I am very conflicted about the recent Supreme Court decision(s). Federal law is necessarily a legally homogenizing and yet protective force that can easily flatten the diversity of thought and belief in America. I strongly support full legal protection for gay couples but also am incredibly wary of relying on the court to bring about good and lasting change (lest we forget how easily it rolled back racial justice just 24 hours prior). To put my concerns another way, I see in the Church a dangerous tendency in both progressives and conservatives to look to the state to effectively mediate theological conflicts through secular legal decisions.
Marriage, for many Christian traditions, is a sacrament (an outward sign of an inward grace), an ordinance (a rite performed in obedience Christ), or an otherwise religious expression that identifies a union blessed by God through the Church. Civil unions and domestic partnerships are legal protections granted and enforced by the state. My impresion of the 2009 civil union debate in Hawaii was that it seemed like opponents of marriage-like legal equality for the LGBT community were effectively just trying to coerce the state into enforcing their Christian moral framework. I opposed it, in part, because the state and the Church are and should remain distinct. The state has no claim over Christian sacraments, and the distinction between Church and state threatens to be dissolved by using the language of “marriage” too haphazardly.
Civil unions and domestic partnerships, in so far as they refrain from relying on more nearly sacramental language, are far more appropriate matters for political debate, since they are legal relationships that courts oversee and adjudicate. Marriage as a Christian framework is not so sterile as to be merely legal, and must be deliberated in a very different way than is obviously par for the course in contemporary politics, with its partisan mudslinging and sloganeering. To find our way forward, Christians must orient ourselves to Christ, in whom we have our being and to whom we are ultimately wed.
After all, if there is “gay marriage” might there not also be “gay communion” or “gay baptism”? No, for the body of Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, gay nor… On the contrary, there is one Spirit and one body, though our parts are many. The theological issues that the universal Church has are not the domain of the state, and sorting out our ecclesial differences is not the place of the political authorities. I am as troubled by opposite sex Christian couples being “married” by someone with “power vested in [them] by the state of [fill in the blank]” as I am gay Christian couples.
Make no mistake, I believe strongly that the rights afforded by the law should be distributed equally to adult couples who display a willingness to commit to one another in sickness and in good health, until death do they part. Legal partnerships abound in civil law and domestic unions can easily be modeled thereafter, with protections and benefits enforceable through the courts. Contracts are relationally sterile, needing to be as neutral as possible in order to ensure equal representation before an impartial court.
But for Christians the determinative imagery for unions is based upon the marriage of Christ and his bride, the Church. Jesus is anything but impartial, his mercy exceeding mere justice and impartiality. Christian relationships are not fundamentally contractual, but covenantal. Furthermore, no piece of paper adequately codifies the partnership between people, whether we call them husband, wife, partner, spouse, or any other thing. Christians (and all Americans) should do everything we can to strengthen the full legal protections for all partnerships. We should thank God that this week’s development suggests that the marginalization of gay couples and their civil rights will no longer be the rule, but the exception.
Let us be very careful in how we speak of our relationships. If marriage, let us mean one thing, but if union, another. Take France, for example, a religious event and the legal contract are separate; one does not guarantee the other. We need to be careful not to take our cues from the state or to be beholden to a government to define and enforce our sacraments. After all, just yesterday SCOTUS had no problem rolling back racial justice, even as it today advanced civil rights for the LGBT community. We cannot place ultimate trust in our legal or political institutions, but only in God and the institutions blessed by the Church. The line is narrow and the balance fine, but must remain distinctive enough to differentiate between the two. The haphazard language I have seen on this issue makes it hard to tell God from country, politics from religion.
There are a myriad of differences between traditions within the church, and we should not rely upon “the authorities” to enforce a flattening universal model for each and every one of us. Those of us in support of legal equality for gay people know how that has felt, with (the blessed impermanence of) the Defense of Marriage Act. Let us all work together to strengthen our laws to protect those who need protection, including racial minorities affected one day and LGBT people the next. In everything, let us continue to grow in love for God and learn to distinguish between law and gospel, between God and country.
Logan Mehl-Laituri is an Iraq veteran and a student in the theological studies program at Duke Divinity School, where he is a founding member of Milites Christi. He also acts as the Executive Officer of Centurion’s Guild and is the author of Reborn on the Fourth of July (InterVarsity Press, 2012).
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