Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ancestor stories.

I grew up always being the youngest. I was the younger of two siblings. I was the youngest of eight cousins. Although my neighborhood was full of children of various ages, there was a large enough gap between my cohort and the next youngest that everyone I played with regularly was my age or older. In a real sense, the world I lived in was one I inherited on an ongoing basis, and I understood growing up primarily as growing into my place in that world.

When I was twelve, that world changed remarkably when my parents separated. My father had always traveled a lot for business, and tended to be working or distracted when he was at home, so I did not miss him that much on my own account. But my mother was distraught, my brother added an extra helping of sullenness to his teenaged personality, and most importantly, there were no more holiday vacations spent with my large, loud, embracing extended family on my father’s side. My world was now a house divided, literally and figuratively.

My major concern at this time was to fight against any further division or loss. I clung fiercely to my best friend since first grade, if somewhat futilely, since we were now in junior high and the usual social sifting process was lifting him up to great popularity in our honors-class circles, while I stayed in my accustomed (and honestly preferred) spot as one of the kids that everyone thought well of, when they happened to think of them. Apart from my best friend, there was really only one other kid that I ever took the initiative to get together with outside of school. The new activities that I branched out into were always structured, reliable, and supervised: organized sports, math club. When left to my own devices, I read voraciously and taught myself foreign languages and practiced my basketball and lacrosse skills for hours at a time: I loved exploring patterns where every new thing found its meaning in relationship to the old,

When I was fourteen, two things happened in close succession that had a major impact on the rest of my adolescence. Looking back, I think the first had a lot more to do with the second than I understood at the time: my brother left home for college, and I starting dating a girl in my grade at school. It was not long before her family became my family, and my major worries throughout high school centered around being a good member of that family. My relationship ups and downs with my girlfriend were always deeply embedded within that context, and my attitude towards everything else was always deeply embedded within the context of my relationship with my girlfriend. I continued with sports and math club, and added literary magazine and language competitions. I stayed in touch with my two close friends. I drifted away from most kinds of unstructured peer-group socializing, and did not miss it very much. I lived in an undivided world again, and even though my brother was not often around and my mother was depressed and my father remarried and I had a new baby sister and my grandfather died and my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I felt I had to excel at everything without overshadowing my girlfriend, at least I knew the place I was growing into in this world.


It was Christian education that ended my Christian childhood. I was about 10 or 11 years old. I had been going to Sunday School at  a big white-columned Methodist church in a North Carolina university town since my family moved there right before I entered kindergarten. We were learning about the Old Testament, and one week, I just got fed up. My best friend was Jewish; his father was a professor of religious studies who wrote prolifically on the Hebrew Bible. The way I remember it, I announced to my family that I saw no point in going to a Christian church to be taught poorly about Jewish texts and history. For whatever reason, they did not try to convince me to keep going with them.

In high school, I attended Episcopalian services with my girlfriend and her family, but I made sure that everyone knew that I was not a Christian. I loved being picked up early on Sunday mornings to go to services in the Gothic sanctuary next to the planetarium, on the edge of the university in town. I did not know what I thought of all of it, from an intellectual or doctrinal point of view, but I was happy to pray and sing the parts I had no scruples about, and to keep my mouth shut for the parts that left me dubious. I even went through confirmation classes with my girlfriend, out of loyalty and curiosity, but I was not confirmed.

Those classes did nothing to change my view that Christian institutions and the people most invested in them saw the world as little more than a screen on which to project the benevolent triumphs of Christians who grew ever more benevolent and ever more triumphant from age to age. I did, however, experience two powerful moments of divine peace and love that left me shaken, simultaneously scared and excited. These moments stayed with me through college and my early twenties. However disillusioned I may have been, however many other paths I may have considered, I could not escape my yearning to experience more of that peace and love and, ideally, share it with others in a community of faith.


In my first marriage, I married into Baptists. My mother-in-law, the black sheep of her generation, was not religious in any regular practicing way, but all of her convictions and ingrained reactions were Baptist. My ex-wife's grandparents, along with one of her uncles and his wife, were pillars of their small-town New Hampshire fundamentalist church. They went on mission trips in their RV, openly gave Catholics the side-eye, and routinely said the kind of racist and homophobic things one would expect. I honored them with all my heart and soul. They were my family. We never once told them, my ex-wife and I, that we weren't monogamous. We came out to my mother-in-law a few days before we moved from Massachusetts to Colorado. I can't remember if she spread the word around the older relatives. I have memories that support either way. The grandfather died a few months after we moved, and after the divorce, of course, it didn't really make a difference anymore what the grandmother or aunts and uncles thought.


Amy talks about the rejection we've experienced from her family and Dave's family in several places on her blog. I am always hesitant to talk about it from my perspective.

In part, my hesitance comes from respect. That grief and pain belongs to them, first and foremost.

In part, my hesitance comes from shame. I am the direct cause of their estrangement from their families. I am the reason they no longer have parents or most of their siblings and nieces and nephews. I am the reason my daughters no longer have those grandparents or most of their aunts and uncles and cousins. I am the reason they have lost the very thing that matters the most to me--family. If our story were a science fiction story, I would be the scientist who wanted nothing more than to find a cure for some terrible disease, who instead unleashed the zombie plague.

In part, my hesitance comes from embarrassment. I have literally never met these people. How can I mourn relationships that never existed? People will look at me and mutter about me being melodramatic.

In large part, though, my hesitance comes from an honest inability to express what I feel. I never met these people, but I had reasonable expectations that I eventually would, that I would get to learn their stories from their own mouths, that they would learn mine. I don't understand why they've made the decisions they've made or why they followed the processes they did in making and communicating those decisions. I'm a lab rat poking at a button in my cage that doesn't do anything. It could be one of those buttons that gives you an electric shock. I would take it. At least I would be part of the experiment.

Amy's remaining grandparent is called Ponka. He's over 90 years old, a little distracted and a lot frail. He came over to our house once. It made me so happy. I bite my tongue on any direct or indirect request to Amy and Dave to arrange another get-together; it's not my place. And now I've put it in a blog post. Sorry about that, guys.


Amy also briefly talks a bit about my family on her blog. I am even more hesitant to talk about them. They haven't rejected us. They haven't embraced us, either. My mother tries the hardest. My brother and sister-in-law, not so much. My relatives on my late father's side all live in a range from North Carolina to New Jersey that seemed so spread out when I was young, and now seems like a small region very very far away. I am shamefully bad about staying in touch with them, even when they reach out, because I can't face even the possibility of small talk about my mother and brother, let alone anything more serious. I always had a weaker connection to relatives on my mother's side. It feels like a different, more significant kind of distance now, though.

I am sometimes relieved that my father and grandparents all passed away many years ago. Fewer people for me to disappoint, and to disappoint me. And that is sad.


Metropolitan Community Church, as a denomination, is a church with no ancestors. Established in 1968, our family history is one of rejection and exile from practically every other Christian body. We take pride in our survival, our growth, and our refusal to be defined by the haters. When we say "everyone is welcome," we back it up with actions much better than any other church I've personally experienced, not just for people with different sexual identities, but also with regards to race, class and theological convictions. But for me, at least, our location as the new church on the fringe is also profoundly lonely. For heaven's sake, our founder is still alive! May he live on for many more years in health and happiness, of course.

We're more mainstream than we used to be. I think we're past the days where the Catholics and Baptists would threaten schism in local ecumenical organizations if an MCC church tried to join. Still, we're not really embraced. I am happy for mainline churches becoming more welcoming towards same-sex couples and singles. I'm waiting for the acknowledgement that MCC has always been there. And maybe an apology. Some token money wouldn't hurt, if I'm being honest. Big endowments aren't a realistic expectation for congregations gathered no earlier than 1968.


