Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Opposite-Sex Marriage and Deep-Rooted Cultural Tradition: Considering the Argument

And then there's this: last week, as I continued trying to find my way out of my latest little stint of selva oscura, I follow the thread responding to Michael O'Loughlin's good commentary at the America blog on the debate about civil unions for same-sex couples in Rhode Island.  Why I bother, I don't know, since I can write the predictable (and exceptionally banal) responses from most of the contributors to this blog in advance--the predictable male heterosexist responses, that is to say.

There's a watchdog group that has long monitored the Jesuits and America, and who intend to do everything in their (male, heterosexist, privileged, Republican) power to keep those leftie Jesuits in check.  To remind the Jesuits, if they even think about showing some solidarity with gay and lesbian people in their struggle for justice, that they'll pay a steep price for doing so.

And, predictably, one of these watchdogs, a Mr. Smith, who always chimes in when the gay issue is raised at the America site, says to Jim McCrea, a regular contributor to these threads who writes with good sense (and accurate theological background), the following:  

Marriage in the West means one man and one woman.  You upset such a deep-rooted piece of cultural tradition at your very great peril, especially when there are excellent alternatives, like reciprocal benefits legislation.  

And on the same day that I read this, I happen to be reading through the estate records of an ancestor of mine, a man named James Lane who died in eastern North Carolina in the summer of 1789.  (This is one of the ways I handle the selva oscura: I spend hours snooping into the lives of those who have gone before me, doing genealogical research, because it's in many ways very much like putting together the pieces of an intricate puzzle--and putting puzzles together has real therapeutic value for me.)

And I find this: when James Lane's estate is inventoried, the inventory shows the following items among his possessions as he dies: a copy of Pilgrim's Progress, a bible, and a Book of Common Prayer.  James is, in other words, not merely a casual churchgoer, an enculturated Christian who calls himself Christian because the established church had demanded up to the Revolution that everyone living in North Carolina be at least nominally a member of the Church of England.

He and his family are pious Christians, members of that solid middle class that, we're told by historians, built the nation through its hard work, devotion to moral principle, and commitment to church and churchly ways. And commitment to the "deep-rooted pieces of cultural tradition" about which Mr. Smith speaks, which we upset at our "very great peril," when they're rooted in long-standing Christian tradition.  And in the bible itself.

Like marriage as the union of one man and one woman for life.  (Except that that's not at all what the bible says marriage is all about for, oh, millennia of sacred history, when polygamy is the norm: one man with many wives.  But no women with many husbands.  And divorce permitted to men, who can repudiate their wives in the twinkling of an eye, by a word of renunciation, while no women are ever permitted to do the same to their husbands.  But never mind about all that: let's not confuse ourselves with facts while we do battle to uphold the "deep-rooted pieces of cultural tradition" that we envisage discarding to our "very great peril.")

And then I leaf through the estate records to the settlement of James's estate, and find the following: in addition to "the Negro Woman Named Moll" whom James had left in his will to son Ethelred and the "Two Negro Boys" whom the will had left money for James's widow Sarah to purchase, who, along with their increase, were to be "divided" among the youngest children of the family after Sarah's death, there were an unnamed "Negro Wench" and her child Zilla, Beck, Bett, Hannh, Silvia, and Jude, all disbursed as property among James's oldest children (including my ancestor Zilpah Lane and her husband Sumner Holland).  With stipulations that Jude and her increase were to be divided, following Sarah's death, among the older children.

Zilpah, by the way--in case you're wondering--was the name of a handmaid (read: slave) of Jacob's wife Leah, whose father Laban gave Zilpah to Leah.  Zilpah then marries Jacob, who has also wives Leah, Rachel, and Bilhah.  Rachel and Leah are sisters.  He ends up being married to both sisters because Laban deceives Jacob by switching Leah for Rachel when Jacob imagines he's marrying Rachel.  When Rachel and Leah compete to give Jacob sons, they then use their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah in the son-bearing game, offering them to Jacob as wife material.  Some accounts suggest Bilhah and Zilpah are half-sisters of Leah and Rachel.

All in the family, don't you know.  The good, old-fashioned, God-fearing family . . . .

Deep-rooted cultural traditions.  Just like the traditions re: slavery that went hand in hand with Pilgrim's Progress and the Book of Common Prayer.  And the bible.  Traditions that James Lane and all the other upright Christians around him would have been shocked to learn anyone questioned or considered irreconcilable with Christian morality and Christian faith.

Since they had been practiced for centuries by good bible-reading, church-going Christians.  Since slavery is not merely allowed but presupposed and defended by the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  Since it was a deep-rooted part of the cultural heritage of those who wrote the biblical books.  

And, of course, despite the bible's support for slavery, despite the longstanding endorsement of this practice in both Judaism and Christianity, despite the continuation of slavery in Christian cultures right into the 19th century, we'd now be hard-pressed to find any Christian anywhere openly espousing a return to bible-based slavery.

Espousing bible-based slavery because we upset "deep-rooted pieces of cultural tradition" at our "very great peril," if we overturn them when they have biblical warrant.  When they've always been there.  When it's always been done this way.  When everyone around us takes this for granted, and only a tiny minority of people (the losers of history, and surely they can't be on God's side, since God's a winner) question how things have always been done.

We have discarded slavery because we have finally decided to take Paul at his word, when he tells us that "in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."  We've decided, in other words, that despite the countenancing of slavery in other biblical texts (including other texts attributed to Paul himself), the very heart and soul of the gospel is summed up in Paul's proclamation of the freedom and equality of all believers in Christ.

We've decided that the bible was not really ever about--not in its most essential proclamation about who God is and what God desires for the world--the subordination of one group of people to another, the subjugation of one group of people by another.  It's about, instead, a vision of a world in which every one who comes from the hand of God is treated with equal dignity and respect.  And has equal access to the goods of the world.  And to the rights accorded to everyone merely because she is a human being.

We have long since gotten this when it comes to the issue of slavery.  Why, I wonder, is it taking the Mr. Smiths of the world so long to get it when it comes to the issue of gender roles, and the power allocated to men and to women respectively?  And to the related issue of sexual orientation?

It's almost as if some of the men who rule us these days don't want to get it.

The graphic is Dutch Baroque artist Matthias Stom's depiction of Abraham with two of his wives, Sarah and Hagar.

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