Marriage and modernity

Yesterday I finished Wael Hallaq’s Introduction to Islamic Law, which not only does a great job of explaining the classical structures of Shari’a legal reasoning but also mounts an argument that the imposition of modern state structures fundamentally transformed Shari’a law into something that would have been unrecognizable to pre-modern Muslims. This was most striking in his account of the aspect of Shari’a that superficially seems to have escaped unscathed from these changes — namely, family law. The implicit question underlying his argument is why precisely this was what the colonizers and indigenous modernizers “left alone,” and the answer is that maintaining implicit continuity with traditional Shari’a in this area served as cover for an agenda that replaced extended families with the modern nuclear family in Muslim countries.

This got me thinking: why would the modern state have a stake in the nuclear family? And I think the answer is that it is the absolute minimum level of solidarity — a reluctant concession to biological necessity in a society that otherwise wants to turn everyone into an individual monad. If the state endorsed or even tolerated other, more wide-ranging forms of solidarity, then a significant center of loyalty other than the state may arise, potentially undermining the state’s efforts to discipline and control the population and, in particular, opening up the possibility of economic relations not predicated on individualism and competition. Enshrining monogamous marriage and the nuclear family in law has the additional bonus that this minimal concession to community and solidarity owes its existence directly to the state, and so any discussion of how to change this arrangement must necessary be routed through the state.

I wonder if an analogy can be drawn with the rise of gay marriage. Why precisely this form of recognition for gay relationships? As we know, in periods when LGBT people were more marginal, communities structured more like “extended families” arose, which proved particularly important in caring for AIDS patients. Why not formalize the varied forms of relationships that were indigenous to the LGBT community, as opposed to a nuclear family model that few had the resources or inclination to imitate?

If we look at Hallaq’s account of the imposition of the nuclear family on Islamic countries, the reason is clear — gay marriage was a perfect opportunity to undermine the alternative forms of solidarity that had grown up in the LGBT community and a way to incorporate previously recalcitrant populations into the nuclear family model. And for those who are opposed to gay marriage, the struggle against it only serves to emphasize the state’s role in recognizing and supporting their relationships — giving them prestige which is watered down by the inclusion of more people into the system.

Hence I’d say that liberals who claim that gay marriage actually strengthens all marriage are correct, though that’s perhaps not as good a thing as they believe.

Methodist Church Trial This Week! Or: Nihilism, Homosexuality, Pennsylvania, Oath-taking, and Satan

In Sophocles’ Antigone our tragic heroine demonstrates to us what is regarded as one of the greatest moral principles of the Western world:  when the laws of the state require one to do something against one’s own religion, or when following one’s own religious beliefs become categorized as against the law, the right thing to do is to follow your religious practices above the laws of the state.  The legends of Socrates and Jesus, and their traditions, confirm and validate this virtue in the ancient world.

But what to do when religion causes one to break religious laws?  Christianity has always worked through the tensions of what happens when doctrine become dogma, and when either become enforced—sometimes enforced despite of or in spite of contradictory doctrine or flying in the face of tradition.

This is what is being played out in the church trial of a United Methodist pastor from Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, Rev. Frank Schaefer.  Read the rest of this entry »

I am Larry David: Gay Marriage and “Julia” Ad edition

I am so tired of talking about gay marriage.  Maybe it’s the crowds I surf, maybe I am a pretentious elitist with the luxury of thinking about such issues critically, maybe it’s the denominational identity I have chosen, maybe it’s the denominational heritage I have been forced out of and later abandoned myself.  But I’m so tired of the conversation.  So here I go again on it.

I was in Washington, DC, at the Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity conference when President Obama announced his safe and disengenuous endorsement of gay marriage as a response to the North Carolina amendment passed just hours before.  There was an air of excitement around the conference, who were getting texts and tweets trickling in about the news on their $300 iPhones, and a few talks in the conference were on such radical ideas as acknowledging that gay people are in your community, and if they dare to show up in your church for some reason, you should welcome their children, etc.  Instead of peeing myself with excitement or sweating on the upper lip as these Reformed mainlers and wannabe hipster emergents were doing at the conference, I do what I always do, which is listen to the crazy people who host right-wing radio to hear what the Other Side is thinking, and the immediate response was “President Obama is making a non-issue an issue.  President Obama is using this issue as a smokescreen to avoid talking about his record.”  Is this really the best conservatives can come up with, to claim that the President keeps bringing the issue up while celebrating their own legislation being passed in North Carolina?

In the last couple of months I have been in some fairly involved conversations with church based or faith based groups about gay marriage.  People don’t believe me when I say that I am honestly tired of talking about it.  Folks think I have something to hide about it by just being tired of talking about it.  Yet here I am, to repeat, talking about it more. Read the rest of this entry »

I can’t believe I read the whole thing

It’s been a long time since we’ve criticized one of Milbank’s interventions, and his seemingly infinitely long piece on gay marriage may present a good opportunity.

On one point, we agree: “In effect, if marriage is now understood as a lifelong sexual contract between any two adult human persons with no specification of gender, then the allowance of gay marriage renders all marriages ‘gay marriages.'” Yet the conclusion he draws from this is strange, involving an idiosyncratic definition of “clear-thinking”: “Given such a situation, were it not for the space afforded by canon law (namely, the possibility of church marriage) a resort to cohabitation – which has hitherto been understood as ‘common-law marriage’ – would be the only logical path for clear-thinking Christians.”

Gay marriage and birth control: Why not?

A question that is often asked of those who oppose gay marriage is, “Why do you care?” After all, no one is proposing making gay marriage mandatory. What your neighbors do in the privacy of their own bedroom should be their business, etc., etc.

All this is true. But what changes when gay marriage is allowed — or even when homosexuality becomes a publicly affirmable preference — is not what goes on in the privacy of their own bedroom. Homoerotic encounters have occurred in basically all known human cultures, and honest conservatives (starting with Plato) have acknowledged that this is more or less inevitable. What disturbs opponents of gay marriage isn’t so much the gay sex as the public acceptability of gay relationships.

Read the rest of this entry »

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