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Will approving same-sex marriage lead to approving polygamy?

article-2611020-1D4893AC00000578-65_634x545Last week I posted a link to the Daily Mail article which announced:

Here comes the bride. And another one. And another one! Meet world’s first married lesbian THREESOME . . . and they’re expecting a baby due in July.

It went on to put the word ‘married’ in inverted commas, since they live in Massachusetts, where marriage can only be between two people. But it did detail how:

The so-called ‘throuple’ worked with a specialist family lawyer who drew up the paperwork and drafted the ceremony so that all three of them were obligated and bound to each other.

I had a very interesting reaction to this, and only some of it on my Facebook page. A lay church member in my diocese (Southwell and Nottingham) posting on the Changing Attitude Facebook page, saying she was ‘ashamed’ to be in the same diocese and suggesting I be banned from teaching in churches. (I sent a ‘friend’ request, but so far this hasn’t been accepted…) Other abusive comments followed, though with others taking a different line—and the post has now been taken down.

This does indicate the strength of feeling on this kind of question—despite the fact that this has been raised for a long time within the serious debate about the status of forms of relationship other than (male-female) marriage. In part this is a response to simplistic ‘I told you so—whatever will happen next?’ which is the other side of a ‘Daily Mail’ approach to life. And of course, as one commentator put it wittily:

Thank God we would be unable to find any examples of one man ‘marrying’ two women as an example of what straight marriage inevitably leads to.

It is not just a question of the examples of polygamy in the Bible; Kenya has just passed a law formalising polygamy—or, rather, a particular form of it, polygyny (one man marrying more than one woman):

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has signed into law a controversial marriage bill legalising polygamy. It brings civil law, where a man was only allowed one wife, into line with customary law, where some cultures allow multiple partners. Controversy surrounded an amendment to the bill, supported by many male MPs, allowing men to take more wives without consulting existing spouses. Traditionally, first wives are supposed to give prior approval.

This strongly suggests that here, as with Uganda and Nigeria’s recent hateful laws persecuting homosexuals, the issue of local custom and culture is more pressing than supposedly ‘Christian’ teaching.

Within the Western context, it seems to me there are two clusters of issues around whether there is a connection between SSM and polygamy—one to do with ethics, and the other to do with Scripture.

In relation to ethics, the striking thing about the Mail article is the terms in which it is framed. (I realise that the Mail is not a handbook of ethics, but given its wide readership, it might be a handbook to what a good number of people probably think.)

Doll says: ‘There was an instant attraction with Kitten but I think we all really bonded when we baked cookies together on our fourth date. I didn’t know what love was until the three of us clicked like that.’ Brynn adds: ‘With Doll and Kitten, things finally made sense. It was as if the puzzle was finally complete with all three pieces.’ Within a few months, Kitten moved in with Doll and Brynn. Two years later, they decided to get married after Kitten proposed the idea to them.

Kitten says: ‘I had always wanted to get married and I guess Doll and Brynn indulged my wishes! I had a very traditional upbringing and marriage had always been an important symbol of commitment for me. We wanted to celebrate our love in a wedding like everyone else.’ The threesome insist their relationship is like that of any normal couple: having breakfast with one another, watching TV after work and sharing a bed together.

Brynn says: ‘Doll, Kitten and I may not be the norm but we are perfectly normal. We are simply people trying to live the life that we feel is best for us and we deserve the rights afforded to others.’

There seems to be a number of strands to this: a sense that this was an innate orientation; a strong use of a form of eudaimonism (we need to do what makes us happy); the notion that an institution like marriage can be transferred to a new pattern of relationships without loss; and the language of rights.

I am sure you recognise all those arguments! Whether or not these are persuasive, and whether or not these are the best arguments which Christians are using to argue for SSM, they do seem to be the key ones dominating the SSM discussion in society. And they are very difficult to argue with, since the opening assumption is that these ethical systems are more or less beyond question. If doing something makes someone happy, and it is not injuring anyone else, how could we refuse it? And how can I deny someone the right to something I myself have (even if the two things are not, in fact, equivalent)?

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailIn a Christian context, most would add some sort of virtue ethic, but my observation is that this is deployed in a stripped-down form, where we consider only qualities (such as permanent, faithful, stable) and detach these from the form in which virtues are exhibited. There is a parallel justification made for change in the church’s teaching based on the inclusion of Gentiles in Acts 15—and this does a similar ‘stripping down.’ The principle of radical change is adopted without any attention being given to how this process worked in Acts 15—which in fact included enjoining the Gentiles to observe the four categories of ethical behaviour derived from Lev 17 and 18. When we deduce ethical principles from Scripture, it is as vital to see how these principles are deployed as it is to discern them.

