by Pastor Mathew Swora
I have just received another email from a beloved ecumenical organization urging me to urge everyone, from the pulpit, to vote this coming November for the state constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being only for one man and one woman. Many of my pastoral colleagues are speaking regularly about it from their pulpits. To them, this is a make-or-break moment in the defense of marriage, family, even of America. Therefore, Christians must not only vote for the amendment, they say. They should organize and advocate for it, actively, even in their churches, even from their pulpits.
That’s on top of other emails from other pastoral friends and colleagues, urging me to urge everyone to vote against this amendment, and for “marriage equality.” To them, the legalization of same-sex marriage is the next big step in the ongoing revolution of progress, democracy and human rights, maybe even in the unfolding of the kingdom of God on earth.
I have not joined either group in preaching for or against the amendment. Nor shall I. In fact, some time last spring, I promised, from the pulpit, that our pulpit would not be used for one side or the other in this political campaign. Its not that I don’t have opinions. Nor am I paralyzed by fear of controversy. I am all for people talking with each other about sex, and listening to each other respectfully, but without the pressures and distortions of politics.
To my friends who are preaching on behalf of the amendment, I would say that everything they fear might happen with same-sex marriage is happening already. Will a constitutional amendment change that? Marriage is increasingly being treated as an option, or something to achieve long after a couple has moved in together, even after the children are born. America’s leading advocate and expert on all things sexual, Dan Savage, is now challenging monogamy, advocating instead the practice of being “monogamish.” If such views gain traction, Minnesotans may be coming back some day to vote on the word, “one.”
But to equate the right of same-sex marriage with the next big step in progress and democratic evolution, or even with the coming of God’s kingdom, also strikes me as naive. To call something “progress” or “progressive” is to overlook the reality of sin, the moral/spiritual gravitational pull downward toward dissolution and alienation, that bedevils and betrays all our efforts at reform. Besides, I wonder how pastors and churches can even define marriage as a “right,” when, biblically speaking, it is a divine gift, a calling, even a ministry (I Cor. 7: 1-7).
I respect the motives of my friends on both sides of the debate. Contrary to popular belief, people on both sides usually exhibit compassion and a desire to be biblically faithful. You also find hatred, fear and a crusader mentality on both sides. I remain committed to what our denomination, conference and The Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective teach about marriage, for lack of a better, more biblical alternative, and for the ambivalence of my personal observation and experience in the matter. But I have never felt the need for help from the law or the state constitution. If anything, such “help” often hurts.
My reluctance to join other pastors in speaking for or against the amendment is also because of those we all know and love, friends and even family members, who self identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer or questioning/investigating, or who have done so in some stage of their life. As their friends and relatives, we’re likely doing a delicate and difficult dance of loving them even when we can’t follow them into all the avenues of advocacy and affirmation that they may want of us. Whatever we may think about homosexuality is still different from how a secular society defines and guarantees the civil rights of all. How far do we go to impose what are voluntarily-chosen religious values upon others?
Another reason for my silence on the amendment is because to be human is to be tempted and confused about our own sexual feelings and wants, whatever their nature. I want to be a safe pastor, and I want this to be a safe church, for all people with all their temptations. I think one can do that even while being firm about where they stand. Because we hear daily reports of insult, violence and intimidation against GLBT persons, we don’t often know what to say without adding hurt to hurt. To crusade for or against a constitutional amendment on same sex marriage feels like taking a sledge hammer into a china shop. It too easily lends toward projecting upon others our own sexual struggles and issues.
