About Gay Marriage

Why, you might ask, have gay people insisted on ‘marriage’ rather than ‘civil partnership’? Is the word itself really so important, so long as you’ve got equivalent rights? There is a quirk of our constitution, because England has an established church, which makes the issue significant.

Back to basics; people make all kinds of legal arrangements for both their personal and their business lives. In some cases these arrangements are so common that for convenience the law provides what might be called ‘templates’ of these, standardising them, bringing them under common legal procedures. Partnerships are an example in commerce, adoption in personal affairs. In some cases these arrangements may be considered so beneficial to society in general, beyond those directly involved, that they come with tax breaks, next-of-kin rights and other benefits. Marriage is one such example.

In religious states like Muslim countries with their Shari’a law, the marriage laws will reflect the beliefs of the religion in question – though they may allow some latitude to foreigners’ marriages. In the countries of ‘Christendom’ the marriage laws have generally reflected the teachings of the Christian Church, though most Western states have long allowed secular (‘registry office’) marriages, divorce, and other features not quite according to Christianity. Until comparatively recently it was pretty much taken for granted that marriage was between a man and a woman, especially since homosexuality, being a sin, was illegal anyway in such ‘Christian’ states. Now that homosexuality is legal, and indeed many other sexual practices between consenting adults have been decriminalised, things have changed and the formerly persecuted gay community now seeks to be as equal as possible – or at least a very vocal segment of it does.

If you were designing from scratch a plural society which respects many different beliefs and unbeliefs, you would I think include a ‘civil partnership’ which in a way would not need a sexual implication, a deal for companionship and shared life which might be very flexible. It need not, for example, be ‘monogamous’, given the number of religions which accept polygamy, though if tax breaks and the like were involved it might not be unlimited in terms of the number of such partnerships one person could form. The various religions existing in the state could use the ‘civil partnerships’ as a legal foundation for religious marriages but would also have internal disciplines for their members in the matter (as sporting bodies have their own internal rules for various things).

Unfortunately in the UK we aren’t designing an ideal pluralistic system from scratch. Indeed although in so many ways we do act like a pluralistic democracy, we are still technically a Christian country with an established Church. Technically the Church of England is still the legal norm and everyone else, including other forms of Christianity, are only ‘tolerated’ in an impliedly ‘second-class’ way. Anglican marriage is still significantly privileged in small ways.

If you are a gay person seeking equality, this is basically unacceptable. A church which is technically part of and deeply entangled with the state refuses to treat the gay community as equal; this is not just “there are some people around who disagree with us”; this is effectively continued discrimination against the gay community in and by the state itself. For now we have ‘same-sex marriage’ equally for all – except still the state church is allowed to refuse it – indeed has been positively banned by law from doing it, as has the connected but disestablished ‘Church in Wales’! I think it unlikely that this compromise will endure. I think in the end one of two things must happen; either the ‘Church of England’ will have to accept gay marriage, to keep their established privilege but not be discriminatory, or they will have to accept being disestablished. And they may face similar arguments in other areas as well.

Churches which are not established, and have no special privileged position in the state would be a different matter; it would be reasonable for them to disagree with homosexuality and choose not to do same-sex marriages for their own members – interestingly they might nevertheless use the neutral civil partnership for non-sexual relationships….

The tragedy of this is that the present bitter controversy need never have happened, at any rate as a dispute between an established church and the gay community. Christianity was never intended to be established, as I’ve been saying elsewhere in this blog, and so should never have been involved as it was in the criminalisation and effective persecution of gay people. Ideally, Christianity should have remained a voluntary religion, of those who humanly speaking choose to join the church; and they would not be seeking to rule society at large, so everyone else would be free to do – well, not quite whatever they liked, but whatever the state and/or its alternate state religion might allow. I’m not saying the situation would be friction-free; but the whole dynamics would be very different.

As it is, the imposition of Christian behaviour on everybody in a ‘Christian’ country has created all kinds of problems. These included persecution of other religions and of variant forms of Christianity; and legal intervention in all kinds of sexual issues, of which homosexuality is pretty much the last one outstanding – the others beyond that being things like paedophilia and rape which are unlikely ever to have wide social acceptance…. This inappropriate imposition beyond Christian ranks has also created all kinds of attitude problems.

Put bluntly, the only way there can be a resolution is for Christians to abandon the notion of ‘Christian states’ which seek to impose Christian morality on all citizens, and return to the New Testament notion of being an independent voluntary organisation within the earthly state. Only then will we be able to work out a ‘modus vivendi’ with people whose morality in this matter we disagree with. As I say above, this makes the Church of England’s position untenable one way or the other; they must sacrifice either Christian sexual morality or their favoured position and influence in the state – they cannot continue to uphold both.

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What Really Happened at Sodom?

This essay’s topic is the incident at Sodom in Genesis 19 which of course gave English the words sodomite, sodomy and sodomise for homosexuals and their practices, plus that vulgar abbreviation ‘sod’, more or less a gay equivalent of the proverbial ‘f-word’.  At first sight the interpretation seems obvious; a city-full of raging homosexuals threaten to rape (disguised) angels and God punishes them by destroying the city – QED, simples!

