The Marriage Pledge: A Gratifying Step on Civil vs. Ecclesiastical Marriage

It’s been a bit since Ephraim Radner and Christopher Seitz “crossed the Rubicon” and set forth The Marriage Pledge, which calls ministers to stop officiating civil marriages.  Reactions have been mixed.  The fact that I can say that shows that the steady legalisation of same-sex civil marriage has forced Christians–who have been working to “preserve marriage”, i.e. civil marriage as the union of one man and woman–to face reality on this issue.  From my perspective, it’s at least a decade later than it should have been.

It’s been a long, lonely trudge through the wilderness on wanting a formal break between civil and ecclesiastical marriage, and there are a few things I’d like to say about it.

In spite of some who have received the Marriage Pledge well, there’s still not general unanimity on the subject. Much of that is sheer inertia; we’ve always done it this way, why should we change now? I think that option has run out for many things in this country and in the West in general. It’s time we stopped playing checkers with our opposition and start playing chess, and Radner and Seitz’s Marriage Pledge is a chess move.

In many parts of the world, churches don’t have a choice. Following the tradition established by the French Revolution, the state does not allow ministers to solemnise marriages, so you end up having to “get married twice.” Somehow Christian churches have managed to thrive in this environment; given the crêpe some hang on ceding the officiation of state marriages, one wonders how. I think this kind of provincialism needs to stop. If they can do it, we can too.

Part of the problem is that Protestant churches, having cleverly desacramentalised marriage, lean too heavily on the state to cover the void of their own creation. Some even invoke “natural law”, an invocation that I, whose intellectual formation was as a Roman Catholic, find amazing.  In going through the gyrations they do on this subject, they overlook a few important facts.

The first is that, no matter how you slice it, marriage antedates the state. Even if we attempt to link marriage in church with “natural law” marriage, there is no good reason we should equate civil marriage with natural law marriage. The reason we do so is that the overpowering modern state has conditioned us to think in this way. If we’re planning on being real salt and light, we’d better lose this idea quickly.

Beyond that, in the marriage fracas, Evangelicalism in particular has revealed a serious weakness that results from their loosey-goosey “authority” structure. Because of this they are too dependent on the state for all kinds of things, and marriage is one of them. It’s no accident that one of the calls against the pledge came from a Southern Baptist, although their ability to create a tightly knit, conformity-obsessed system with the decentralised, congregational system they have makes one wonder why they couldn’t come up with a workable solution for marriage without the state. (That is even more true for the RCC and LDS churches; why they even need civil marriage is beyond me.)

Yes, there are the chickens in church hierarchies (I won’t name names, but you know who you are) who have urged/instructed their ministers not to sign the Marriage Pledge.  When their ministers get hauled into court for refusing to officiate same-sex marriage on the basis that they are agents of the state, they might have second thoughts. Then again, as Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori has proven, some people never learn.

The Marriage Pledge is a step in the right direction. It is not the beginning of the end for our ministers acting on behalf of the government but perhaps, as Winston Churchill put it about El Alamein, the end of the beginning. Who knows what could happen?

With that under our belt, if we could now get the Baptists and other Evangelicals to cut out the Clintonian “what is is” rubbish and see the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that would be glory. But, as Col. Hogan used to say, one miracle at a time.

The Most Important Goal in Life

Today is the Feast of Christ the King.  The script that calls out the liturgical year on this site simply refers to this as the Sunday before Advent, and that’s what it was for centuries.  The idea of this feast–at the end of the liturgical year–comes from the “new theology”, one that generally gets a reaction of horror from traditionalists.  The concept is simple: since we have Christmas (for Christ’s birth) and Good Friday/Easter (for his death and resurrection) we should have one for his coming return.

The idea that history has a purpose and an end is not uncontroversial but it’s one that bugs many of us: why are we here? where did we come from? where are we going?  We can’t do much about the first two, so it makes sense that we should concentrate on the last, and in doing so some answers to the first will become clear.

Many goals have been proposed over the centuries.  Some say that we have no goal, that when we die that’s it.  Others say that, through a series of cycles, we end up being reabsorbed into the Godhead, however that it defined.  Both of these have an air of pointlessness about them.  Why speak of a goal when the grave is the end? And why be here in the first place when we’ll be sucked up in another?

