Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Pansies and Caladiums and the Sanctity of Marriage

It’s that time of the year.

My life is marked by seasons within seasons. There’s the winter shift to something green, something Christmas, in the planters surrounding the two lions at the entrance to the front porch. This winter, I put rosemary topiaries there, which now live behind the old-fashioned flags in the back garden, helping to create a green backdrop to a statue of Francis of Assisi we brought from Florida to remind us of our garden there.

In February, when hints of spring begin with the occasional spray of forsythia and japonica popping into bloom, I usually remove the greenery and put in pansies for color. They don’t hit their peak until late March, but they bravely endure the freezes that we can get even into May, providing a welcome splash of color as the silver maple in the front yard leafs out and covers the front of the house in shade.

Now is the new season, the time in which the pansies are spent. To be precise, when the violas have done all the blooming they intend to do, since I planted violas this year in place of pansies, to honor Steve's grandmother, who grew them in her garden. They’ve become leggy and will soon succumb to the scorching heat of an Arkansas summer.

Yesterday, I bought several trays of caladiums. I wanted green and white, to continue the cool theme of the shaded front—an important theme for us living on the same latitude as Cairo to enunciate in summer. The nursery had only pink and green. One makes do. The color will be pleasant, echoing the muted rose tints in the house’s color, along with the deep green-brown trim color.

This morning, the violas bit the dust. I hate to pull up any plant, even a weed. Everything seems to me to have use, potential. Who am I to say that my life and whims trump the right of any other living thing to its place on the earth?

But the violas were soon to die anyway, and one must have something in those planters, or why have them there? I came, I saw, I uprooted. And I now have handsome small caladiums living in the planters that up to today hosted leggy violas.

What I’m winding around to in this garden story is composting, nature’s talent for taking what’s already there and giving it new life in new forms. Once I’d shaken the uprooted violas of as much root soil as I could and had bunched them in a basket to shlep around to the compost pile, it struck me: the caladiums need some kind of mulch to keep the soil from splashing about when it rains. Mulch also keeps our gardens alive in the hot months of June, July, August, and September, when temperatures can soar over 100 and no rain falls for weeks.

There were the uprooted violas in a basket, ready to compost. There was the planter full of caladiums in bare soil. I took the violas, quickly shredded them with my hands, and now they provide mulch and green top dressing for their successors, the pink and green caladiums.

I don’t by any means claim to have invented some remarkable new system of mulching with uprooted weeds. I’m sure many gardeners must do this routinely, as I do in the garden proper.

What I want to draw attention to, though, is nature’s way of making what seems to be on the way out new again, with new adaptations, new uses, new survival techniques.

This is a useful theme for meditation now that the religious right is screaming at top decibel about how gay marriage imperils “traditional” marriage. It’s no secret to note that marriage itself—“traditional” marriage—is “on the way out.” It is and has been on the way out for some time now, insofar as those to whom it has traditionally been consigned have done a lamentably poor job of keeping it alive and well.

So much that one reads and hears from the bleating mouths of the marriage police these days is just wrong-headed, and in many cases, downright false. There has never been one traditional form of marriage or family either in Western cultures over the centuries of Christian history, or in other cultures around the world, with their varying religious traditions.

Family (and marriage) have historically taken many different forms. Marriage and family are social institutions that have reflected the penchants of the individual cultures in which they are practiced, and have adapted to the shifting needs of those cultures, as the cultures have changed.

The contemporary model of middle-class nuclear family—mama, papa, and a circumscribed number of children—has very shallow roots in Christian history. It reflects shifts in our economic and social patterns in the twentieth century, when a majority of people in developed nations no longer lived in agricultural settings where the coerced free labor of many children was required. It reflects the increasing mobility of a society in which people now live in urban areas, often at a distance from their parents and siblings.

“Traditional” families, prior to the 20th century, were—at least in my neck of the wood—decidedly extended families. It was unthinkable, until the mid-20th century, not to know and spend abundant time with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, if those family members were still living. Households normally contained more than the nuclear family unit. In my family, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents in need of assistance lived with those able to provide the assistance, often in a rotating pattern in which one family would have Cousin So and So for several months of the year, at which point Cousin So and So would move on to another family for a period of time.

In many of these traditional pre-20th-century extended families, children were actually raised by someone other than the mother and father. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles often played a key role in child-rearing, as did members of other families attached to the extended family by various kinds of bonds, including economic ones.

The point of this brief survey of "traditional" family being: the religious right is playing a shell game with the consciousness of the American people, when it speaks of marriage as some fixed institution in which one man and one woman have, forever and ever, raised and cared for a family consisting primarily or exclusively of their own progeny.

At the base of the religious right’s rhetoric about “traditional” marriage is, of course, the intent to keep alive in our minds the assumption that marriage is “really” all about procreation, and has always been about procreation. People marry to have children, the religious right wants us to fix in the forefront of our minds. Marriage as biological imperative . . . . Since gays cannot procreate, they ought not to be marrying.

This overlooks, of course, some screamingly obvious facts that the deceptive rhetoric of the religious right wants to conceal: namely, that marriage is a social and economic institution that has always been about far more than procreation. It’s about joining and protecting property. People throughout history have married to ally their family to another family, such that the wealth of one family flows together with that of the other family.

