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Reflections on Authorizing Marriage?

In the volume Authorizing Marriage?: canon, tradition, and critique in the blessing of same-sex unions, authors from the Jewish and Christian perspectives were asked to reflect on a set of questions regarding voices within the Judeo-Christian canon which may speak to questions of same-sex relations (including erotic union), bases for justifying same-sex unions from scripture, liturgical practice and religious law, and the possible ways of using exegesis and theological reflection to legitimate any new same-sex constructs (Jordan 1). The authors approach their work from several points of view: biblical interpretation, Greek philosophical influences within Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, liturgical rites associated with marriage, and theological assessments of current discourse surrounding same-sex relationships (Jordan 1-2). What follows are a few reflections sparked by the essays in this volume.

Authorizing Marriage book coverIn the opening essay Saul Olyan examines David’s lament over the death of Jonathan found in 2 Samuel 1:26, asking what the nature of the relationship between these two Old Testament characters may have been, based on a description of Jonathan’s love having been better than the love of women. Olyan analyzes the language of love as used in suzerain-vassal covenants and covenants among equals of the time; however, his end result can produce no definitive meaning for the text. Rather he is only able to show that the language is unusual and that, furthermore, David’s apologists often told stories that subverted standard ritual or custom of their time. Olyan does make the case that the narrative was written well before the Levitical proscriptions of same-sex male intercourse entered the canon of Jewish scriptures; however, it seems to me that if this is a love story, then it stands completely isolated in the Hebrew Bible in representing homoerotic relationships.[1] (At this point I should say that I roundly deny any homoerotic narrative in the covenantal language used between Ruth and Naomi.)

What Olyan addresses in this introductory essay will be more consciously followed by other authors in the collection as they analyze the contemporary tendency towards anachronistically reading a modern category of same-sex relationship into biblical texts and ancient liturgical rites. Mark Jordan provides the contribution that seems most self-aware in this regard as he offers criticism on the work of John Boswell and Allan Bray. As Jordan points out in his essay, we have sifted through ancient rites in an attempt to discover some sort of hidden ritual of same-sex union and often conflate our own categories of gay relationships with rituals of friendship from earlier periods (103). For many of us, the discovery of an ancient rite of same-sex union would provide the weight and authority of a liturgical precedent for rites that we long for today. However, as Jordan also points out, even were we to find such a ritual, the weight of our shared tradition is enough to simply argue that such practices are heresy. In the end, "rites for swearing friendship [in earlier times] ran parallel to traditional forms for celebrating Christian marriage, but they were not imitations of marriage. They were, alongside marriage, elements in a larger network that made and fostered many kinds of kinship" (Jordan, Arguing 110). As with the case made earlier by Judith Plaskow in Good Sex, it is insufficient to simply lift the lone dissenting voice from the entire body of scripture and tradition and attempt to build upon it a theology and practice (135).

Taking a more practical approach to the issue, Steven Greenberg examines Jewish wedding customs, making special note of the historic significance of each element in the ceremony, and asking which parts might make sense in the context of a same-sex union of equals. As Greenberg points out, several elements of the traditional wedding ceremony symbolize concepts that the modern couple may not wish to replicate. For example, in the halakhic tradition, the marriage contract is viewed as a matter of acquisition, is unilateral and can only be initiated by a male who will own the sexual aspects of his wife’s being (Greenberg 85). In the original ceremony, nothing about the male’s status changed as a result of entering into this agreement and adultery was only recognized as the wife’s disloyalty to the sexual exclusivity of the relationship; however, at least this particular element has been updated in the contemporary ritual, binding the man in a monogamous relationship to one wife (Greenberg 85). Greenberg points to other elements of the ceremony that also seem ill-fitted to the celebration of a same-sex union, such as the male-dominant cultural norm expressed in the ketubah or marriage contract that divides responsibilities between the husband who vows to care for his wife’s welfare (defined as food, clothing and sexual need), while the woman promises to serve the man and create a household in line with the normative definitions for Jewish wives (91). Such gender-based expectations are not well suited to a same-sex partnership.

