I’d intended to write this back when there’s was a lot of discussion about the Washington state initiative to require heterosexuals to prove they can reproduce, or face having their marriages annulled. I hadn’t intended to post about it again, As I read some recent . One of them was Jim Wallis’ post at God’s Politics, about “Covenantal vs. Recreational Sexuality.”
At first, I couldn’t think of why his post reminded me of the Washignton state initiative.
The divinely intended purposes of sexual intimacy are of course very sacred and deeply satisfying in the context of committed relationships. And the degradation and commodification of sexuality in the media, for purposes of advertising, and in exploitative or manipulative relationships is indeed sin, because it can be so abusive and destructive to the human spirit.
The real question is whether sexuality should be regarded as basically covenantal or just recreational.
Sexuality is meant to be enormously enjoyable and fulfilling, but the context of the relationship and the commitment or lack of commitment it contains is of obvious religious importance. And that religious importance is because of how fragmenting or integrating sexual intimacy can be for human beings – dependent on the context of the relationship.
What struck me was that Wallis wrote in term of “committed relationships” and not marriage specifically, but then I remembered that even though Wallis doesn’t support same-sex marriage he supports civil unions for same-sex couples, and has written that he thinks it would be good to encourage committed, monogamous relationships among gays and lesbians.
So, it’s significant tome that his language here didn’t exclude same-sex couples by specifically limiting “covenantal sex” to married heterosexual couples. He doesn’t automatically consign the sexual relationships of committed same-sex couples to the category of “sin.” In fact he seems to be suggesting that the “divinely intended purposes of sexual intimacy” don’t exclude same-sex couples, because those purposes are not restricted to procreation, nor necessarily even founded on procreation.
That impression is somewhat borne out by the responses of commenters who take Wallis to task for not speaking specifically of marriage and limiting “covenantal sex” to the context of (presumably heterosexual) marriage. The issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage only comes up once, the latter via a commenter who mentions his same-sex relationship, and another who expresses concern that Wallis’ language opens the door to “pederasty” and other things.
But almost immediately, the discussion turns to the various issues related to reproduction (abortion, illegitimacy, etc.). That was interesting to me because one of the main responses to the Washington state initiative has been that the only the proponents of same-sex marriage are arguing that procreation is the purpose of marriage.
Yet the very same concept is just beneath the surface of most concerns expressed by opponents to marriage equality, which in this case get down to questions about the very purpose of sexuality. No surprise, since it’s something that’s inherent in their response to a host of other issues. In fact, it goes back centuries, all the way back to the earliest changes in marriage, and Christianity’s response to them.
Besides, it’s just not true that marriage equality proponents are the only ones making the “procreation as purpose” or “procreation as primary” argument.
Over at Alas, a Blog, Ampersand’s posted statements from opponents of marriage equality that come as close as possible to making those arguments,while stopping just short of using the exact language that procreation is the “sole” or “primary” purpose of marriage, while at the same time seeming to say that marriage is all about supporting “responsible reproduction” and the rearing of children by their biological mothers and fathers.
Beyond that, you can look at any number of issues on which their positions suggest a condemnation of or hostility towards any sexual activity that does not at least include the unimpeded possibility of procreation.
Take abortion, the most obvious. South Dakota’s most recent anti-choice legislation would allow rape victims to get abortions if they report the rape to police within 50 days, and incest victims if the doctor got their permission to report the crime and the identity of the perpetrator. That’s a change from previous legislation, which didn’t include these exceptions, but it does include some requirements that would seem to narrowly define the application of` those exceptions.
Take the Bush administration issuing the first ever medical guidelines for treating sexual assault victims, with no mention whatsoever of emergency contraception. Or take the jail worker who denied a rape victim emergency contraception on religious grounds, or religious conservatives who are as opposed to contraception as they are to reproductive choice.
Even though I’ve used contraception in the past and am still not totally persuaded of the arguments against all contraception, I can see that those who argue against it are serious believing Christians who seek to submit to Christ’s lordship in every aspect of life. So I take what they say on this issue very seriously. I’m not going to dismiss it out of hand, particularly when I’m considering an irrevocable decision.
As I said in my introductory entry, I am a married father of three children. The youngest isn’t walking yet. My wife and I are both in our mid-40s.
… Here is the dilemma I face:
If I get a vasectomy, we’ll be sinning if we have sex, and unlike using a condom, the sin will be permanent (or extremely expensive if not impossible to reverse). Practically speaking, there’s no repentance if indeed contracepted sex is a sin.
But if I don’t get a vasectomy, and we have to abstain until my wife reaches menopause, we’ll be sinning by not having sex. Couples are only supposed to abstain briefly but to come back together to avoid temptation (see I Corinthians 7). And it seems that the NFPers and the Quiverfull folks would agree that abstaining for the purpose of avoiding children is also a sin.
Beyond the concern about offending God, if I opt for abstinence over a vasectomy, our marriage will suffer. Love will diminish because we’ll be avoiding physical affection and because my wife will be offended that I am not complying with her wishes.
Take the folks who don’t want girls to read a book about their menstrual cycles and how understanding their cycles may help them avoid pregnancy. These are the same people who don’t want young girls to get an HPV vaccine that might spare some of them cervical cancer later in life, but would rather see them go off the “purity balls” where they’ll make chastity pledges that most of them won’t keep, and where they learn a lesson about their own sexuality that is right out of ancient Greece.
