Friday, June 26, 2015

The sanctity of marriage and the American worldview

AP photo.
Well, America, there you have it. This morning the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that bans on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, and that same-sex couples in all 50 states should be allowed to marry. Supporters of "traditional marriage" (a term with dangerous connotations) have lost the "culture war". Depending on who you're listening to, this is either a huge advance in justice, equality, and the American Way, or a decisive lurch toward moral dissipation and religious persecution of all who do not embrace the new regime of "marriage equality".

I try not to listen too closely to either of these opinions.

I still stand by most of what I said in my surprisingly popular post on same-sex marriage. I still believe God designed marriage as a gift for mankind to be enjoyed by a man and his wife; I still fail to see how this inexorably leads to fighting against the right of same-sex couples to legally wed, let alone to denouncing them as sinners who need to repent of their idolatry. I still think people who adopt these stances are very often being selective in how they stand for their Christian convictions in a way that does their living witness few favors. I still think Christ set an example as radical in his day as it is today in how we, his followers, are to humbly love all people. (Because public opinion is decisively in their favor, I no longer think gay couples can be described as "the tax collectors of our day", but the Lord's example still stands)

As the relative sparseness of my recent posts shows, I am reluctant to assume that my thoughts on a given topic are particularly wise or worth listening to. But considering the magnitude of the Supreme Court's decision, I think this is a good time to restate with more clarity some things which I am reasonably sure about. Since my previous posts on same-sex marriage went up before I started my journey to Orthodoxy, this will also be an interesting look (mainly for me) at how my approach to social issue like this has shifted.

The "sanctity of marriage"

If you are one of the conservative Christians wringing their hands over the decision and the collapse of the "sanctity of marriage" that it heralds, I would like to point a few things out. We live in a nation where 50% of marriages end in divorce (relatively easy, legalized divorce, at that), where many people elect not to marry at all and simply cohabit or have hookups to get the pleasurable part of marriage with none of the commitment, where marriages are marred by desertion, adultery, even spousal abuse. All this to say that if you are hoping to save the "sanctity of marriage" in American culture, you are far, far too late. (And I do think it is culture, not legislation or court decisions, that is the fundamental issue; no one ever passed a law to make the hookup culture possible, and the real problem is not that same-sex marriage is now legally a constitutional right, but that so many people already considered it to be one) Out of all of these problems, some of which are much more clearly condemned in Scripture, why have you made same-sex marriage your hill to die upon? (I could also ask: why do you not equally protest legalized same-sex marriage in other countries, if gay couples getting married anywhere apparently threatens the sanctity of marriage?)

As a recently-married man(!), I am happy to report that the sanctity of my own marriage has not been affected in the slightest by the legal state of affairs in the United States, or in any other country. The real threat to the "sanctity" of my marriage is not the efforts of third parties to redefine it in the eyes of the state, but my and my wife's own sin, our selfishness, our weakness, all the ways that we fail to truly represent the love between Christ and the Church. The Lord taught us to remove the log from our own eye before trying to take out the speck from our neighbor's eye (Mat 7:3-5), a point well made now as ever. Since taking interest in the Orthodox Church over a year ago, I have found it consistently does a better job of teaching and applying this kind of humility, to an almost radical degree, than most western churches. What right have we to condemn the damage we perceive others to be doing to marriage if our own marriage is full of sin?

As I said in my previous post, I think it's misleading to talk about the present conflict as being over the "definition of marriage". Why must the Church and the state have identical definitions of marriage, when their definitions of so many other things (not least who is a "Christian" and what is a "church") are allowed to differ radically? Talk of marriage as an "institution" adds to this confusion of terms. In classical Christianity, marriage is much more consistently considered a sacrament—a way in which God imparts grace to his people. If it is to be an institution, it is certainly no legal institution; Christians have been supporting a different ethic of marriage since before Constantine, when people of different social classes would be united in marriages that could not be recognized by the government. (An ironic reversal of the modern situation) America's historic profession of "traditional marriage" is an artifact of the Judeo-Christian ethic of its founders, not an article of the faith. This ruling is a radical redefinition of the legal institution of marriage, but it does nothing to alter the Christian sacrament of marriage. (This author puts it better than I can)

Keeping faith out of politics?

