Who’s Getting (Some) Biblical Marriage?
Wednesday, May 9, 2012 might just turn out to be a historic day: a day in which a sitting president of the United States of America claimed his (at least personal) support for gays and lesbians (but not bisexual or transgendered people?) to have legal access to marriage.
But what kind of history is this making? And would this change (if it is eventually enacted, as public opinion polls indicate, and politicians equivocate) make that large of a difference? Or would it continue to differentiate, marginalize, naturalize, and normalize problematic views and practices? Would it reinforce that certain kinds of people, engaging in these (but not these) practices are deserving of access to a series of rights and privileges?
These are not new questions I’m posing here, as they are being made among various queer and feminist circles, but by focusing upon marriage, some groups are failing to recognize that marriage itself is a way to discriminate, regulate, and normalize. If queer studies is valuable for interrogating what is happening in our culture(s), then its persistent target must be the ways certain practices, politics, and even people are naturalized and normalized.
Not that I would expect more from a presidential figure, but notice the kinds of connections his statement makes between marriage and militarization, child-rearing, monogamy, and privacy. One can belong to a prized class of people (the married), only so long as one supports and valorizes these intertwined priorities as well.
This argument, of course, mimes the accommodationist efforts of groups like the Human Rights Campaign that seem to prioritize the concerns of upper- and middle-class (mostly white) gays and lesbians; or at least those who do not see their lives as connected in wider forms of solidarity with all who are stigmatized and shamed by regimes of the normal and the natural. The spirit of this push for inclusion in some popular, but nevertheless dehumanizing institutions (like the military, inheritance, and marriage) reflects a hierarchical valuation of sameness and normalcy. This is a highly problematic valuation, given how many of us fail to fit these and are, worse, beaten, excluded, expelled, incarcerated, bullied, and killed for such differences and departures.
Now, I do not want to minimize the markedly differential treatment and access to support between those granted rights to enter into such legal arrangements, and those who are not. If same-sex marriage were the law of the land tomorrow, it would certainly benefit at least some people, and I hardly think it would destroy “marriage” as we know it. Rather, it would continue to reinforce that it is one of the central (if not exactly successful by all measures) institutions of this culture.
Yet, even as this practice could minimize certain forms of discrimination, it would exacerbate still other processes of marginalization and normalization. It fails to ask why are certain people and practices considered normal and natural, and others abnormal and unnatural. It does not follow up by interrogating and challenging the kinds of effects these valuations have.
For instance, why should something like health care be tied to whether or not one can convince another person to (say they will) live and love with you the rest of your lives? (And, then, why is it tied to whether a governing body accepts this conviction and promise, rather than your existence as a human being?)
Or consider the recent passing of Amendment One in North Carolina and the effects it has and reflects within state law, even for male-female couples. As the ACLU has delineated, the passage would affect those non-married couples, including those who share private agreements, life and health benefits, and children, among other things. Further, it peels back an ugly truth about our laws and a culture of assault and abuse, since many of North Carolina’s domestic violence laws offer special protections to victims who have an established relationship with those who assault or abuse them. In its further narrowing of what counts as a normal couple, this law narrows who is deserving of protection.
Why should protection from assault be tied to whether and how one lives with or loves another? Is it preposterous to simply enforce laws against abuse or impossible to create cultures against assault? What kind of normalcy is this?
Such questions are far from the foreground for those organizing primarily around access to legal marriage. Yet, if we have learned anything from the so-called “sex wars” of previous decades, it is that one should be careful when one’s arguments begin to be a bit too closely aligned with those with whom you so seriously disagree. One could quip, for example, that the two U.S. groups that seem to believe most passionately in marriage are the HRC and Focus on the Family!
Groups like the latter have been able to capitalize upon the intensity with which their supporters believe in “traditional marriage” (whatever that is; see below) in passing initiatives, amendments, and bans in low-turnout election periods. While there doesn’t seem to be the same intensity aligned with the former group, it appears that a majority now support same-sex marriage. I wonder if the relative electoral tepidness of this kind of support is attributable not to apathy, but to a lack of enthusiasm for (or even reflexive suspicion about) pushing marriage when there are so many other problems that seemingly normal and supposedly abnormal people are facing. A focus on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, or DOMA certainly seems not to reflect the politics and histories of queers and their allies.
And, lastly, since I am after all a religious studies and biblical studies scholar by training, I suppose I should once more address how much (or really how little) insight the Bible provides in this matter when people who cite or otherwise use it fail to take accountability for how they do so.