The Bible talks a lot more about children, and descendants more generally, than it does about parents and ancestors. I sat down with a print copy of Strong's Exhaustive Concordance on a lunch break recently and compared the number of occurrences for "fathers, mothers, parents, ancestors, grandparents, aunts, uncles" with "sons, daughters, descendants, children, nephews, nieces." I won't bore you with the exact numbers, but the second group of terms had a much, much larger total. (The ratio is even more skewed if you toss out singular "father" and "son," because of all the God and Jesus references.)

All the big promises are about children, in one way or another. If you are childless and yearn for children, the Bible is full of inspiring stories and comforting words. What is there for those who long for parents and ancestors? There's the parable of the prodigal son, I suppose. And there's the images of God as a heavenly father and a protective mother hen. But even if one is comforted by God in a parental role--who then will be the grandparents? The great-grandparents? The aunts, the uncles?


Advent is the time when Christians anticipate the fulfilment of old promises, the coming of light into the darkness, when all the struggles of past generations are vindicated and redeemed. The holiday season is the time when Americans memorialize their family ties--sometimes joyfully, perhaps more frequently ruefully, occasionally bitterly. This year, I am finding myself, for the first time, unsure about what I am memorializing and whether my life would be recognized as progress towards fulfilled promises by those who came before me.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Book review: Plural Marriage for Our Times

Kilbride, Philip Leroy. Plural Marriage for Our Times: A Reinvented Option? Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey, 1994. 

In some ways, the most interesting aspect of this book to me was the "For Our Times" part. Published in 1994, just a couple years after Dan Quayle's infamous Murphy Brown speech, the author talks with great sincerity about the shame of divorce and the stigma of single parenthood. Same-sex relationships are mentioned in passing a few times as something people are starting to consider maybe not freaking out about. These priorities line up with my memories of how respectable, self-understood open-minded people thought and spoke at that time, but it was strange to be transported back, as though I had opened up a time capsule and a bunch of my college professors stepped out of a suspended-animation wine-and-cheese reception.

While Kilbride does dedicate a chapter to what he calls "Euroamerican feminist" critiques of traditional Western marriage and families, it's clear his heart is with expanding the scope of traditional values instead of smashing them up as part of a radical agenda. He places great hope in that idea that "plural marriage might be a reasonable solution to some of the hurt and damage children appear to be undergoing in...blended family situations...by redefining the cultural context," specifically by legitimizing a wider range of parental roles, including that of "wives-in-law" (21). He returns again to this theme throughout the book, drawing on contemporary African commentaries about how "given our high divorce rate, it is arguable that the United States has a a high rate of polygyny," albeit with discontinuity (44), as well as on historical early Protestant arguments that bigamy could be considered preferable to divorce (62-66).*

I am not immune to appeals to the welfare of children as arguments in favor of poly families,  and I definitely agree that relationships between former spouses and the families they form apart from each other should be characterized by mutual respect and support instead of competition and jealousy. But the idea that adding more people can somehow fix a troubled marriage leads to all kinds of real-world heartbreak, and not only for the original couple. And that idea is disturbingly common these days among people who don't outright reject the idea of having more than one partner. I could see that having the poly option in everyone's conceptual toolboxes could help compatible people keep from stumbling into extramarital situations where they can't conceive of any path forward except divorce, so I suppose it may have some validity as a sociological observation. As actual personal advice, though? Just don't do this. It's a really bad idea.**

Kilbride is on firmer ground when exploring "the tremendous behavioral adaptability inherent in our cultural institutions" (31). He observes that "ideals akin to Western ideals of romantic love can be found in most, if not all, societies" (36). Marriage, of course, is equally universal, because people everywhere have a need to regulate reproduction, property, material goods and kinship relationships (39). However, this regulation not only does not take the same form in all times and all places, it rarely takes only a single form in a given time and place. Empirically, we can all see that "it is not incompatible for a society's heterosexual, monogamous, and/or polygamous ideal to exist side by side with various practices constructed under special circumstances to suit individual and group needs" (41).

Of course, these differing family structures are not only differently categorized, but differently valued. Kilbride relies on the work of others to propose an evaluative schema of "moral," "proper," and/or "smart." Depending on the society or social group, a relationship can be morally acceptable but highly improper, or improper but smart, i.e., effective at achieving the goals of the people in it. The prevalence of smart examples of improper relationships may explain why some deviant structures evolve into propriety over time (119). In the United States, we have seen this play out in same-sex monogamous relationships, as a wider percentage of the population has become personally acquainted with faithful, honest and nurturing pairings between two women or two men. It is telling that the remaining opposition to these relationships comes from individuals and groups who cannot conceive of them as moral--though in daily public life, they are generally resigned to the fact that they are now widely understood to be socially proper. 

On the whole, Plural Marriage for Our Times is a welcome contribution to the much-needed effort to explain how "a wider, more general body of needs and functions considered important" motivates people to form families with multiple partners more than a burning desire for more, better or different sex. Which is, unfortunately, usually the first assumption of mainstream Americans--and also the starting point for a depressingly large number of polyamory how-to and advocacy books. I am therefore able to forgive most of the book's datedness and clumsy mixing of anthropological, historical, theological and activist approaches.*** I would recommend it to readers interested in the subject, with a warning to keep one's expectations modest.

* For a bunch of interesting historical situations, see:
Cairncross, John. After Polygamy Was Made a Sin: The Social History of Christian Polygamy. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1974. 
** Also bad: the idea that plural marriage could be beneficial by bringing single parents together with childless couples to form one family, thus reducing the need for adoption and foster care. While intentional co-parenting appears to be becoming more of a thing for some queer families, and I can't deny the influence that my life-long desire for a big family with lots of kids had on the formation of my own family with Amy and Dave, the opportunity for abuse seems way too big to me. "Unicorn hunting" is damaging enough without bringing children into the picture, especially when their mother may be in a very vulnerable place.

*** The section on contemporary fringe Mormon polygamy is the worst offender in this regard.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

We want to help, too.

There was a terrible tragedy this week in the community that is Amy's faith home. Many people are stunned, and raw, and hurting. The nature of the tragedy has derailed some of the normal comfort measures available to people in response to their grief, but not all of them. The meeting house has been open daily for people to gather and sit in silence or speak as they feel the need to. A calendar has been established to organize food deliveries for the family that was most directly harmed. There have been conversations about how and when to help the children in the community understand and grieve what happened. Church is doing one of the main jobs of church: keeping people going when the world has turned upside down and fallen on their heads.

Amy spent hours on Friday cooking and baking. She and Dave and I helped set up at an event this morning that had already been scheduled and was definitely not going to pick up any last-minute volunteers. Our family sent a sympathy card to the storm-tossed family. Small but important things that will hopefully be helpful, seem to be appreciated, and that also help us during a difficult time by giving us something to focus on.

I've written before about the cost of excluding poly families when they suffer loss, but the reality is that those concerns are not usually at the forefront in my own life. What worries me more is people being blocked from helping. I think non-traditional people get an unfair rap for being self-centered. For making everything about them. What most traditional people hear is "oppression justice look at me blah blah blah." But we can't take soup to grieving people who fear they will be polluted by our presence. We can't help set up Christmas decorations in a sanctuary that sees us as a rejection of the Christmas message. We certainly can't teach in Sunday School when we are, by definition, transgressive deviants. We can't take the focus off ourselves when everyone keeps staring at us.

I am grateful beyond words that Amy's faith community accepts our entire family, so that we can care for our neighbors and brothers and sisters. I am grateful beyond words that my own church home accepts our entire family, so that I can serve on the Board of Directors and help run the sound board and give advice of dubious quality about volunteer coordination and ministry outreach, and have them hold everyone in prayer during this terrible time. To grieve in isolation is a terrible thing, as celebrating in isolation is a sad thing. And that is what all ministry boils down to. Offering comforts small and large. Throwing parties small and large. Keeping the world going, one day at a time.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Just don't call us transgressive.

