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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Civil Notions of Marriage

ne Kjast

 Questions regarding same-sex marriage are a hot button topic in Illinois this election cycle – much of it has to do with the Vatican’s opposition in this largely Roman Catholic heritage state.  In short, in response to the state of Illinois allowing civil unions, Illinois Catholic Charities ceased their operations lest they be forced to place a child for adoption with a gay or lesbian couple.  Also, the oft-P.R.-challenged Cardinal Francis George butted into a situation pitting a gay-friendly Catholic congregation against the local LGBT Pride Parade organization, accusing the local LGBT community of acting like the KKK – an admittedly rather bizarre analogy.
 Since I am the only practicing Mennonite that many people with whom I interact know personally, I field a lot of questions regarding Mennonites and Catholics, Mennonites and Mormons, or just plain old “What do Mennonites believe?”  In this case, I have started to field a number of questions regarding Mennonites and their attitudes towards marriage and the LGBT community (please recall that many Americans still confuse Mennonites and Mormons and wonder if we still allow polygamy).
    Regarding questions on Mennonite attitudes towards same-sex or gay marriage, I am not sure that the Mennonites really have a “Mennonite” position on this topic.  Err – that is not to say that I do not doubt that most if not all Anabaptists have definite and committed opinions on the matter – only that there is not a clear philosophical or value position to be derived from Anabaptist values.  There is no denying that the majority of Mennonite conferences have published very clear anti-same-sex marriage position statements, but as to the proportion of accepting versus non-accepting Mennonites in general, or the actuality of personal and individual beliefs versus published church papers, remains somewhat coloured and in doubt.

    Confining the question to civil marriage between same-sex partners, there are a lot of issues to examine… separation of church and state, imposing Anabaptist values on non-Anabaptists, Anabaptist wedding traditions – the whole nine yards.
 I find myself rather neutral in this debate.  Whether you are pro or con, same-sex unions are a fact of life and our greater secular society has a seemingly clear justice obligation to make life easier for same-sex families to provide for themselves and to succeed as relationships.  On the flip side of the coin, the religious connotations of “marriage” as an institution are both in the decline (a rapid decline) and generally, the supposed “facts” backing up marriage are often suspiciously generalized.
    While the opposition to same-sex marriage is definitely ecumenical, including the National Association of Evangelicals, the Mormon Church, Westboro Baptist, the [Evangelical] American Family Association, Focus on the Family and perhaps most significantly, the Vatican, they seemingly have one thing in common – conservative, expansionist, globalist cultural agendas.
    Pope Benedict XVI, a classics scholar, has proposed what has come to be the dominant American-European concept of the “family,”  “… Pride of place goes [to] the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman.  Consequently, the policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself,” (Colbert, p 35).
    Benedict’s definitions of both marriage and family, which are often held up as universal values, just do not hold up to the facts.  Benedict’s definitions are in fact, very narrowly accepted definitions based on Aristotle-influenced Scholasticism, a modernist Bourgeois ideal from the 19th Century and a lot of wishful thinking.  In a way, Benedict’s universal definitions of family seem relatively similar to so-called universal definitions of homosexuality wherein homosexuality was at first declared unnatural (despite numerous citable examples from nature), to be a Western social construct (studies indicate that homosexuality occurs in almost every known racial and ethnic group – in surprisingly similar proportions), and universally condemned – though one tends to find that the more primitive or natural a society is, the more accepting that culture seems to be of homosexuality and same-sex interactions. 