The French preacher Bossuet tells us that “man’s chief aim in life is to be happy”.  That sounds like something everyone can like.  But how to be happy forever?  Every form of happiness we see in this life is transient.  People wonder whether there will be pets or golf or football or even work in heaven.  But these come and go.  With football, it’s easy: you have sixty minutes to play and that’s it.  The others have less predictable starts and stops but they’re there.

St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that both the goal and the source of happiness in life is the following:

Final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence. To make this clear, two points must be observed.

  1. First, that man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek:
  2. Secondly, that the perfection of any power is determined by the nature of its object. (Summa Theologiae, 1-2, a.3, q.8)

Aquinas is always a little technical (which is why, I guess, I like him) so it helps to break things down. We all know people who go through life looking for the “maximum thrill”.  But when all the passing thrills are gone we are left with God, who is eternal.  Seeing him as he is (which is what the vision of the Divine Essence is all about) is the maximum thrill par excellence, not only for the sheer impact of the experience (2) but also because it lasts forever (1).

Getting back to the happiness, Aquinas notes the following:

If therefore the human intellect, knowing the essence of some created effect, knows no more of God than “that He is”; the perfection of that intellect does not yet reach simply the First Cause, but there remains in it the natural desire to seek the cause. Wherefore it is not yet perfectly happy. Consequently, for perfect happiness the intellect needs to reach the very Essence of the First Cause. And thus it will have its perfection through union with God as with that object, in which alone man’s happiness consists, as stated above (1,7; 2, 8).

We need to do more than believe that God is, although that’s a start.  We need to connect with him and know him as he is.  That’s starts in this life and reaches its goal–not an end in time–in the next.  And then we can find the happiness we’ve been looking for all along.

To start that journey, click here

My Challenge to Church of God Ministers: Take the Marriage Pledge

Many of you know that, in spite of a lot of what turns up on this blog, I am a member of the North Cleveland Church of God and worked for the church’s International Offices in the Lay Ministries Department for 13 1/2 years.  So I’m not a stranger to at least some of our ministers.

Many of you also know that I have advocated the abolition of civil marriage for a long time, and even longer have looked forward to the time when marriage in church and marriage by the state be separated.  We now know that the state, having redefined divorce away from New Testament standards, is in the process of doing so with marriage.

When Joe Edwards (who is pastor at Cartersville, GA) married my wife and I many years ago, he recalled that God married the first couple in the Garden.  Think about that: God didn’t need the state then to marry a couple, and he does not now.  He has not changed: to be Pentecostal is to proclaim that God’s promises, like him, don’t change.

Two distinguished clerics have come up with the Marriage Pledge, which states in part:

Our biblical faith is committed to upholding, celebrating, and furthering this understanding, which is stated many times within the Scriptures and has been repeatedly restated in our wedding ceremonies, church laws, and doctrinal standards for centuries. To continue with church practices that intertwine government marriage with Christian marriage will implicate the Church in a false definition of marriage.

We’ve reached the critical moment.  I am asking you to join in supporting and, if you feel led, to sign this pledge.

And I would add one other thing: I believe that, sooner or later, you will be forced to perform same-sex marriages.  How?  When you officiate a civil marriage, you’re an agent of the state.  Someone is going to claim that agents of the state cannot discriminate and, knowing our judiciary, will make that stick.  Making the separation outlined in the Marriage Pledge will take that out of contention.

May God richly bless you!

Go to the Marriage Pledge

Maybe the Democrats Don't Need a Deep Electoral Bench

The Republican “wave” (what that means electorally depends upon whom you talk to) in the recent Congressional elections has highlighted their opponents’ weaknesses at the state level.  To a large extent there are two electorates: one at the mid-term and one at the Presidential year.

The one thing these two have in common, according to one Jonathan Gruber, is that they’re both stupid.  And that has much of the right in a tiswas.  Well, I hate to burst balloons, but the idea that the American people are stupid has been an article of faith among our ruling elites as long as I can remember.  I certainly was inculcated with that concept growing up.  The difference between then and now is that, with the Internet and viral videos, it’s a lot easier for this élite idea to be presented in the raw to the general population.  And using legislative and political artifices to get stuff done (good and bad) in Congress isn’t anything new either.  One would like to think that our elites, as smart as they claim to be, would use these tricks to pass something better than the expensive kludge known as Obamacare, but that too tells us that our “meritocracy” isn’t as advertised.