A while back, I found a few articles where the authors analyze polyamory in the context of Christian theology. I will most likely read more if I find them, but so far, they're depressing me.

I should probably clarify that these articles are supportive of polyamory. But the arguments boil down to a rejection of the concept of boundaries and limits. Sometimes the argument is an affirmative one: God loves us without limit, so the fewer limits we place on our love, the more like God we are. Sometimes the argument is a negative one: The way you know you're liberated as God intends is if someone tells you that you're going too far.

The affirmative argument erases the reality of difference. People aren't God, and that's a good thing. People also aren't like each other, and that's also a good thing. I've noticed this argument seems more popular among Catholic writers. If I had the patience, I would read more deeply in the literature (such as it is) and see if my hunch is correct that it's due to Catholic ontology that sees priest, husband, wife, man and woman as existential categories more than linguistic labels. I don't think I have the patience. "Polyamorous is nearer to godly" is exactly as aggravating as "celibate is nearer to godly," and if taken seriously, it probably has the potential to do a lot more damage in people's lives.

The negative argument makes an idol out of transgression and seems more popular among Protestant writers. I don't think I have to read more deeply to know that "the system is corrupt and keeps us from what is good for its own benefit" can be traced straight back to Martin Luther, or that pride in transgression has more than mere echoes of the sectarian idea-slash-comfort-blanket that the world hates (only) those who love the truth. Along with turning morality and spirituality into hipster endeavors, this focus on transgression has several tangible costs.

First is the simple cost of human health and well-being. It isn't that every transgressive act is inherently harmful, or that incidental harm may not be outweighed by the benefits for some individuals. But in a culture of transgression, harm is inevitable and, in the extreme, glorified. Donna Minkowitz captures an example of this perfectly in her memoir/essay Ferocious Romance:

Then novelist Bruce Benderson gets up...to read a marvelously lyrical passage from his forthcoming novel about the changes in Times Square...He is a wondeful prosodist, but what he celebrates make me nauseous. The teenagers he loves to see renting themselves out to adults are starving, and homeless. Most of them are on the run from sexual abuse at home...The romanticism of danger and ugliness in his piece is as great as any romanticism the religious right could make of marriage. (43-44)

If the suffering of others is necessary for you to feel liberated, you aren't the oppressed. You're one of the oppressors.

The second cost is the reinforcement of privilege. In a society where oppression takes the form of bullets and tear gas, death threats and harassment, lost economic opportunities and other impairments of basic life functions, it takes a serious amount of entitlement to lift any given sexual act or personal affectation up to that level. (Is it a coincidence that writers on transgression seem most commonly white, educated and middle-class-or-above? I don't think so.) It is certainly true that LGBT*, GRSM** and MOGAI*** folks--pick an acronym, any acronym!--can and do face immediately threatening oppression on a regular basis. But it happens when they're holding hands or interviewing for a job or wearing modest-but-"wrong" clothing or just sitting around doing nothing in particular, too. The kinds of behaviors sometimes dismissed as "assimilationist" by radicals aren't actually protective against bigoted people who want to disassociate themselves from, or punish, anyone who isn't straight and cis-gendered and monogamous.

The third cost is theological impoverishment. Jesus declared that the kingdom of God is among us. Liberal theology generally emphasizes the image of God present in all human beings, just waiting to be restored to wholeness. There is very little in the world that actually needs to be smashed for liberation to occur. It is true that systems and customs are capable of discouraging us from being in right relationship with each other, but they aren't capable of stopping us. And many people use established systems and customs fruitfully to  grow in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So, no, my family is not transgressive. We are not part of any effort to dismantle monogamy or rise above social programming or maximize sexual expression. If other people feel called to those things and refrain from being jerks while doing so, then God bless. We'll be over here living our happily conventional life, polyamorous though we may be.

*LGBT: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.

**GRSM: Gender, relationship and sexual minorities.

***MOGAI: Marginal orientations, gender alignments and intersex.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

What trustworthy authority looks like.

Having a themed blog is a weird thing.

It probably looks like the only thing I care about is how polyamorous families are treated by American Protestant churches, since this blog is my current public face. (Except that most readers are coming from my Facebook feed according to the traffic stats, so, hi, guys!).  At the same time, I feel a certain amount of internal pressure to stay "on topic," and since I have a self-imposed posting cycle of a-week-give-or-take, I feel some guilt when my attention is consumed by something that seems incompatible with writing a post consistent with the blog's theme.

It's getting close to two weeks now that the police shooting and response to community uproar in Ferguson, MO has been that something consuming my attention. It is the defiantly corrupted authority on display that pushes me from grief to outrage. As one Los Angeles police officer conveniently says out loud for all of us to hear: "I'm a cop. If you don't want to get hurt, don't challenge me." Set aside for the moment that this advice works about as well as the advice for women to dress modestly if they want to avoid harassment by men (i.e., it doesn't). Set aside, too, that the white men speaking loudest for unconditional deference to the police overlap significantly with the white men who talk about "Second Amendment solutions" (i.e., their rhetoric jumps straight to resistance in the face of government action they perceive as intrusive). Focus on the narrow question of whether anyone claiming this kind of authority can be trusted with it. The answer: No. They can't.

For almost the entirety of my adult working life, I've held positions where I've been entrusted with authority. (I have written about the experience from time to time.) I've had the opportunity to watch colleagues and peers navigate their own relationships with personal authority. My five years in municipal government were especially illuminating in this respect. Here is what I've learned about trustworthy authority.

It is transparent. Whenever possible, the process and rationale for decisions is shared freely. When not possible, the reasons given for non-disclosure are clear and consistent. Almost always, the only acceptable reasons are "it would be illegal" or "it would go against generally accepted professional ethics" or "we're not sure ourselves." And you cite your sources.

It takes responsibility. When you have authority and bad things happen on your watch, it may not always be your fault, but it's always your responsibility. It is literally your job to make things right to the best of your ability. If there is never any progress, and the same bad things seem to keep happening over and over? It's your fault.

Its goal is stewardship, not dominion. Every exercise of authority must be directly justifiable by the benefit it brings to the people subject to it. Sometimes it takes time for that benefit to establish itself and bear fruit. But if it never comes? You're not authoritative. You're authoritarian.

It accepts condemnation. I won't lie. It sucks to be heckled, mistrusted, misinterpreted, accused, even hated. But there will always be people who think you're doing it wrong, or who find it expedient to act like they do. You have to keep doing your job right anyway. And you know what? Sometimes your critics are right. If you don't let them speak freely, you'll never learn when they are.

Everything about the situation in Ferguson shows the local police failing each of these conditions, miserably. And unfortunately, Ferguson is just one of many, many jurisdictions where the police are betraying the communities they serve. (In my opinion, Portland, where I live, is one of those.)

Do American police always screw up? Hardly. But authority is not an area of life where it is acceptable to look at aggregate results and dismiss a minority of abuses as a statistical cost of doing business. These aren't errors by sports players or a till that doesn't balance out at the end of the day or a student who gets a C in one class. These are people's lives and livelihoods harmed or completely destroyed. No trustworthy authority is okay with that or tries to deflect attention from its responsibility.

I could tie this all back to church authority and polyamorous families. Oppression is, after all, rather dull in the predictability of how it plays out. But it would trivialize the impact that police brutality and lack of accountability has on people's lives, especially Black people. Sometimes the only respectful thing to do is to go off-topic.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams, depression and me.

