Friday, June 26, 2015

Marriage - kicking the teeth out of Covenant

Losing the culture war over marriage is hard. But the Supreme Court did not ruin marriage today by its ruling. The American Church changed the definition of marriage centuries ago, and it is only today catching up with us. While we call marriage a covenant before God, the nearly universal ignorance of what that means precludes the possibility of marriage having any enduring significance among us or in our culture.

Marriage ceremonies have the leftover vestiges of what used to be covenant: promises, gifts, witnesses, ritual meals. But we have removed the one thing that made all the overtures a covenant. We don't swear curses. The reason a covenant is a covenant is because there are self-accepted consequences for breaches of faith. Let me explain.

Promises of fidelity are great, even romantic. But "I will..." does not become covenant until we add, "and if I don't ...." In the ancient world one's sincere belief in a god's ability to punish was the guarantor that one stayed in line. These self requested penalties were the teeth of the covenant. They were how covenant was enforced.

The reason I say the Church changed the definition of marriage is because it neglected treating marriage as a covenant for so long that everyone forgot what the word meant. Showering the bride and groom with "blessings" was fashionable and tasteful. Pronouncing curses for infidelity, abandoned, or abuse were not popular. Can't say I'm surprised. We sprinkled couples with statements about "love til death" and neglected to speak of responsibility and even more important, consequence.

But wait. Do loving commitments need such mistrustful, dark oaths? Why bring up such negativity on what's supposed to be a happy day? Remember, swearing an oath (with a curse) is not something done to someone else. Asking to be punished for future bad behavior by a higher authority is a way to prove one's loyalty to another. The assumption is that I would never want my fields to burn, or my house to be looted, or my groin to suffer injury. The only way I would accept such consequences would be if I never planned on deserving them. It's a way for me to put my money where my mouth is and show my partner (and her parents) that I mean what I say. Swearing a curse is like saying, "I love you. You are so precious. If I ever hurt you, may heaven's hounds hunt me down to the far corners of the earth." This is love as a commitment. This is not love as a feeling. 

In modern marriages ceremonies done by Christian ministers there are no consequences agreed upon by bride or groom if they mistreat or leave each other. In local churches, what consequences are there for mistreating a spouse or breaking faith? Even if the offending party was banned from the church, they could just go down the street to another church's divorce support group. And what does the government do if I break faith or mistreat my spouse? Nothing. They don't meddle in the "bedroom". They just want their $50 for a license. (A license I supposedly need to get married? Come on!) The most I'd be on the hook for is child support. But I'd be on the hook for that whether we married or not. Do you see the problem?

Arguing over who can get married, when, and where is meaningless. Saying two men may or may not marry isn't giving marriage a definition. In fact, the single biggest reason couples live together unwed into perpetuity is because they see no benefit to marriage. Why sign a piece of paper? After all, that's all it is, a useless piece of paper. Especially when an unmarried mother might receive thousands of dollars of public assistance, and risks losing it if she marries the father whom she has lived with for years.

To no one's surprise, the one group that has maintained the covenantal aspect of marriage up to the modern era (at least in principle) are the Jews. In a traditional Jewish wedding there is an artistic agreement drawn up called a Katubah. A Katubah is a kind of prenuptial agreement that outlines the responsibilities of a husband to his wife, and what the financial penalty he must pay to her if he leaves. The prospect of alimony is a powerful deterrent for the husband against making poor choices and it simultaneously provides material support for a woman if such choices are made. While the legal force of such agreements are questionable and rarely if ever enforced, maybe they should be.

There is a kind of marriage in three states that resembles a covenant agreement. In Arizona, Arkansas, and Louisiana couples may opt for a more restrictive type of marriage called "covenant marriage" in which the couple agrees to obtain pre-marital counseling and accept more limited grounds for later seeking a divorce. My contention is that this was what all marriage used to be. It is only because we have stripped marriage of its essential force that we even feel the need to fabricate a loftier tier of marriage. Marriage is an an agreement which compels with force individuals to stay together and treat each other well. Anything less than this is merely a tax status or an expensive social party.

What do I recommend? Protest with a subversive wedding, one that avoids the normal hoops of a paper thin marriage, but one that seeks out real commitment. Before getting married, hire a lawyer and draw up a pre-nuptial agreement about the repercussions of and conditions for abuse, infidelity, and divorce. And then don't bother getting a marriage licence from the state. Getting permission to marry from the government is worthless, and presumptuous on the government's part. Then get married with any ceremony style you choose, and begin to list your tax status as such. If certain ID offices or insurances give you trouble, ignore them and go around them. Show society how irrelevant government marriages have become.

No comments:

Post a Comment