Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Basic Family Unit

Gay Marriage was on the ballot again in Maine and Oregon and maybe other places. Once again there were conservatives in the newspapers and on television screaming that the "basic family unit" was under siege, that society as we know it was going to collapse. All hysteria and idiocy aside, what really surprises me about this rhetoric is that much of it comes from protestants who should know better. That is, they should know that a heterosexual couple with kids is not actually the basic family unit.

The usual religious line they spout is that God created man and woman to be "one flesh", to cleave to one another in marriage and "multiply". Cloaked in a bunch of faux sociology they then allege that the nuclear family is the most basic social institution upholding civil order. This conveniently ignores the fact that in most societies the extended family is the most basic social institution - that really only since the 1950's and the one-house one-family trend in the USA has the nuclear family been dominant. It also ignores a host of societies that are polygamous, or polygynous (including, you know, the Biblical one). It ignores a variety of popular and legitimate social ways to be single, from celibacy to widowhood. Really it turns human relationships in general into a caricature that bears no resemblance to reality.

But the reason that protestants in particular should know better than to parrot these talking points, is our historical protestant definition of marriage as a civil institution rather than a sacrament. For a long time marriage has been whatever the state defines it to be for protestants, whereas Catholics have traditionally been opposed to the civil institution altogether, holding it to be a sacrament of the Church. The reason for this, which I think is sound, is a look at Biblical perspectives on marriage.

The Bible doesn't give a single definition of marriage. There are all kinds of different marital arrangements in scripture, none of which are held up as absolutely normative. Most importantly for Christians marriage is given very low importance in the New Testament. Jesus is not married, neither is Paul. Paul extols the virtue of celibacy and treats marriage like a lesser compromise for those who can't keep their libido in check. Jesus tells us that marriage won't even exist in the kingdom. Jesus tells us to deny our father and mother (which given that whole "cleaving" theme seems should apply equally to spouses) and seek God.

The overwhelming point in all of this is that for Christians marriage and the nuclear family are most adamantly NOT the pinnacle of human relationship. The very definition of love that Christ gives is to sacrifice one's life for a friend - not a spouse. Jesus thoroughly restructures the emphasis in relationships around the community of disciples - the Church. The Basic Family Unit, according to Jesus, is the communion of saints, all other allegiances dissolve in the egalitarian brotherhood of the children of God.

So then, what is the place of marriage? It is certainly not a bedrock institution upholding society. It is as Paul says, about meeting human needs. As God notes in Genesis - it is not good that we should be alone. It is a gift that is gratuitous. One can live a full and joyful life without it, but if you feel the need, it is a welcome opportunity for you to give and receive comfort in intimacy. For those homosexuals who desire it, why are we withholding the gift? It has nothing to do with the basic family unit. I'll tell you that.


Aric Clark said...

I realized I've basically said exactly this same thing before. Broken record and all that.

Doug Hagler said...

Heh - I was going to say "Like last time, I definitely agree" :) Though last time you also made the excellent point that the most important relationships for Christians are with fellow disciples and enemies. I thought that was killar.

Particularly for the many who grow up in dysfunctional families, I think it is an act of grace to undergo the Christian transformation of the concept of "family".