I've been uncharitably irritated with pretty much all the different responses to Robin Williams' death this week. I agree that it is very sad, that people should be more educated about and understanding of mental illness, that everyone should appreciate the love and respect they have from people near to them, and that having suicide hotline information at one's fingertips is a sensible and sometimes life-saving precaution.

And yet. I'm irritated.

I first showed symptoms of clinical depression in high school. They intensified in my young adulthood; I was hospitalized for observation for about a day when I was 19, and for about a week when I was 23. When I was 29, I took a month-long leave of absence from work to deal with a particularly nasty depressive episode. And throughout the first half of my 30's, I became pretty convinced that I wasn't going to live into old age. I have a stubborn and more-or-less all-encompassing sense of personal responsibility, so I figured I would most likely see my son (my one child at the time) into adulthood, arrange my affairs so the people depending on me would be taken care of, and then help establish and enter the equivalent of hospice care for the suicidally depressed.

Which brings me to irritation #1: suicide hotline information. The thing about suicide hotlines is, they work. I can speak from personal experience. But after enough depressive episodes, I learned that survival doesn't actually solve anything. The suffering is still waiting to return. Even today, at 41, when I can easily be described as "happy" by any objective standard--plus my own personal subjective one--it is a very rare day that I don't have at least a few minutes of existentially threatening despair. If anyone ever doubts the nature of mental illness as an actual disease, sit down with me for an hour or so, and I'll tell you all about the effect that varying my meds dosage or departing too much from my daily routine has on me. I am whole, but I'm never going to be healthy, barring some unexpected scientific breakthrough.

Which brings me to irritation #2: "Think of how many people love you and would be devastated to lose you!" I can't speak for every depressed person's experience of depression, only my own. And my experience is that a depressive episode is physical and mental torment. I can only compare it to the experience of bitterly fighting with someone you love dearly, wanting to stop and make up but neither of you able to, but the person you are fighting with is yourself. You can't go to a movie or hang out with friends or take a hike in the woods in order to recover and restore some perspective. There is no escape. And that is tiring. With other diseases, there is some acceptance of the idea that sometimes, enough is enough. The person with cancer decides not to undergo another round of chemotherapy. The person with heart disease decides not to go back for open-heart surgery again. Do they believe themselves to be unloved? Will their loved ones not grieve their loss? No. They're just ready to stop suffering. The analogy is all kinds of incomplete--treatments for depression aren't generally invasive with debilitating side effects, and I have no idea what "informed consent" could actually look like for someone in the grips of a depressive episode--but the principle remains that medical choices belong to the person who's actually sick.

Which brings me to irritation #3: the idea that Williams' death is an ideal opportunity for conversation and education. People have been killing themselves forever. Famous people have been killing themselves forever. The conversational opportunities are always there, and the imperative to be informed has always been there. It feels indecent to me to appropriate a man's death and turn it into enlightenment theater, where some of us talk and some of us listen and In The End, We've All Learned Something.

Which brings me to irritation #4: the shock and surprise at Williams' death. It's unclear whether he was ever diagnosed with a condition that carried a significant risk of suicide along with it, but anyone who ever watched an interview with him knew the man had struggled at many points over the years. In any case, according to the CDC, there are tens of thousands of suicides in the United States every year--and dozens of suicide attempts for every one that ends in death. (Apologies for my unrigorous reliance on a single report from 2012, but I doubt the statistics vary enough year by year to make my vague description of them wrong.) It's not common, but it's not exactly rare, either. Depression is a disease that sometimes leads to people trying to kill themselves, and some of those efforts are fatal. It's heartbreaking, but altogether believable.

Maybe my irritation is just part of my own sadness. I don't know. I do know that church--not simply Christian faith, but the ritual and practice and community of church--is what sustained me and gave me both the motivation and the strength to find the place of wholeness I'm in today. There is a non-trivial chance I would have died without it, and it is not optional for keeping me grounded now. So if one wishes to tie this post in to the blog's topic of polyamorous families in the church, there's the connection. You never know what the cost of excluding someone may turn out to be.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What really matters.

Alanna Gallagher was six years old when she died, murdered by one of her neighbors.

Her funeral was held in the church her family had attended for years, where she ordinarily "would be singing on top of her lungs with her hymnal upside down...because before she could read she had the hymn memorized." Her mother, stepfather and biological father shared happy memories and said goodbye to their baby girl.

And, totally beside the point, her grieving parents are a polyamorous family.

I remember when it happened. There was a lot of fear that her home life would be sensationalized, that cruel busybodies would make her family's burden even heavier, that some might even blame her death on her parents' "lifestyle." And, sure, you never want to read the comments on an online news article. But for the most part, what her family got was support. Support from the police, support from their community, and support from strangers on the Internet.

Because when a little girl dies, it doesn't matter who is having sex with whom. It doesn't matter who sleeps where. It doesn't matter whose model of Biblical marriage is more persuasive. It doesn't matter how sturdy Western Civilization is, or isn't.

What matters is that the moral fabric of the universe is torn and stained. Even when death comes for a child from natural causes, it's wrong. And for that child's family, it is world-shattering.

For Christians, church is where we generally go when our world has been shattered. We know the people there, who love us. We know the stories we will hear, which sustain us. We light candles and sing songs and keep breathing, one minute at a time.

Calvary Lutheran Church was the church for Alanna and her parents. They were out to their friends, their brothers and sisters. Because they had done hymns and potlucks and Sunday School together, they could do death together too. Because that's how it works. Nobody wants to come out at a funeral. Nobody should have to. God forbid that anyone has to be in the closet at their own child's funeral. Can you imagine?

I can. I can imagine having to choose between sticking together as a family and collapsing into the arms of my faith community. I couldn't choose. I would simply break, and never be whole.

I was so grateful for the pastor, staff and members of Calvary Lutheran Church. I thought about writing them at the time. But I didn't, because this tragedy wasn't about me. It was their little hymn-belter torn away from them, their sister and brothers crushed. They deserved their privacy.

But now, all you mainline churches worried about your image, your respectability, your own fear and revulsion--whatever it is that keeps you from welcoming and embracing polyamorous families--think for a moment about Alanna's parents left alone in the worst days of their lives. Think about Alanna herself, living her short life without hymns and Sunday School and the love of her community. How can you think about such things, remain unwelcoming, and still call yourself the Body of Christ?

I'll leave the last word to Calvary Lutheran's pastor, Phil Heinze:

I’m not saying “come and see” all the things at Calvary, like worship that is well done, consistent Gospel preaching, emphasis on education, multiple opportunities to be together, the cafĂ©, Bible studies, social ministry that makes a difference and changes our world one person at a time, dynamic youth and children ministry, etc. etc.. No, what I am saying is “come and see” the people of Calvary, people committed to following Christ, willing to take risks, open to others, people who listen and learn and love.

Thank you, Rev. Heinze. And thank you, Calvary Lutheran.


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Monday, July 28, 2014

Showing your work.

One of the flurry of books published around the time that Gene Robinson was elected bishop in the Episcopal Church was a collection of Methodist essays called Staying the Course. I don't remember that much about it--it was a pretty standard re-hashing of already worn arguments--but one small piece has stuck with me to this day. One author plaintively insisted that reformers who wished to appeal to knowledge found outside of the Bible needed to specify what sources were going to be newly authoritative: the Journal of the American Medical Association? Something else?

At the time, I thought it was just a sad example of missing the point entirely, an attempt to cling to the idea that all the right answers are written down somewhere. Theology was maybe negotiable. Epistemology wasn't. Recently I've been wondering, though, if there isn't actually an important point buried among the mess.