Besides, we have bigger problems that the current debate over same-sex marriage is masking. The sexual issue that is most affecting and afflicting us is not homosexuality. It is mainstream masculine culture, (not to be confused with masculinity itself) with its unholy trinity of misogyny (the contempt of women and all things feminine), machismo and militarism. As I talk with both gay men and women, I hear much about their pain of being bullied and abused by the self-appointed, even violent enforcers of traditional gender roles and ideals. Men who don’t fit in with the cultural masculine mold (and who really does?) often find love and acceptance in one place, and unfortunately, its not always the church. It may be the gay subculture. Women who don’t fit in with what the mainstream masculine culture defines as powerful, worthy and desirable (who really does? and for how long and at what price?) again may find love and acceptance, not in the church but in the gay world. Because we are blinded to this wider world of misogyny, machismo and militarism, as a fish is to water, we are typically much more worked up about the way that some men are loving each other, while ignoring or even celebrating the ways that many more men are killing each other. The latter we call masculinity, heroism, national security and entertainment. We worry about men who love men and women who love women too much, when in fact we so often love each other too little. All sexual brokenness is a cry for love. For all who struggle with aspects of their sexuality (and who doesn’t?), we need more in our pastoral care kit than just the word, “No!” Knowing that we all feel “not within my skin” (as the French put it), we need to spend more time and energy on teaching and developing healthy Christian sexuality within the church.
More reasons for not preaching for or against the amendment include the fact that not all Mennonites are agreed that they should even vote. Check out Goshen College professor John Roth’s reasoning against voting at http://www.anabaptist.org/roth.htmlEverything Roth says about simplistic and misleading sloganeering, and divisive, demonizing, emotionally scorched-earth campaigning would be true about much of the rhetoric for and against the marriage amendment. And yet leaders of some of the Hispanic and African-American Mennonite churches remind us that if their members don’t vote, their neighborhoods don’t get the police and fire protection, the schools and the trash pick-up for which they pay taxes. So you’ll not only have to decide how to vote on the marriage amendment, you’ll have to decide if you’re going to vote. I’ll respect your decision either way.
Here are the questions that get in the way of my joining either side of this debate, the very questions that I will take into the polling booth this November:
What is the church’s role in the social and legal aspects of marriage?
What is the government’s role in the church’s ministry to marriage? Some of my pastoral colleagues have served notice that they won’t sign any county marriage licenses until all marriages are equally recognized. Others have served notice that they won’t sign marriage licenses at all just because a uniquely Christian marriage is none of the government’s business.
- Is it the church’s business to stand in the way of marriages outside the church that don’t fit the church’s understanding of the ideal? If so, at what cost? Is it better for the church to oppose and prevent those marriages in the world that don’t fit our ideal, or is it better for the world to oppose the church because it won’t affirm or celebrate those marriages that it considers ideal, or at least equal? Expect one or the other.
What is the role of the state constitution? Is that the place to enshrine details about such personal matters as marriage and sexuality?
How does the church best minister prophetically when it holds to a minority view on all sorts of matters, and not just on sex and marriage?
On November 7, 2012, we will have to make sense of our social landscape after all the campaigns are over. Then we will have to address the following questions:
If you voted against the amendment, and won, are you also committed to protecting the rights of pastors, rabbis, imams, churches, denominations, synagogues and mosques which, because of conscience and their loyalty to a certain understanding of marriage, won’t perform same-sex weddings? Some recent legal cases in Europe and the U.S. make that a legitimate concern.
Finally, however one votes, whoever “wins,” are we committed to respect the person who voted differently from us, as well as their motives, even if we can’t share their reasoning?
One line of reasoning that I reject says that if we don’t join the campaign for “marriage equality,” then we will be unpopular in a world that is moving increasingly in that direction. Maybe it is. But popularity has never been a valid biblical nor Anabaptist line of moral reasoning. If anything, I regret that we were not already more unpopular because of an unequivocal, costly stance against war, weapons, and for the love of society’s enemies, outcasts and scapegoats, such as Muslims, immigrants (documented and otherwise) and, yes, GLBT persons. Such love does not mean approval, agreement or affirmation of everything someone believes, does or wants. But it does mean that we’d even die for someone if that’s what it takes to show them the redeeming love of God. What ever you decide about the marriage amendment, however you may vote (if you’re eligible), take such love with you into and out of the voting booth this November.
If you even go, that is.