Quaker Theology - #28 - Spring-Summer 2016



Three Reflections on Same Sex Marriage

Philip Gulley

Why I Support Same Gender Marriage

Several years ago, I was attending a Quaker conference north of Chicago and began talking with a man from Ohio, who spoke in the plain language of our Quaker ancestors. Lots of thee’s and thou’s. It seemed pretentious, as if he were subtly reminding the rest of us we weren’t as good a Quaker as he. At one time, Quakers used “thee” and “thou” for a very important reason. It was the common form of the word “you,” so in a very stratified society with rigid social codes, to call everyone “thee” or “thou” was to affirm the importance and worth of all persons. It was the Quaker equivalent of not bowing before the queen. In 1650, using the plain language of “thee” and “thou” was a brave social witness against inequality. Today, it just seems peculiar.

This is because our understanding of equality and what constitutes equality is constantly changing. Today, we don’t have to argue that slaves should be free or women should vote. Now there are other injustices in need of remedy, other wrongs to right. Those who commit themselves to equality for all people will, unfortunately, always have work to do.  I wanted to say to that man, “We’ve won that battle. Let’s move on.”     
 
Still, his plain language was a keen reminder of our ancestors’ witness against inequality, which we need to be reminded of now and again, lest in our complacency we suppose that just because we are free, so is everyone else.

Freedom is something we’re intensely aware of when our own rights are limited, though we’re often blind to our own tendency to limit the rights of others. For the weight of tradition and culture lay heavily upon us, causing us to believe that certain forms of inequality are not only appropriate, but Godly. When Southern slaveowners defended slavery, they did so using the Bible. Today, when fundamentalists demand the submission of women, they quote chapter and verse.

This has always been the case, which is why the emphasis on equality is as necessary today as it was two hundred years ago, for though the outward expressions of inequality have changed, our inward impulse to deny others the same freedoms and privileges we enjoy has not changed a bit.

The historian Ira Berlin has recently written a book entitled, Generations of Captivity. It is a history of slavery in America. I’ve been reading it the past several weeks. It is an eye-opener. 

Did you know that in many of the Southern states it was against the law for slaves to marry? Slaveowners were concerned that allowing slaves to marry would provide legal protection to their offspring. This presented a problem, because they wanted slaves to have children so there would be more slaves. So they encouraged slaves to breed indiscriminately, but refused to extend to those slaves the blessing and privilege of marriage.

Now think about that, friends. Is there any better way to utterly demoralize and destroy a group of people than to rob them of a sense of belonging and identity and forbid their participation in family life and relationships? For more than ten generations this injustice was perpetrated against people of color and we wonder today why so many of their families remain fractured and frayed. The ten generations of damage done to them might very well take twenty generations to heal. This is the terrible toll of inequality.

The degradation and decimation of a people invariably begins with forbidding them to form family relationships. Just as America forbid its slaves from marrying, Nazi Germany prohibited Germans from marrying Jewish people.

A 2007 opinion poll in Israel revealed that more than half of Israeli Jews believed intermarriage with Arabs was equivalent to national treason. Even today, Palestinians who marry Israelis are not granted citizenship or residency rights under Israeli law.

Friends, we can talk about inequality in a detached, analytical manner, we can cite instances of inequality from other eras or cultures which don’t impugn our character or challenge us. Isn’t this always our tendency, to act with historical hindsight, wondering why our ancestors didn’t see an injustice that is obvious to us, while we remain blind to the injustices we visit upon others. In the words of Jesus, we want to remove the splinter in someone else’s eye and keep the log in our own. After all, it’s easy to vilify slaveowners and Nazis. But as thoughtful Christians, we must be willing to scrutinize our own lives. Do I practice inequality? Do I enjoy rights and privileges I am unwilling to extend to others?

For too many years, the Church has declared war on gay people and those who support them, booting them out or humiliating them with unreasonable and unkind prohibitions which violate their conscience and diminish their humanity.

Our steadfast refusal to allow gay people to marry has placed us in dubious company. To deny two responsible adults who care deeply for one another the right to marry is wrong. As a pastor, I speak often about the blessings of married life. Being married to a person I love has enriched my life immeasurably. Being married has helped me grow and has brought me deep joy. It has, in the words of our Quaker wedding ceremony, divided my sorrows and multiplied my satisfactions. I know many people are happily single, but I can’t imagine not having my soulmate.

