Obergefell v. Hodges

July 6, 2015 at 5:15 am 3 comments


Arguments at the United States Supreme Court for Same-Sex Marriage on April 28, 2015When the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges[1] a little over a week ago, the verdict was not a surprise, but the reaction was fierce. Facebook profiles and even the White House went rainbow. Crowds gathered to celebrate and shed tears of joy. Others were not nearly so jubilant. Jonathan Saenz, President of Texas Values, issued this statement:

This decision is the most egregious form of judicial activism of our time, overriding the votes of over 50 million voters, including millions in Texas. The freedom to democratically address society’s most fundamental institution is central to ordered liberty. The Court has taken that freedom from the people.

This decision has no basis in the text of the Constitution and will never be accepted by millions of Americans and Texans that understand that marriage, by nature and God’s design, can only be the union of a man and woman, husband and wife, mother and father. No decision by five judges can ever alter this fundamental truth.[2]

As Christians, it can be hard to know what to say or where to stand. The day the Supreme Court’s decision came down, I offered some initial reflections with the promise of more to come. These are those further reflections.  Though these reflections will not address every concern, they will hopefully give us a way to begin to think theologically and pastorally about what has transpired and help us live together peacefully and in love.

What Scripture Says

As I said in my original blog on the Supreme Court’s decision, we need to remain committed to what Scripture says about all our relationships and, specifically, those that are deeply intimate in nature. But we also must remember that our understanding of Scripture can prove fallible. It is easy to fall prey to foolish and sloppy readings of what the Bible has to say on sexual ethics, making assumptions that are based more in our cultural biases than in careful exegetical study. As William Eskridge explains in an article for The New York Times:

Biblical support for slavery, segregation and anti-miscegenation laws rested upon broad and anachronistic readings of isolated Old Testament passages and the Letters of Paul, but without strong support from Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels … The current … view that God condemns “homosexual behavior” and same-sex marriages comes from the same kind of broad and anachronistic scriptural readings as prior support for segregation.[3]

Although Eskridge’s assumed contradiction between what Jesus taught and what the rest of the Bible has to say is problematic, he does have a point: we have not always gotten things right.

So how do we avoid misreading Scripture on gay marriage? To begin with, we must never handpick proof texts without context. Arguments made in this way against gay marriage are not only not persuasive theologically, they’re also not solid methodologically.  A better hermeneutical case for traditional marriage can be made by looking at the sweep and scope of Scripture. Scripture begins (Genesis 2:24) and ends (Revelation 19:7) with the wedding of a bride and her groom. Jesus affirms both God’s creational and eschatological pattern for this staid institution as one that involves a husband and a wife (Matthew 19:4-6). Furthermore, when this pattern for marriage is abandoned, the results never seem to be good (e.g., Genesis 29:30; 1 Kings 11:1-4; Proverbs 6:32; 1 Corinthians 5:1-2).

The Bible does not seem to be nearly so concerned with condemning gay marriage specifically as it is with affirming God’s design for marriage generally – and not just because deviating from God’s design is morally wrong, though, in fact, it is, but because it is personally hurtful. Marriage has not only a moral design; it has a compassionate intent. This is why God institutes it as gracious gift (cf. Genesis 2:18).  The biblical authors do not want people to miss out on God’s gracious gift by not receiving it as God intended it.

How We Say What Scripture Says

When speaking about same-sex marriage, we must stop embracing and employing over-the-top rhetoric. A pastor who threatens, even if figuratively, to immolate himself if the Supreme Court allows for nationwide gay marriage sounds, and perhaps is, insane. A preacher who drops the Supreme Court’s ruling to the ground while holding up the Bible in the middle of his sermon may garner some applause from the faithful, but such grandstanding does nothing to contribute to civil and important conversation.

I can’t help but wonder if the reason we are sometimes tempted by such silly stunts is because we live with a kind of Chicken Little apocalypticism. We really are afraid the sky is falling. But it is not.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in his dissenting opinion, writes:

The Court today not only overlooks our country’s entire history and tradition but actively repudiates it, preferring to live only in the heady days of the here and now. I agree with the majority that the “nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times.” … As petitioners put it, “times can blind.” … But to blind yourself to history is both prideful and unwise.