Does the biblical corpus define marriage as solely between one man and one woman? (And, by the way, does this mean that any one man can only ever marry just one woman…? If so, will we see efforts to ban divorce or remarriage as unbiblical?) Many seem to think so, as does Billy Graham, who ran a full-page ad in more than a dozen N.C. newspapers in support of Amendment One. “The Bible is clear—God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman. I want to urge my fellow North Carolinians to vote for the marriage amendment,” read the advertisement.
Precisely how biblical is this sort of law? Or Obama’s own (tepid) support of (certain) rights for (certain) people, for that matter?
Of course, this depends upon which biblical view of “marriage” we mean: which part of the biblical corpus and which meaning of marriage?
-Is it the kind that promotes marrying a couple of sisters (and a few concubines to boot) (for instance, Gen 29:15-30)?
-Or is it an arrangement that allows and even encourages getting to sexually use your slaves as well (Gen 16:1-16; Gal 4:22-30; and, as I’ve recently argued, Phlm)?
-What about when the gospels insist that one should leave behind one’s family and home in order to follow Jesus (Mt 8:18-22; and Lk 9:57-60)?
-Or should we be guided by Jesus’ insistence that a real family is made by those around him, not his mother and brothers and sisters (and, yes, the gospels note that Jesus has siblings; Mk 3:31-35; Mt. 12:46-50; and Lk 8:19-21)?
-Or is biblical marriage defined by the glorious (and often kinkily) poetic depiction of distinctly non-marital sex acts in Song of Songs?
-Perhaps biblical views are best exemplified by a concern with avoiding sex with angels (Gen 6:1-4; 19:1-11, and Jude 6-7, and perhaps even 1 Cor 11:10)?
-And, speaking of Sodom, perhaps marriage is better conducted under a code of hospitality, in which one hands over your already-engaged daughters as gang-rape replacements for your guests (Gen 19:1-11)? (And they, in turn, reward such efforts by getting their father drunk and conceiving children by him (19:30-38).)
-Or, on another hand, does biblical marriage reward the innovation of a woman savvily pretending to be a sex worker in order to gain an heir, husband, and whatever kinds of social security these might provide (Gen 38:1-30)?
-Perhaps biblical marriage is defined by great kings, like David or Solomon, with multiple, even hundreds of wives and concubines (1 Kgs 11:1-3), including those they stalked and killed their previous husbands to take (2 Sam 11:1-27)?
-Or might David only be an example when his love for Jonathan surpasses that of women (2 Sam 1:17-27)?
-Yet, the biblical view expressed by Paul is that marriage is for compromising wimps (to help get rid of desire, rather than express it), those who can’t handle a true and undistracted vocation (1 Cor 7:7-9). Is Paul’s view of marriage biblical, then, because it at no point endorses reproduction in the community?
-Or are we closer to the biblical view when Jesus seems to maintain family connections by passing his mother to the (male) disciple whom he loved (Jn 19:26-27), the one who used to lay down next to and upon Jesus (Jn 13:23-25)?
-Given the androcentric cultures that generated and saved all of these materials, is it notable that the longest religious relationship is presented throughout so many of the biblical books as a stormy, but persistent affair between a male God and the typically male devotee?
-Is the true utopian scenario the one that concludes the final biblical book, a wife transformed into a city cleansed of any connection with the feminine, a space where 144,000 male virgins (Rev 14:1-5) are slaves of the lamb and the lord (Rev 21:9-22:7)?
-Or does marriage mean a committed and mostly mutual development out of romantic desire and then love, with a slight (or sometimes not slight) prioritization of male authority and independence, which establishes a special (middle-to-upper-class) right to private property, and all the entitlements that flow from these? One that heterosexuals promise will last forever, but at least 50% of the time do not; nevertheless being a right to which they want access again (and again, and again, particularly when a male wants a new wife…)?
Of course, of all of these, the last of these, the one so vociferously claimed now (and to which some would have all accommodate themselves and their relationships) seems the least biblical…
The time has more than passed that interpreters and users of this biblical heritage have to take responsibility for the meanings they make as religious and not-so-religious people. We have a profoundly mixed heritage, not only in the case of the various biblical materials, or the differing Jewish and Christian attitudes and practices, but also in the historical uses, meanings, and practices of “marriage.”
If there has been one thing that has “always” been this way, it is that these ideas and practices have always been changing (dare I snark “evolving?”); cultures across space and time have always been interpreting and developing for themselves their own politics and ethics, sometimes by citing biblical or religious ideas.
Why, then, is the past itself a good in such arguments? And why would becoming normalized now be a virtue? Is this really the kind of history we want to be making?