THE BLOG
03/09/2011 08:57 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2011

How Religion Can Help (and Hurt) Our Understanding of Marriage and Family

Things seem pretty solid here at home after the Justice Department announced that it would no longer defend the constitutionality of Defense of Marriage Act cases. So it seems that our straight marriage has survived the unspecified threats gay marriage poses to it. I still don't get what these threats are, exactly, nor do I understand how it is that an institution said to be the bedrock of everything civilization holds dear can at the same time be so utterly fragile as to stand in need of a vigorous defense. Now it seems that the whole thing may be on its way to the footnotes of American constitutional history without my ever having figured it out. Not even the Republicans, for whom this issue seemed so central not that long ago, seem to want to fight about about it any more, except for Mike Huckabee. Of course, he's a pastor, so what do you expect?

But wait a minute -- I'm a pastor. This reminds me of what has irked me about DOMA -- and about the whole moral conversation in general -- ever since it appeared: People think there's only one kind of Christian. People think there's only one kind of religious moral vision. People outside faith communities imagine a conservative social consensus within them that isn't there, and people within them often think there should be one, even though there isn't. The old inside joke about Jews -- two Jews, three opinions -- is true of all faith communities. We share a certain moral and cultural inheritance, and our spiritual assignment is to puzzle over it. Often we agree among ourselves about its meaning and application in the world and sometimes we don't. That's the way assemblies of human beings and faith communities are nothing if not human.

Still, many faith communities -- most of them -- do claim a monopoly on truth. They want to proclaim it and then they don't want anybody messing with it. The last sentences of the Christian scriptures contain this warning to anyone who might be toying with the idea of adding something to Holy Writ: I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book (Revelation 22:18).

Our reverence for our ancient texts trips us up. We imagine the truth of scripture to be of the journalistic sort, the who-what-when-where-how kind of truth, the it-either-happened-or-it-didn't kind of truth, which many among us have come to believe is the only kind of truth there is. But it is not so. There are many truths -- the truth of story, the truth of archetype, the truth of poetry, the truth of group aspiration. None of those fit easily into who-what-when-where-how. And the world's holy scriptures contain them all.

Because we have so beggared our notion of what truth is, we can easily find ourselves imagining religious truth to reside only in our past, as the words on the page record it. There it is, in black and white, we say. Just do what it says. And so we reach back across several linguistic groups and several cultural groups, through the filters of redactors and translators too numerous to count, and struggle to don first-century clothing we can no longer wear. Or we project ourselves backwards through time. "Well, they must have been just like us," we think. Our own local version of The Family, as we know it today, must be and always have been the timeless rock of humanity.

In order to believe this, we must not only ignore the varieties of contemporary family
arrangements but also significant portions of the very scriptures we tell ourselves we are protecting -- our polygamous patriarchs, their concubines and the children they begot upon them. We must ignore the custom of the Levirate, by which you had to take your sister-in-law as your wife if your brother died. We must read the story of David and his beloved Jonathan selectively, resolutely ignoring the sexual aspect of their deep friendship. And we must ignore some very interesting women of the Hebrew scriptures -- Tamar the wronged daughter-in-law who turned the tables on those who wronged her. Rahab the brave and crafty prostitute, who used her profession to save her people. Ruth, who secured her future by seducing a wealthy farmer. Old Testament women who thought outside the box, remembered fondly in the New -- each of them listed by Matthew the evangelist as part of Jesus' family tree.

The nuclear family, so often imagined to be the norm in America, is not the only family of the scriptures. It is not even the majority family of the scriptures. In fact, it is not even the only American family: American families have had many configurations in the short history of our Republic. The family has always changed. Yes, it has always been a basic building block of society, but it has changed shape throughout history. Human history is shaped by living people, as well as by the testament of dead ones. It is a conversation between the living and the dead. And the history of any community is shaped by forces outside it, as well as by those within.

So, not with a bang but a whimper, the Defense of Marriage Act fades from the headlines. Don't Ask, Don't Tell has ended, too, with hardly any truculence to mark its departure. Maybe we are turning a page. Maybe we are beginning to save our energy for something more worthy of it than the culture wars about sex and marriage we have fought so long and with such zest.

Maybe. Because there are, indeed, threats to the health of families everywhere, but they are not other kinds of families. Shocked by an economic downturn, sickened by the sacrifice of young lives in ill-considered wars, sobered by a new consciousness of societal and environmental limits, perhaps we can begin to see an urgency in finding ways through all of these, instead. Perhaps we already do see it.