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Societal norms and Christian values

3 July 2015

A recent decision of the US Supreme Court that same-sex marriage was a constitutional right has caused a flurry of activity in social media, with many jubilantly proclaiming it as a notable victory for human rights, and others denouncing it as the greaterst evil of our time. The extremists in both camps seem to manifest the kind of bigotry I have previously discussed here: Are you homophobic? | Notes from underground.

I don’t want to discuss the merits of same-sex marriage here. Suffice it to say that I find myself in disagreement with the extremists on both sides of the issue, and that I am both for it and against it. I’ve already said most of what I want to say about that here The State should get out of the marriage business | Notes from underground and here The theology of Christian marriage | Khanya. If you want to comment on whether you think same-sex marriage is a good thing or an evil thing, please read one or both posts and post your comments there. The issue here is not whether same-sex marriage is a good thing or an evil thing, but rather what the debate on it (and on other issues) reveals about the relationship between societal norms and Christian values.

There is an interesting blog post here Why the gay marriage debate was over in 1950 | Joel J. Miller that suggested that, in the USA at least, the values changed after the Second World War with the advent of the Permissive Society, and that it has just taken until now for the norms to catch up. I don’t agree with everything in that article, but it is an interesting thesis, and it is worth reading.

reichOne of the contributions to the debate on Facebook was a graphic.

I don’t know who Robert Reich is or why his opinion should matter more than anyone else’s, but at least some people on Facebook seem to think it does, so it can be taken as a partial representation of at least one segment of society.

There are three issues there that are covered by three of the ten commandments:

  • Thou shalt not commit adultery
  • Thou shalt not kill
  • Thou shalt not steal

And, according to Robert Reich, at least, sex and human life are trivial. The big issues are economic.

And there I would have to agree. There is still some debate about economic issues, and the Greek debt crisis was making far bigger headlines this week than the same-sex marriage issue, or any of the killing that is going on around the world. So that is a big deal, for the media at least. But on Facebook, many people seemed to be covering their profile pictures with rainbow stripes, none with blue and white stripes. On the other hand, in the media our president is associated far more with “Pay back the money”, with his sexual behaviour being relegated to a single cartoonist depicting him with a shower on his head, the significance of which is probably lost on many (for those who don’t know, he was charged with rape, and said in court that the precatution he took against Aids infection was to have a shower afterwards).

Actually I would also disagree with Joel Miller, when he said that the sexual question started in 1950s. In many countries (though not all) heterosexual adultery was decriminalised long before homosexual adultery and fornication were, though this did not happen everywhere — see here, for example: Decriminalisation of adultery sends condom stocks soaring | Irish Examiner.

But, whichever way you look at it, the idea that the state should enforce Christian sexual morality is long past its sell-by date, and it was never a particularly Christian idea to start with. Even Christians can ‘t seem to agree about it — see here Attitudes on Same-sex Marriage by Religious Affiliation and Denominational Family. As one Orthodox bishop put it 1990-00-00-1-E-R-I-EM05-133ChurchMustBeAsPowerlessAsGod:

It seems to me — and I am firmly convinced of this — that the Church must never speak from a position of strength. It should not be one of the powers that be acting for the State. It should be, let us say, as helpless as God, as helpless as Him who does not force His will on us, who only calls us and reveals the beauty and truth of things, but who does not force them upon us and, like our conscience, prompts us with the truth but leaves us free either to listen to the truth and the beauty or to deny them. It seems to me that the Church must be just like that. If the Church represents some organisation which has power, which can coerce and control events, there always remains the risk that it will want to exert power, and as soon as a Church begins to exert power it loses its deepest essence — God’s love, and the ability to understand those whom it must save, rather than break or reconstruct them.

And, concerning the specific issue of same-sex marriage, I think one of the best comments on the US Supreme Court decision came from the bishops of the Orthodox Church of America.

Concerning killing and economics, Christians are just as inconsistent.

US President Obama publicly deplores killing with guns, but goes on killing with drones. Some Christians who oppose one are in favour of the other. Some of those who oppose aborti0n are in favour of capital punishm,ent and vice versa. All this seems to suggest that that here too, the battle has been lost. For most Christians, values are determi9ned by society’s norms. And some of those who have despaired of making society’s norms conform to Christian values have suggested the Benedict option, a semi-withdrawal from the world into a kind of Christian ghetto, though they seem to be pretty selective about which Christian values they are despairing of imposing.