Liberal American Protestants, for the most part, aren't going to point at the Bible and tell you to stop doing something because the Bible says not to. They may tell you that the Bible says to do something, like love your neighbor, and therefore you shouldn't do something else, like use them solely for your own sexual gratification. They may appeal to holiness, but rarely to purity.

So that means there needs to be evidence of harm connected to a prohibited activity in order for the prohibition to be credible. And evidence, as Wikipedia has made a matter of popular cultural knowledge, must have its sources cited. Opponents of egalitarian polyamorous families have not, to my knowledge, bothered to do so.

(It's called a lit review! Your local public library can help you find one, or even to make your own! Of course, then you might encounter the work of sociologist Elizabeth Sheff, who hasn't found evidence that outcomes for kids in poly families are worse than in monogamous ones.)

Which leaves me with an appreciation for that conservative Methodist's frustration. This post has actually taken me twice as long as it usually does,  because I have had to keep walking away from it when my blood pressure gets too high. Engaging conservative arguments is fairly straightforward. There are rules about what counts and what doesn't, and conservatives have to stick to those rules or else admit that that the entire foundation of their worldview and ethical systems is as full of sinkholes as Florida. Not that such admissions are a common occurrence, but there's a certain peace of mind that comes from watching someone reduced to saying "Nuh-UH" or "la la la I can't hear you."

Liberals, though. Liberals! So used to being reasoned and reasonable. So complacent and self-satisfied. They base their opinions on critical thinking and empirical evidence, thus, if they have an opinion about something, it is only natural that the lines of thought and empirical evidence must be out there somewhere. Why go through the bother of actually confirming them? So redundant.

I exaggerate. A bit. Maybe. But for religious communities that don't look to tradition, written revelation or a designated authority to provide definitive answers to uncomfortable questions, it is not only irritating but a failure of religious obligation when the conversations that could lead to answers are anything less than deliberate and comprehensive.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

But it's such a *pretty* map.

In my opinion, there is no American theologian writing today who is more important than Fred Clark, better known to many as the Slacktivist. He has a gift for finding and explaining the simple truths at the heart of questions that people more commonly politely pretend are complicated.

Clark's formation in the heart of evangelical America means he natively understands its culture, psychology and theology. His insistence that he has every right to stand as proudly as ever as an evangelical Baptist, no matter what the gatekeepers say or do, is a welcome counterpoint to the many de-conversion narratives out there, among Christians and former Christians alike. One happy consequence of this stand is that his readers--well, me, at least, but I don't think I'm alone--never get the sense that he is letting himself off the hook when he critiques that faith community.

There is one post by Clark, "Let Us Reason Together," that I return to over and over again, not only in the context of theology, but in every aspect of life where we are required to assemble facts together in an interpretive framework. Politics, science, family dynamics, self-examination, cooking, putting together Ikea furniture, anything. The experience he turns into a metaphor is the difference between a map--an authoritative source--and direct observation:

So there I was, at the end of what was, undeniably, a dead end street, consulting a map that claimed otherwise. It was something of a Groucho moment: "Who are you going to believe? Me or your lying eyes?" I sided with my own two eyes, thus accepting the principle that reason and experience were essential considerations for evaluating the meaning and application of the text.

(Clark links this epiphany to the basic idea of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. I think it's also helpful to link "text" here to the broader understanding, as in semiotics, that text "can exist in any medium and may be verbal, non-verbal, or both." It can even be unconscious, so long as a message is sent and received. But now I'm really digressing.)

I usually say I became a Christian around late 1999, early 2000. It was a fairly classic born-again experience. My heart was strangely warmed, and for once I embraced it, after many years of giving faith in general a serious case of side-eye. Being me, my first reaction was to read all the things. What did other Christians have to say about this being-a-Christian thing?

I soon discovered two main competing "grand narratives" that spoke to my heart. One was the contemporary American evangelical narrative of the fervent individual believer, armed with Scripture and prayer, trusting that God will use these tools to give clear answers to all questions that arise in daily life. The other was the historical Catholic narrative of the Church and its magisterium, stewarding the sacraments and the deposit of faith, offering a safe harbor for all who seek God.

Inconveniently, they were (and are) both wrong. Empirically so, through my own direct observation. The Catholic vision of the Christian life relies crucially on an understanding of natural law that has little relationship to the diversity of behavior found among animals, including humans, in actual nature. (There's a reason that Pius X declared modernism to be full of heresy.) The evangelical vision of the Christian life relies crucially on a willful ignorance of the development of the historical faith and practice of Christians over thousands of years.

It's remarkable, really, how many arguments--not just theological ones, and not just from conservatives--boil down to either "because human nature" or "because we've always done it this way." And how often the ample evidence to the contrary is ignored, rationalized away or flat-out denied.


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Sunday, July 6, 2014

More backwards vindication for poly families from conservatives.

In my last post, I mentioned that N.T. Wright dismissed same-sex marriage by appealing to polyamory: "There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female."

Apparently, this argument may be kind of A Thing. Edward Raby, a Michigan pastor who describes himself as a "Christian Conservative Libertarian," has an essay chastising another conservative for ranting about polyamory as a sexual sin:

If you are going to call something sinful it better be clearly defined that way by the Bible itself.  To lump Polyamory and Polygamy in the same ‘sinful’ pile is not supported Biblically...polygamy is not only never condemned by the Bible it is practiced by some of the Bible’s more glamorized heroes from Abraham and Jacob to David and Solomon.  When Jesus talks about marriage and harkens us back to Adam and Eve it should be pointed out that the issue is divorce, he actually does not dismiss polygamy with his words or say it is wrong. He simply is saying there is a higher way that should be strived for...The list...of sexual sins is only valid if the Bible lists them all as sexual sins – adultery, fornication, homosexuality and bestiality are listed in the Bible...Make a note.  Polyamory is not listed and you need to point out that the reason that parts of this are sinful are the homosexual elements.

Basically, as long as someone has only heterosexual partners and marries all of them, there's no Biblical barrier to having two partners or a dozen, according to Raby. Anyone who argues otherwise is "loaded with emotion, lacking in Biblical understanding and quite frankly self-righteous."

I'm honestly not sure what's going on here. Are there conservatives who have decided the slippery slope argument obviously isn't working, so they'll just push gay couples down to the bottom of the hill, even if it makes mult-adult families look better in the process? Have they decided the culture wars are essentially lost, so they better stop antagonizing us wayward indulgers and reclaim separation of church and state as a tactical defense? Or is this actually representative of a kind of intellectual honesty working its way through, here and there?

Whatever it is, it's a positive development. Not the homophobia part--that's still vile. But it always was. It's not like conservative re-evaluation or resignation with regards to poly families can make homophobia worse.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Children and the eschaton! Wait, what?

Heath Bradley is once again saying smart things with compassion and clarity. This time, he's been dismantling Anglican theological giant N.T. Wright's brief comments about how same-sex marriage is an unsupportable repudiation of God's use of binary concepts as the fundamental building blocks of creation.

As a side note, Bradley speaks for me in the words he chooses to open this series of blog posts: "N.T. Wright is brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. No one's writings have influenced my own theology more than his." As many have noted, it just makes Wright's continued wrongness on this subject that much more saddening.

(As another side note, Wright intriguingly uses polyamory in his comments as an affirmative defense of man-woman marriage: "Sometimes it’s been one man and more than one woman. Occasionally it’s been one woman and more than one man. There is polyandry as well as polygamy in some societies in some parts of history, but it’s always been male plus female." It's a weird reversal of the usual way of things, for me as a poly person, to be offered the opportunity to throw monogamous gays and lesbians under the bus. But I'll pass.)