Getting back to the state level thing, the Democrats’ problems there go beyond the U.S. Congress; they extend to the governors’ mansions and state legislatures.  That’s a bad thing politically because your states and localities are the “farm club” for bigger things.  Today’s city councilman or woman (and the Republicans are getting better at that, too) is tomorrow’s U.S. Senator or more.  Even Barack Obama had to pass through the Illinois state senate on his way from organising the community to upending the nation.

The shallowness of that electoral “bench” shows up most vividly in the Democrats’ 2016 Presidential prospects.  To put it simply, they come down to Hillary Clinton.  No one else comes close.  And she isn’t an ideal candidate.  There’s always the baggage from Bill (although Obama has done a lot to lighten that load), the Benghazi fiasco, and IMHO the biggest unknown, her health.  For the party which claims to be the new American majority and the darling of the Millennials and the immigrants, to hang the 2016 Presidential  aspirations on her doesn’t speak well for the breadth of their leadership.  That’s an opportunity for the Republicans to take.

Or is it? What I think is happening is that aspiring Democrats are moving up in other ways.  They’re taking their places in NGO’s (which, as Julian Assange points out, are more often than not fronts for corporatist/political agendas and people), in the legal profession (where they can move up to the judicial bench), in the bureaucracy and finally in our pliant media.  There are two reasons for this.

The first is practical: moving up in this way is less risky (one doesn’t have to deal with the uncertainties and risks of our manic electoral system) and generally pays better.  The second goes back to the Progressive Era and is based on the idea that “professionals” are better at governing than elected “political hacks”.  That concept is well entrenched in our system; most of our career bureaucracy is based on that, and Congress has given the executive broad powers that put them far away from pesky elected officials.  (Which is why Obama’s use of executive power is possible; my only surprise is that he didn’t start using it sooner).  It also creates a natural army against shrinking the government.  There’s still a great deal of debate about whether the IRS was ordered from the top to put the stall on Tea Party groups, but one thing is certain: people like Lois Lerner didn’t need much encouragement.

And recent history, more than the Right would care to admit, vindicates this approach.  The Religious Right’s experience is instructive.  Their greatest mistake was to put too much confidence in making change through the electoral process and not recognising that their main opponent was an élite that didn’t have any use for them and whose minimisation was essential to their success.  The result was an expensive effort that has yielded little except for antagonising large parts of the population.  The only exception to that has been the pro-life movement, which was born in the wake of a major piece of élite fiat and whose legislative options have been limited, to say the least.

The idea that the electoral process isn’t central to political life strikes many as unAmerican.  But we live in a different country now; it’s time to get used to it and act accordingly.

The Evangelical Comeuppance in the Middle East

I’ve not had the time lately to post in as timely fashion as I would like, mostly because of the semester-by-semester crapshoot which is my PhD pursuit.  But there’s a long-term issue that deserves some comment, and that concerns a long-overdue attitude adjustment that Evangelicals need to make because of events in the Middle East.

And I’m not talking about Israel either.  There’s a drumbeat amongst Evangelicals who can’t bear to see the latest bandwagon roll down the street without them to change Evangelical support towards Israel.  Leaving aside the theological changes, they need to consider two things: do they want another Holocaust, and would the land (and its inhabitants) be better off under the rule of the likes of Hamas? (They also need to consider that, these days, Israel has better friends in Cairo and Riyadh than Washington and Brussels).

Eluding them in the search for answers is the simple fact that, in the Middle East, people play for keeps.  We see that plainly with the other news-gathering force in the region: ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever.  ISIS has made itself a stench in people’s nostrils for their wanton destruction of ancient artefacts, but in destroying the remains they carry on the tradition of warfare that has been the region’s hallmark for millennia.  As John McKenzie observed in his Dictionary Of The Bible:

The ancient war was a candid war of conquest or looting.  Both of these ends were sanctified by the religious character of war, which was fought on behalf of the gods of the people and under the leadership and protection of the gods. The cruelty and barbarism of ancient war were equally candid; ancient war is shocking only because it involved the primitive means of personal effort, and could not achieve the vast mechanical horrors of modern warfare. Prisoners of war had no rights whatsoever; the entire population could be enslaved, unless the defeated enemy were regarded as a menace to the victor; if it were, the male population could be exterminated or mutilated.  Destruction of conquered towns was a normal act of the victor.

Today ISIS has social media, fast vehicles, religious motivation and personal weaponry (but not so much air power) and they’ve brought back the personal, brutal tradition of warfare with a vengeance.  It’s almost as if the spirits of the Assyrians, the core of whose empire they’ve conquered, have come back and entered into these people.