In an aside from his analysis of the traditional Jewish wedding ritual, Greenberg makes the valuable observation that "marriage as an institution has little meaning unless there is a communal administration of some sort within which it makes a difference" (90). It is here that we should also pause and reflect on just what it is that we as LGBT folk are looking for. If all we want is an agreement between two people, then it seems superfluous to go through the forms of imitating a marriage ritual that has wider social, religious and legal connotations. In the same way, if we are making an outward statement regarding our intentions to enter into a loving relationship with social visibility, then perhaps we should think about ceremonies that incorporate our friends and loved ones as witnesses to the commitment. However, the significance of full-blown, opposite-sex wedding rituals is often in the legal rights that come with the sealing of the agreement and the support to be offered within a community of faith. For most same-sex couples in the U.S. today there are few legal rights to accompany our rituals of commitment. And unless the participants worship in a community of faith that recognizes same-sex relationships, there are also few practical benefits from a religious standpoint in duplicating current wedding practices. However, if we have decided to endorse the vision of a future in which two people can be joined in a committed relationship with legal and/or religious recognition, then we must take on the difficult process of imagining a future that has not yet arrived and moving on into steps that will help to bring it to fruition.

Two of the authors in this volume move in quite the opposite direction as they explore the biblical texts associated with marriage. In his analysis of the New Testament views of marriage, Dale Martin finds that "high valuation of marriage and the family runs counter to the teachings of Jesus, the authors of the Gospels, Paul, and other biblical writers, as well as most of the Church Fathers, popes, and saints" (38). Such traditional couplings are often portrayed in the New Testament as standing in the way of allegiances to the Kingdom of God as they strengthen patriarchy and hierarchy (Martin 37). Martin points out that our current obsession with marriage as the pinnacle of life and the nuclear family as a traditional family value is actually a trend of only the last 150 years of human history (17) – a trend which tends to lead towards a focus that can only be described in theological discourse as idolatrous in the way that it takes our focus away from God and refocuses it on the creation and maintenance of the home and hearth. Mary Ann Tolbert picks up on these same themes by examining the generally anti-marriage stance of the gospels and Paul’s writings (45, 47), but carries them further by suggesting that today’s values of "mutuality, intimacy, lifelong companionship, shared economics, and sexual pleasure" (41) do not represent the characteristics valued in ancient marriages. "Romance, intimacy, mutuality, and emotional and sexual compatibility have replaced fertility, wealth preservation, and family alliances as the primary justifications for modern marriage" (Tolbert 41). As such, Tolbert suggests that the ancient ideal of friendship may actually come closer to embodying what we think of as a committed relationship in our own time. Rather than relying on traditional marriage models, friendship as expressed in the New Testament might provide a theological resource for developing new rites of blessing for our forms of mutual commitment, regardless of the gender of the participants (Tolbert 42).

With appeals to the authority of scripture for both refraining from marriage relationships which threaten to divide our priorities as we work toward the Kingdom of God and the offering up of friendship models as an alternative, one might think that we are ready to scrap intimate relationships altogether in favor of platonic communities focused on living out the message of the Gospel. But before we go and discard this entire enterprise, perhaps it’s worth reflecting on just how these passages can be applied to a right way of living.

Jesus is clear in his teachings that biological kinship of brothers, sisters and even mothers is replaced by a kinship of those who hear and obey the will of God (Matthew 12:46-50). But the primary focus of this passage is not whether or not to engage in intimate relationships. Rather, Jesus’ comments were focused on the question of who deserves our loyalty. It would be dangerous to assume that because sibling and parental relations are brought into question by this account that the intimate union involved in a couple is also at stake. Further, Jesus discussion of eunuchs (Matthew 19:11-12) does not presuppose that this is the life for everyone. Rather, the passage indicates that some are born as eunuchs while others are made that way through the human agency. While there are those who have become as eunuchs for the sake of the Gospel, I find no evidence that Jesus expected this of all who followed after him. If this were the case, then perhaps we should have records of Jesus commanding Peter and any of the other disciples who were married to drop their wives and follow after him.