And absent from all of these is any kind of deontological ethics—things might be right or wrong because this is the way God had made it. Such arguments have, of course, been misused—but there is a strong sense of them behind much OT ethical thinking, and in fact it is, arguably, this which makes OT ethics distinctive in its cultural and historical context.

So much for the ethics. What about the role of Scripture? The most common argument in relation to Leviticus and Paul is that the form of same-sex activity prohibited there is inextricably linked with pagan cultic worship—an argument I think entirely unfounded (on which more in another post). But a key question about marriage is how to handle Genesis 2.21–24:

So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribsh and then closed up the place with flesh.  Then the LORD God made a woman from the ribi he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

The rationale for marriage is given precisely in the similarity-in-difference of this account of the creation of humanity. The ‘suitable helper’ needs to be different from the adam—hence the animals being offered, rather than another adam being formed from the dust. But this helper need to be an equal-yet-opposite. The force of the existential cry ‘flesh of my flesh!’ is both that there is connection, but also that it is connection over difference, and it is this which is expressed in marriage. As has been pointed out at some length, historically it is the biological difference inherent in coitus which has been at the centre of the definition of marriage.

My observation, then, about the arguments from the Bible is not that the case for SSM leads as a consequence to polyamorous relationships, but something slightly more nuanced. The arguments that remove gender difference as a defining characteristic of a marriage relationship also remove the boundaries that would prevent other patterns of relationship being counting as marriage. In other words, allowing polyamorous and other forms of relationship is less a logical conclusion of the arguments for SSM, and more an unintended consequence.

41oJQmCSe7LA good illustration of this is James Brownson’s argument in his book Bible, Gender, Sexuality. As I pointed out previously, he suggests that the Adam’s existential cry, ‘flesh of my flesh’ is actually about forming a kinship bond, since a. the language of ‘flesh’ is used elsewhere of siblings and b. in the narrative this is given as the reason for forming a new kinship group. This is a poor argument, based as it is on a naive understanding of how metaphors work. But going with it, look at the consequence: just as I can have many more than one sibling, under this understanding why should I be limited in the number of marriage partners I have? There is no sense of ‘two-ness’ in kinship, so why should there be in marriage, once gender is dispensed with?

Of course, the vast majority of interpreters have read this ‘one flesh’ as being about unity through gender difference, and as a direct result, this text has in fact been effective in reforming marriage to eliminate polygamy. But that would no longer be possible under a reading like Brownson’s. (I had a longish exchange with Tobias Haller along similar lines in relation to his Reasonable and Holy, and was planning to include that here…but the post is already long enough!)

So, will approval of SSM lead to public approval of polygamy in the West? I doubt it, for three reasons. First, in the US, the Mormons went to a lot of trouble to drop this in order to become socially acceptable—so public opinion has been against it. Secondly, many outside the church who support same-sex relations are just not interested in marriage and its extension. Thirdly, there is a large part of our society where patterns of relationship are so chaotic, it really makes no sense to talk in terms of marital institutions; polyamorous relationships are already a way of life.

Having said that, three years ago no-one thought there would be such a thing as same-sex marriage!

Additional note: My attention has just been drawn to the US reality TV show Sister Wives which features Kody Brown, his four wives and their 17 children.

Brown and his wives have said they participated with the show to make the public more aware of polygamist families and to combat societal prejudices.

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16 Responses to Will approving same-sex marriage lead to approving polygamy?

  1. Peter Carrell May 1, 2014 at 1:30 am #

    Hi Ian,
    Rising immigration may yet lead to pressure to legislate for polygamy in Western countries. (But less likely, in my view, to lead to pressure for the church to make change). In that case the driver would be increased population inclined to desire polygamy and not decisions previously made re gay marriage. But, and this is where your post makes an important point, under that pressure, what parliament which removes restriction of marriage to a man and a woman could refrain from removing restriction of marriage to two and only two people?

    Oh, I suppose an inconsistent parliament could resist!

    • Ian Paul May 2, 2014 at 4:51 pm #

      But doesn’t the immigration question cut both ways? Some will be pro-polygamy, but many of the black churches in the UK are the most ardent defenders of ‘traditional’ marriage…

      • youthpasta August 2, 2017 at 7:37 pm #

        I think the immigration issue is more from Muslim nations in the Middle East, the sub-continent and Africa, where religion and culture make this quite prominent.

  2. Wolf Paul May 1, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    I appreciate and agree with your analysis. Because of our bent to sin all of life is a slope … of course this notion alone is likely to incur some people’s wrath.