Premarital sex is evil. Female sexuality must be, as ever, contained, repressed, shoved deep down lest it tempt men to sin like gleeful pagans licking ice cream from the pierced nipples of the devil. Girls do not know how to handle their own genitalia and therefore must be taught — by their fathers, no less — how to dilute their sexual power in order to attract a sexually unqualified, God-fearing husband. You know, same as it ever was.
Except, as previously mentioned, there is the likelihood or at least the fear now that gay men will lure heterosexual men away from their appointed duties as family men. As for lesbians, their greatest sin may simply be getting along just fine without men. Actually, both lesbians and gay men are guilty of an even greater sin by participating in sexual activity that cannot ever end in procreation, even accidentally. (Though we are, however, capable of reproducing and must usually put a lot of thought and planning into figuring out just how to do it, and how to prepare for parenthood.)
At least, according to the tenets of biblical patriarchy.
God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply” still applies to married couples, and He “seeks godly offspring.” He is sovereign over the opening and closing of the womb. Children are a gift of God and it is a blessing to have many of them, if He so ordains. Christian parents are bound to look to Scripture as their authoritative guide concerning issues of procreation. They should welcome with thanksgiving the children God gives them. The failure of believers to reject the anti-life mindset of the age has resulted in the murder of possibly millions of unborn babies through the use of abortifacient birth control.
And if that’s not enough, contracepting couples may be guilty of even worse.
In The Sins of Scripture, which I just finished reading, Bishop Shelby Spong opens his section on contraception with two stories; that of the McCourt family from Angela’s Ashes and that of Andrea Yates, using both as an example of lives pushed to the breaking point by the unbendable edit to “be fruitful and multiply” and the absolute prohibition (by state and/or church) of birth control. Both were stories in which children were born into families where, as Spong put it, the state/church required the parents to basically choose “sexlessness and hell.” (Yup, apparently even married folks shouldn’t have non-procreative sex.) Both were stories in which those same children died (or were murdered) because the parents lacked the fiscal or psychological resources to handle the non-stop growth of their families.
Interestingly enough, in a later section on scriptures dealing with women, Spong notes that part of getting the heave-ho out of Eden was that pregnancy became painful (suggesting that it wasn’t before) and sex strictly procreative (as opposed to recreational and procreative) as a result of “the fall.” It doesn’t seem a far leap from there to suggest that Davis and others like her primarily oppose contraception and anything other than “abstinence-only” education, not because they don’t work when it comes to prevention, but precisely because they aid in the prevention of “god’s punishment” and thus allow people to “sin without consequence” when it comes to sexual activity.
In other words, the pill, the condom, the “morning after pill, the HPV vaccine, etc., don’t just get in the way of sperm and egg, or viruses and human bodies. They get in the way of divine retribution. That’s the biggest sin of all. And that’s why contraception and sex ed. are the enemies and AIDS, STDs, unintended pregnancies, etc., are not.
Of course, most people would think that’s a little extreme. And the fact that our believing blogger above is vacillating about a vasectomy illustrates that married heterosexual are not expected to life by that rather extreme ideal. (He does, however, seem oblivious to his wife’s anxiety about another pregnancy, another difficult birth and/or c-section, and how having another child might effect the quality of her life. So, perhaps he’s not out of line according to the above.) As E.J. Graff points out in What is Marriage For?: The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution, only homosexuals are required to meet the procreative imperative in order to legally marry.
The most thoughtful and prominent theorists against homosexuality make clear that they oppose “the acts of a husband and wife whose intercourse is masturbatory, for example sodomitic or by fellatio or coitus interruptus … or deliberately contracepted” — in other words, any sex that cannot make babies. But only gays and lesbians are now legally expected to live by that early Christian Refraining ideal: know and conquer your sexual feelings.
Most heterosexuals aren’t expected to live by that ideal. Procreation isn’t a prerequisite for getting married if you’re heterosexual. An infertile couple can marry and have as much sex as they want. An elderly couple can marry and have as much sex as they’re physically capable of having. And on and on. It doesn’t matter if they can’t reproduce. That would seem to suggest that sex must also serve some other purpose in marriage, and one that doesn’t necessarily exclude same-sex couples, and doesn’t require some mystical union of the sexes, magical thinking along those lines notwithstanding.
As it happens, one seed for such thinking was planted back in 1549, by an Archbishop of the Church of England no less, and which Graff also cites.
Marriage’s purpose, wrote England’s Archbishop Cranmer in his 1549 Prayer Book was “mutual society, help and comfort, that the one ought to have from the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” In this view, human companionship was the sacrament. Marriage was not holy merely because it made legitimate babies and kept you from fornicating, but because being good to each other (that profound daily challenge that so many of us know well) was pleasing to God.
Cranmer must have been ahead of his time, because we’ve been catching up to him ever since. And now same-sex couples are standing at the altar, waiting for everyone else to catch up already. As I posted before, down the aisle is the next logical step for same-sex couples, in a march towards marriage that we didn’t start in the first place.
… Once marriage came to be seen as an institution bringing together two individuals based on mutual affection and equality, without regard to rigidly defined gender roles or the ability to procreate, it’s not surprising that gays and lesbians said, “That now describes our relationships too, so why can’t we marry?” If you don’t like these changes in the institution, blame your grandparents, not the gay and lesbian couples seeking entry into this new model of marriage.
It’s one thing for opponents of marriage equality to claim that they’re drawing a line in the sand to say “This far, and no farther.” But it’s something else entirely, if they’re serious, for them to turn around and undo all the social and economic changes that have brought us to the point, in favor of going back to a pre-Cranmer, pre-1549 understanding of marriage.
My guess is most people will decline to make that trip with them.