What is largely at stake here is a sexual issue about which Paul was quite clear (Martin 26). Paul’s teachings encourage Christians to avoid married life because of the distractions it can bring from the work of the Gospel (Tolbert 47). We may at first think that Paul’s objections are related to family life and the urgencies of providing for the welfare of one’s offspring. However, based on passages in which he discusses the mystical union of two who become one through even casual sexual intercourse (as with a prostitute, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20), it is clear that for Paul there is more at stake than simply procreation. When Paul urges men who cannot control their lusts to marry (1 Corinthians 7), he is offering a not only a sanctioned outlet for sexual appetites, but also a stable and ongoing model in which the two who become one remain with one another rather than establishing a mystical bond that is then discarded without regard to its special value.

In other papers this semester I have also touched on this topic and questioned whether a one-night stand or a "friendship with benefits" meets the theological criteria of "just good sex." What has been missing from the previous ethical discussion is the recognition of the mystical bonding that Paul describes in his discourse with the Corinthians. If indeed there is a spiritual aspect to sexual acts, then the ethical case of two mutually consenting adults who decide to engage in a sexual encounter with no strings attached seems suspect. Even in the absence of coercion or exploitation, a chance encounter (if we believe what Paul is saying) unites the two as one body. (In Pentecostal and Charismatic theology this is referred to as a soul tie.) Adding this understanding to the ongoing synthesis of a sexual ethic would appear to rule out the idea of a one-night stand completely. "Friends with benefits" may possibly still be up for discussion; however, I believe that based on the essay presented in this volume by Eugene Rogers a set of parameters may be coming into focus. However, I shall save that piece of the synthesis for my final paper.

[1] In all fairness some very interesting linguistic arguments for a homoerotic relationship between David and Jonathan are found in Kamal Salibi’s The Historicity of Biblical Israel: studies in 1 & 2 Samuel. However, I do not have the knowledge of Hebrew necessary to evaluate Professor Salibi’s claims.


Works Cited

Greenberg, Steven. "Contemplating a Jewish Ritual of Same-Sex Union." Authorizing Marriage? : canon, tradition, and critique in the blessing of same-sex unions. Ed. Mark D. Jordan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 81-101.

Jordan, Mark D. "Arguing Liturgical Geneaologies, or, the Ghosts of Weddings Past." Authorizing Marriage? : canon, tradition, and critique in the blessing of same-sex unions. Ed. Mark D. Jordan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 102-120.

—. Authorizing Marriage? : canon, tradition, and critique in the blessing of same-sex unions. Ed. Mark D. Jordan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Martin, Dale B. "Familiar Idolatry and the Christian Case against Marriage." Authorizing Marriage? : canon, tradition, and critique in the blessing of same-sex unions. Ed. Mark D. Jordan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 17-40.

Plaskow, Judith. "Authority, Resistance and Transformation: Jewish Feminist Reflections on Good Sex." Good Sex: feminist perspectives from the world’s religions. Ed. Patricia Beattie Jung, Mary E. Hunt and Radhika Balakrishnan. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 2005. 127-139.

Rogers, Eugene F., Jr. "Trinity, Marriage, and Homosexuality." Authorizing Marriage? : canon, tradition, and critique in the blessing of same-sex unions. Ed. Mark D. Jordan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 151-164.

Tolbert, Mary Ann. "Marriage and Friendship in the Christian New Testament." Authorizing Marriage? : cannon, tradition, and critique in the blessing of same-sex unions. Ed. Mark D. Jordan. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006. 41-51.


Instructor’s Comments

Bryce —

Although you don’t say it directly — your comments here point to the weakness of the book’s task.  As we gathered to present the papers and hear the arguments — and as the editors did our work — we were burdened by the argument given to us:  we had to justify our right to have same-sex unions (of whatever political or religious merit) and we felt the oppression of it.  Maybe it is necessary — but we would have preferred it as part of a larger conversation with all people — gay, straight, etc.

This book needs a sequel.

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