Sunday, October 4, 2009

"Jesus and Divorce: Part I"

I consider myself a liberal on sexual ethics, by historic Christian standards, for all that I'm somewhat culturally conservative by the standards of modern America. There are some things that traditional Christianity frowned upon prior to the 20th century, that I think are morally OK, and can in fact be good and healthy things. Homosexual relationships, but also contraception and some long-term premarital sexual relationships as well.

However, there's one prohibition that even a liberal view cannot easily explain away. It's mentioned in today's reading: I'll use a different scriptural citation, though, which fleshes it out a bit more and adds a potential exception.

"It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."

Matthew 5:31-32 (from "The Sermon on the Mount".)

And here too:

"The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and.....say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery."

Matthew 19: 3-9.

Backed up by Luke 16:18 "Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery".

And by Mark 10:12, and twice by St. Paul:

"But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife" (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)

And also Romans 7:2, "For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband so long as he liveth".

Ouch. This is, indeed, a hard saying. One of the hardest Christian doctrines for our society to accept, as the high divorce rate shows. And it's one, further, that a great many good and decent people find cruel and inflexible. It has been, as the great Bishop Charles Gore conceded in his argument against divorce, "a law singularly hard to flesh and blood". St. Paul himself made a concession- making it clear he was doing so on his own authority, not on the basis of revelation- allowing Christians married to a pagan (before their conversion) to divorce if the pagan spouse wanted to. Taking a lead from St. Paul, different Christian churches since then have tried to make various concessions in the spirit of mercy, to soften the teaching.

Some churches forbid remarriage after divorce entirely, but allow marriages to be annulled if there were factors making it invalid from the beginning (which, especially these days, can be interpreted fairly liberally). Some will not perform remarriages after divorce, and frown on them, but do welcome divorced and remarried people and allow them to receive the sacraments (the Church of England was in this position until 2002, when it unfortunately liberalized the rules). Some allow divorce on the sole ground of adultery; or on the grounds of adultery, cruelty, or conversion to a different religion; some on the grounds that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. Some interpret Christ's words as expressing an ideal rather than an inflexible law. Some see his words as condemning men who unilaterally divorced their wives, and not couples who mutually and amicably agree to divorce. John Milton, notoriously, airily dismissed Christ's words as being deliberately hyperbolic, and approved total freedom of divorce- but only for men. I'm not particularly well informed on how evangelical Protestant churches handle this issue, but my understanding is that it's related to their not seeing marriage as a sacrament, which obviously is not a tack that Catholics, high Anglicans, Orthodox, Orientals and other can take.

I don't really want to get into, here, the topic of what exceptions there should be to Christ's hard saying. Because I don't know. On the one hand, mercy and charity cry out for exceptions. I don't believe that Christ would want a woman to be tied to a felon, a drug abuser, a cheater, or an abuser for life, and I think any ontological tie that there was must by definition be dissolved: not just in our eyes but in God's. And indeed the fact that St. Paul made an exception on his own authority- "But to the rest speak I, not the Lord...." (1 Corinthians 7:12) suggests that we should be able to, as well. On the other hand is the fact that most of the early church forbade divorce with no exceptions (e.g. in the Shepherd of Hermas) and that only a few church fathers in the West ever allowed it even for adultery. On the third hand, it's true that the Orthodox church permitted divorce in certain cases from early on. On the fourth hand, it can be argued (as Bishop Gore did) that this was because of political pressure from the Empire, which was stronger in the East than in the West. On the fifth hand, one could argue that the 'political pressure from the Empire' argument is false because the Armenian Church and the Assyrian Church, who were never part of the Empire, also allowed divorce on similar grounds to the Orthodox- an Assyrian text from the 13th century allows divorce for adultery, heresy, cruelty, murder and witchcraft. On the sixth hand the aformentioned Bishop Gore also argued, convicingly I think, that the 'saving for the cause of fornication' in St. Matthew was a spurious (if well meaning) addition by the Gospel writer, and that it doesn't reflect the true teaching of Jesus. It's always a bad idea when we try to 'correct' the sayings of Jesus and put forth "What Jesus Should Have Said." And on and on....

