet and so chooses not to eat it, or any other animal products. His colleague, Sue, is a meat-eater. She loves her steak medium-rare. When Fred and Sue go to lunch, Fred gets upset that almost every time he walks into a restaurant there is no vegan option on the menu. It feels unfair! Sue, however, gets to choose from anything on the menu.
What is Fred to do?
Well Fred decides that he now wants to be recognised as a meat-eating vegan. That way, when he walks into a restaurant, the whole menu will be available to him, and that makes things equal. He won’t be stopping Sue from ordering a steak. In fact, he’s happy for Sue to continue her carnivorous carnival. But at least things are now equal.
Someone needs to tell Fred that actually nothing’s changed. He’s still a vegan in a restaurant that serves steak. What he actually needs is a vegan menu—a totally different set of options to the menu Sue chooses from, because he’s a vegan. If Fred insists that he and Sue need to have the same menu options for things to be just, he’s going to have to change the type of restaurant they eat at, and that ultimately means changing the options that Sue has before her. How will Sue feel about that? She may well tell Fred that it’s not fair of him to demand that.
I understand why gay people want equality in law. In a democratic society, it’s a perfectly understandable desire. But ‘gay marriage’ is, by definition, an impossibility, and to demand it means changing the institution of marriage into something that isn’t marriage. I’m going to give pro-gay-marriage people the benefit of the doubt here and say that this is not really what they want to do. They don’t want to change marriage as an institution, just as they don’t want to bust up hetero marriages. But their campaigns are failing to see that by asking for ‘gay marriage’ to be legalised they are actually asking for the whole marriage institution to be changed. Saying that you’re not out to bust up hetero marriages is, therefore, as meaningful as a vegan saying he won’t threaten meat-eaters when he becomes a meat-eating vegan. It’s completely meaningless on all levels! It’s square peg in a round hole kind of stuff.
Gay marriage is not marriage. It’s something else entirely. These memes, photos, and video clips are quite funny, but they are unfortunately shortsighted and missing the whole point of the purpose of marriage.
After some interaction on Facebook, I thought I’d pour together my streaming thoughts about love, tolerance, and how they relate to repentance.
Tolerance is touted as today’s ultimate virtue, particularly in the West. However, Tolerance is not actually a Christian virtue. Love is. As a Christian I am called upon to love, not to tolerate. If I tolerate everything, then I’m not actually doing all that much. I’m essentially always agreeing to the status quo. But in that case, I can sometimes show myself profoundly unloving with little sense of right and wrong, and with little impetus to do right.
Now I realise that advocates of tolerance often have a good motive for advocating it. They do want to be ‘neighbourly’ and see tolerance as the basic attitude to achieve that end. However, I think more thought needs to go into it, because tolerance can sometimes have unfortunate results or is not something we actually live out in practice. How many parents, for example, tolerate their children’s misbehaviour? Does our society tolerate murder or rape? How many people cheering from the grandstand tolerate a poor performance from their team, or a bad decision by a referee? Tolerance has shortcomings in the day-to-day rough and tumble of life, and there are times when we are profoundly intolerant for good reason.
Sometimes, though, tolerance is used as a strategy for selfishness. It’s an attitude that says, ‘You should let me do whatever I want, so I’ll let you do whatever you want, and that way we can appear neighbourly, albeit in the name of me getting my wish to do as I see fit.’ But such reified individualism can be very damaging to society, because people begin battling for their so-called ‘rights’. These ‘rights’ are an idealistic expression of ‘what you owe me’, and they always tend to be directed towards the self (eg. ‘my rights’ or ‘you should stand up for your own rights’). These individual rights can end up keeping us apart rather than bringing us together with something in common. And thus, we have conflicting rights (eg. the right of gay people to marry -v- the right of children to have both a mother and father in accordance to the way the birds and the bees work). Who gets the right to have their rights prevail over the rights of another? Tolerance cannot really solve these issues.
The Christian ethic is love. To put it in other words, it’s about being other-person-centred. It’s not so much about me standing up for my rights as me looking out for your genuine good. There’s nothing really about tolerance in that attitude. There is no satisfaction with a status quo, but rather a continual search for what is objectively good for the other. Love implies that there is an ultimate good, and that we should strive for it with an attitude of self-sacrificial giving. It’s not about individualism.