Empty symbolism -- dark suits and bow ties

Empty symbolism — dark suits and bow ties

Some Christians seem to think that homosexual marriage will destroy the institution of marriage, and the more conspiratorially minded among them have even suggested that it is a deliberate plot to destroy marriage. I think it is rather the other way round: homosexual marriage has become possible because heterosexual marriage has already been thoroughly devalued, so that fewer and fewer heterosexual couples bother to get formally married at all, and even those that do get married often regard it as a meaningless ceremony. In South Africa, marriage was largely destroyed by apartheid, and in many other societies it was also destroyed by easy divorce, or rather, easy divorce was an even earlier sympton of the devaluation of marriage in society.

So I find it hard to share either the heights of jublilation or the depths of despair and dismay that have been manifested by some over same-sex marriage. It looks like regarding the ability to pick up discarded rubbish as a great victory or a great setback for human rights.

Beside the huge injustice of not being able to dress up in dark suits and bow ties and have some legal formulas pronounced things like the murderous wars promoted and financed by powerful elites in some countries which have created millions more refugees, pale into insignificace.

A few days ago I posted a link to this article on Facebook. It got 2 likes and 1 share. Blame the Rich World for the Global Refugee Crisis – Bloomberg Business:

The United Nations reported last week that the number of refugees worldwide is at its highest level in more than a decade. From around 10 million in 2004, the number climbed to move than 14 million last year. That’s putting a considerable burden on a few—overwhelmingly poor—host countries, one that may last decades. The report suggests more than half of the world’s refugees are under the age of 18, which means many will be well into middle age before they exit refugee status. War and political upheaval may create refugees, but it’s time to acknowledge that the global system for dealing with the problem is broken—and that’s in no small part because the industrialized world does so little to help fix it.

Never mind the minor invonveniences suffered by people whose homes have been bombed to rubble and kids who must grow up and spend the rest of their lives in concentration camps, spurned by the rich nations as “suspected asylum seekers”. It is overshadowed by the great victory for human rights when bourgeois westerners can dress in fancy suits and bow ties and have some kind of ceremony.

Refugees -- many created  by the same country congratulating itself on its commitment to human rights by legalising same-sex marriage

Refugees — many created by the same country congratulating itself on its commitment to human rights by legalising same-sex marriage

I may be weird about this, but to me it seems to lack a sense of proportion. The extremists on both sides of the same-sex marriage issue seem far more concerned about that than they do about the plight of the refugees. Of course I’m not in a position to do much about either. Sharing and “liking” things on Facebook is not going to be of much help to refugees. But it does serve as an indication of societal norms and values.

Maybe I’m just prejudiced about this. The only time I ever wore a bow tie was when I was forced to do so as part of a fresher initiation programme at university. It was intended as a symbol of humiliation, to remind one, as the seniors kept saying, that freshers were “lower than shark shit”. So I find it difficult to empathise enough with people whose greatest desire is to dress up in bow ties.

But I find it even more difficult to empathise with people who are desperately seeking pretexts to bomb people’s homes into rubble and force them to live in refugee camps, compared to which legalising same sex marriage seems quite irrelevant.

And then there are the bankers. As The Byrds used to sing in my youth:

As through this life you travel
You meet some funny men
Some rob you with a six gun
And some with a fountain pen.

And so we come back to the economics.

And that is where society’s norms and Christian values both seem to be all over the place. And very few people seem to be talking about the theology of that. They’re too busy trying to work out where to invest their money, if they have any.

People talk about “culture wars”, and I predict that the most significant culture war of the next couple of decades will not be about sexual ethics, but about economics. The UN set Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty by 2015, but it is now 2015 and the Eurozone Troika are not satisfied that 60% of Greek pensioners live in poverty. They want it to be increased to 70% or even 80%. Austerity for all, except the bankers, of course.



This is a blog post.

It is almost the paradigm case of a blog — a web log — with links to some of the web sites I have visited in the last week, and notes of some of my reactions to some of them.

That is something a blog does particularly well. It can’t be done on sites like Facebook or Twitter, which allow you to link to, and possibly comment on one web site at a time.

Blogs also allow you to comment on some of the sites, or all of them, but they are really limited to discussing the particular view expressed in the blog post.

I think this theme of Christian values and society’s norms needs more discussion, and I think a good place to do that is in an exising forum for discussion of Christianity and society.

If you would like to know more about joining that forum (if you are not already a member), or if you would like to say something about this post to me privately and not in a public comment, please use the form below. Anything you type in it will be seen by me only, and not by the public, like things you type in the comment form.

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