I believe in the Biblical vision of marriage as the voluntary union of one man and one woman for life. And yet I think there are good Biblical reasons for Christians to applaud Bill Shorten’s motives in proposing amendments to the Marriage Act. And if passed, I hope it does achieve its goals.*
This may seem inconsistent – so let me explain.
I still believe that marriage is a social recognition of our genetic origins – that it is (at least in part) a way of making sense of the arrival of children through sexual reproduction, involving a man and a woman’s genetic material. So it makes sense to me that marriage has been traditionally interpreted, across most cultures I can think of, as having at its core an expression and celebration of sexual difference.
I have strong anxieties about possible unintended side effects of redefining this basic social unit.
I don’t think, as Bill Shorten put it, that the debate has been had long ago – in fact I don’t think we’ve had anything like the kind of sensible, respectful, good-faith-seeking-of-the-common-good that I hope we could be capable of (and the fault for that lies as much on the conservative side of the debate as anywhere else).
But I do recognise the good goals which the Marriage Equality Bill is trying to achieve, at least according to Shorten’s Explanatory Memorandum tabled in Parliament.
First, I thoroughly approve of Shorten’s desire, in line with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Article 26, to give equal protection under law to all people regardless of their sex, sexuality, gender identity or intersex status.
What has become apparent in this debate is that my main disagreement with pro-same-sex-marriage friends is not with their goals but the proposed mechanism. Christians believe, don’t we, that all members of our society deserve love and respect and protection as fellow bearers of the image of God? We abhor, don’t we, the abuse and violence which minorities of all kinds routinely experience at the hands of the powerful?
- Recently two dear friends came over for dinner at our house and I was horrified to hear about the insults they endured on public transport simply in order to get to our house (and we live in the inner west of Sydney for goodness sake, what is it like in the rest of Australia?!)
- This week I have had to rebuke someone in my congregation for using a derogatory term for a homosexual man. The minority sexuality church members I pastor have told me that our community is normally, thankfully, much more loving. However even isolated incidents of such sub-Christian attitudes are extremely painful, because they are experienced in a context of every-day discrimination in other spheres of life. Wounds from people we trust often sting the most.
Bill Shorten thinks these things are not okay and he thinks changing the marriage laws might be a step towards fixing them. I’m not convinced yet by the strategy – for starters, I don’t think of marriage laws as a way of giving a governmental imprimatur on the validity of a type of love, or as a particularly good way of expressing the value of people. But I can’t fault his explicit motives.
I think Christians do well to remember these motives, regardless of the outcome of Shorten’s amendment. If the amendment becomes law, let’s pray that it will succeed in this goal: that we will become a more loving nation. If it doesn’t, we need to work out other ways to tell people of minority sexualities that “hey, I know you and I are quite different, but I’m glad you’re here.”
Second, I am moved by the gracious consideration given to the amendments’ implications on my civil and political rights.
This could have been a winner takes all piece of legislation. Yet the Bill in its current form provides protection for my rights under Article 18 of the ICCPR for my freedom of thought, conscience and religion. As a minister of religion I will not be forced to conduct a marriage ceremony which contradicts my own religion’s teaching on marriage.
One thing this debate has helped me to realise is how privileged I am: I am, after all, a white heterosexual cisgender man, the oblivious beneficiary of so much discrimination in my favour. I have no reason to expect protecting my rights to be high on anyone’s agenda. And yet here it is. To me this is an extremely gracious gesture of goodwill.
[* EDITED 2/6/15 3:48PM: Several readers have pointed out that I could have been clearer here in my opening paragraph so I have clarified accordingly. Some people may assume that because I support what Shorten is trying to do I would therefore vote for his Bill. As I hope I make clearer later on, this is not necessarily the case. I have doubts that changing the definition of the Marriage Act will achieve his goals, and I worry about the unintended consequences. At the very least I don’t feel like we’ve had the kind of serious and respectful debate such a major change to the basic unit of our society warrants.]