Thursday, June 11, 2009

Christians and Divorce

Note: This and other posts may cause people to say that I have too much of a vested interest to be objective. The only thing I can say is that I may have a vested interest, but that doesn't make it less true. If truth is measured on a sliding scale of subjectivity, then nothing can ever be true. The fact that I have a vested interest only means that I have struggled with this issue with both my head and my heart.

Many religious people believe that for the past generation, America has been in a moral decline. Whenever conservatives describe this decline, they include the high divorce rate, along with crime and out-of-wedlock births, as prime examples. I believe they are wrong. Dennis Prager tells a story that happened to him when he used to moderate a show called “Religion on the Line.” Each week for two hours the guests were a Protestant minister, Roman Catholic priest and rabbi (different ones each week), as well as representatives of virtually every other faith. One night, the topic was divorce – “What is your religion's view on divorce?” The Protestant minister spoke against divorce and noted that, “people get divorced too quickly.” The priest then said virtually the same thing, and the rabbi agreed. After each spoke, Dennis asked the minister if he knew anyone who had divorced. “Well,” he said, “my brother is getting a divorce right now.” “And do you feel that he is getting divorced too quickly?” Dennis asked. He then explained that his brother and sister-in-law had tried counseling for many years to no avail, and that their home was a deeply troubled one. Dennis then asked the priest if he knew anyone well who had divorced. He responded that his mother had divorced many years ago. “Do you feel that she divorced too quickly?” “Not at all,” he said, adding that the divorce liberated her from a toxic relationship. Dennis then asked the rabbi if he knew anyone well who had divorced. And, sure enough, his parents had divorced many years earlier, and he was convinced that it enabled him and his mother to become happier people because the home was so depressed. This scenario is typical. Whenever people say, “People get divorced too easily,” they mean “other people.”

Of course, many divorced people should have stayed together, just as there are couples who stay together who should get divorced. But social conservatives look foolish when they say that except for adultery and spousal beating (and many reluctantly agree to this because it is not “biblical”), no one should get divorced and that the divorce rate necessarily exemplifies a society in moral decline. It is simply not true. A truly bad marriage is like life imprisonment, and innocent people do not deserve such a punishment. Second, it only takes one person to divorce. Assuming that all divorced people sought their divorce is as untrue as it is unfair. Fifty percent of marriages may end in divorce, but only fifty percent of those wanted the divorce. Third, when there are no children involved, a divorce's cost to society is minimal. Furthermore, I believe it is far better for society to have people marry and divorce than never to marry. When people marry, they tend to mature, and society desperately needs grownups! Fourth, regarding children and divorce, the effects of divorce usually depend on what happens before, during, and after a couple divorces. By far, the worst consequence of divorce is the large number of fathers who voluntarily or involuntarily (because of selfish ex-wives) leave the lives of their children. When both parents stay thoroughly involved in their children's lives, sharing physical as well as legal custody, the adverse effects of divorce can be minimized, and depending on how bad things were prior to the divorce, a child's life can actually improve. Divorce doesn’t screw kids up; screwed up parents screw kids up!

Let me be clear. I believe that most marriages should never come apart; that every good marriage has periods of alienation and anger; that people must ride these tough waves and try to improve their marriage. But I would not lump divorce statistics with crime and out-of-wedlock births as a barometer of social pathology. There are simply too many exceptions to the rule that people get divorced too easily. Like the clergy on Dennis’ show, I feel that almost every divorced person I know (including myself) deserves sympathy more than contempt. Let's vigorously promote good marriages but have no more knee-jerk condemnations of divorce. It is these condemnations, more than divorces themselves, that are made too easily.

PS: I have purposefully left out textual arguments concerning divorce. This post makes a societal point, not a textual one. However, remember my golden rule for interpreting the Bible: Scripture is supposed to make you smarter and kinder. If your understanding of the text makes you stupid and less kind, you are wrong! That principle applies especially to texts like Matthew 19. Be kind and compassionate . . . and smart.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Can You Sin on a Deserted Island?

Some time ago ACU professor, Richard Beck posed the question, “Can you sin on a deserted island?” I became weirdly fascinated with this question. Much of my thought here is borrowed from the discussion on his blog.

Most people I’ve spoken to say yes. Examples I've heard are: You can kill yourself. You can harm the environment. You can lust. You can blaspheme God. But these examples are a little forced. I suppose you can run around cutting down trees and killing monkeys, or commit suicide, or fantasize about someone not on the island, or even scream things at God. But these things don't seem to be typical “sins,” and I can get quite a theological argument going about the ethical meaning of “sinning in your heart.” At what point do thoughts become sins, and what gradation of sin? Further, if you saw this behavior on the island, I doubt your first thought would be, “That is a sin.” You'd probably think that the person went crazy, and thus it weakens any categorization of “sin.”

But now, let's imagine that there are two people on the island. Can you sin with another person? Now we can imagine all kinds of sin: Lies, stealing, violence. The whole point of the question is to make this painfully obvious: Sin is a social event. I think one of the worst mistakes in theology is to consider sin to be only, or even primarily, a God/human issue. The island question is trying to point out that if it is just you and God, your sin repertoire is pretty anemic. But sin categories abound when we find ourselves in human community, when we see sin as a human/human issue. In other words, God's judgment against sin is judgment against human-to-human infractions.

I think this is what Jesus was getting at in the Sermon on the Mount. Before you offer your sacrifice to God, first be reconciled to your brother, then come offer your sacrifice to God. It's also the theme in 1st John - you can't say you love God when you hate your brother. Love your brother first and then you can say you love God with authenticity. If you wander through life thinking there's a rift between you and God, that focus leads to guilt, shame, and religious paranoia. But if we see sin as a human/human rift, then I can focus on reconciliation that I can actually do something about! Before you go to church, ask, “Is my brother offended by me?” Because if he is, what's the point of going to church?