Thursday, June 27, 2013

Grieving a Principle

The overturning of DOMA and effective demise of Proposition 8 in California this week at the hands of the United States Supreme Court bring about a critical moment of justice for those who have been aggrieved for many years: the couples and families who have been denied benefits, access, inheritance shelters, and countless other protections and privileges granted not only to spouses but to their heirs by the government.

Those grievances are real, tangible, documented, and damaging. And they have exacted an emotional and spiritual toll from our LGBT sisters and brothers that will take significant time and effort to remediate and heal. And thousands of other families and couples remain at the crossroads in states that have yet to recognize their most hallowed relationships. There remains much work to be done before their grievances, too, are redressed.

What I question here is the ongoing “grievances” of same-sex marriage opponents, particularly at this late hour. Br. Tobias Haller takes on the whining memo of the Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops, for example. 

Compelling to me is the Supreme Court’s decision in Hollingsworth vs. Perry to deny standing to the advocates of Proposition 8. Kennedy’s dissent, together with the prevailing opinion, makes for an interesting study in what constitutes a real grievance under law (beyond mere disagreement – even if expressed by a voting majority over and against a minority). At bottom is a fundamental question that has been bubbling for me to the surface of this longstanding debate in our Church and culture over marriage:

Who is really aggrieved when a same-sex couple choose to marry?

I suppose, like the Roman bishops, we can argue that some kind of principle – biblical or traditional – is aggrieved. I will leave alone the implied or explicit theological hubris that often quickly follows: that God, therefore, must be offended. But here is where Christian orthodoxy meets the wisdom of secular jurisprudence in the United States: Ours is an incarnational faith, not a theoretical one. Real grievance of the kind we are called to address is the kind that shows up not merely in our principles or theological structures, let alone merely in the taking of personal offense. My grandmother was always fond of saying that there is no accounting for taste!

Real grievance shows up in the tangible, physical effects on the lives of God’s people. The gospels are replete with examples of Jesus making moral argumentation not on theoretical grounds, but on matters that tangibly effect the lives of his followers and audience.  He seems most offended by religious authority asserting theory over practice (a form of hypocrisy), and perhaps even worse, practice or its imposition in the name of God that tangibly brings suffering and injustice upon the people.

And for that reason, Christian morality is most real in this matter only where people suffer not merely an internal violation of their moral principles by the life decisions of others, but an external restriction from sharing in the abundance of God’s creation: love, liberty, dignity, and even such tangible graces as succor, shelter, and food – basics that marriage as an institution can sometimes help ensure.

Standing failed in the Proposition 8 decision because the parties bringing appeal to the Supreme Court could not demonstrate how they had been tangibly harmed by the lower courts’ overturning of the initiative. It is even greater justice that Judge Vaughn Walker’s brilliant and cutting 2010 decision over the fate of Proposition 8 at the District Court level now can stand on its own, especially in the ways it clearly shows the tangible harm Prop 8 wrought on same-sex couples. It is that harm – real and measurable, not merely theoretical – that violates the Constitution and, I would argue on separate yet coinciding grounds, true Christian morality.

Again, Proposition 8 has been shown to be the hollow victory it was – purchased, incidentally, at not only great expense, but by cynically appealing to a most base side of the body politic in California. It is not enough to claim offense and enshrine it into law, even while hiding it behind a hallowed, basic democratic process like a referendum.

The real lesson I wish some of our sisters and brothers would carry forward from this week is that simple appeals to principle or mere assertions about what marriage is will not do. This threadbare, rationally vacuous approach clearly avails little in civil jurisprudence. Nor should it be given any truck in thoroughgoing Christian moral argument.

Grieving a principle is a far cry from the realities of human suffering that our Savior came to address.

Show me precisely how same-sex couples sharing equivalency of rights and privileges tangibly harm my “traditional” marriage, and then we have a starting point for conversation. 

(But as we say in the Midwest: Good luck with that!)


mark spaulding said...

Brilliant. Simply brilliant. I wish I could write (and thinks) half as good as this is presented! Well done my friend!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Brother. The root of the problem, it seems to me, is that the "principle" itself is so unclear. On the PBS News Hour last night there was a short discussion between Eric Schneiderman (pro) and a republican member of congress (anti). The anti speaker kept bringing up the issue of "what's best for the children is a marriage with a mom and pop." And of course, as I noted in my response to the "whine" (thanks for the link!) nothing about marriage equality will limit or affect married couples continuing to raise their own biological children. There is, to put it in legal terms, no "standing" to this objection whatsoever. As a "principle" (debatable as it is on its own merits, since not all couples are good parents, whether they "ought" to be or not!) it is entirely irrelevant to the discussion. I can't put it any better than the old saying, "A man without a woman is like a fish without a bicycle."

Your Brother in Christ,

Br Richard Edward Helmer BSG said...

Thanks, both!

Indeed, Dear Tobias! You bring me to wonder whether the grief is rather over some kind of lost premise, mere assertion, or perhaps simple semantics. But the confusion that is now unfolding amongst the anti-arguments illuminates only their hollow nature.

As you have said to me on more than one occasion, it seems that there is "no there there!"