Friday, April 19, 2013

Marriage Equality Bill (NZ)

I trust that in this post I am not adding to the noisy clatter that has followed the recent passing of the marriage equality bill here in New Zealand. Social media has been inundated with banging and clanging and shouting and pouting; much of which has been nonsensical.
Walter Brueggemann has a brilliant book, Cadences of Home;Preaching Among Exiles. The general premise of the book is that our contemporary cultural context (from a Christian perspective) is best understood using the metaphor of ‘exile.’ In other words, while perhaps society might have once been considered (inverted commas) “Christian”; we now live in a post-Christian context. The Christian therefore finds them self living as an ‘exile.’ Not in the sense of geography but rather socially, culturally and morally. In many ways treasured symbols, values and ethics central to Christian belief have been rejected within our larger cultural context. To quote Brueggemann; “Serious reflective Christians find themselves increasingly at odds with the dominant values of consumer capitalism and its supportive military patriotism; there is no easy or obvious way to hold together core faith claims and the social realities around us.”  We thus increasingly find ourselves as “resident aliens.” This is not unfamiliar territory for the Christ follower. Peter addresses his first letter to “God’s elect, exiles scattered” and urges them as “foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires” and to live “such good lives” that those who do not live according to the Way of Jesus would “see your good deeds and glorify God.” I don’t actually think our society has ever been “Christian” but I’ll grant that society once held somewhat more of a traditional Judeo-Christian worldview than it does today. For many (perhaps specifically in North America though certainly not limited to North America) this Judeo-Christian ethic (as good as it was) has led to wrongly equating a Western worldview with a Christian worldview. This misunderstanding massively distorts what it is to be a Christ follower and live the way of Jesus in the world.

Every now and then some social, cultural, moral or spiritual awakening or crisis challenges ones worldview.  In regards to crisis (or perceived crisis) it seems to me that there are two sorts of Christian response. Firstly there is the response of those who either have an over-realised sense of triumphalism or underwhelming sense of God’s ability to continually work out his purposes in the world despite the ways of our world. This group bemoans the fact that their ‘Christian’ nation is falling apart and makes a whole lot of noise about slippery slopes, moral erosion, compromise and social breakdown. Then there seems to be a second group, Christians who understand themselves to be exiles living in a strange land. This group is simply reminded afresh that their nation is not ‘Christian.’ For them the ship of ‘Christendom’ has well and truly sailed, they recognise the reality our post-Christian world and are not trying to hold onto yesteryear. They do not expect secular government, media or general culture to reflect the way of Christ. Rather than protest, bemoan and argue, their response and commitment is to faithfully live the life of Christ in their spheres of influence. As Brueggemann puts it, “Exile did not lead the Jews in the Old Testament to abandon faith or to settle for abdicating despair, nor to retreat to privatistic religion. On the contrary, exile evoked the most brilliant literature and the most daring theological articulation in the Old Testament.” The truth is, if Christians might together ‘catch up’ to our profoundly changed social circumstance, we might proceed with a different set of presuppositions in regards to culture and also a very different sense of urgencies. This will in turn lead to more meaningful engagement with our contemporary culture than bemoaning “moral erosion,” or the breakdown of society and family,” or declaring today as a “sad day for our country,” or a day where one is “not proud to be a Kiwi.” These being simply the kinds of comments some have made in regards to the passing of the recent marriage equality bill. Many have said these sorts of things. Many have said a lot worse.

So what about the marriage equality bill?

I hold what would be considered a “traditional” or “conservative” Christian position in regards to marriage and in regards to homosexuality. I think coming to this position is a fairly straight forward procedure, however, outworking its implications pastorally is an incredibly complicated challenge. I don’t think the Church has done particularly well in this area. This is a discussion for another time however. Now, when it comes to the marriage equality bill. Firstly, I’m of the position that we now live in a post-Christian society. Secondly then, to oppose something in a public forum based on the Bible and using biblical texts as proof for or against an argument is ludicrous. With this in mind, for me the debate on changing or not changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples comes down to genuine issues of equality, human rights, oppression and any form of genuine peer-reviewed  scientific evidence of how sociologically such a change could somehow be damaging for society. Considering this I was left largely sitting on the fence. I’m not convinced of any good reason to change the definition of marriage based on the above, and at the same time, I am not convinced of any good reason not to change the definition of marriage. If I had to lean one way based on the above argument it would be towards allowing the amendment to go through. As it just has. I wouldn’t find it contradictory to support the government's decision to affirm same-sex marriage while at the same time holding to the position that this is not a theologically valid option for Christians. This too is a discussion for another time.

So what then for Christians going forward?

Continuing with the metaphor or exiles the challenge becomes twofold. Firstly not to assimilate into the culture that surrounds, and secondly, not to become so pre-occupied with self that one cannot see outside of one’s self to re-think, re-imagine and re-describe larger reality. As Brueggemann says, “Self-preoccupation seldom yields energy, courage, or freedom. In ancient Israel, one of the strategies for coping shrewdly and responsibly beyond self were the narratives of defiance and cunning that [challenged] exiles not to confront their harsh overlords directly, but to negotiate knowingly between faith and the pressures of ‘reality.’” Think of Joseph, Easter and Daniel and the requirement of an endlessly cunning, risky process of negotiation.

Rather than bemoan, belittle, protest, march against and prophesy doom gloom and doubt, (I enjoyed this brief speech in parliament by National MP Maurice Williamson), Christians must subversively write great songs, tell great stories, paint great pictures, make great movies. All of which tell a different story, tell of a different narrative, that of God's hand at work in the world and of the love and grace of Jesus. A story that offers a different way of being in the world. We do this as artists using whatever medium comes most naturally, but most importantly, as artists expressing oneself through the canvas of one’s life. Your covenant of marriage is before God. You standard of ethical living is before God. The way you raise your kids is before God. Therefore, live in such a way that you are a credit to the message of Christ (Philippians 1:27). So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. (Romans 12:1-2)

In other words, nurture your counter-identity. Live out the hope you have in Christ even amidst a season of despair (which is not a reference to the marriage equality bill but rather the reality that we live in the now-but-not-yet in which all has not been redeemed and reconciled as it one day will be). Encourage one another to live free “from the pathologies, coercions, and seductions that govern our society.” Offer to one another the encouragement and support that gives spine, resolve, courage, energy, commitment and freedom to fully embrace and live out your counter-identity in Christ. Live out the way of faith, hope, and love. Divorce yourself from consumerism, materialism, individualism, narcissism and hedonism and embrace grace freely given. Freely offer grace to those around you. Look forward to the “homecoming” of God’s will on earth even as it is in heaven, the eternal hope, and live in the light of that hope today.

In other words, for God’s sake, don’t be so nasty! Let your light shine. You’re marriage isn’t under any more attack or in any more danger than it ever was, nor does it mean anything less. Love your spouse all the more. Love your kids all the more. Love your family all the more. Don’t sigh and despair. Don’t point the finger and judge. Don’t fire of Bible verses as if they somehow have sway in a secular context. Love the world around you all the more. Speak love and grace and peace. There is nothing to bemoan about the marriage equality bill being passed. If you have gay family members that are going to tie the knot and they invite you to their wedding. Go. Buy the best wedding present ever! Your lack of attendance isn’t going to be the key to them finding faith. You’re a Christian, a Christ follower. You are the church, the body of Christ “that lives as God's pardon in the world, with arms wide open ready to spoil any wayward son [or daughter] with royal rings.” (Toby C).