Text: Genesis 29:15-28
One hundred and fifty years ago, the most important biblical battles were fought over the question of slavery, with abolitionists arguing against the enslavement of other human beings and slave apologists lobbying strenuously for the perpetuation of what many historians have called America’s most “peculiar institution.” Over the last century, religious and theological battle lines have been drawn over social issues such as Prohibition, abortion, medical research, science, capital punishment, and the role of women in society, just to name a few. At this moment in our history, battles continue around many of these issues, but sexuality is the central biblical battleground, with the question of gay marriage at the core of the debates.
As we look back over history, we learn that certain groups of people have always been designated as ineligible for marriage and denied its privileges and benefits. It is not only gay people who have been denied the social, cultural, and economic advantages afforded to heterosexual couples with access to recognized, state-issued marriage certificates. As Jennifer Knust, assistant professor of religion at Boston University writes in her newly published book, Unprotected Texts:
Common-law marriages and marriages between citizens and noncitizens are also recognized differently in different states, and, not too long ago, marriage between men and women of different races were patently illegal. Prior to 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled that antimiscegenation laws are unconstitutional, twelve states outlawed marriages between whites and Native Americans, fourteen states banned white-Asian marriage, and many more banned white-African American marriage. The state of Texas, for example, which enacted its first antimiscegenation law in 1837, ruled that no person of ‘European blood or their descendants’ could marry with “Africans or their descendants,” a law that stood for more than a century. In California, marriage between “white persons” and “Negroes, Mongolians, members of the Malay race or mulattos” was prohibited from 1850 until 1948, when a Mexican American resident attempted to marry an African American resident, only to be told that such a marriage would be prohibited since she was white. Forty years ago, the pressing political question was, “Are you for or against miscegenation, [i.e. interracial, interethnic or cross-cultural marriages]?” not “Are you for or against gay marriage?”
Throughout history, as these political and social issues have been debated, the church and people of faith have waded into the conversation. Standing on so-called biblical principles and teachings, churches of every variety have used scripture to either condone or condemn the social and/or political issue of the day, whether it be slavery, the prohibition of alcohol, abortion, capital punishment, women’s rights, and now, gay marriage.
For Christians, the question of biblical interpretation—how one reads and interprets the Bible—is at the very center of these emotionally debated issues. If it were as simple as saying, “the Bible says” and be finished with these conversations, maybe our world would be a more peaceful world. But the truth is, on almost any issue, the Bible just doesn’t say one thing, it says many things, often contradicting itself from one book to the next. The truth is, “biblical books take sides, they disagree with one another, they intentionally change earlier teachings, and they make irreconcilable claims about human life and the nature of God.” (Knust, p. 10)
When it comes to the topic of marriage, there is no single view of marriage in the Bible. “According to Genesis, a woman who sleeps with her father-in-law can be a heroine. Visits to prostitutes are also not a problem, so long as the prostitute in question is not a proper Israelite woman. According to Song of Songs, a beautiful girl who enjoys making love can fulfill her desires outside of marriage and still be honored both by God and by her larger community…First Timothy offers yet another perspective: a woman must marry not so that she can express her desires appropriately but so that she can become pregnant and suffer the pangs of childbirth…[and] other New Testament books argue that the faithful followers of Jesus should avoid marriage…”(Knust) altogether, so as not to be distracted from their commitment to Christ.
It seems to me that if the Bible does not give us a single view of marriage—specifically who has the right to marry whom—then the question we are left with is where do we turn as people of faith to understand marriage and what it means to make a commitment or covenant with another person. My answer, oddly, is the Bible, for I believe that while the Bible may not offer us a single view of marriage, or a single view of any of life’s questions, it does offer us guiding principles, in this case an understanding of what it means to live in a faithful and loving covenant relationship.
These words that I include in every marriage/union ceremony that I do state what I believe are the biblical principles that serve as a foundation for faithful covenant relationships. I say to those I marry:
People of faith through the ages have explored what it means to love and be loved and the kind of love that is required in a marriage. They offer to us a kind of wisdom, accumulated from seasoned experience. As you go into this day of covenant making, I remind you of their wisdom.
Love is essentially a gift. It is not a commodity you can buy, or earn, or even fully deserve. In its essence, it is a gift, it is a grace. And our deepest response is gratitude.
Love is insightful. The lover can see in the other the potential the other cannot see in themselves, and accepts the vocation to call out that beauty, that potential from the other.
Love is always justice-seeking. It is tough, willing to confront the inequities and injustices that inevitably exist in any relationship.
Love is radically merciful and forgiving, taking from your hands the burdensome luggage from the past, offering the possibility to begin again…again…and again.
Love from our faith tradition is also self-giving, facing outward, believing the two of you can love the world together in a way you could not do so separately.
And last, love is delightful, full of delight, inviting you to delight in each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
It is my prayer that this wisdom from our faith tradition will offer you guidance as you seek to be faithful in your loving.
With these thoughts on marriage and the Bible as a backdrop, I wanted to begin a conversation with you today. I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the inequality of the marriage/blessing ceremonies we perform at Pullen. While it is the deliberate intention of this congregation to offer the same blessing for homosexual and heterosexual couples, sadly that is not what we currently do. The reality is that the blessing we sanction for heterosexuals and homosexuals is different. For heterosexuals, it is called marriage; for homosexuals, we offer a blessing of “union.” And for heterosexuals, our ceremony satisfies the requirements of the state, so that our religious act of recognizing the union is synonymous with the civil act of recognizing the union. As we know all too well, this is not the case for our homosexual couples. And so, despite our intentions of inclusivity within our church, we participate in and perpetuate the inequality of our society for homosexual couples who seek covenant relationship.
As the pastor of this church, my participation in perpetuating unjust laws when it comes to marriage has become an uncomfortable burden. Last month, with mixed feelings, I asked the Deacons to consider relieving me of my pastoral duty to perform legal marriages. When you called me as your pastor you conferred upon me certain duties and obligations that go with being your pastor and one of those duties is to perform marriage ceremonies. It is a part of my job that I love—being with you in those moments of joy and celebration and new beginnings. And yet, every time I sign a marriage license for a heterosexual couple and act as an agent of the state, I am reminded of those couples who I marry that are denied the basic human right to legally marry the person of their choice. And so, I am asking the congregation to discuss this question: “Do we, Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, want to continue to participate in offering religious ceremonies that carry with them civil and human rights that are not afforded to all people? Or will it be our practice and the practice of our ministers to honor all marriages equally by only offering religious ceremonies, thus not acting as agents of the state and perpetuating the unjust marriage laws of our state?
“This is not done in our country” was the explanation that Laban gave Jacob when he deceived him and gave him Leah as a wife instead of Rachel—the woman that Jacob loved. It seems clear to us today that Laban’s law for why he deceived Jacob is unjust. And yet, in his time it was not at all clear. I wonder if we are any less deceptive as a country if we define marriage simply as being between a man and woman, rather than as a covenant made between any two people who love one another and are serious about making a commitment to share their lives together as faithful partners.
I do not claim to have a definitive answer on the questions I raise, but I do believe that as people of faith, it is our responsibility to ask the questions. And I believe it is my responsibility to name the burden I feel in what I believe is an unjust practice. Most of all, I believe that God cares deeply about the covenants we make with one another and that God’s primary requirements of our covenants are that they be loving, just, faithful, and committed.