Getting back to Bradley on the inconvenient fact that complementarity "is not in and of itself a form of moral logic":

It should be pointed out that while the first creation story in Genesis 1 highlights the need for procreation in regards to the creation of male and female, the second creation story in Genesis 2 highlights the need for companionship in the creation of female from male. In this story, the procreative complementarity of male and female is not a factor in giving an account of marriage, but instead the need for a partner, helper, or supporting companion is the basis for the relationship...For a gay person, someone of the opposite sex could not fulfill the role of a supportive partner envisioned in Genesis 2...If reproductive complementarity is the form of moral logic that you use to discount same-sex relationships, to be consistent you must follow that all the way where you will end up with the Roman Catholic position that bans all intentionally and basically non-procreative intercourse between heterosexual couples. Most Christians are not willing to go that far, but that is where the moral logic leads...We could also point out that while the early chapters of Genesis present an understanding of marriage that was normal for most people, it does not present an account that is normative for all people. People who choose to be celibate come immediately to mind. It would be easy and natural to read Genesis as mandating marriage and reproduction for everyone, but we know that Jesus, Paul, and others did not see this mandate to be fruitful and multiply as applying to all individuals.

I think there are two main responses to the tension that Bradley highlights between the contemporary Protestant conviction that marriage is normatively about procreation but that procreation itself is not normative.

The first response is what I would call "the symbolic dodge." (Others probably call it that too, or near enough, but I'm too lazy at the moment to go past the first page of Google results.) Married people don't need to be able to reproduce, but they should look like they could. People struggling (or happy) with infertility could produce a baby through a miracle. So could really old people. There are stories in the Bible about that kind of stuff. Celibate people are okay, in the symbolic dodge, because they aren't undermining the symbol of procreative marriage; they simply aren't participating in it. (Besides, with the example of the Virgin Mary, one could argue that celibacy isn't necessarily a barrier to procreation either.) Asexual people may or may not be okay; there is, after all, that long historical tradition of a marriage being invalid if it is never "consummated."

A similar symbolic dodge is used to argue that people who look like they're monogamous, even as they are quietly carrying on extramarital affairs, are ethically preferable to openly non-monogamous people who honor their commitments, because the fact that the cheaters feel shame and the pressure to hide their actions actually upholds symbolic monogamy. Stupidity like that is one of the main reasons I prioritize virtue ethics--what makes you a better person?--over the consequences-oriented teleological ethics and rules-oriented deontological ethics. If you don't think it's stupid, there's probably not anything I can do to convince you otherwise.

The second response is to shift to a focus on child-rearing instead of child-bearing. The alleged necessity of having both a biologically male and biologically female parent to raise a healthy child is a common (though largely discredited) argument against same-sex marriage. In the context of polyamorous families, the argument is that our children will likewise grow up confused, damaged, or both because of the presence of more than two adults. Parents are expected to entirely set aside all interests, needs and desires that potentially risk the happiness and confidence of their children.

I will admit it--I am fiercely protective of my children. As Amy says of our family, "our children are inextricably woven into our courtships and marriage." There are many major life decisions I've made based on what I believe is in their best interest. To pull a page out of N.T. Wright's playbook, though--what is the cosmic significance of children? What are children for?

What I mean is this: Suppose a child grows up as perfectly as possible, to become an exemplary adult. This adult has a child of their own--and immediately sublimates their entire life to raising that child. And that child grows up as perfectly as possible--and then has a child of their own. We end up with a cycle of raising children so that they can...raise children? Really?

To my readers who are parents, I ask: Do you actually feel like you will have met your obligations to a child of yours if, when they are grown, they live a stunted and joyless life in order to be the parents society tells them they should be? For me, I want my children to blossom into the fullness of the unique persons God created and called them to be. That's a taste of the new creation the Gospel promises us. Not always happiness, and not always comfort. But greater authenticity, and increasing peace. Not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the world we all share.

Parents should never be reckless when their children could be affected by the consequences of their choices. But we do them no favors if all we show them of adulthood is how to perpetuate the status quo. Miserably married parents may divorce, whatever the statistics say. Single parents may fall in love and date and even re-marry, whatever the statistics say. Poly parents--even the many ones whose choices I personally find questionable and bewildering--may form their relationships with other consenting adults and live their lives as fruitfully as they can, whatever the statistics say. (Once we have a reliable body of research with statistically significant results, that is.)

In the process, children may suffer disappointments as a direct consequence of a parent's relationship choices--just as they may suffer disappointments because of career choices, residence choices, religious choices (!), or choices in any other significant area of life. On occasion, these disappointments can be quite serious. Our job as parents is to comfort them in their disappointment, grieve with them as needed, and do our best to help them to discern what has been gained as well as what has been lost. In this way, we raise children who will be truly equipped as adults to do the work they are called to do to reveal more of the kingdom of God, which is among us.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Don't confuse discipline with suffering.

Even when they are otherwise supportive, it is common for monogamous people writing about polyamorous people to frame polyamory as an escape for folks who lack discipline. John Shore, who has a blog at Patheos, provides a textbook example in his recent post, "Dancing Cheek to Cheek?"

Some choice quotes:

I don’t want her love for me to be something she does by way of emotionally multi-tasking...I don’t think there’s time in life to really love—to really get to know—more than one person...You can only know two people half as well as you can know one, because there’s no more time in life than that.

Is it true for every human being...that the overall richest way to spend his or her adult life (or as much of it as possible–and as difficult as doing so can certainly can be) is through exercising whatever discipline it takes to remain emotionally and sexually fidelitous to one other person who is similarly wedded (whether legally or not) to them? I believe that it is the case: I think it’s that truth which informs and sustains the whole marriage/coupling compulsion. 

To me (as obnoxiously suggestive as this metaphor is) you are snacking in several places, but eating well in none. What I hear is that you are (and perhaps purposefully so, which is fine) avoiding full emotional and physical commitment–and that ultimately the reward of such commitment would be better for/to you than anything you’re now doing.

To be fair, Shore puts in plenty of disclaimers about possibly being wrong, speaking from his own experience, etc. But the message is still clear: it's not morally wrong to be polyamorous, but it is a disservice to yourself and any partner(s) you may inflict your undisciplined, intimacy-fearing ways upon.

On the one hand, if this attitude were adopted by the Church as a whole, it would represent a huge step forward. This goes to show that the bar for improvement isn't just set low, it's lying flat on the damn ground. On the other hand, it's maddening. (Especially coming from the man who wrote  "The Radical Immaturity of True Love," which actually manages to go downhill from the horrifying title.)

Absolutely, a monogamous couple can use their relationship as discipline in the sense of a formative practice that nurtures discipleship. Monogamy can offer many opportunities to invite, pray, study, worship, give, encourage and serve. It is not, however, the only path to this kind of individual and spiritual growth. It wasn't even the most favored path for the first 1500 or so years of Christianity, as the Church consistently interpreted "the teachings of Jesus (Matt 19:12, Luke 20:27-40) and Paul (1 Cor 7)" to mean that monogamy was itself an accommodation for those who lacked the discipline to be celibate.

Much more recently, most Christians have come to accept the idea that celibacy is only a proper discipline for those who have a genuine vocation for it. (What to do with unmarried people who lack a vocation for celibacy is one of the questions that leads American Protestant churches to fail miserably at ministering to and with single folks, but that's a topic for another time.) The prevailing view is that discipline without vocation is nothing more than suffering, and redemptive suffering has rightly fallen out of favor in contemporary Protestant thought--especially after the contributions of feminist and liberation theologians to our understanding of how the oppressed are kept in that condition.

To reject the possibility of suffering in compulsory monogamy is a failure of imagination, but it's actually not as maddening as the failure to imagine the way that monogamy hinders the experience of emotional intimacy for many polyamorous folks. Yes, I want to fully know and to be fully known. I learn much about who Amy is by watching her with Dave, and vice versa. I want them to know the parts of who I am that can only be expressed in a family with three adults. They know me so much better as a result of us committing to each other, instead of splintering ourselves into one monogamous couple and one single person. To say nothing of the fact that I don't want to be emotionally intimate with an abstract "someone." I want to be emotionally intimate with my family--which is Amy and Dave.

