Popes and presidents, archbishops, governors and legislators, Neo-Nazi skinheads in Wyoming or Idaho, Baptist fundamentalists in Virginia and even African Methodist Episcopal Reverend Doctors in Boston, Massachusetts — We’ve heard what they would do regarding “Gay Marriage.” However, because the opponents of gay and lesbian civil marriage rights in the United States of America seem to come from predominantly Christian perspectives, it seems to me that we ought to consider seriously the opinion of yet one other important religious figure. I suggest that before we decide what we should do about same-sex marriage rights we should ask, “Gay Marriage – What would Jesus do?”
WWJD? In spite of its simple, popular guise, what we have here is a complex, deeply theological, ethical question, which bears consideration not only by Christians (who have a personal moral concern with correct answers to the question) but by non-Christians as well. Those who find themselves persuaded by the arguments of conservative Christian opponents of “Gay Marriage” in the on-going public discussion and those who are sure that they’d remain un-persuaded, both would do well to consider Jesus’ position on gay and lesbian civil marriage rights. In the end we all must judge the integrity of those religious arguments against Gay and Lesbian civil rights – as well as the integrity of the neo-conservative Christians who would have their own way in the governance of our States and Commonwealths, our Nation and our World.
All Christians (if they are faithful and true) claim Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ – their Lord, God and Savior. They continually strive to follow his example in all things. Indeed, this is why it is so popular in some Christian circles to ask, “What would Jesus do?” when facing life’s decisions and moral dilemmas. Upon determining the answer to the question, presumably true Christians then would faithfully choose to do the same. This is quite an ingenious religious and moral strategy. Why? Because it introduces an overarching, authoritative, wise and compassionate perspective into all moral and ethical deliberations (hopefully assuring a correct and righteous outcome.) If followed scrupulously with proper wisdom and piety, it will undoubtedly serve to lead one well. But it is not an ethical strategy without dangers and pitfalls.
What is the most dangerous of these pitfalls? Dogmatic certainty. By introducing a presumed certainty into the discussion, WWJD’rs inject a deadly element of finality into the process. Those who assume that they know the mind of God on any matter, in their certainty, are signaling their intent to close down discussion and to stop striving to reach a civil consensus. History has shown that they will seek to impose their opinion upon dissenters by force of law – even by armed violence if deemed necessary.
Unfortunately it is at just this point that they are at greatest risk of indulging in bad faith: Jesus himself reserved his harshest words of criticism for those who oppressed others out of their own personal moral certainties and religious concerns (“Hypocrites” he would call them, as well as a few other choice, nastier epithets.) This then, is where consideration of the question “WWJD?” becomes pertinent in public discussion and civic debate: If today’s Christians are acting in manners antithetical to true Christianity – are they not bearing false witness about/to their Christ? Woe unto us then, if swayed by their rhetoric, we allow our States and Commonwealths (our Nation, our World) to fall in line with their false, bad-faith theologizing.
In truth, it takes some hard work and deep theological imagining to really answer the question as to a truly Christian position on “Gay Marriage.” This is because nowhere in the gospels (canonical or otherwise) does Jesus actually answer the question or deal even indirectly with the issues of same-sex love and marriage. Some would argue that this absence of condemnation is indication of at least tolerance if not tacit approval of these sorts of marriages. However, I’m not convinced of either the validity or soundness of such arguments. It takes some serious theological discernment rather than wishful thinking to make a true judgment as to how Jesus would vote on any Defense of Marriage Act. However difficult this might be, though, I think it can be done. Please consider the following:
Jesus of Nazareth was a teacher of and commentator on the Torah, those Biblical laws and stories so often cited by opponents of lesbian and gay civil rights and same-sex marriages. While the Biblical record offers us no evidence that Jesus ever took an opportunity to affirm and establish the Levitical laws against homosexuality (as indeed, some contemporary fundamentalist Christians would do) we do have record of one occasion on which he was asked to rule upon a capital case involving a related part of the Levitical sexual purity code. When questioned regarding the Biblically-mandated death-by-stoning for a woman caught in an adulterous sex act, he exhibited wisdom and a deep compassion by turning on her accusers and pointing out their unfitness to make, much less execute such judgments: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” (You do know, don’t you, that the biblical penalty for homosexuality is death, either by stoning or by fire. That may be why they are called “faggots” after all!) This is something that anyone citing Leviticus or any other Biblical stories and traditions in their arguments against lesbian and gay civil rights and liberties ought to keep in mind and take to heart. Jesus, was apparently fit to make a judgment in all such cases, but refrained from throwing stones.
Other portions of the Christian gospels suggest that Jesus held a subtle and more complex understanding of marriage than was conventionally held. We don’t need to go into it, but simply note that even today there isn’t complete agreement about the meaning of Jesus’ statements and opinions on the nature and importance of marriage. However, even these theological disagreements need not stop us trying to answer our question “Gay marriage – WWJD?” for there is a Gospel episode that bears closely on civil rights and duties and matters of religious belief.
Let me suggest that the story that most closely bears upon the issue of civil marriage rights for gays and lesbians is the one where Jesus was asked whether it was religiously correct or “kosher” to pay taxes to the Romans. Of course this was a politically loaded question, one that could have gotten him in a lot of trouble if he’d answered it just using ordinary, everyday religious and political assumptions. However, he simply turned to the bystanders and asked for a piece of change from one of their money pouches. Then he asked whose image was stamped upon the coin. After his inquisitors had identified it as the emperor’s visage he uttered the famous words, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.”
Can the implications be any clearer? In a day when god-emperors, priest kings and other theocrats ruled the nations – and patriotism was often indistinguishable from religious fervor – Jesus of Nazareth urged people to recognize the difference between civil and religious categories. He showed that it is possible to separate one’s civic duties and responsibilities from one’s personal religious beliefs and actions.
Today, because of the diversity of religious tradition and opinion in our nation, the difference between these two arenas – civic duty and religious belief – is a distinction that we the American people have enshrined in our understanding of the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. We have long embodied this principle in maxims regarding the “Separation of Church and State”. Indubitably this separation, so vital to our American history, peace and values, has at least one of its roots in those wise words of Jesus.
Having laid these principles out, there remains one last distinction to make before trying to answer the question: “Gay Marriage – WWJD?” We must understand the difference between “marriage” and “holy matrimony”. Christian neo-conservatives regularly use these terms interchangeably with dire consequences. This misuse of the term “marriage” is rooted in a religious misconception about the institution in the United States of America. In our Nation, “marriage” is not in and of itself a religious thing/matter. One need not go to a minister/priest/rabbi/imam in order to have a wedding. A justice of the peace will do. Indeed, with special arrangements, a friend or other layperson can serve/officiate at a wedding. One does not have to be religious to get married.
As a minister, I am very aware of the separate yet often associated roles that I play in a “church marriage.” There is the religious ceremony at which I officiate – and then there is the civil business that I do on behalf of the State or Commonwealth. I must make sure that I “render unto Caesar” the civil functions I fulfill while I remain mindful of the religious responsibilities I have to the faith community and the Divine realities the members celebrate. The distinction between the civil “marriage” and the holy “matrimony” is one that I must honor to protect the freedom of conscience and religious liberty that we Americans hold so dear. So much of our peace and stability depends upon the tolerance of religious and theological difference. We must not threaten the sacred foundations of religious tolerance in our great nation by writing fundamentalist doctrines of holy matrimony into our civil law. It would be neither right, nor righteous.
Jeffrey S. Nelson is the Associate Minister and ordained Teaching Elder for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at First Church Roxbury, Mass.