    I am not debating the moral value of homosexuality – merely questioning some of the assumptions behind the definitions that people are being asked to consider when making truth and justice moral decisions.
    The key Western definitions of family come from Roman Catholic tradition – namely an interpretation of the work of Aristotle, especially his Nicomachian Ethics which does indeed investigate the family as the primary production unit of society, into Orthodox or traditional readings of scripture.  This system, known collectively as Scholasticism, is highly rhetorical – often demonstrating scientific and philosophical truths from strings of a mere two or three words (while discounting or ignoring non-compatible or less convenient phrases – a notion as to why the canon of scriptures is so hotly debated – though ironically, Thomas does quote extensively from Apocrypha which is traditionally rejected by modern Protestants and Evangelicals).  A very, very simplified example would be to say that the revealed history of Adam and Eve in Genesis indicates that God created one man and one woman to serve as the model for humanity.  Because Aristotle “reasons” that the nuclear family is the core unit of society, then Adam and Eve become the core unit for an ideal society.  The arguments contained in classics such as Thomas’ Summa Theologica are an excellent study in philosophy and theology and greatly informative.
    Problematically, Thomas’ methodology ignores many other aspects of the Creation story such as the suppressed “Apocrypha” of Lilith, said to be Adam’s first wife, or the teaching that incest is normal (in as much as it occurs in the families of Adam, Noah and Lot).  Even in the Bible, other family structures are recognized – the alleged homosexual relationship between David and Jonathon, the non-sexual family comprising Naomi and Ruth, the taking of second and third wives, concubinage, bachelorhood, the so-called bands-of-brothers, widowhood, commandments to marry and associate with prostitutes, and even the early church.  One does not have to be a Dan Brown enthusiast to notice that Biblical reality and modern Church rhetoric often seem to exist in divergent parallel universes. 
    And I hate to raise the “P” word, especially with current debates raging in Canada, but the truth is that much of the world – including Islamic culture, sub-Saharan African (including much of the African Church), the Old Testament and many primitive societies do in fact practice polygamy.  The issue being debated in Canada is not one of having first accepted gay marriage – and now it’s on to polygamy.  Rather, the issue being debated in Canada is that many more immigrants and refugees are coming from nations and cultures where polygamy is a traditional fact of life.  Forcing Western cultural norms on these people often results in tearing apart their families – Canadians are not as concerned about legitimizing polygamy as they are attempting to determine solutions to very real social and economic problems to individual families based on restrictive Canadian cultural norms (for instance, Nelson Mandela’s father had four wives).
    Again, I am not trying to argue in favor of polygamy, rather merely to indicate that the universal consensus is hardly united behind the political perspectives of Pope Benedict, James Dobson or Fred Phelps.
Historically, Anabaptists would really be in a difficult position on the marriage question.  On the one hand, by merely accessing conference position statements on-line, one would assume that the majority of Anabaptists would answer polls regarding their support for same-sex marriage in the negative, yet these same Anabaptists have traditionally been suspicious of attempts to mix church and religion.  One could conceivably see room for an Anabaptist perspective stating that secular individuals are free to establish forms and customs that are in line with the secular state’s best judgment, reserving unto the church itself the ability to determine within its own congregation, its own understanding of scriptural and Christian principle and practice.

