Friday, June 26, 2015

The Supreme Court and Same-Sex Marriage

The Facebook posts regarding the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the legality of same-sex marriage across the US have been predictably interesting. Like many others, I’ve been thinking about this topic for quite some time, and I am going to weigh in with my own observation and recommendations, at least for those who operate in the realm of the Christian community.

For a very long time, clergy have officiated at weddings in a dual representative capacity. On the one hand, they represent the Christian church; on the other hand they represent the State (as in , The Government). We often provide evidence of this dual representation by closing the ceremony with words like these:

“By the power invested in me by the church of Jesus Christ and the State of XXX, I now pronounce you husband and wife.”

Whether those words are spoken exactly that way or not, the dual agency is real.

I’ve officiated at quite a few weddings, all in the state of California. It is humbling to me that when I say the words that declare the marriage of the two people standing before me, it has the power of law. Upon my word, at that moment in time, those people are married to each other. The Church and State both back me on this.

This is a powerful reality because I sign the marriage license sometime later in the day, mail it off a few days later, and the County Recorder enters it into some computer within the following weeks. Nevertheless, those folks were married the second I said they were married. The Church and State both grant me that authority.

Church and State in the US have had this complicit relationship for many years and everyone’s been pretty much okay about it.

Until now.

We religious folks have long believed that marriage is our business. That is, we see marriage as a sacred bond and, therefore, part of our turf. Up until recently, Church and State have been in agreement about what constitutes a marriage (we have had some conflict with the State about what constitutes a divorce, but we somehow got comfortable with that one).

As of this morning, the Federal government has sent all religious people—regardless of their views on same-sex marriage—this message:

“We own marriage. You do not.”

And, apparently, they are right.

So maybe this is an opportunity for Christian leaders to reflect in some new ways about our relationship with the State and with the culture at large. Perhaps we’ve been complicit with the State when it suits us, but have expressed outrage when the State reveals its true character as the dominant power structure in the US.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Consider these words of Jesus:

“ . . . if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:40)

I know this text is addressing the issue of retaliation, but perhaps we can allow it to inform our thinking on the issue of marriage. The State has taken our coat—the definition of marriage—as its own. Maybe its time for us to hand the State our cloak as well—that is, our role as agents of the State in the performance of marriages.

In other words, maybe we need to get out of the marriage business.

The State already owns that business. People have long been able to go the courthouse, pay for a license, and have a court deputy perform a brief ceremony, resulting in a legal marriage. It’s quicker, easier, and a lot less expensive than a big, fancy church wedding with a reception.

Maybe it’s time for us to look at what a train wreck marriage has been over the years in this country, and rethink what we do to solemnify and bless this union that we have traditionally referred to as “marriage.” Maybe we need to revisit the concepts of covenant and faithfulness and reframe them under the lordship of Jesus Christ, and let the State do its job of deciding who gets married and who doesn’t.

We can be for or against this Supreme Court decision, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Religious groups in general and Christians in particular don’t own marriage. That coat has been taken.

It might be time for us to weave a new cloak.


Winn Griffin said...

Mike, I think you are correct. I remember once in SoCal that I married a couple in a backyard ceremony. They signed the papers along with me. I put them in my marrying Bible and then into the trunk of the car. A couple of months later, the couple called and wanted to know if they were legally married. They had applied for something together and when stuff ran against some database somewhere, their records were not found. I looked outside in my truck and low and behold, there was the signed marriage licenses that I have forgotten to take out and mail. I mailed it. But, it left me with the question: were they really married if the state did not have a record of it?

That seems to be the same tree you are barking up.

"It might be time for us to weave a new cloak." Classic!

Marty Boller said...

A very honest & peaceful way to co-exist with a changing world that doesn't look at life the way I do. This approach allows me to hold firmly to what I believe is true while also giving the State the freedom to define a 'state' marriage in whatever way it wants. So, as of today, I'm out of the marriage business, no longer an agent for anyone except Jesus. Hmmm. Feels kinda good to turn in my 'badge' and be a rep for God's Kingdom alone!

Mike Munier said...

Nicely done! (Side note: I have always said, "vested" in me, not "invested" in me although the latter might be true)

Jill Ashlock said...

Mike, you are absolutely right on with this blog. The church would be better to get out of being a legal conduit for 'the State' and be only a religious ceremony for their community -- which should be free of any State mandated requirements for who gets married by any given church/pastor/priest/clergy. The State doesn't dictate who gets Baptized. I think we should have the marriage ceremony/sacrament become similar to the Baptism ceremony. The State doesn't have any influence on that at all because there is no legal/license to file with the government to make it binding. In our churches, we should be concerned with the bond that our God requires in the marriage ceremony. Leave the State requirements completely to the State to allow whatever bond the State wants to recognize. I think our focus should be on our religious ceremony and let the 'secular world' focus on what they will.

Mike McNichols said...

Thanks for all your comments.

I think that this has implications for Christian communities that do not affirm same-sex marriages and for those that do. Either way, we need to recognize that the State is establishing a legal bond that is designed to do certain things, like create inheritance rights, create (hopefully) secure and safe places for children to be raised, etc. But the Christian community, while not unconcerned about those things, is primarily focused on faithfulness, mutual care, reflecting the image of God, and submitting the relationship to the lordship of Jesus. What we celebrate and bless may be related yet different from what the State acknowledges. In fact, there may be times when the Christian community affirms and blesses a marriage when the State does not.