By Erik Wikstrom
It’s official – for now. Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker has issued his ruling that California’s controversial Proposition 8, which defined marriage in California as being only between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional. Proponents of the Proposition are already appealing the judge’s ruling. Coming largely from the ranks of the Christian right, they see their crusade as a moral responsibility.
I can understand why. According to the Gospels the site of Jesus’ first miracle was a wedding, so it makes sense to think that he has a horse in this race. And yet the Gospels also record Jesus taking a stand against looking only at the surface of things – at their outer forms – teaching us to look instead at their inner content.
In one rather graphic passage (Matthew 23:27) he chastises the “teachers of the law” – and here he’s really referring to those who prefer a legalistic adherence to the letter of the law rather than a more fluid understanding of its spirit. He calls them “whitewashed sepulchers,” tombs, and says that they look beautiful and clean on the outside but on the inside they’re full of rotting corpses. As I said, a graphic metaphor.
It’s so much easier to pay attention to the forms of things. You can see forms. You can legislate forms. Marriage should be between a man and a woman, for example. That’s clear. That’s simple. That’s legal. But I don’t think that would cut it as a definition for Jesus.
Because what about marriages where there’s infidelity? Or spousal abuse? Or a lack of connection or love? What about the culture of divorce on demand and multiple marriages? Is all of this okay as long as it’s a man and a woman that’s involved? Or do these sound more like marriages in name, in form, looking good on the outside while inside . . . ?
Perhaps a more spiritual definition of marriage is the union of two people who love one another, are committed to one another, and whose love is dedicated not just to the growth of each individual but to both as a couple and, then, sharing that love in the wider world? I’ve known heterosexual marriages that fit this definition. I hope that mine is one. I’ve also known gay and lesbian couples whose unions fit this definition as well or better. I can see no reason at all that they are prevented from using the same word as I am.
If the Christian right wants to truly protect marriage, I’ll pledge myself to work with them – to help couples deepen their commitments, learn to work through the rough times, and celebrate models of partnerships that truly embody the ideal (gay and straight). If all they want to do is defend a legalistic definition of a word . . . Jesus already told me what to say to them.
Erik Walker Wikstrom is a Unitarian Universalist minister and author. His books include, Teacher, Guide, Companion: rediscovering Jesus in a secular world; Simply Pray: a modern spiritual practice to deepen your life; and Serving With Grace: lay leadership as a spiritual practice (all published by Skinner House Books).