This is well stated. As Justice Roberts notes, the ethical stances of yesteryear are by no means unimpeachable, but they are also not meant to be thoughtlessly discardable in an assumed inexorable evolutionary advancement toward ethical nirvana. C.S. Lewis would remind us that there is a “great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of [our] own age.”[4] In other words, we’re not as enlightened or as advanced as we think we are.

Thus, we need not fear. What is happening now does not mean the sky is falling. It simply means that history is marching – sometimes wisely and sometimes foolishly. Waiting and watching to see what comes of “the heady days of the here and now” is a much smarter – and, I would add, much less stressful – option than opining about the doom and gloom that lurks around the corner.

Religious Liberty and Pastoral Care

Sadly, the Supreme Court’s decision does raise real concerns over religious liberty. In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy addresses these concerns, writing:

It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.

Justice Kennedy’s synopsis of the First Amendment is interesting – and troubling. He sees the First Amendment as protection to “teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to … lives and faiths.” This is well and good. But what happens when teaching faith translates into living faith?  What happens when those living their faith intersect with others who do not share their faith? Does religious protection now extend only to what one says?

The dissenting justices are rightfully skeptical of the majority’s nod to and definition of religious liberty. Justice Thomas Roberts warns:

Religious liberty is about more than just the protection for “religious organizations and persons … as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths.” … Religious liberty is about freedom of action in matters of religion generally, and the scope of that liberty is directly correlated to the civil restraints placed upon religious practice.

It is not just paranoid, martyrly Christian activists who have concerns about the narrowing parameters for religious liberty; it is a sitting justice of the Supreme Court. So how are we to respond?

I would argue that the best way to respond to threats against religious liberty is not politically, but pastorally. This is not to say that Christians should never be involved in politics; it is only to say that politics must take the backseat to love. So rather than offering a political strategy, allow me to share a few pastoral thoughts.

What makes same-sex marriage an ethically thorny issue is that it simultaneously aches for something that deserves our compassion while also promoting something that calls for our repudiation. On the one hand, the desire to marry someone to whom you are attracted, whether that person is of the same or opposite sex, represents an ache for companionship. This is why, in the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy writes:

From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.

Such an ache for companionship not only ought to be acknowledged, it ought to be affirmed by all Christians. God did, after all, create us as relational beings (cf. Genesis 2:18). Desire for companionship, regardless of whether you are gay or straight, is perfectly normal and natural.

At the same time the Bible affirms the human ache for companionship, however, it also puts boundaries on how such companionship is expressed erotically and, ultimately, maritally. Again and again, the Bible calls upon us to control our desires – erotic and otherwise (cf. James 1:14-15). Though such a call runs quite contrary to the spirit and sensibilities of our age, Christians must continually uphold this call in their speaking and living.

Tragically, many Christians have spent so much time proclaiming that people must control their desires that they have forgotten to empathize with them in their loneliness. People who are romantically attracted to the same sex have much deeper and more profound needs than just sex. They, like everyone, need love, which we must be prepared to show, lest we defy the command of Christ: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).

Ultimately, we must never forget that same-sex marriage involves people. Indeed, though nearly everyone knows the Supreme Court has now legalized nationwide same-sex marriage, few know the particulars of the plaintiff who brought the case. Jim Obergefell married John Arthur three months and 11 days before John died. Jim knew their marriage would not last long because, when they wed, John was in the dying throws of ALS. Jim brought a case to the Supreme Court because he wanted to be listed as the surviving spouse on John’s death certificate in Ohio, a state that heretofore did not allow for gay marriage. Their story, then, is not just about gay marriage. It’s also about sickness, sadness, and caregiving – all universal themes to the human experience. Even as we express concerns over same-sex marriages, we must also recognize that the people in them do things that are noble and hold values that we share.

Decrying same-sex marriage with protests, rallies, and votes will not change hearts. Love, however, just might. So let’s focus on what people actually need – not a vote against them, but love for them. In today’s milieu of broad and fierce political support for same-sex marriage, it is probably our only option. But that’s okay. Because it just so happens that it’s also our best option.

_________________________________

[1] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. (2015).

[2] William Eskridge cited by David Walls, “Supreme Court’s Marriage Ruling Is Egregious Attack On Democracy, Will Never Be Accepted,” Texas Values (6.26.2015).

[3] William Eskridge, “It’s Not Gay Marriage vs. the Church Anymore,” The New York Times (4.25.2015).

[4] C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory, Walter Hooper, ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 59.

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