    A slippery slope does not inevitably lead to slipping down it, but it removes the “friction” which normally prevents us slipping. In this case the “friction” removed by the “slick” of SSM is the idea that marriage partners must be of different sex.

    We should not forget, however, that the slope has been greased considerable before SSM by the wide-spread acceptance of divorce and re-marriage, even in the church — this removed the “friction” of one marriage partner for life except in the case of one spouse’s death.

    So I also agree with Peter Carrell that the push for legalized polygamy will come through immigration, rather than SSM. But both Divorce+Remarriage and SSM will have provided the “slick” which will make this push more likely to succeed.

    • Ian Paul May 2, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      That’s a nice image Wolf. I think the difficult I have though is that, in the end, to keep things neat and tidy you need really to have not a Christian culture but a moralist one, where every sort of suspicion of irregularity is ruled out. I think that *is* what we had in the 1950s in the UK, but this was in reaction to the chaos of the war. (Sorry to mention that!)

  3. Tobias Haller May 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm #

    Thanks for the very good exposition here.

    I would like, however to highlight a few things you don’t mention in terms of the creation account in relation to monogamy. That lies in the fact that the “male” and “female” of Gen 1 are nouns in Hebrew, not adjectives. Thus part of the reason that marriage is monogamous is the fact that there are only two. This is exactly the reason advanced for monogamy in the Damascus Document / Zadokite Fragment of Qumran.(CD 4:20-21) This may inform our understanding of Jesus’ teaching though the question asked him was about divorce, and in fact Jesus does stress the “moral” as being about permanence of the union.

    The other important thing to note, again stressing the importance of a canonical reading, is Paul’s warning that becoming “one flesh” is not limited to a single partner. He warns against fornication precisely because it engenders the one flesh with whomever the coupling is made.

    Finally, I think it is important to recognize that the “one flesh” and the “of my flesh and bones” does have other implications. It was long recognized that the first “marriage” was essentially incestuous, and that only later did God place a restriction on such marriages. There are a number of patristic references to this. An example: from John Chrysostom’s Homily XX on Ephesians: “[God] permitted the man to marry his own sister; or rather not his sister, but his daughter; nay, nor yet his daughter, but something more than his daughter, even his own flesh.” I raise this only because the other slippery slope often brought up, in addition to polygamy, is incest.

    I agree with those who think that the slippery slope of polygamy will have more to do with pressure from cultures in which polygamy is common, that with the legal recognition of same-sex monogamy.

    By the way, I’ve blogged a bit about our earlier conversation, which I found very helpful.

    All the best this Eastertide.

    • Ian Paul May 2, 2014 at 5:00 pm #

      Thanks for commenting Tobias, and for the FB conversation. There’s a couple of things here:

      a. yes, male and female are nouns, and I think this strengthens the argument that Lev 18 and 20 are echoing the creation account i.e. the reason same-sex activity is prohibited is because it goes against the creation order.

      b. There’s an important bit of context in Jesus’ use of this. He stresses permanence precisely because this is what is being questioned. The argument from silence that this would allow same-sex permanent coupling fails at the first hurdle—that all the evidence points to this being impossible to consider in first-century Judaism. Jesus’ prohibition on ‘porneiai’ would be certainly been understood to include the prohibitions on all the acts in Lev 18—as both Acts 15 with its regulations for Gentiles and Paul’s exposition in Romans 1 show clearly.

      c. again, the thrust of Paul’s argument can be taken to mean that sexual activity is unitive. But he is prohibiting this…and is not positing this of same-sex intercourse.

      d. Of course, the Genesis narrative requires that the first few generations are incestuous, which in the modern era is an argument for reading it figuratively not literally. But again, as you say, this is subsequently qualified.

      • Tobias Haller May 2, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

        Thanks, Ian. I take your points, but regard them as not essentially related to the issue of “slippage” which is what i was attempting to address.

        I have addressed assertions concerning “porneai” and Acts 15 at some length in Reasonable and Holy. For here, let me just say that in spite of these claims being widely repeated, they remain controversial, and are not evidently true on a close reading of the text or the contemporary literature itself. The Jewish tradition did not refer to the offenses in Lev as z’nut, the Hebrew equivalent of porneai, but as ervath (nakedness), which did not apply to male same-sex acts. The LXX does not use porneai in relation to Leviticus 18. Porneia (z’nut) has a different range of meaning in early rabbinic Judaism and involves actual prostitution or idolatry; in later rabbinic Judaism it relates as well to certain classes of women whom a priest cannot marry (including a widow).

