Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No nail clippers? Admit them.

Several dozen climate activists entered a secured area of Stansted Airport, near London, a couple of days ago at 3 a.m., and chained themselves to fences, delaying the opening of a nearby runway for 3 hours, which disrupted dozens of flights. They had used an old fire engine, and security officers apparently waved them through. As The Economist commented:

It's no good stopping passengers carrying a pair of nail scissors in their hand luggage if you haven't got effective control of your runway, where the scope for disruption—and worse—is enormous.

A similar confusion seems to affect discussions of gay marriage, calling to mind nothing so much as the warning about "Straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel." Conservative Christians present themselves as protecting marriage, while they drive the divorce rate higher than among any other segment of the population. Gay men, meanwhile, argue for their right to enter into an arrangement that, whatever else it means, is supposed to stand for lifelong monogamy, a tendency that, for gay men, seems in notoriously short supply. As gay activist Mark Simpson candidly acknowledges, with true British understatement, "Gay and straight long-term relationships are generally not the same. How many heterosexual marriages are open, for example?"

Exactly. (I don't know whether lesbian couples in general are more committed or not, and let's admit, at once, with readers of the Boi from Troy gay blog, that the roving eye is mostly a male trait for straights and gays alike; quite enough peccadilloes are chargeable to Bill Clinton without suspecting him of wanting to hit on Elton John.)

Of course there are exceptions to everything, and committed and responsible couples may be found anywhere, but my gut reaction in hearing gay men, at least, demand the right to enter legally recognized lifelong monogamous relationships has been akin to what I would feel hearing peace demonstrators demand ROTC scholarships.

The question, as at Stansted, is whether there is a runway to protect and where it lies, and the issue seems to turn on the word "marriage." Frankly, it reminds me of the time, at age 8, when I told my father quite seriously that I intended to write to President Kennedy to protest the fact that the word "day" referred both to the 24-hour period and the hours of sunlight; I objected to the ambiguity and wanted a law passed to clarify it.

Dislike of gays and their practices is not exclusively an Evangelical Christian issue, of course; my Pakistani Muslim cabdriver in Vancouver a few years ago conceded that gays were welcome to frolic together (he expressed it more colorfully) but not in his cab or on public beaches. In any case, conservative Christians argue that the Bible and Christian tradition condemn homosexuality, and they do, but we are not a theocracy and not all religious violations can result in legal prohibitions, or else blasphemy would be a crime. Newsweek devotes a a sensitive and reasonable article in this week's issue to "The Christian Case for Gay Marriage," which is rather like arguing the Vegan case for roast beef; there is none. After making many categorically sound points about the dangers of literalism in Biblical interpretation, the otherwise perceptive reporter duly goes off the rails with a quote from Walter Brueggemann, emeritus professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, who argues for gay marriage on the grounds that "The Bible is bent toward inclusiveness."

Well, no, it's not, and Brueggemann's mistake is characteristic of those, to paraphrase Mencken, haunted by the fear that the Bible might actually mean what it says; who would prefer to interpret it as a vague and permissive general benevolence toward all. The promise of redemption in both Hebrew and Christian scriptures is, indeed, inclusive, but always on condition of meeting stated requirements, and same-sex intimacy doesn't make the cut. Brueggemann is certainly in tune with the spirit of this age, but not of the apostolic one; see, for instance, the following, from St. Basil the Great: "He who is guilty of unseemliness with males will be under discipline for the same time as adulterers" (Letters 217:62 [A.D. 367]); or this, from St. John Chrysostom:

All of these affections [in Rom. 1:26–27] . . . were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul is more the sufferer in sins, and more dishonored than the body in diseases" (Homilies on Romans 4 [A.D. 391]).

"[The men] have done an insult to nature itself. And a yet more disgraceful thing than these is it, when even the women seek after these intercourses, who ought to have more shame than men" (ibid.).

The whole appeal to religion is not a little strange to begin with; as I mentioned in my first post, I'm at a point in my life where I have no religious belief at all, but unwillingness to assent to the claim that a Disembodied Spirit spoke the planets into existence need not deprive one of the ability to see Christianity, Judaism, and Islam for what they are: systems of belief and ritual based on the perceived need to cleanse the impurity of mankind and propitiate the inexorable righteousness of a Creator. Those elements of religion may be decidedly inconvenient, but they cannot be cut out for convenience or, if they are, the name "Christian" should be abandoned as well.

Having said that, again, we aren't living in John Winthrop's Massachusetts Bay Colony, and whatever legal protections and financial advantages may accrue to couples in legally recognized relationships can't be denied in an enlightened state worthy of the name, to otherwise law-abiding, consenting adults on grounds ultimately traceable to religious objections, any more than a Catholic should be formally barred from the Presidency. Gays, like polygamists, may have to bypass the word "marriage" for tactical reasons, but their detractors have similarly got to become more clearsighted about the difference between their personal morals and public policy.

© Michael Huggins, 2008. All rights reserved.

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