I'd like to turn now to one of the arguments I hear in support of the ruling: that Christians shouldn't oppose it because that would be bringing their faith into politics, which would be a violation of the "separation of church and state". (It goes something like that) As you have no doubt heard, this phrase, so often cited as a summary of the First Amendment (or at least the part of it pertaining to religious freedom), does not actually appear in it. The actual text reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Obviously, this amendment pertains only to Congress; it says nothing about whether or how individual Christians, or members of any other faith, are to carry their faith into political engagement. (Does this also mean the president or Supreme Court can issue executive orders/rulings "respecting an establishment of religion"?) If there is a general rule stating that Christians should keep their faith out of politics, it will have to be found elsewhere.

But what if the problem is not the mixing of religion and politics, but the unwise mixing of religion and politics?

I said earlier that I stand by most of what I wrote in my earlier post. I say this because I no longer agree that "Jesus' concern [in ministry] was not political in nature, changing the conditions of the kingdoms of this world, it was incarnating a completely different kingdom that is not of this world at all, with any ensuing political change merely a side effect of the coming of the Kingdom of God." I now consider it much more accurate to say that Jesus' ministry was political, strongly so at times—just not in the ways people expected.

The truth is that the modern dichotomy between religion and politics (and, arguably, the ability to imagine "religion" as a discrete part of life separable from everything else) is a new invention, dating back to the Enlightenment and no earlier. It will do us no good to try to apply it to Jesus. In the first century, what we would call "religion" and "politics" were virtually inseparable, especially for the Jewish people, for whom there was little difference between "religious" and "political" parties. The Jews' definition of "salvation" entailed the forgiveness and vindication of Israel, the defeat of the Gentile nations that oppressed her, and the exaltation of the Lord as the actual ruler over the whole world. This would, of course, have earth-shattering political consequences.

In the opposite corner, the Roman empire had a worldview of its own which, if possible, combined "religion" and "politics" to an even greater degree: the emperor was divine, the son of god, savior of the world, the bringer of "peace and safety", and worthy of reverence, if not a god worthy of worship in his own right. To live as a loyal subject of the emperor was to pay him the proper respects; even the Jews merely managed to work out a deal where they would pray to their god for the emperor, rather than to him as everyone else increasingly did.

It is often assumed that Christ came bearing an unexpectedly apolitical answer to the hopes and prayers of Israel: instead of salvation from the Romans, salvation from sin and death; rather than the rulership of Jesus over an earthly kingdom, his spiritual headship over the Church. As the Lord said, "my kingship is not of this world." (Jhn 18:36) This is only partially true. Once you understand the worldview implicit in the Roman empire and the rising tide of emperor-worship, you begin to see all the ways that the New Testament writers (especially Paul) proclaim the Christian gospel in such a way as to contrast with the imperial "gospel". "Jesus is Lord"; by implication, Caesar is not. Jesus is the savior of the world, not Augustus. He is the ruler over all, whose coming we are to faithfully await; he is truly the Son of God; he is the one who will set the world to rights. He is the "real deal", the true Lord of which the emperor with all his pompous claims and titles is only an imitation. In the Christian gospel, all the promises of the empire were revealed to be false and Christ the one who could truly fulfill them.

In other words, the gospel, as the early Church understood it, was political in that it made "political" claims in competition with those of the empire. Yet this did not mean confronting Rome head on, with its own tactics, as if Jesus had tried to set himself up as a rival emperor in the east hundreds of years before the division of the Roman empire into east and west. Jesus triumphed over the powers and authorities of this world not by political or military victories (as the Jews expected), but primarily by dying and rising from the dead (cf. Col 2:15), demonstrating his lordship over death and all creation. Against the Roman "gospel" and the imperial worldview surrounding it, the early Christians fielded a different gospel, the gospel of Jesus the Messiah, with a different way of living, different answers to the questions to which the emperor claimed to be the solution, and a different narrative in which to locate themselves.

