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.

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