Aug 22, 2010

The Myth of Traditional Marriage

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

There's an excellent article in the Huffington Post on the recent Prop 8 decision and the erroneous religious argument against it.

Judge Vaughn Walker's decision to allow resumption of legal same-sex weddings in California has right-wing Christians claiming his ruling against Proposition 8 threatens "Bible believing Christians." I've read the Bible pretty carefully myself (I read it cover to cover when I was in high school) and even taught it as a college professor. It is not a source I'd turn to in order to defend traditional marriage, but I think it does offer ways to think about ethical marriage.

The Bible presents multiple views of marriage, and most actual marriages it depicts are terrible by modern standards. "Traditional marriages" in ancient biblical times were arranged as transfers of the ownership of daughters. The tenth commandment lists wives among properties like houses and slaves: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor" (Exodus 20:17, also found in Deuteronomy 5:21). Marriages occurred via deception, kidnapping, adulterous seductions, theft, rape, and murder, and were often in multiples so that the pater familias could amass land, flocks, and progeny and cement political alliances. Abraham, David, and Solomon had marriages that would be illegal today. The book of Hosea likens the mercy of God to a husband who has the right to beat or kill his adulterous wife, but spares her -- for this, she was supposed to be grateful. When women seek marriages, such as Naomi arranged for Ruth, it was to avoid an even worse fate such as destitution.

I was reminded of just how badly both women and marriage fare in the Bible. I just recently started reading World Without End by Ken Follett, the sequel to Pillars of the Earth. I'm barely into it but I'm already finding that its depiction of male/female relations is raising my blood pressure... even more than Pillars did with all its tolerated, unprosecuted rapes. Follett is nothing if not blunt. It's one of his greater strengths as a writer. He doesn't sugarcoat things. The role of women as property in the Middle Ages comes up early on in the book. Gwenda, the daughter of a poor and abusive thief, is traded by her father for a cow. When her friend Caris, a girl of some wealth and stature, rushes to her defense, she reaches out to her cousin, an Oxford educated monk.

With obvious reluctance, Godwyn said: "The Bible does appear to sanction selling your daughter into slavery. The book of Exodus, chapter twenty-one."

And sadly, the young monk is correct.

And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do. If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her. And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish. And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money. ~ Exodus 21:7-11

I have a hard time imagining any Christian priest or monk in the modern era tolerating such a thing. Although women are still viewed through that Biblical lens as lesser creatures today by no lesser lights than Pope Benedict XVI. Such cherry-picking of the Bible is typical; choosing to rely only scripture that supports a current cultural norm one is comfortable with and ignoring the rest. But citing the Bible to justify marriage as a holy estate entered into by one man and one woman isn't cherry-picking. It's revisionism. Marriage in much of the Bible is about the transfer and acquisition of property; dowries and the brides themselves. Wives were little more than breeding stock.

Defenders of "traditional marriage" often turn to Adam and Eve, as in, "It's Adam and Even, not Adam and Steve." According Rita Nakashima Brock, in the Huffington Post, so did Jesus point to that as an ideal marital relationship. But she points out that this ideal was before the fall, after which women were cursed for Eve's sin. She also puts Paul's concerns about marriage into some historical context. It may simply have been an act of rebellion against Rome's use of the common folk as breeders (proletarius) for the empire.

The way we think of marriage today, as a union between equal partners is novel, by historical terms, and we are still in the process of evolving it away from system of female oppression. Brides still agree to obey their husbands in traditional wedding vows. Although many churches offer alternative vow text, the change is still slower than one might expect. It was only in 2006 that the Church of England officially reconsidered the use of the word "obey" in the bride's wedding vows. The CofE began then to offer an alternate option out of concern that the original vows foster spousal abuse -- a seemingly valid assumption.

A Church of England report has stated that traditional vows taken in wedding ceremonies, in which the bride promises to "obey" her husband, could be used by some men to justify domestic violence.

. . .

The report said that the Church had, intentionally or unintentionally, reinforced abuse, failing to challenge abusers, and had therefore intensified the suffering of survivors, often through "misguided" or distorted versions of Christian belief.

It said that if people were given a deformed view of their relationship with God as being one of domination and submission, and interpreted the character of God with masculine imagery, it could bring about "overbearing and ultimately violent patterns of behaviour".

As Brock points out, Judge Walker's Prop 8 decision directly addressed the changing societal view of marriage from an institution that subjugates women into one of union between equal partners.

In his carefully written decision, Judge Walker remarked on changes that have eliminated most of the values and reasons for traditional marriage. He noted that marriage had recently been transformed "from a male-dominated institution into an institution recognizing men and women as equals" (p. 112). The changes also reflect cultural ideas that marriage is a union of sex with love. They do not nullify marriage per se:

The evidence shows that the movement of marriage away from a gendered institution and toward an institution free from state-mandated gender roles reflects an evolution in the understanding of gender rather than a change in marriage. The evidence did not show any historical purpose for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, as states have never required spouses to have an ability or willingness to procreate in order to marry. Rather, the exclusion exists as an artifact of a time when the genders were seen as having distinct roles in society and in marriage. That time has passed. (p. 113)


No comments:

Post a Comment

Opinions and ideas expressed in the comments on this page
belong the people who stated them. Management takes no
editorial responsibility for the content of public comments.