People marry as well for companionship. to support and cherish one another, to build love in their lives and the lives of others. If marriage is all about procreation (which is, at its crudest and starkest, what the Catholic church wants us to believe), why do we permit the marriage of heterosexual couples that we know full well cannot procreate: those who are unable to have children, those beyond child-bearing age?

And the obverse of the marriage-for-procreation argument is, of course, the obvious recognition that people can procreate very well, thank you very much, apart from the institution of marriage. In fact, those straight people lamenting the demise of “traditional” marriage seem to have been doing a jolly good job of such non-maritally sanctioned procreating for quite a few years now . . . .

What’s at the very center of the religious right’s hysterical, unconvincing arguments about “traditional” marriage, what the religious right wants to fix in our brains, rather than any careful reflection on the institution of marriage, is, quite simply, resistance to and disdain for gay people. No matter how loudly the religious right shouts this, the battle’s not about the defense of “traditional” marriage. It’s about the continued right of society to bash gay people with impunity.

More precisely, it’s about the continued right of society to use gay people. We have been very handy pawns in the political games of the political right around the world. We are proving less useful in that regard these days, for a number of reasons. And this recognition produces panic and increasing shrill desperation among those who have found gay human beings exceedingly useful political tools for several decades now.

First, there’s the sociological fact that, as more and more people—particularly in the next generation—come to know gay people as individual human beings and as part of their everyday lives, the ability to project scorn onto gay people as a class of citizens wanes. The religious right is unhappy about this. That scorn (fear, distaste, outright hatred) has worked for a long time. It has driven voters to the polls to vote “right” on the issues about which the leaders of the religious right (and their funders, above all) really care: about safeguarding and increasing the wealth of the most wealthy, for instance.

Now, the religious right has to walk a very fine line, because of its recognition that overplaying the gay card may well not drive voters to the polls to vote "right," but may lead to voters characterizing the religious right as a hate group. Racism worked for a time in right-wing politics. Homophobia took its place. Xenophobia still has play. As the effectiveness of one scapegoated group wanes, the right constantly looks around for another to take its place.

Second, the right wing hasn’t been doing conspicuously well, frankly, in maintaining its image as the defender of traditional family and of family values. Notice that few voices in the contemporary religious right point to what is really “the” traditional model of marriage, if we are going to be scrupulously faithful to Judaeo-Christian tradition: one man, one woman, yoked for life.

It is only very recently that “traditional” marriage has comprised models that permit a man to have several wives in a row, or a woman to divorce and remarry. Marriage today is more often practiced as a form of serial monogamy than monogamy per se. The arguments against polygamy among advocates of “traditional” marriage are undermined far more by how heterosexual people have been practicing marriage than by gay marriage. And this is not even to mention the increasingly normative practice of straight couples living together without the benefit of marriage, often in several trial-run arrangements, prior to actual marriage, or without ever marrying at all.

I don’t bring all of this up to decry the moral decay of our society. I bring it up to note the lacunae in the argument of the religious right against gay marriage, the many realities about marriage as it is currently practiced in our society that the religious right does not want us to recognize, to think about, to talk about, as it tries to make gay marriage the bugbear fraying the last bonds of poor pitiful little Christian civilization.

And so back to recycling, composting, mulching: when institutions are breaking up under the weight of their own rottenness, their own inconsistencies and internal contradictions, there’s a powerful argument to be made that it’s time to rethink the institution itself, and not keep replicating and defending what no longer works very well. Gay marriage provides an opportunity for Western “Christian” cultures to think much more carefully about what marriage is all about in the first place, about the increasing glaring discrepancy between how we talk about marriage as an ideal and how we actually live it.

Marriage as an official church-sanctioned institution is, after all, something that developed in the Christian church only over the course of centuries. Marriage as a rite of the church—as a sacrament—was not “codified” in Christian history until several centuries into the “Christian era.”

Even in Catholic theology, which is often used by right-wing political thinkers as the last bastion of traditional marriage, a couple marry themselves: they marry each other. The priest is there as a witness to the sacrament the couple themselves perform. The sacramental sanctioning of marriage builds on the reasonable recognition that marriage is a decision of two people to commit themselves to live together in a way that builds the community in which they live and work. Sacramental marriage is an outgrowth of civil marriage: the church does not marry people; it recognizes their choice to marry each other.

The debate about gay marriage—and gay marriage itself—may well be the compost that the institution of marriage, which is falling apart under the weight of the anomalies it incorporates in postmodern culture, needs in order to survive. Churches of Main Street USA, who provide hospitality to the religious right while excluding your LGBT brothers and sisters: marriage is already falling apart.

It has been falling apart for some time. We now live in a postmodern culture in which, if you except to command people’s attention when you talk about the sanctity of marriage, you need to begin talking to those who are trying to live marriage and family in all its bewildering variety in the culture in which we now live, move, and have our being. Insofar as your preaching addresses an ideal culture that exists only in your imaginations and in t.v. sitcoms from the 1950s, it won’t be effective in the world now coming into being.

Gay marriage may ironically prove to be the revival of marriage as an institution. If so, perhaps gay people are a gift to the churches and not the enemies you keep trying to imagine?

No comments: