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.