Confronting the powers

What I am suggesting is that American Christians today need to do the same with our country. Just as Rome offered its people a ready-made worldview by which to order their lives, I suspect that there is such a thing as an "American worldview". What is the narrative in which our American culture encourages us to find ourselves? What answers does the American way of life offer to the human condition? I am probably not the person to answer this question in full, but a few quotes from documents that have shaped our nation should be demonstrative. From the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. 
That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The preamble of the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
And from Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that helped pave the way for today's:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. 
These help to sharpen the suspicions I already had: the American "worldview", though hard to define precisely, places a high priority on individual rights such as life, equality, personal liberty, and the "pursuit of happiness" (whatever that entails), and sees it as the purpose of government to secure these rights. In a more postmodern twist, this liberty entails the right to self-determination, the ability wherever possible to define the course and meaning of one's existence without hindrance. In light of these values, consider a few quotes from Justice Kennedy's ruling today:
From their beginning to their most recent page, the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. The lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life. Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations. 
The fundamental liberties protected by [the 14th Amendment] include most of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. See Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 147–149 (1968). In addition these liberties extend to certain personal choices central to individual dignity and autonomy, including intimate choices that define personal identity and beliefs. 
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.
Kennedy easily applies the rights to personal liberty and self-determination to marriage: if the right to marriage is so important, so essential to a meaningful, fulfilled, "dignified" life, then of course it is unconstitutional to deprive anyone of it without due process of law. However much conservatives may decry same-sex marriage, it's hard to argue that it runs against the spirit of the Constitution.

Maybe what we, as Christians, need to be critiquing is not individual hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, but the hypertolerant, individualistic, libertarian-self-determination worldview on which this nation is founded, which gave rise to this ruling and others that Christians have rightly decried. True justice, true freedom, and true meaning are found in Jesus Christ, not the American way. The early Christians refused to bow before effigies of the emperor; do we today refuse to bow before America's functional "savior", the ateleological sanctity of individual rights and self-determination? Do we glimpse even a fraction of the ways in which our citizenship in the kingdom of God pushes up against our American citizenship, or worse, do we consider the two somehow complementary, as if patriotism is really next to godliness? Obviously the way to oppose such intangible ideals is not by antagonistic protesting or pushing for such-and-such legislation. Rather, it is to live differently, as the body of Christ, the embodiment of a worldview centered around the death and resurrection of the Messiah—much as the early Church did.

Rather than a defeat, this ruling can be an opportunity for Christians to reevaluate and seek to embody to the world a more balanced vision of "God's plan for marriage"—to be known not primarily for what we are against (let alone for being sticks-in-the-mud on a few particular issues). The Christian model of marriage is not simply bigotry, but something far greater and more beautiful, of which the insistence on "traditional marriage" is only a corollary. Through marriage we are called to live out the self-sacrificial, transformative love between Christ and the Church (Eph 5:22-33), which even today has the potential to be a tremendously compelling witness for the faith. In the absence of a deeper closing statement, I think St. Paul's words are apt concluding instructions: "Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. ... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Rom 12:17,18,21)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Our Common Home

If you haven't been living under a rock, you have no doubt heard that Pope Francis has finally released his encyclical on the environment, entitled Laudato Si' after its first two words. I cannot encourage you strongly enough to read it, or if its considerable length is too daunting, one of the stories summarizing it. It is a truly remarkable treatise on the modern human condition  worthy of being read and noted by everyone. I will only comment on it here briefly, since I have very little to add to Francis' challenge.

