Last night we had some interesting talkback in both PMs about my example of “hosting” our subway station at Broad and Ellsworth. I told what I thought was a humorous story that showed how hard it was for me to practice my convictions — I greeted a young woman in the station and then watched her remove herself to the far reaches of the platform. This struck a nerve in a few women. The nerve seemed reminiscent, to me, of a recent viral video of a woman walking silently through New York City for ten hours and enduring over 100 comments from men as she silently made her way.
I really have no idea what is going to happen — most of the time, I like it that way. I don’t really know if Circle of Hope can sustain itself, since it runs on conviction and covenant. I don’t know whether the stock market will dive and take us with it, whether aggrieved people will unite and upend the social order, whether my friends will move away, or whether my pipes will freeze in the endless winter. Most of the time, all that uncertainty seems like a good excuse to have faith. It is a great grace that living by faith is more fulfilling than knowing whether I should have bought salt before it was all sold out.
But people have a lot of guilt and anxiety about not knowing. They are ashamed they made what look like mistakes and they did not know what was going to happen before it happened. Mr. Bates may do something terrible because of his guilt and shame about not knowing what was happening to Mrs. Bates!
The other day I was at a baby shower and people were quite satisfied that they did not have to buy yellow baby clothes because they knew the baby’s gender already — I am sure science developed in utero photography to ease the anxiety about how to decorate the nursery! Maybe you laugh, but people are still angry that the government did not predict and prevent 9/11! Many people defend the government’s right to collect our phone records because they think every measure must be taken so “nothing like that ever happens to anyone ever again!” — we even see our personal experiences as contributions to anxiety relief, guilt reduction and the hope of controlling the future. Don’t we insist that the future must be “better” than the past? And aren’t we taught that good people band together to make sure it will be?
I heard a common story from a new friend last night. As far as she knew about church people, “living together” was so frowned upon that she and her boyfriend suspected they would be ostracized if they got involved in Circle of Hope.
I said to her, “You guys are married, though, right?” She said, “Yes.” (This is not a transcript of our conversation, but that was the gist). What stood in the way of the official ceremony was money. They did not have wealthy or supportive parents; they did not have the money for a big party, money for the ring, the dress, etc.; plus, she wanted to feel more established financially before they made a commitment. This story is so common it seems to represent a new rite of passage into adulthood.
Care about people where they are
The “principle Christians” sometimes criticize Circle of Hope, as a whole, for our acceptance of people who are “cohabiting,” like my friend is. The implication is that we should consider these people taboo until they get themselves corrected. Instead, we apparently just let people have sex, willy nilly, and encourage people to sin. (Really, that’s gotten back through the gossip chain).
But, in truth, we’ve come up with an alternative. We care about people the way we meet them. So we usually get to know people who are cohabiting and ask them if they are married. Most of the time, if they aren’t just sharing an address, they say “Yes.”
I think people need to make a public covenant and have the benefit of a church-sanctioned marriage for any number of reasons. I’m not sure they need the government involved in their marriage at all – if they see that as an advantage, fine. But if they have taken one another home, and we all know they are a “they,” I don’t feel out of line by acknowledging their marriage.
Like I noted in a former post, cohabitation has increased dramatically in recent decades in the United States. It climbed from 500,000 couples in 1970 to nearly 6.8 million couples in 2009. It looks like most young adults today will, at some point, live with a sexual partner outside of marriage. The stats say that a majority of couples now cohabit before they marry. Often their parents encourage these “trial runs.” It looks like a generation with so many divorced parents is deciding not to get divorced by never getting married. It is a new era with a host of new issues to sort out.
Many Christians think the 21st century increase in cohabitation without legal, covenantal or public recognition devalues marriage and undermines its goals. If recent research is a true indicator, Americans, as a whole, have not fully decided whether they agree or not. Sex is easier now. The capacity to marry for love (as well as be unfaithful) provided by birth control shook old foundations and new foundations are being built in response. Divorce is easier. In 1900, two-thirds of marriages ended with the death of a partner, particularly when women died during childbirth. By 1974, divorce surpassed death as the most common way to terminate a marriage. By the end of the 20th century, divorce was considered both a common and culturally acceptable way to terminate marriage. It is easier to be “abnormal” now. Since the 1960’s, cohabitation, premarital sex, and out-of-wedlock childbearing have become increasingly common and culturally acceptable.
Although the contours of marriage have changed over time, the definition has not. Americans still overwhelmingly define marriage as being sexually exclusive and lifelong, even though many break their vows. They are pulled between opposites and are still sorting things out. They want the connection of marriage, but they have slowly become accustomed to being individualistic and consumeristic. They want the security and safety of marriage, but they still want all their choices unencumbered. They want to marry or exclusively cohabit, but then have extramarital sex or divorce, even though they no longer have to get married. “Freedom” is the slogan, but they seem to still be pondering with the Apostle Paul: “Yes, everything is permissible. But not everything builds up!” (1 Corinthians 6:12).