I can no longer in good conscience deny the blessing of marriage to an entire group of persons, who, because of their fetal development, were born different from me. It violates my sense of Quaker equality and my Christian belief in the worth and dignity of all persons.

I have also, in the words of Dan Maguire at Marquette University, come to realize “that heterosexuals have no monopoly on love…that the right to marry is a human right, not an award for being heterosexual.”

So we speak, kindly, tenderly, but firmly and resolutely, and we say to gay people, God’s wonderful, beautiful children, “May God bless you and your partners. May God bless your relationships, your homes, and your families.”

*   *   *   *   *

The Sky Didn’t Fall
Adapted from The Indianapolis Monthly, August 2015

On October 7, 2014, same-gender weddings became legal in Indiana. Despite predictions that the seven-headed beast of Revelation would rise from the sea and smite us, God wasn’t nearly as upset as some imagined and decided to forego the apocalypse.

I feel kind of sorry for the people who predicted the collapse of Western civilization if gay people were allowed to marry. It’s clear they were wrong, and are probably embarrassed about all the fuss they made. The loss of credibility is never easy. Plus, it’s hard work being an alarmist, having to constantly fan the flickering flames of fear. I hope our state legislature and governor, who did more than their share of that, were able to take a well-deserved rest this summer. If they wanted to take an entire year off, I wouldn’t object. In fact, I insist on it. Stay home. Rest. Spend time with your families. Travel. Far away.

I attended my first same-gender wedding this past spring when my brother married his partner of 26 years. It was held at their church, which belongs to a denomination that doesn’t permit same-gender marriages, but its members are compassionate and its pastors are brave, so they held the wedding anyway, then invited everyone down to the basement to sit around tables in awkward silence eating cashews and cake, like every other wedding I’ve ever attended. I had the privilege of pronouncing my brother and his partner husbands for life.

When I read the words from the Quaker wedding service, “the state sanctions and the church adorns marriage as the ideal relationship in human society…”, everyone cheered after the words “the state sanctions.”

If anyone present opposed same-gender marriage, they didn’t make themselves known. Just to be on the safe side, I didn’t ask if anyone knew why they shouldn’t marry, nor did I invite anyone to speak now or forever hold their peace. I never ask that question, since I wouldn’t stop the wedding anyway. Suppose a father doesn’t think the young man marrying his daughter is good enough, which is to say every father of every daughter who has ever lived. Why hand him the microphone?  I was at a wedding once where the pastor, not a terribly bright man, asked the congregation if anyone objected and an old girlfriend of the groom spoke up. The pastor ignored her, so I’m not sure why he asked for objections in the first place.

I’ve objected to several weddings I’ve performed, believing they didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of succeeding. But I’ve always objected quietly, to my wife, after the wedding was over. Objecting to a wedding is pointless, since there’s no stopping two people bent on marrying the wrong person and ruining their lives. 

To be honest, I was a little nervous conducting a same-gender wedding, since I’d never done one before. But about five minutes into it, it felt like the hundred other weddings I’ve done and I forgot the couple was gay. I just saw two people in love. At the end of the wedding, when the bride and groom customarily kiss, I could tell a few people were nervous about what might happen. A friend of mine attending said he was going to close his eyes if the couple kissed, but they just gave one another a quick hug and that was pretty much it. Not unlike one baseball player hugging another after a home run. They didn’t even pat one another on the fanny like baseball players do.

What struck me most about the wedding was the normalcy of it. The singers sang the same songs, we pastors prayed the same prayers, the couple lit the same unity candle, the women cried the same tears, the men gave the same bored sighs and wished they were home puttering in their garages. An objection would have livened things up. I had a speech in my suit pocket, in the event we were set upon by the Westboro Baptist Church. I was going to seize the pulpit, pull the speech from my pocket, and hold forth. It was, if I do say so myself, one of my better speeches, an eloquent defense of freedom and equality, which now gathers dust in my files, never to be heard.