Most mentions of the Assyrians these days, however, centre in two places: the artefacts ISIS is destroying and the Christian communities they’re butchering.  Before the Kurds were supplied well enough to stop this advance, the world’s attention was riveted on Christian (and Yazidi) communities being tortured and massacred by ISIS.  Floating to the top in Evangelical circles was this question: where are the Christians to help? Fortunately Evangelical organisations rose to the occasion and have done what they’re supposed to, and things are better.  But the blind spot that Evangelicals have revealed towards Christianity in the Middle East doesn’t need to be passed over in silence.

In my work My Lord and My God, when introducing the church fathers I made the following observation:

Most evangelicals look at church history in a very specific way; there were first New Testament times, then there was the Reformation, and now there’s us. This results in a gap of about a millennium and a half between significant events; surely something happened in that length of time!

Part of the “something” was Middle Eastern Christianity, in its array of Orthodox (Chalcedoninan and non-Chalcedonian), Nestorian, Monophysite and other manifestations.  All of these eventually came under a rotation of one Islāmic state after another.

The switch of populations from Christianity to Islam varied from place to place.  In North Africa, it was complete, which explains why Evangelical (largely Pentecostal) Christianity pretty much dominates the Christian population in Algeria.  At the other extreme is Lebanon, with its sizeable Maronite population, legendary on both sides of the Atlantic.  Then there are those populations which were driven out or destroyed by massacre such as the Armenians, although the driving force behind that was the incorporation of Western ideas of nationalism into an Islāmic framework, which drives much more of Islamicism these days than either the Islamicists or their Western analysts care to admit.

Evangelicals marched into the Middle East with the same attitude towards whatever Christianity was there with the same attitude they did in Latin America: these people are lost as a goose unless we do something about it and they join our church.  And experience teaches that underestimating the ability of very old churches to engage in lacklustre inculcation of the faith is a dangerous proposition.

Events in the Middle East, however, showed that, for all the deficiencies of these churches, their ability to drill scriptures such as Mt 10:32-33 into their parishioners worked: by and large Middle Eastern Christians were ready to die for their faith.  The contrast with the lachrymose approach we see to the subject of martyrdom in the U.S., to say nothing of the knock-kneed approach we’re seeing with regard to the challenges against the Christian sexual ethic, is striking.

Christianity is first about transformation:

Therefore, if any one is in union with Christ, he is a new being! His old life has passed away; a new life has begun! But all this is the work of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the Ministry of Reconciliation– To proclaim that God, in Christ, was reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning men’s offences against them, and that he had entrusted us with the Message of this reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-19 TCNT)

In looking at other people, we tend to look at the process by which their lives were transformed by Jesus Christ and not the transformation itself.  (And that goes for ourselves, too).  If we do this, we are no better than those who say that, without Church __________, heaven is difficult if not impossible to attain.  And that’s inconsistent with what Evangelical Christianity is all about.  We need to see real Christians in places we haven’t before and act accordingly, and if our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters have made this point stick with their own blood, that blood is a seed in more ways than one.

It Really Is About What You Stand For

In this wild election cycle, a Republican is about to break a record she wasn’t “supposed to”:

An upstate New York Republican is slated Tuesday to shatter the congressional record of former Brooklyn Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman as the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

Elise Stefanik, 30, is favored to win in New York’s upstate 21st District and break history as the youngest female to win a seat in the House. Holtzman was sworn in at age 31 in 1973 at a time when women weren’t even allowed in the congressional gym.

“I’m just sorry it’s a not a Democrat,” Holtzman told The Post. “But hats off to her. We need more young women in Congress.”

We do, but then there’s the kicker:

“I think more important than gender, it’s what people stand for,” said Holtzman, a lawyer in Manhattan.

That’s true too.  But people like Stefanik, according to the current meme on the left, aren’t supposed to exist.  Neither are two other Republican women running this year: Mia Love and Joni Ernst.  But they do and have done well this election cycle.

Perhaps the lesson from all of this is that the best way to develop talent is through adversity and not entitlement.  That’s something that the Democrats should think about as they move to coronate another hippie dreamer with the goal of having the “first woman President”. The fact that the Turks and Pakistanis (to say nothing of the Canadians,  Brits and Israelis) beat us to having a woman as head of government should tell us that our whole gender construct is a disaster, and that nearly a half century of trying to “fix” it hasn’t achieved the desired objective.

But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, and that’s pretty much the norm in American politics these days.