What is the best way to marry?
Even though there are very few negative social consequences for breaking former sexual codes by not being married, Americans overwhelmingly choose to marry, eventually. Even same-sex couples want to marry and thirteen states will allow them to do it legally. I don’t think I can answer all the reasons why people mate the way they do, but I do want to respond to what is happening with grace and discernment.
It is an interesting era. I am watching it as something of an outsider, since I and my Anabaptist tradition do not tune our faith to the varying pitches of government music or the society’s dance. As far as I am concerned, state and federal government definitions of marriage do not necessarily serve to increase the integrity of marriage as an expression of faith. I don’t think legislation on sex, finances, or even procreation will protect marriage enough to make it work. It takes commitment. I don’t think couples need an excessive wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment. But I do think they need the sanction and participation of a living community in Christ to make a long-lasting covenant that is centered in the covenant we keep with the Lord.
As a church, we have not fully answered all the questions (including the ones that come through the gossip chain): Do believers need a wedding ceremony or a legal document to make a commitment? Does the covenant need to be made in traditional ways — especially now that many of those mostly-extra-biblical ways are becoming discredited?
A new look at the spectrum of how people, in general, are changing marriage from contract to cohabitation might come up with some advantageous ways to adapt:
- Maybe we could free some people from the ceremony trap — some people don’t marry because they are saving for the bling and the spectacle! Just stand up during the Love Feast; we’ll marry you and you can have a big party on your fifth anniversary.
- Maybe we could honor people by acknowledging their cohabitation before they enter their covenant publically. That would be something like the way we embrace people as members of the church community before they make a covenant with the body.
- Maybe we should more clearly express our understanding that people who have sex are, essentially, married, albeit poorly and dangerously. But then, some of them are better married than some people who live together with a publically affirmed covenant.
- Maybe we should stop keeping secrets. Why should someone feel like they are secretly married just because they have not jumped through all the sometimes-arbitrary hoops? Why shouldn’t we help people have healthy, godly relationships with the people they are living with?
- Maybe we can help people who are getting married to relax about it and not try to meet the demands of the wedding industry. That might encourage others to celebrate the relationship they have made with more freedom and less stress.
Here are some more blog posts and pages about marriage:
The Marriage Story (August 2012) http://rodwhitesblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/the-marriage-story/
Monica and the new marriage (June 2011)
Go Ahead and Marry (2000)
The other day I had a rare moment to tune in to a news show and was reminded of the Texas-sized “gyre” of plastic debris that has formed in my beloved Pacific Ocean. The newscasters did the usual treatment of the subject. They brought out the now-famous Charles Moore whose chance encounter with the patch turned him into the “little guy” activist who is effectively tormenting the big plastic producers. Then they brought out the tormented spokesman for the plastics industry, direct from his office with a view of the capitol dome, to say that the whole thing was more hysteria than fact.
I offered two responses to this reminder as an introduction to our PM for the second Sunday of Lent last night.
2) Like the news show gave me a way to stand back and see what was going on, and also gave me a moment to stand back and interpret the meaning of the Pacific Garbage Patch, I am always in need of places in which to “stand back” and see the reality in which I live – whether it is an environmentally degraded earth or a spiritually-degraded society (which go together, don’t they?).
In Jesus, we have a place to stand. Paul says it vividly in Romans 5: “We have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.” From the vantage point of grace we can see our situation and interpret it.
Lent is a season for getting some distance from the daily trash and seeing where we live and what we have become. Like researchers, we open up our spiritual stomachs and see whether we have ingested “bottle caps” of nonsense from the world. We need a long season for this practice, since humans are prone to actually believing that filling the ocean with undegradable plastic debris is no big deal. I had a personal experience of this one time while visiting Eleuthera. Our place came with a deserted stretch of seaward beach, which was spectacular. But the beach was filled with plastic debris and other detritus from ships. We were astounded at the quantity. It took a while before we could enjoy the beach with the debris. But we managed to tune out the degradation. Humans adapt to trash well. During Lent we fast from our adaptation to sin and death and take our brave stand in grace.
Our weekly PMs are similar places to stand. We need to find some distance to find some connection. We need to step away from our daily lives in order to find the meaning of our daily lives. Some people choose detachment, others choose immersion. We choose a rhythm of distancing that saves us from giving up or giving in. On our spiritual ‘island” of grace we can see the debris, rather than eat it. We learn to better differentiate among the bits of data and communication that masquerade as sustenance but are really filling our lives with undegradable nothingness.