God himself is not actually tolerant. He did not tolerate me, a sinner; he loved me. He gave up his apparent ‘rights’, but not so that I might continue to have my own ‘rights’ as an individual who can do what he wants, but rather to sanctify me and bestow on me the right to be called a son of God. He actively sought my own good. He did not love me for who I am; he loved me despite who I am.
God never ever tolerates my sin. In fact, he has been working throughout all of history to eradicate my sin, and this was achieved finally once and for all at the execution stake of a Jewish man in the first century: the cross of Jesus Christ. I’m not now perfect as a result of that. Far from it—I’m all too aware of my own faults. But God is patient with me. I must not, however, mistake God’s patience for tolerance. For tolerance usually has, at best, an implicit approval of what another does regardless of its moral value, or, at worst, a complete apathy about it. But God does not approve of my sin, nor is he apathetic about it. His willingness to take nails in his flesh and die a human death on my behalf speaks anything but affirmation or apathy towards my sin. Rather, it shows his unconditional love for me as he took what was due to me, a sinner. And this unconditional love shows up the emptiness of ‘tolerance’.
It is often pointed out by advocates of tolerance that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. They were so different to him, and yet he reached out to them. Shouldn’t we follow the same example? Well, yes, of course we should follow the example of Jesus in loving others. But Jesus did not affirm the tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes in their sin. Rather, he called on them to change—to go and sin no more. Repentance was his basic message (Mark 1.15). As he said, it wasn’t the healthy who needed a doctor, but the sick. And he was there to make a difference—he wasn’t just being a socialite. And it was love that impelled him the whole way—all the way to a gruesome death that paid the penalty for the sin of the tax collectors and prostitutes. You can still be someone’s friend while telling them to repent.
If Jesus can call people to repent, and he commissioned his followers to do the same, then we can and should discern between what is right and what is wrong. Some will say that it’s judgemental to demand that someone change. But there is a difference between being judgemental and being discerning. Judgement is up to God. I, a sinner, have no place judging a fellow sinner. It’s God’s prerogative as a perfect judge to vindicate or condemn people. But if I can recognise the sin in my life, I will also be able to recognise it in others, too. And if I call someone to repent, I’m not condemning them, but rather urging them to take advantage of God’s amnesty and recommended way of life for their own genuine good. Of course, sensitivity and humility are part and parcel of calling people to repentance, and nobody likes to hear from someone that they’re wrong. But if I was going astray somehow and my friends watched on in tolerance, you’d have to question their friendship, their commitment, and their love. Love reaches out to make a difference, not to tolerate.
I think what many people hear when someone calls them to change is, ‘Be more like me.’ That’s certainly not the Christian message. Unfortunately, it’s probably the message that some of us Christians put out there, but also what some people mishear Christians saying, too. Christians aren’t superior to anyone. No way! But we have been given the message of life that we want others to share in. I think the Apostle Paul captures the idea well when he tells the Corinthians that love compels him to do what he does, and on that basis, he urges them to be reconciled to God.
The message of love is not the message of tolerance. It does not say, “Be as you are and I will accept you for who you are.” The message of love is, “You don’t have to do anything to earn my love, because I will love you unconditionally. Yet, love compels me to be active in loving, and not to stand idly by when I see you going astray. So I will strive for your genuine good.”
As a dad I love my kids. I always will, no matter what. Yet it’s precisely because I love them that I do things that are for their good, though they may not understand it or agree with it, and sometimes may react hostilely to it. I do not tolerate it when they do something that harms themselves or others, or when they disobey me or their mother. Yet I still love them even in those moments. Love leads me to discipline them when it’s necessary, because I honestly believe in pursuing what is for good for them. Love also leads me to take them to the dentist when they need it, even though they protest and it might cause them pain. If I merely had an attitude of tolerance towards them, I might actually end up being profoundly unloving and let them continue doing those things that are harmful to themselves and others. Tolerance feels free to accept everything, but love reaches out to others personally and seeks out what is genuinely good. Tolerance is passive. Love is active.