So in truth, I don't _know_ what types of exceptions there should be, though I'm sure there should be some, and I don't know what the best way is to reconcile this teaching with the interest of mercy and humanity. My own tentative feelings are that something like the pre-2002 C of E position is best- that churches should not _perform_ remarriages, but they should welcome people who are civilly remarried, if they've demonstrated that they are sorry their previous marriage failed, and that at the discretion of their spiritual director they should be allowed to participate fully in the life of the church. Christ loves us, even when we fail, and the church of Christ, like a loving mother, should have mercy on us and loves us unconditionally even when we can't live up to her teachings. This isn't logically very consistent, but then splitting the difference is something Anglicans are well known for. :)

There are certain aspects of what Christ said that do have to be culturally interpreted. As Lynn Gazis-Sax argues, Christ was speaking to men, and it's likely that if he was speaking to women, he would have made an exception for physical or emotional abuse. If divorce is possible for adultery, then it should be logically dissoluble on the grounds of anything that is as bad or worse than adultery, and abuse certainly counts as one of those. So let's acknowledge that an exception for adultery also implies an exception for abuse. The adultery exception may, though, be a spurious interpolation by St. Matthew- it's hard to tell. As for other exceptions, I think we should be very careful, and as I said above, I think my (Anglican) communion should generally stay out of the business of granting remarriages, except perhaps for abuse and adultery, while at the same time welcoming remarried people and dealing with their situations on a case-by-case basis with their priest.

But rather than define the exceptions- for love and mercy do call out for exceptions, just as St. Thomas Aquinas made exceptions to the prohibition against theft if your family was starving, I'd like to talk about the _rule_. Why is it important that Christians today view marriage being lifelong and indissoluble as an _ideal_? What's good about it? Weren't those words of Jesus addressed to a different time? Many of us have come to believe, like me, that the traditional teaching about homosexuality and other sexual acts doesn't necessarily reflect the true will of God for our age, and we need to try to figure out a new sexual ethics for our new era, based on the Bible and Tradition but also based on reason and experience. If we've updated our views on homosexuality, why not also on divorce?

Because let's be honest. There is a very, very powerful case that can be made against the ideal of indissoluble marriage. It was made by Blake in the nineteenth century, and by Yeats in the twentieth century. These were two of the greatest poets in our language, as well as great visionaries and good men. Both of them knew they were arguing a losing battle when they argued for free and easy divorce, but all three did it anyway because it was a cause they deeply believed in. Yeats in particular is an almost titanic and romantic figure in the way he stood in the Irish Senate, in the late 1920s, already well into middle age, wounded in love all his life, a man who had sacrificed and suffered for the cause of Irish freedom, now faced with a country that he felt was making a bad decision in completely banning civil divorce. Yeats was a Protestant, and though he never had any anti-Catholic antipathy, he felt that the Irish government for which he had fought long and hard was now making this law as a pure gesture of religious triumphalism. He stood on the floor of the Senate and argued the case of the Protestant minority against the Catholic majority, thundering memorably, "We against whom you have done this thing are no petty people. We are the people of Grattan, of Emmet, of Parnell, of Swift, of Burke", summoning up an ancient lineage of heroes of Irish nationalism. And he thundered that "Marriage is not to us a Sacrament, but, upon the other hand, the love of a man and woman, and the inseparable physical desire, are sacred. This conviction has come to us through ancient philosophy and modern literature, and it seems to us a most sacrilegious thing to persuade two people who hate each live together, and it is to us no remedy to permit them to part if neither can re-marry." All his romantic fervor, all his aristocratic pride, all his Byronic heroism was evident as he stood there arguing for a lost cause. See here:

In the nineteenth century, the case for free divorce was made powerfully not just by these eminent intellectuals but by any number of Christian radicals and Christian socialists whose vision of the world was one of freedom, where the only bonds between men and women were based on love, not on legalistic contracts, and that when love died so would the relationship. Because what could be more ugly, and more dehumanizing, then to be tied to someone you don't love? If love is our highest calling as human beings, the highest expression of our nature, the emotion that brings us closest to God, how could something that flows from love be wrong? After all, "God is Love" (1 John 4:8) and again, "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God" (1 John 4:7). Love, it's true, covers a multitude of sins and errors.

In our time, the mass media makes a powerful case that we would all be happier if we dropped the ideal of indissoluble marriage, and instead stayed together only as long as we loved each other. Powerful voices in our culture call for a world where people get divorced when they fall out of love, and find love, hope and joy in their new relationships. Mistakes can be wiped out and people can start over: and everytime they start over it's like everything is bright and new again, like the world is young, and every relationship is full of promise. No one is bound, by promise or contract, to anyone they aren't happy and passionate with. Everyone is free to follow their heart wherever it may lead them.

This is, indeed, a powerful and attractive view of the world, and of marriage, and there's a lot to be said for it. And for non-Christians, it's a compelling one. What I'm not sure of is whether it can be combined with a Christian view of the world. Because all the beauty, attractiveness, power, humanity, and compelling logic of the view of marriage held by Yeats, Blake, Milton, and Desperate Housewives, comes up against this hard saying of Jesus:

"But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery."

Is it plausible to try and explain this away by saying that it was a product of a particular culture and time? And how can we square fidelity to this ideal with the fact that in our fallen world, people fail? I'll get to that in the next half of his post.

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