Avoiding intimacy? Lacking discipline? I don't know whether to laugh or to cry when I hear such pronouncements. (Maybe I should go for laughing until I cry.) I'd like to see the typical monogamous person take a shot at being the "third person to give everyone else a reality check and some calm perspective" during a disagreement between two other partners. Except that I actually wouldn't like to see it, because while the experience might teach them something about intimacy and discipline, they would also find it very unpleasant.

And I wouldn't ever want to confuse discipline with suffering.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Ministries are not cookie cutters. Neither are marriages.

I wrote in my last post about the importance of the metaphor and theological lens of kinship to my experience of faith. I came across a passage from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his "Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell," that expresses well the idea that romantic love is beautiful and justifiably celebrated, but it is more of a means than an end in and of itself:

The course that you are taking at the outset is one that you have chosen for yourselves; what you have done and are doing is not in the first place, something religious, but something quite secular...In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more that something personal – it is a status, an office.

Marriage is a ministry. It's not the only ministry, or a ministry more important than others, but it is a ministry, if one chooses to embrace it as such.

What happens if we take that idea seriously?

We don't expect pastoral ministry to take only one form. There are solo pastors, senior pastors, associate pastors, hospice chaplains, military chaplains, university chaplains, pastoral counselors, and many other examples of pastoral ministry .

We don't expect Christians to heal the sick with only one kind of medicine, feed the hungry with only one kind of food, give water to the thirsty from only one kind of bottle, offer only one kind of hospitality to the stranger, clothe the naked with only one kind of clothing, or visit prisoners with only one kind of comfort and conversation to share.

Why, then, should we expect all marriages to look alike?

Bonhoeffer's wedding sermon itself provides the only common answer I am familiar with: because God ordains complementary roles for a man and a woman as they bring forth children to continue the human race. The great majority of American Protestants have abandoned one or more parts of that answer, though. Complementarian thought has given way to egalitarian thought, even among a sizeable number of evangelicals. Attempting to have children is no longer a moral obligation. And marriage needing both a man and a woman? Well, we are watching that assumption change much faster than most people ever thought possible.

If marriage is a ministry, we should allow those who are called to it to follow that call faithfully, whatever it ends up looking like. Even if it ends up looking like my family.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Five reasons I choose to write about families.

1. Protestant churches minister to and with single folks badly. Very badly. I honestly have no idea where I could or should start if I were to try to separate out "welcome and include single folks who identify as polyamorous" from "welcome and include single folks in general."

2. Polyamorous folks who are single or casually dating don't necessarily present that much differently from folks who prefer monogamy. They can make themselves known, if they want. But they are less likely to face questions or conversations that force them to decide if they are going to tell the whole truth, part of the truth, or none of the truth.

3. Protestant churches frequently proclaim that their reason for existence is so people have a place they can hear the Word preached and, depending on the tradition, receive the Sacraments. But the times when specific individuals are lifted up for public celebration and blessing are commonly family times: a baby is born, people are joined in marriage, someone has died and must be remembered--the proverbial "marry, bury and baptize." It may be a stretch to say that lay people see these things as what church is really for, but it's difficult to imagine church without them. Polyamorous folks? Mostly have to live without them. Or, you know. Lie.

4. Of all the metaphors and theological lenses through which we explain God's love for us and the love we are called to have for each other, kinship is the one that speaks to me the most. I experience my faith most richly in terms of loyalty, sacrifice, mutual obligation and bonds that go beyond sentimentality. Claiming the right to include families like mine in that metaphor, and to examine it through that lens, matters to me.

5. If polyamorous families are categorically unacceptable, as the overwhelming majority of Protestant churches insist they are, then the only solution to the problem of the existence of people in polyamorous families is for them to shatter those families into more acceptable arrangements. It is a vile and, to me, incomprehensible thing that so many people view the destruction of families as a lesser sin than the living out of fruitful, covenantal love between more than two people. People understandably get uncomfortable with this characterization--who wants to be a homewrecker? In practice, though, that's what they advocate when they make monogamy or celibacy an unconditional prerequisite for participating fully in the life of a Christian community.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Taking a global and historical view.

In any discussion of intimate relationships, i.e., anytime sex is involved, you can be sure that there will be people spouting off about evolution, psychology and human nature. It drives me crazy when those people don't also engage with the actual work of biologists, psychologists and anthropologists. (It drives me almost as crazy as when people spout off about language without engaging with the actual work of linguists! But that's what an undergraduate linguistics degree can do to you.) Believe it or not, we are not all magically endowed with perfect insight into these things simply because we possess human bodies, human minds and human relationships. Or because we read that really fascinating article on Slate or the Huffington Post the other day.

It is in this context that I recommend Polygamy: A Cross Cultural Analysis by University of Copenhagen professor Miriam Koktvedgaard Zeitzen. It's hardly a defense of the many and varied practices of plural marriage across the world and throughout history, and it has practically nothing to say about romance. It mostly explores the strategies women and men use to negotiate access to women's economic production, reproductive capabilities and sexual companionship in different cultures and environments. She finds that polygamy is a pervasive practice:

Polygamy is found among people practising all major religions of the world, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, as well as local native religions. Polygamy is also found on all continents, Africa, Asia, America, Europe and Oceania, where various populations may practise polygamy because it forms part of their cultural repertoire. The legitimate basis for polygamy in a particular society is like a swinging pendulum, however, sometimes found in religious codes, sometimes in cultural codes, such that this legitimacy may change foundations over time. (29)

There are a bewildering variety of forms of polygamy, from polyandry (one woman-many men) to polygyny (one man-many women) to polygynandry (many women-many men) to polykoity (one formal marriage and multiple informal but defined sexual partners) to cicisbeism to concubinage. For Jews and Christians, the most prevalent form of polygamy has been polygyny:

Historically, polygamy was practised in Ancient Hebrew society...Some European Jews practised plural marriage well into the Middle Ages...Polygamy has never been culturally or religiously legitimate for Christians...Polygamy was indeed practised by some Christians at various times throughout the centuries; there were small polygamous Christian groups in late medieval times, for example...One of the most prominent proponents of Christian polygamy was Martin Luther who joined other theologians of his time in accepting, albeit reluctantly, the desire of the social and political elites to practise polygyny, in order to retain their support and ensure the success of the reformation...Martin Luther could lean on good Catholic precedents in these matters. The Catholic Church did not accept polygamy, but neither did it consistently prevent it, even sanctioning a few special cases over the centuries...The fact that there are no specific prohibitions against polygamy in the New Testament allowed various religious leaders to advocate it on moral and religious grounds...Today, the Christian Church clearly condemns polygamy, not least as a result of the last 200 years of colonial history...Faced with polygamous, animistic peoples, European administrators and missionaries made polygamy one of the main issues with which to force their way of life upon their new subjects. By banning its practice as religiously illegitimate, it was assumed that the subjects would convert to Christianity. (33-34)

These efforts to enforce universal monogamy were not always successful even when the efforts to convert people to Christianity were, as in Cameroon:

Some contemporary local churches have recognized the convictions of polygamous women seeking to become good Christians, and allow polygamous members to practise and worship in their churches...Many polygynous women...also consider the churches’ emphasis on Christian monogamy as the ideal marriage to be hypocritical, constituting a veiled form of polygamy even less desirable than formal polygamy. This is because monogamy is considered to encourage a husband to have informal concubines which the first wife cannot control and from whom she derives no benefits...on a local, lived level, it probably appears more realistic for women to assume that their husbands will have other women, and thus prefer to have a regulated relationship with these women. (38-39)

Koktvedgaard Zeitzen argues that these considerations may help explain why many polygynous women in Cameroon choose plural marriages even in the absence of external pressure from society, family or religion. It is important to take these women's lived experiences at face value, at least when beginning to study polygamy in this cultural setting. Christians have historically failed miserably at this most basic task of dialogue:

Missionaries, through their work, their sermons and their writings on polygyny, appeared to voice African women’s interests, but the majority never really attempted to understand the women and their concerns and circumstances as individuals, nor attempted to include their voices in the debate. (136)

For contemporary American Protestants, are there lessons to be learned from this global and historical perspective? I think so. First, the Church has not always and in all places forbidden plural marriage--though it has certainly never given its full blessing, either. Second, a demonstrated commitment to living out a Christian witness of love for God and neighbor can matter more than having the "ideal" family structure when deciding whether to include someone in the life of a faith community. And finally, when you want to know why somebody is choosing to live the way they are, ask them first and then listen to the answers before you start spouting off.