The beginning of the encyclical (paragraphs 1-2) quote the pope's namesake in the course of laying out his vision:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
This sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she “groans in travail” (Rom 8:22). We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth (cf. Gen 2:7); our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment from her waters.
He further uses Saint Francis' love for, openness to, and communion with God's creation as model for all Christians, recognizing that is both the gift of a benevolent Creator and a "book" by which we can know something of him. (10-12) He states his call thus:
The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home. ... I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. (13-14)
He then wastes little time in the problems he is calling to attention. It is somewhat regrettable that Laudato Si' is so often referred to as the "climate encyclical". As promised and hoped, Francis does address the matter of climate change head-on, coming down solidly on the side of the scientific consensus (23-26):
The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity. Concentrated in the atmosphere, these gases do not allow the warmth of the sun’s rays reflected by the earth to be dispersed in space. The problem is aggravated by a model of development based on the intensive use of fossil fuels, which is at the heart of the worldwide energy system. Another determining factor has been an increase in changed uses of the soil, principally deforestation for agricultural purposes. Warming has effects on the carbon cycle. It creates a vicious circle which aggravates the situation even more, affecting the availability of essential resources like drinking water, energy and agricultural production in warmer regions, and leading to the extinction of part of the planet’s biodiversity.... If present trends continue, this century may well witness extraordinary climate change and an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us. A rise in the sea level, for example, can create extremely serious situations, if we consider that a quarter of the world’s population lives on the coast or nearby, and that the majority of our megacities are situated in coastal areas.
Is evident in this section, Francis is surprisingly literate in discussing the mechanics of this and other problems he highlights; it must be remembered (especially by politicians who seem to have forgotten) that the pope is himself a scientist, with a degree in chemistry. Just as strongly, he addresses the undeniable human consequences of climate change.
Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades. Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.
Yet the climate is just one of the many issues Francis calls us to respond to. He also discusses pollution (20), industrial waste (21), the western throwaway culture (22), water scarcity (28) and quality (29), and the loss of biodiversity (32-42). And after all this, he moves on to issues that are more sociological than ecological, echoing his conviction that humans are indivisibly connected with the rest of the creation (240): urbanization (44), societal breakdown (46), harmful effects of technology and media (47), and socioeconomic inequality (48-52). The scope of Francis' vision for human (or creational) flourishing, the depth of his compassion for humanity and nature, is breathtaking, as expressed in one of his concluding sentences:
it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. (224)
In the face of all these problems, so often I turn away from most of them and focus on a few pet issues like climate change or recycling, if that. Francis' conviction shows me that this is due to the smallness of my heart; I simply can't bear to think in such length about the modern human condition, though I wish I could. Simply stopping manmade climate change is not nearly enough; this document reads like a blueprint for a truly Christian, truly human(e) way of being in the world. No one is fully equal to the task which he describes. This encyclical is not, I think, meant to be read by us as individuals, but as citizens, employees, members and supporters of movements and organizations that can tackle the big challenges, and, for some, as members of the body of Christ who are the real recipients of God's command to be stewards of his creation. To this end, in chapter two of the encyclical Francis compellingly lays out the Christian foundation for creation care, doing so much better than I did in my previous post on the climate.

Part of me is quite happy that Laudato Si' is getting as much publicity as it is, even if it arrives with much more fanfare than Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew's letter published years ago (in paragraphs 7-8 Francis favorably recognizes the prior contributions of Bartholomew, whose response to the present encyclical is also well worth reading, as is his joint response with the Archbishop of Canterbury). I hope that it will help to direct both public opinion and public policy towards courses of action that will bring about the kind of flourishing and harmony with the creation that he envisions. Yet it is hard not to finish reading it without feeling sobered at all the ways we harm ourselves and exploit the world around us, and what will be involved in shifting our present course.

Returning to the subject of the climate (maybe for the above reasons?), I appreciate how Francis is using his considerable moral authority to increase the pressure on climate change deniers. I could already tell you that it is immoral to reject humility, the basic facts, and public opinion in claiming without foundation that you know better about the climate than the overwhelming majority of climate scientists. But Francis also highlights our moral responsibility to live in harmony with (rather than selfishly exploit) the rest of the created world, and the human consequences of climate change, which will disproportionately fall on the poor and vulnerable who had a relatively small role in causing the rising sea levels, scorching droughts, or food chain collapses that made them into refugees. In other words, environmentalism is not just about self-preservation; it is about social justice and living as created beings worshipping our Creator. Climate change denial is not only blind (does anyone else appreciate the irony that religious leaders now seem to be more scientifically literate than a good deal of civil leaders?); it is callous for refusing to see and take responsibility for the consequences of our contributions to the problem at hand. As this excellent response from BioLogos says, Laudato Si' "makes a moral call for action based on the fundamental premises of the Christian faith – premises so fundamental that we can all, and must all, agree."

In summary: read Pope Francis' encyclical, or at least an executive summary of it. Recommend it to your friends and loved ones. The vision if offers, of a way through the ecological, technological, and sociological problems besetting modern-day humanity, is motivated by a compassionate heart that compels attention, if not partnership, not just from all Christians, but from all people. His seamless connection of this heart with the Christian faith and gospel is one of the best examples of evangelism I have seen in this day and age. For all the differences between my faith tradition and the pope's, I stand in complete agreement with him on the subject matter of this encyclical, and I hope that it finds traction in the hearts, minds, and lives of many.