        All reference to arguments from a “creation order” have both to be taken with a grain of salt and awareness of the absence of any prohibition on female same-sexual relations in the Hebrew Scripture and halacha (the tradition did not regard lesbian sex even as being ‘sex” given the focus on penetration as a defining characteristic).

        Whether Romans 1 refers to such relations is another contested issue. I follow Clement of Alexandria and Augustine of Hippo in regarding Paul’s case as concerning irregular intercourse between mixed-sex couples leading to the same between men. I am aware of Bernadette Brooten’s study, but find her argument based on uses of “unnatural” in Greek philosophical literature unconvincing; given the fact that the Stoics also regarded non-procreative heterosexual sex as “unnatural” as well, and Romans shows a bit of Stoic influence as well as relevance to Wisdom 13-16. (Efforts to link to a “creation order” represent a real misunderstanding of Paul — it is the idolatrous who have made an idol of created things!)

        I don’t by any means mean to suggest that Jesus or Paul approved of what we call “marriage equality” but am content to say that neither would locate moral action in a purely “legal” or “taboo” framework, which appears to way the argument against same-sex marriage (because of argument against same-sex sex) tends.

        Thanks again, and I welcome further exploration.

        • DavidH June 12, 2015 at 8:05 pm #

          Paul, I challenged Tobias about his claims regarding porneiai in Mark 7 not being intended to include same-sex sex – on the grounds that the context of that passage is Jesus challenging the Pharisees and scribes “. abandon[ing] the commandment of God and hold[ing] to human tradition.’ Tobias’ suggestion I’d unreasonable because Jesus’ point was precisely to point back to the Law… not contemporary understandings of porneiai (or anything else in His sin list).

  4. deacongill May 1, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    I’ve thought for some time that removal of the necessity for gender difference in ‘marriage’ does in fact open up the definition to other forms of marriage, including polygamy – in fact, what’s happened is that marriage has been redesignated as a category, rather than a definition which is what we have in the Christian church.. Polygamy is standard in so many places in the world that it surprises me that there hasn’t already been a groundswell of opinion from the substantial Muslim minority in this country to use the ‘rights’ argument to have their traditional form of marriage legalised.

    Incidentally, when we worked in N Nigeria (which is largely Muslim), the issue of what happens to second and subsequent wives when the man converts to Christianity was the number one concern of the church leaders there. This leads me to think that we in the Anglican church – and also the Catholics and Orthodox – cannot escape from our multi-national and multi-ethnical context when we make decisions about such issues. We can’t just do what secular government and so many others in the west ‘feel is right’ as if we lived in a vacuum.

    • Ian Paul May 2, 2014 at 5:01 pm #

      Interesting that the Church of Christ in the US is suing one state’s prohibition of same-sex marriage on the grounds of freedom of religion. I wonder how soon it will be before the Mormons decide to follow suit.

  5. deacongill May 2, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    Nobody’s used Paul’s metaphor of Christ and the church as his bride … ??

    PS I’m in trouble with your capcha. I never was any good at sums.

  6. Peter Carrell May 2, 2014 at 7:52 pm #

    Hi Ian
    Following discussion here, being drawn back into it by an email re your reply to my comment. But it gave a “bitly” reference to the thread which wouldn’t open.

    Re your comment: yes, it could cut both ways, but the key thing from a Western perspective is the size of the minority making the request. Cf. British dalliance with sharia – there are sufficient people requesting sharia for your parliament to take notice and to make noises about accommodation … despite plenty of reasons to say ‘No, get used to being British.’

  7. John Gay May 15, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    ‘Having said that, three years ago no-one thought there would be such a thing as same-sex marriage!’ Best not to mention loving bestial relations then!

    • Ian Paul May 15, 2014 at 11:17 am #

      Hmmm…I am not aware of anyone at the moment pressing the judicial process to recognise such relations in law. But we’d be daft to think this was not part of certain subcultures somewhere in the world.

  8. Erika Baker May 16, 2014 at 5:12 pm #

    Thank you for pointing me to this blog post, Ian, which I had unfortunately missed. I really must subscribe to your blog!
    But what a shame (for me) that you have not responded to Tobias’ last comment to you. You see, I long for someone qualified to engage in detail with what Tobias says, to pick his arguments apart and to show where he is wrong and why.
    Of course I’m not a disinterested party in this conversation but I hope to have enough intellectual integrity that I want to support the biblical argument because it’s the right thing to do, not because I happen to like it.

    And yet, all that everyone always seems to do is to make a half hearted stab at it and then stop engaging when Tobias replies with ever more biblical analysis.
    You are immensely qualified to engage with what Tobias writes, to tease out which parts of his exegesis are wrong and why.
    If not you – then who?

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