Friday, 22 September 2017

Marriage: Blessing or Discrimination – for some not others?

Coming from a mixed-ethnicity household, I grew up being called a mongrel. Back in the day, politicians argued about preserving racial purity or weaving together a diverse society. The ‘White Australia Policy” sought to keep undesirables out and policies to identify and remove mixed-race children from Aboriginal mothers provided fodder for Stolen Generations. First Australians, with complex kinship codes and millennia-established rite and ceremony were told they were not legal and now needed permission from successive colonising Governments (and the Churches that were in league with them) in order to marry. To make matters worse, the same state and religious leaders then developed a coordinated approach to removing children from such unions. 

So it was with some dismay that I read an article in yesterday’s SMH. Rev Dr Michael Jensen, rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church at Darling Point, wrote about why he is voting NO in the postal survey on same-gender marriage. 

Dr Jensen noted that for some Christians, “Opposition to the redefinition of marriage seems obstructionist at best and driven by prejudice at worst.” He readily admitted “there are terrible stories that GLBTQI people have to tell about rejection, vilification and violence”. He wrote of the shame that people like him have not spoken loudly enough against the bullying of our fellow citizens. 
It is curious, then, that Dr Jensen believes that “preserving the current definition of marriage will be good for Australia and for all Australians”. I wonder how he thinks it will be good for those who have been rejected, vilified and violently abused? Surely, it should be the victims who should receive the restorative justice of being recognised, heard and affirmed. The principles of restorative justice are based on the idea that it is not enough to either punish or rehabilitate perpetrators of abuse, but that people who have been victimised should be restored to wholeness, and that this may require particular support from those perpetrators. At the very least, it is beholden to those who have contributed to systemic abuse to get out of the way and stop colluding with systems of oppression.  This was the basis for much of Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven.

Of course, the current definition of marriage, was only codified in such a restrictive way just over a decade ago (2004). Dr Jensen calls this ‘classical marriage’. It is as if such a form was something coming to us down the ages from Ancient Greece, or at least from the period of Mozart. In fact, up until recent times, formally registered marriage was largely reserved for those with property or inheritance concerns. Indeed, many of the scriptural references about marriage or divorce are about ensuring women are not abandoned or left without provision.

Within our society, we have marriages and de facto relationships. Marriages are entered into and recognised under two distinct authorisation processes – civil and religious. As religious celebrants, neither Dr Jensen nor I are authorised to celebrate civil wedding ceremonies. We perform religious rites and testify that they have been observed. We sign documentation testifying that we have sighted documentation relating to the legitimacy of the people being married.

In the 1961 Marriage Act, under the guidance of Sir Garfield Barwick, marriage in Australia was understood as:
as a lifelong and exclusive union between two people
a bond that draws two people together in a relationship framed not just by feelings of love but by promises of commitment and faithfulness.

The legal framers chose not to define gender at that time, despite pressure from complementarians to do so. It was, of course, the ‘60’s, and women were beginning to appear at Law School and make the case for Women’s rights, not to be treated differently under the law. It took over 40 years for the law to change to specifically restrict marriage to a man and a woman. This was done to prevent the recognition of same gender couples marrying in the ACT and overseas.

As fellow followers of Jesus Christ, Dr Jensen and I agree that we are called to recognise all human beings as made in the image of God. As he says, “Jesus calls his disciples to love and protect the vulnerable, reminding of our frailties and proneness to error.” Where we differ is in how we believe we are called to respond.  While Dr Jensen assumes that saying YES is the most peaceable thing to do. It is also, for many, the right thing to do. 

In ministering alongside and with diverse people, I have learnt that they are no less pastoral, generous, creative, beautiful or flawed just because they identify as LGBTIQ. They are no less able to enter into a lifelong and exclusive union with another person, based on commitment and faithfulness. Indeed, many of them are in such relationships. The obstacle to experiencing grace, for them, is the lack of affirmation, blessing and support from the wider community that comes with marriage. Their rejection and experience of discrimination impacts negatively on their capacity to contribute to society to their fullest potential.

I find it disturbing to think that somehow my husband and I have a valid marriage because of our physical attributes. Our marriage bears witness to sharing a creative, hospitable, community-nourishing life. We have countless ‘kids’ through sport-coaching, choir-directing and mentoring. Over the years, many of them have lived in our home. We have blended extended family. Indeed, when we were married, my stepson and grandma stood and affirmed the covenant we were making to be household and kin together. To me, this is more in keeping with God’s instructions in scripture to live out the realm of God wherever we are. It takes more than ‘giving birth’ to give life to children. For many, we have been able to offer the comfort and security of a loving and stable home.

Biblical imagery talks about becoming one flesh (Genesis) or one body (Corinthians). While it is easy, in today’s individualistic society, to assume this is about one person and another person, the unity described in the Body of Christ is about formation for Community, reflecting the Triune Community of God. Likewise, the Oneness described in Genesis stories of family are a far cry from the type of ‘classical marriage’ Dr Jensen seems to propose. (These included polygamy, mixed wives and concubines and arranged marriages.) 

What does become clear is that people are made to be together in relationships of intimacy, companionship and partnership. This sits well with an overarching theme in scripture about the importance of incarnation – being fully and physically present and actively involved, not just words or intentions. While every couple should complement (contribute to and balance) each other, I take exception to the idea that this is defined by gender. I certainly dispute the argument that one spouse should be subject to the other. Rather than focusing on subjugation and headship, we could see marriage as the honouring and upholding of one another. (My husband is nodding and saying, “It works for us.”) Moreover, the couple is created and affirmed in relation to contributing to the creation of community beyond themselves. Marriage (an expression of love) is not selfish, but kind. It is a building block for the wellbeing of extended family and tribe.

Finally, I have found it interesting that so many christians believe that Australia has such a strongly Christian heritage. I am of Chinese-Buddhist-Scottish-Atheist descent. I am simultaneously 2nd generation and seventh generation Australian and adopted Adnyamathana (rock people of the Ikara-Flinders). Australians have at least 60,000 years of heritage, much of which was destroyed and stolen in the last 200 years in the colonising name of Christianity.

Dr Jensen claims that The Christian Bible provides the foundation for our laws.  I confess, along with many Australians, my sorrow and grief that the scriptures have been used to justify genocide and break up families, particularly those of First Australians. I pray that we do not try to do the same thing to rainbow families. Rainbows remind us, after all, of God’s Covenantal history – a history of unexpected relationships and blessings. The purpose of Covenant is to hold us closer to God, that we might seek God’s blessing.

All praise be to the God who created all Humans to be blessed!

Rev Dr Amelia Koh-Butler is a Minister of the Uniting Church in Australia. Her research is in intercultural studies (anthropological missiology) and applied theology. She is transitioning from being the Executive Director of Mission Resourcing in South Australia to take up a new appointment as Parramatta Mission’s Chaplain to the University of Western Sydney.

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