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.