Thursday, May 29, 2008

Ancient Wisdom

A few weeks ago in a 4-3 vote, California’s Supreme Court struck down a voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage, saying that sexual orientation, like race or gender, “does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights.” Two of the dissenting judges called this ruling an “an exercise in legal jujitsu” that will “create a constitutional right from whole cloth, defeat the people’s will and invalidate a statute otherwise immune from legislative interference.” The third dissenting justice said that while she personally supported the right to same-sex marriage, the majority should have deferred to the Legislature.

The key here is “new understanding of the meaning of marriage.” This ruling indeed declares a redefinition of marriage, which for millennia in all societies and cultures has been defined as the union of one man and one woman. Now, in their infinite “wisdom,” four judges have decided they have a better way to define it.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish commentator and author, suggests that this is a natural result of the “modern supplanting of wisdom with compassion as the supreme guide in forming society’s values and laws.” After all, why not exercise compassion and let people marry whomever they want?

Some have argued that this ruling represents nothing more than what courts did to end legal bans on interracial marriage in the mid-20th century. In that case the courts corrected a moral injustice perpetuated by the will of the majority. Isn’t this the same principle? But Prager notes a key difference in the two scenarios:

"No major religion – not Judaism, not Christianity, not Islam, not Buddhism – ever banned interracial marriage… American bans on interracial marriages were not supported by any major religious or moral system; those bans were immoral aberrations, no matter how many religious individuals may have supported them. Justices who overthrew bans on interracial marriages, therefore, had virtually every moral and religious value system since ancient times on their side. But justices who overthrow the ban on same-sex marriage have nothing other than their hubris and their notions of compassion on their side…Not a single religion or moral philosophical system – East or West – since antiquity ever defined marriage as between members of the same sex. (“California Decision Will Radically Change Society,” 5/20/08,

The fact is that laws are designed to channel peoples’ behavior. Murder is against the law so that people will be channeled away from murder. These behavioral rules emanate from a value system. And the value system emanates from… what? The answer is, “ancient wisdom.” And the ancient wisdom from which our laws emanate comes primarily, though not wholly, from the Judeo-Christian religious heritage.

This ruling and others like it declares that in our modern “wisdom” we have seen a moral light that no theologians, philosophers, religions or moral systems saw before. That is why this is about far more than “extending a right” to homosexuals, who indeed should be protected from unfair discrimination. This is about a significant social change the implications of which will be massive. I will talk about those next week.


Blogger Eric Livingston said...

Prager may have missed the several occasions in the Old Testament when the Jews were told not to marry the other races.

More on point, as American Christians (or is it Christian Americans?) we have to be careful not to confuse the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of the U.S. It's clear from the creation narrative that God intended marriage to be between a man and a woman. The difficult issue facing Christians today is: What role does our representative government play in legislating Christian values?

It's interesting that many Christians want the gov't to legislate against homosexuality, but don't want legislation in the area of compassion for the poor - even though that has greater weight in God's story of justice than does the issues of personal morality.

Barna has indicated that for the first time, evangelical Christians in the US are shifting towards prioritizing social justice issues above morality issues.

Not sure what the best solution is here. We certainly need to love the sinners without accepting the sin. As far as our government is concerned, perhaps we need to remember that regardless of our government's activity towards a Pauline ideal society, or away from it, God's Kingdom is among us and moving forward.

In fact, if we really wanted God's Kingdom to expand, maybe we should pray for a gov't that is oppressive to Christianity. History shows that God's Kingdom tends to have the greatest success in those type of environments.

It's an upside down Kingdom.

12:08 PM  
Blogger Dr. Pedantic said...

My question for Matt and others who are attacking the California Supreme Court is: did you actually read the Court's opinion? Have you read the California constitution, or the statutes in question? Do you understand the nuances of Constitutional law and analysis? If not, there is no basis for disagreeing with the Court.

The Court is interpreting the law, and that you may not like the results (much like many Church of Christ preachers didn't like Brown v. Board of Education, or Loving v. Virginia) does not mean that the Court was wrong. This is the same as me saying that somebody translated something from Japanese into English incorrectly, just because I don't like the contents of the translation.

As for how marriage traditionally has been defined, the Bible is replete with stories about the evils of miscegenation. Then there was the little case of someone named Solomon, just one of many polygamists celebrated in Scripture. Abraham was apparently married to his half-sister, and the brother of a deceased husband was expected to marry the widow. Until very recently in human history, marriage was about land and other business concerns, not about romantic love, and women were treated as chattel, stripped of all identity and independent rights (including their names).

And as for the Bible's views on marriage, what did Jesus say? If you get divorced for any reason other than adultery, then if you remarry you are continuing to live in adultery. There is not one recorded word of Jesus condemning homosexuality -- but he spoke out very strongly against divorce and remarriage under all but very narrow circumstances. Where is the call for a Constitutional amendment banning remarriage except in the case of adultery?

Having actually read the Court's opinion, I can state that is absolutely correct as a matter of Constitutional interpretation -- and yes, as a matter of public policy, as well. Gays and lesbians should not be denied their Constitutional rights simply because certain religious people think they are "immoral" (a view that is also based on incorrect and illogical Biblical interpretation, as well).

The decision in California should be celebrated. Much of the New Testament discusses the fact that we all are equal in the eyes of God, regardless of race, social status, or gender. Similarly, the GLBT community also should be accepted and loved by the Church --just as we are accepted and loved by God.

1:34 PM  

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