    Alternatively, the Roman Catholic Church initiative, as led by soon-to-be Cardinal Timothy Dolan of NYC, claim that such tolerance and freedom cannot be allowed…
    As a devil’s advocate, the historic Anabaptist position could be to avoid the Luther’s Temptation to ally the church with the state to enforce one’s particular perspective on secular moral culture. 
    Noting that marriage legislation has not compelled churches to perform gay weddings where it has been passed in the Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Europe, the United States and Canada, the organized religious-political opposition to same-sex marriage is now apparently conceding that point and arguing instead that by merely being forced to coexist with those with whom they disagree, they will be forced to confront those persons and to behave in ways that could label them as bigots in the eyes of society.  Ignoring the somewhat bizarre ethical argument (somewhat akin to a woman being guilty of causing her own rape), Dolan does connect the dots – seemingly claiming that Illinois’ recognition of same-sex relationships forced the church to stop pro-adoption operations, and that in having to provide same-sex partner benefits to secular employees (cooks, janitors, etc.) they would be forced to sin.
    Interestingly, similar arguments have been made against the Anabaptists repeatedly – against their supposedly degenerate values that would destroy Dutch society (the polygamy charges in Amsterdam, the political charges in Münster).  They were refused the right to coexist in Danzig society – for similar reasons – a situation that changed only when the Dutch Mennonites in Amsterdam threatened to revoke the credit of traders from Danzig if they did not allow the Mennonites to settle there.  According to P. M. Friesen, the Mennonite Brethren were accused of polygamy, moral depravity and almost any other charge that could be hurled against them by jealous neighbors.  Even today, Mennonites and Hutterites are often seen as a moral contaminate in the communities amongst which they live.  A common wives-tale on the prairies is that Hutterites go to K-Mart to steal appliances.  As little kids, we spent hours watching Hutterite women walk through the store trying to see the tell-tale electric chord dragging out from under their skirts (as a writer, I am now amused at the whole “devil’s tail” imagery this folk legend has fostered). 
    The moral of the Anabaptist experience is that minorities are often persecuted for being different and for having a degenerative impact on greater society in ways that are seldom reasonable if they even bear any truth at all. 
Frances DeBarnardo, New Ways Ministry
    Roman Catholic gay activist Francis De Barnardo of New Ways Ministry has challenged the Roman Catholic aspect of this opposition – “Interestingly, … at least for the Catholic bishops who signed this statement, there was never any uproar over providing benefits to divorced, remarried, but not annulled people.  The same Catholic principles of marriage apply in that case.  Why is there only an uproar when gay and lesbian people are involved?” (Colbert, p 35).
    Similar questions can be asked of Phelps, the Mormons who like the Anabaptists should understand the deeper social implications of their new moral stance, and the Evangelicals who formerly supported Bob Jones University in banning interracial dating amongst its student-body and then changed their minds.
    Of no surprise to Anabaptists who are aware of their history, there is at the bottom of all this, a dual financial interest.  According to Colbert, “The use of public funds by faith-based organizations is a key … not religious freedom.  Privately funded, religious-based, charitable and social services programs are exempt from non-discrimination laws.  But such taxpayer-funded faith-based programs are required to comply with state non-discrimination laws,” (Colbert, p 35). 
   According to Focus on the Family’s 2010 Annual Report, they are maintaining a $90,000,000.00 business empire.  According to the Movement Advancement Project, in 2011, Focus spent $132,400,000.00 on anti-gay lobbying or 40% of the total dedicated anti-gay campaign fundraising reported in 2011.  Anti-gay is big business.
  As for the Russländer, the Russian Mennonite culture developed under conditions similar to those mandated in much of Europe and in Canada.  The Russian Empire, especially Ukraine, was an incredibly diverse land.  Dominant religions included Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim and Roman Catholic with a the minority Russländer often being of Protestant or Mennonite faith.  The Tsar’s preoccupation in modernizing his realm depended on improving the statistical records of the realm and enabling her/his subjects free to live productive (i.e. taxpaying and ruble-making) lives.  How they chose to raise their children or marry their wives was left up to the individual communities (within reason).  Arguably, this did not include polygamy or same-sex marriage, but the governing principle is that the churches were left to celebrate religious ceremonies under their own rules.  For her/his part, the Tsar regulated marriage by issuing licenses, having her/his agents preside over the civil ceremony and then the couple retired to their own community and church for a religious celebration under their own customs.
    While the temptation to force our values on others is strong, especially when we are convinced that we are in the right, sometimes the wisest tact is restraint.  In considering same-sex marriage, Anabaptist tradition would indicate that it is a “secular” matter that does not directly impact the church and secondly, that each Anabaptist congregation really has the right to determine its local ritual and position on such things – as long as the governing authority enforces policies that enable neutrality and a separation of church and state.
    In this case, the Anabaptist churches are not compelled to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies and so they are free to remain non-involved.  To fight the recognition of same-sex marriage would both signify a departure from traditional ethnic-religious values and perspective while aligning our culture with American religious bodies that are bringing an awful lot of their own baggage into this debate, not the least of which is a certain financial interest in taking a negative stance.
    Of course, one has made the assumption that the Mennonite culture is unified in its opinion on same-sex marriage.  This is not necessarily true.  The Brethren and Mennonite Council (BMC) indicates a growing list of Mennonite and Brethren congregations who have decided to publicly welcome and affirm the position of gays and lesbians within their congregations.  Using general statistical models indicating that roughly 8% of North Americans have a same-sex identity, then of the 600,000 or so ethnic Mennonites, some 48,000 would be expected to be gay.  That brings on a different question – does the diaspora have an obligation to look after emotional, psychic and spiritual welfare of all Mennonites or just specific ones?  Do we want others to tell us how to handle this?  Based on this, should we seek such influence in the affairs of others?

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