Amy suggests that I am implying that the Cameroonian women described by Koktvedgaard Zeitzen are somehow empowered by choosing what looks like the less f'ed up of two f'ed up options--that I am, in some way, drawing a direct comparison between "damage control for jerky men" and our own egalitarian family with one woman married to two men. It seems worthwhile for me to state for the record that I don't think fatalism can ever be a strong foundation for a healthy relationship, and I don't think Christianity should be in the business of propping up patriarchy, whether it's expressed monogamously or polygamously.

It is true that I don't feel I can say with certainty what is happening in these women's lives. I haven't read the original research drawn on in the book,* let alone talked to any of these women. Having been on the receiving end far too many times of people assuming they know what is "really" going on in our family and others like it, I am extremely hesitant to do that to anybody else. Heck, even watching people discuss heterosexual monogamous marriage in contemporary America, I see more than enough of people leaping to conclusions and tarring everybody with the same analytical brush.

I think, for me, the most important point about listening to people about their own lived experience is when I qualify it with, "at least when beginning to study..." I'm quite willing to come to conclusions on, say, some men in another culture being jerks or some women being trapped. Cultural difference is not a get-out-of-discernment-free card.
* Notermans, Catherine Desiree. 2002. "True Christianity Without Dialogue: Women and the Polygyny Debate in Cameroon". Anthropos. 97, no. 2: 341-353.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

I'll take Morally Relevant Differences for $500, Alex.

Heath Bradley, the United Methodist chaplain at Vanderbilt, writes a lot of very good stuff. I doubt he'd be in favor of celebrating and blessing polyamorous families if asked for his opinion; he describes himself as having "a very conservative temperament," and his journey towards accepting marriages between two men or two women "has not been without countless hours of study and countless hours of sleepless nights." But all the necessary pieces are there for him, and his readers, to come to the realization that "certain relational parameters around sex, such as commitment, mutuality, equality, and so on" are not inherently limited to monogamous couples. There remains only the persistent, insistent feeling that it just has to be different, without an ability to "name exactly what that supposed morally relevant difference is."

In his most recent post, Bradley discusses how Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, "reveals the principle that guides him in how he interprets and applies the teachings of Jesus on marriage":

God desires wholeness and well-being for us. God desires for us to live in peace...For the life of me, I cannot see how telling a gay person that God wants them to either change their orientation or be celibate will make for much peace. The evidence consistently shows this to bring destruction and despair into people's lives, not wholeness and peace. Channeling eros into agape through covenantal commitment is the path of peace, not the denial or suppression of eros.

Most Christians--most Americans, really--flat out deny the possibility of covenantal commitment between more than two people. I am never sure what to say in response besides simply pointing at my family and others like it. The disbelief is of the kind Fred Clark describes as "like not believing in Missouri, or not believing in thermal conduction." Of the small number who accept the possibility, almost all of them argue that poly people should still choose monogamy as the morally superior and/or more advisable option. After all, eros is eros, whatever the source, right?

Well, no. It's not--not always. I can testify to the way my mind, heart and soul twisted and curved in on themselves before I found myself in a family with more than two loving adults. I was torn between acting out in destructive ways and dissociating in despairing ways. I was not whole, or well, or at peace.

In any case, Protestant churches rarely, in practice, demand that monogamous couples (of whatever gender combinations have been judged acceptable) make the best possible relationship choices (however defined) as a condition of acceptance in the life of the community. There is a sense--partly born of compassion, partly born of cynicism--that meddling in the affairs of two people trying to make a life together is counterproductive. It would be nice if poly families could just get gossiped about over coffee like everybody else, instead of being treated as a threat to the general social and moral order.

(My favorite Bradley post I've read thus far? "Celibacy, Contraception, and the Church that Changes.")

Monday, May 26, 2014

A little about me.

Hi, I'm Mark!

I am a committed Christian who is part of a polyfidelitous family of three adults living in Portland, Oregon. We have four children. For more about our family, your best bet is my wife Amy's blog.

My faith home is in the Metropolitan Community Churches denomination. My theological orientation is evangelical, universalist, and sacramental. My primary ethical framework is virtue ethics.

For more than you likely want to know about my views on Christian faith and practice, you can take a look at my master's thesis, "Taking Christian Education Public: Dialogue, Hospitality and Discernment."

For the basics on why my conscience is clear as a polyamorous Christian, I have this introductory post.

The banner image I wanted to use...

...but it's not in the public domain.

Marc Chagall, "Abraham and Three Angels" (wikiart info)

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. -- Hebrews 13:2

"Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?"

(Post title from Romans 14, a passage that I return to again and again, for reasons that are probably pretty obvious.)

Back when my wife was blogging pseudonymously, some of her readers were curious about how I reconcile being Christian with being polyamorous. So I wrote a guest post. It went through a lot of editing--Amy said I had to take as much theology and history out of my answer as possible, so that it wouldn't be incomprehensible. Sigh. I did my best.


The central promise of Christianity is that if we trust in God, we will experience new life. This new life starts right here, right now; we’re not just twiddling our thumbs while we wait for some future heaven. The signs of this new life are known as “the fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If we show growth in these ways, and the people around us also show growth in these ways, then it’s a pretty good sign that we are experiencing the new life promised to us in Christ.

For me, I am less “fruitful” when I am monogamous or celibate. I am crankier, more restless, more impatient, more self-centered, rougher, more impulsive. In Amy and Dave, I have found the family that allows me to bear fruit, and they also report that they are happier for having me around. I understand myself to be called to be part of this family.

Doesn’t Christianity have rules against our kind of family? Yes. Scripture doesn’t defend it, and historical tradition has consistently spoken against it. But Jesus spoke very clearly and firmly on the nature of rules. They exist for the purpose of making people’s lives better. They do not exist for the purpose of proving people’s obedience. Rules were, in fact, the very first thing the early Church had a crisis over: the question of whether people had to become Jewish first, before they could become Christian. And the answer the early Church settled on was, no, they don’t. God is too important to place barriers in front of people who have decided they want to try to trust in God. Do they show the fruit of the Spirit? Okay, then, they’re in, rules or no rules.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. The same is true of theology. Christianity has bent towards freedom for people of all races, towards greater equality for women, towards acceptance of monogamous loving relationships among people of any gender. Christianity will bend towards acceptance of polyamory. I just happen to be out on the farthest edge of that curve, at the moment. It’s not where I would prefer to be, but it appears to be where I am called to be. I trust in God. I am polyamorous; I am Christian; I couldn’t give up my family without destroying my faith, and I couldn’t give up my faith without destroying my ability to be a good husband and father and partner. There’s really not much to reconcile, in the end.