But closer examination of the text reveals that it’s perhaps not so simple.  The story starts with Abraham and his nephew Lot, who have travelled from modern Iraq to Canaan following God’s call.  But they have so prospered in various ways that the land can no longer support their combined followers and flocks and there is growing friction among those followers , so they decide to part; Lot chooses to leave Abraham’s nomadic life to settle in the more luxurious ‘cities of the plain’ near the Dead Sea, specifically Sodom.  Now for starters, forget Hollywood depictions with huge palaces; these are large towns for those days but far from cities as we think of them; the key thing is, they are walled towns, defensible citadels[i], probably surrounded by a considerable shanty town whose inhabitants would hide in the city when raiders came.

In Sodom prosperous Lot seems to have become quite important; Gen 19; 9 tells us he acted as a judge, and his position ‘at the gate’ (19; 1) has similar implications.  We might see him as the equivalent of a town councillor and magistrate; probably on market days he was like the judge of an English market town’s ‘pie-powder’[ii] court, arbitrating between traders and their customers.  Unfortunately as an upstart foreigner it seems he had made jealous enemies….

Meanwhile we learn, God has also been paying attention to the ‘Cities of the Plain’, and he isn’t happy with them.  He is, indeed, on the verge of bringing judgement upon them for their overall conduct.  As part of this process, two angels in human form visit Sodom – the way they are treated will be crucial to the judgement.  As they arrive they are met by Lot, who offers them his hospitality.  But in the evening the other Sodomites surround Lot’s house, calling for the foreigners to be brought out so that they can rape them (the word in the original is ‘know’, but that was a common euphemism for sex and the context here shows that it does mean rape).  Lot does his best to cope with this, even offering his own daughters to be raped instead to (as he under stress saw it) avoid the worst of this gross combination of breach of hospitality and sexual outrage, but the men of Sodom are insistent and Lot would be overborne but for the angels acting to protect him by striking the Sodomites blind.  The fate of Sodom and the other cities is sealed, and the angels help Lot and a few of his family to escape the catastrophe that follows….

Many issues in that, of course.  But I want to concentrate for now on the sexual question.  What exactly is going on here, and how is it relevant to the modern debates on homosexuality?

The first thing to say is, this isn’t homosexuality as usually understood today.  Yes, it is clearly about an act – or proposed act – of men having sex with other men; but it isn’t about love between ‘gay’ men as we understand that nowadays.  No doubt by biblical standards sexual morality was lax in the Cities of the Plain, and the Sodomites probably intended to enjoy this act, but we are missing the point if we see them as ‘gay’ – on the contrary, the whole point of this event is that they are being aggressively heterosexual!

Consider a case a few years ago in the UK; a gang of young men believed (almost certainly wrongly) that an older local man was a paedophile.  So they set out to teach him a lesson; not only did they beat him up, they gang-raped him.  Now these young men would not at all have considered themselves ‘homosexual’, but very ‘straight’; however in their eyes, this man, if a paedophile, wasn’t a proper man at all, so in raping him they were both ‘giving him a taste of his own medicine’ and asserting their own masculinity compared to him.  What happened in Sodom was along similar lines; not that the targets in this case were thought of as perverts or sexual malefactors, but that as foreigners they weren’t ‘real men’, and they were to be ‘taught a lesson’ by being treated as mere women, and not just as women but as slave women or war captives.  Treating them this way would also humiliate the foreign upstart Lot.  This isn’t an act of ‘gay love’ or even ‘gay lust’ but an act of political humiliation perpetrated by ‘straight’ men on other ‘straight’ men.

This kind of thing is more common than we realise; even in the Bible there are some other cases which appear to have similar implications.  Apparently in the third world the rape of defeated soldiers by the victors is still quite common, and even some western soldiers in the recent Gulf War inflicted sexual humiliation on Iraqi prisoners, though not as far as I know outright rape.  I hope that the gay movement finds such conduct as bad as straight people do.  As I understand it, modern gay rights are about consensual and loving sexual behaviour, not about rape of any kind and certainly not about using sex as humiliation.  But many Christians opposed to homosexuality also need to take account of this interpretation, and appreciate that what happened at Sodom was not ‘gay lust’ at all but a twisted aberration on the part of heterosexual men.  You are not properly making the Christian case on the subject of homosexuality by just simplistic references to the Sodom episode and quoting a passage from Leviticus without reference to the surrounding passages on dietary requirements and such which Christians do not themselves observe.  Much more responsible biblical interpretation is needed than that.

What happened at Sodom was peripheral to any real argument by Christians against homosexuality; and the divine love that Christians are meant to show means that in tackling the issue Christians should be careful in their use of scripture.


[i] I’m told that Salem, later Jerusalem, was even in David’s day, long after Abraham, a ‘city’ not much bigger than Wembley Stadium – only a few hundred yards across.

[ii]‘Pie Powder’ from French ‘Pied Poudre’ or the ‘dusty feet’ of those attending the market.