My brother and his husband asked me to preach a sermon at their wedding. For all the weddings I’ve done, I’d never given a sermon at one, and tried to worm out of it. But they persisted, so I agreed to do it. I sighed a lot though, just to let them know it was an effort. I knew everyone there would hate me if I preached fifteen minutes, so I kept it at five minutes. Trying to say something profound in five minutes is hard work. It took me eight hours to write. In return, I received a gift certificate to Goodman’s Shoe Store. In the old days, ministers used to be paid with chickens, but now we get gift certificates.

When you attend a wedding, it’s safe to say that of all the people working that day, the minister is being paid less than any of them. The photographer, the cake-baker, and the florist are raking it in, while the minister is lucky to get a piece of cake, even though the minister did the pre-marital counseling, oversaw the rehearsal, sobered up the best man, and fended off the bride’s mother when she tried to take over. I once had to talk down a bride’s uncle when he showed up with a pistol threatening to shoot the groom. Other than that, it was a lovely wedding, and the happy couple stuck it out through thick and thin for a whole year before divorcing.

Let’s talk about what makes for a real marriage. Are you listening, statehouse? My brother and his husband have been together 26 years. During most of those years the Church condemned them, the government discriminated against them, members of their own family refused to acknowledge their relationship. They received none of the societal support my wife and I have enjoyed in our 31 years of marriage. But they stuck it out. Indeed, more than stuck it out, their love grew, their commitment deepened, their happiness expanded.  And here’s the irony, my brother and his husband wanted me to stand in a pulpit and advise them how to make a marriage work. Can you believe that?  That’s like Andrew Luck [quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts NFL team] asking me to give him a few tips on throwing a football.

While I’m clearing the air, let me add that their gay marriage harmed my traditional marriage exactly zero percent. In fact, my wife and I held hands all the way home, which led to something else that I won’t talk about. Just let me say it in no way involved the seven-headed beast of Revelation.

*   *   *   *   *

At the Editors’ request, here’s the sermon I gave at that wedding:

    In the bulletin you were given, it refers to this talk as a sermon. Don’t let that make you nervous. I’m going to talk a bit about marriage, but what I have to say probably doesn’t qualify as a sermon. Sermons are twenty minutes and often boring. I’m going to try not to do that.

This is the first same-gender wedding I have attended or participated in. I suspect the same might be true for many of you. This is new ground, made possible by our nation’s expanded understanding of marriage, our growing insistence on equality, and our increasing realization that love transcends one’s sexual orientation.

I want to ask each of you to look up at the ceiling. Study it closely. Note the absence of large, gaping cracks. Observe, if you will, the sturdy beams, the lights hanging steadily in place. When you leave this church, notice how the sun and the stars still move orderly through space. The prophets of doom were mistaken.

The sky has not fallen, the world has not ended, because gay people can now marry the person they love. Instead, two people, who have loved one another for 26 years, are finally able to enjoy the gift of marriage. And our world is the richer for it. Our world is always better when people make enduring commitments, and when their friends and family bear witness to their commitment.

It feels odd to give marital advice to two people who’ve been a couple twelve years longer than the median length of marriages in the U.S. And those were traditional marriages that enjoyed society’s support, government’s incentives, and religion’s blessing. Gay couples have enjoyed none of those advantages until very recently, and even that support is uneven. David and Ken, your relationship has prospered in spite of obstacles most married couples never face. So I’m not going to pretend I have anything to teach you.

I can only say that whatever you’ve been doing, keep doing it. Keep listening, keep caring, keep giving, keep forgiving, keep enjoying, keep learning, keep loving.

A woman came to me several years ago. She had left her abusive husband, had lived by herself for a number of years, then had met a wonderful man and began dating. After a year, they decided to move in together. She admitted feeling guilty about living together.

“We’re going to get married soon,” she told me. “I don’t like living in sin.”
I asked her why she called it living in sin.

She said she’d been taught that living together outside of marriage was sinful.
I told her I disagreed, that I thought living in sin was when you promised to love, honor, and cherish someone, then didn’t.

I think there’s a lot of married people living in sin.

When you’re married, attending a wedding has a way of reminding you of the promise you made. What David and Ken are doing visibly and vocally today, many of us are doing invisibly, quietly, today. As they make their pledge, we remember our pledges, and in our hearts renew them.

Every blessing to you, David and Ken. May your marriage, and your lives, be filled with all that is lovely and good.

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