Friday, April 25, 2014

Andrew Sullivan on Jonathan Rauch and the "Theological Underpinnings" of Marriage as a Gendered Institution: My Take

Andrew Sullivan's take on the Jonathan Rauch essay calling for special tolerance for those who oppose same-sex marriage out of sincere religious conviction — an essay I critiqued yesterday

Yes, the opposition to inter-racial marriage had religious roots and rationalizations. 
But the theological underpinnings of marriage as a gendered institution – between one man and one woman – were far deeper and wider than any theological roots for opposing miscegenation.

And, once again, I maintain that it's simply incorrect to say that the "theological underpinnings of marriage as a gendered institution" are "far deeper and wider than any theological roots for opposing miscegenation." One can make such a declaration (a fatuous one, as far as I can see) only by pretending that for some 2,000 years the Christian churches did not tolerate (and, in most cases, actively defend) slavery precisely because the institution had deep, readily apparent theological underpinning. The ban on miscegenation is quite directly rooted in theological ideas that made slavery not merely a peripheral, but a normative institution, in Christian societies for almost two millennia.

Slavery is inscribed in the Jewish and Christian scriptures in the very same way in which the notion of marriage as a gendered institution is inscribed there — though, when one speaks of the scriptures and how they support the notion of marriage as a gendered institution, one would be remiss not to note that, in its default meaning in the Jewish scriptures, marriage is about a man and a woman and a woman and a woman, etc.

And it's about slavery and the right of men who vanquish and subjugate other people to add the wives of the vanquished others to their bevy of wives. All of this is right in the bible, and it's right in the bible in a way that's every bit as fundamental as is the simplistic notion that marriage is "a gendered institution."

For that matter, it's right in the bible in every bit as fundamental a way as the notion of slavery is right in the bible. I call Andrew Sullivan's claim about the "far deeper and wider" theological underpinnings of the gendered notion of marriage a "declaration" because that's essentially what he and others proposing this idea are doing: they want to declare that the testimony of the scriptures and of Christian history about how integral slavery (and racism embedded in slavery) have been to Christian cultures over the course of history is not to count now in the same way in which the testimony of the scriptures and Christian history to the gendered notion of marriage (a man and a woman and a woman, etc.) is to count.

And why ever not? Because Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch and other conservatives and centrists declare this to be the case?

Because race and race matters simply don't count? Because the problem of race has been solved in the United States? Because those who keep adverting to it, bringing it up, lack good taste and are promoting an "agenda"? Because people of color who won't get over the very deep wounds inflicted on them by this nation's very deep racism — propped up by millennia of deep and wide theological assertions — are pathetic losers who are contributing to their own marginalization by refusing to enter the game of the mainstream?

I find myself unable to relinquish my better judgment to Sullivan, Rauch, and others like them, when I happen to know from my own historical and cultural situation that they're simply wrong about the place of race in American history and culture, and about its role as an analogue to contemporary debates about the rights of LGBTI people. Just as I think they're wrong about the role of "reason and debate and testimony and civility" in vanquishing prejudice and discrimination (I'm quoting Sullivan's response to Rauch here).

It wasn't sweet reason or civility that overcame the raw prejudice and discrimination of white Southerners during the Civil Rights period (and that overcame the complicit, guilty silence of the rest of the country): it was a politics of courageous witness in which people stood up to the powers that be and put their lives on the line that beat down raw prejudice and discrimination to the extent that laws enshrining prejudice and discrimination were changed. Sweet reason and appeals to civility were, in fact, appeals repeatedly offered by white Southerners (and by many black ministers who did not want to lose their hegemony in the black community) precisely to stop the forward impetus of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s — to stop the embarrassing, confrontative politics of courageous witness and the precipitous social changes the politics of witness was precipitating.

The genius of Martin Luther King was to learn from Mahatma Gandhi (via gay Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin) that, when a leader seeking the transformation of a society can inspire people to risk their lives by giving lived witness in situations or radical injustice, others — others who have been only bystanders — will be inspired to address the systems that are producing the radical injustice. As Taylor Branch's magisterial biography of Dr. King demonstrates, King learned from Gandhi that by staging his demonstrations at flashpoint places like Birmingham or Selma, knowing as he chose those places to stage the demonstrations, he could awaken the conscience of those who had refused to see, up to then, what a racially segregated society is really all about.

They'd see that it's really all about white sheriffs turning attack dogs and firehoses on defenseless, nonviolent human beings marching for their human rights. They'd see that it's really all about blowing up black churches while black men, women, and children are inside those churches praying. Sweet reason and civil discourse accomplished none of the breakthrough insights that led to the eventual eradication of legal segregation in the U.S.

Impassioned witness in which people were willing to put their lives on the line accomplished what reason, debate, testimony, and civility never could have accomplished. Just as it did when suffragettes faced imprisonment and force feeding to obtain the right to vote, while the men running the world in which they staged these demonstrations urged them to be reasonable, to trust in civil debate to win the day . . . eventually. Some day in the future, perhaps.

Or, for that matter, just as it did when drag queens at the Stonewall Inn, most of them African-American and Hispanic, finally said to the police that enough was enough, and stood up for their human rights, precipitating a rebellion against homophobia inscribed in one legal system after another with whose revolutionary import we've only begun to cope . . . . 

The bottom line: you can't have the kind of impassioned witness that really produces long-lasting, effective transformation of societies as long as you have a gatekeeping managerial class offering the nostrum of reason and civility in place of impassioned witness, as people are moving towards monumental social change. Because the goal of that gatekeeping magisterial class with its nostrums of reason and divinity is quite precisely to beat down those who want to enter the public square and offer impassioned witness in their own voices.

And not in the voices of the reasonable and civil gatekeeping managers of things. Who are, after all, more concerned to maintain their own control of the conversation than to listen to the impassioned witness of those they're trying to keep outside the conversation.

This is how I see these matters as a theologian whose primary field of theological work has been to try to understand processes of social transformation, and who has become strongly convinced that until the voices of women, the poor, gays, and others who have been roughly shoved from the public square and from ecclesial conversations can be heard — in their own quite uncivil cadences — we cannot build humane societies or religious institutions with any claim to credibility.

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