Saturday, March 30, 2013

Marriage Matters: Sorting out the Debate

"And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?  And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things." (2 Ne. 11:16-17)

In my earnest and continual quest for all that is virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy, I have been wrestling with questions surrounding the debate over marriage.  To be clear, the definition of marriage is not really up for debate.  Some things are true whether we believe them or not.  But after engaging in conversations and listening carefully to the arguments that are being set forth, I feel impelled to articulate a response to a few of the questions that inform this debate.  I would also like to record a few examples of how the debate is playing out in the public square.  I offer these thoughts in the spirit of hope to build up, rather than tear down, and with a desire to follow the example of Jesus Christ, whose every word and deed was motivated by pure love.  

First and foremost, there appears to be a lot of confusion over the answer to what should be a very simple question, and that is, "What is love?"  The answer to this question, however, must first be informed by the answer to a more basic question that necessarily precedes it, namely, "What is truth?"  In a recent speech, Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf stated:

"We seek for truth wherever we may find it. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “Mormonism is truth. … The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or … being … prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men.”20   He later added:

"If you follow the Spirit, your personal search for the truth inevitably leads you to the Lord and Savior, even Jesus Christ, for He is “the way, the truth, and the life.”31 This may not be the most convenient way; it will probably also be the road less traveled, and it will be the path with mountains to climb, swift rivers to cross, but it will be His way—the Savior’s redeeming way."

On Good Friday, my search for truth led me to an article that was recently composed by one of the nation's most outspoken and articulate defenders of marriage, Robert P. George (see also What is Marriage: Man and Woman, a Defense).  In this article, professor George presents his answer to the questions, "Who is Christ?" and "Who killed Christ?".  His answer to the first of these two questions echoes the response given anciently by Peter: 

“Who do men say that I am?” They answered: “Some say John the Baptist; some Elijah; some the Prophet.” Jesus then said: “And who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Cf. Matt. 16:13–16.)

In response to his latter question, Professor George quotes St. Francis of Assisi: “It is you who have crucified him and crucify him still when you delight in your vices and sins,” thus emphasizing that each of us, as a sinner, is accountable to God for who we are, how we feel, what we think and say and do.  

In reality, no one could actually kill Jesus.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but the Lord also said: "Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father." (John 10:17-18)  In other words, the Lord willingly laid down his life in order that all might have the chance to repent, even his accusers and those who crucified him.

Professor George's commentary certainly gives cause for reflection and introspection, but what does any of this have to do with the marriage debate?  Simply put, any real conversation about the definition of marriage hinges upon the answers to the more basic questions "What is love?" and "What is truth?" (see also "Truth and Tolerance")  As Elder Uchtdorf indicated, our search for truth inevitably leads us to Jesus Christ, and as Professor George pointed out, there is no greater expression of love than that which was manifested by the Savior Himself in laying down his own life for the sins of the world.

But not everyone shares these convictions or these definitions, and our understanding of both truth and love, however precise and however deep, is also incomplete.  We see, as the Apostle Paul taught, "through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor. 13:13).  How, then, is one to respond to the various arguments over the definition of marriage?  

In the first place, the stance of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been clear on these matters.  In response to a petition by the Human Rights Campaign in October of 2010, church spokesman Michael Otterson stated unequivocally that:

"We join our voice with others in unreserved condemnation of acts of cruelty or attempts to belittle or mock any group or individual that is different – whether those differences arise from race, religion, mental challenges, social status, sexual orientation or for any other reason.  Such actions simply have no place in our society."

Otterson went on to explain that:

"As a church, our doctrinal position is clear: any sexual activity outside of marriage is wrong, and we define marriage as between a man and a woman. However, that should never, ever be used as justification for unkindness. Jesus Christ, whom we follow, was clear in His condemnation of sexual immorality, but never cruel.  His interest was always to lift the individual, never to tear down."

This statement brings immediately to mind a principle that the Prophet Joseph Smith exemplified so well in his life: 

"Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind." (History of the Church, 5:23-24)

The public relations branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints later reaffirmed it's firm position on marriage following the Supreme Court hearing on March 26 of this year.  I am not a spokesman for the Church, nor should my personal views be construed as representing the doctrine of the Church, but I do stand firmly behind these statements.

While my eternal purpose is inseparable from my faith in Christ and my identity as a spirit son of God, and while I ardently yearn to be united in marriage with a member of the opposite sex, I have empathy for those who struggle with feelings of same-gender attraction.  I do not claim to understand those feelings completely, but having associated with friends and family members who do experience those feelings, and having passed through trials of my own, I understand that it is not easy.  That someone would struggle with such feelings in no way diminishes my love or respect for him or her, but more importantly, nothing can diminish the love that God has for each individual (see Romans 8:38-39).   

As I was studying various articles, blog posts and internet conversations, I was struck by the fervor and plaintive disposition of one young man in particular who felt criticized, demeaned, and ostracized by his friends because of his decision to reveal his personal struggle with homosexuality.  I saw pain in his eyes, and my heart was pained, and I felt in that moment, how much Heavenly Father loves that young man and desires his eternal happiness.  I felt that perhaps the courage he had mustered to confess his feelings was met with what he perceived to be scorn, and that drove him further away.  I felt as if God were whispering to that young man so that I could hear, "I love you. I love you infinitely.  I will not ridicule you or ostracize you. I love you. Come unto me."  I then thought of others whom I have met who have expressed similar concerns, and it was clear to me in that moment that God has infinite and eternal love for all of His children, and a peculiarly bounteous love and concern for those of his children who are suffering in any way.  While initially my heart was beginning to sicken because of the decadence and permissiveness of a degenerate and sinful society, my heart then groaned within me further because of my own sins and because of the suffering of those who feel ostracized or persecuted.  

In relation to this last point, Elder Holland has written what is, in my opinion, one of the best pieces, at least of those that I have read, on helping those who struggle with same-gender attraction.  There are also many people of good will who are doing their utmost to reach out and bless those who struggle with same-gender attraction (see, for example, Voices of Hope)

Unsurprisingly however, there are also those who become militant in their views, denouncing those who disagree with them, piling on thoughtless ad hominem attacks, and labeling others with any number of creative epithets.  Unfortunately, this sort of bullying has gained increasing traction, especially in the media, and ironically with those who claim to be preeminently tolerant.  One example is Piers Morgan's puerile attempt to debate Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation on CNN.  The bullying and mob mentality of Morgan, his guest Suze Orman, and the audience was as asinine as it was ineffective.

Of course, there are a multiplicity of voices on all sides of the marriage question.  For example, Doug Mainwaring, an openly gay man, expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage based on what he termed to be reason and experience, rather than on religion and tradition (see also here).  On the other end of the spectrum, there are numerous voices claiming that those who oppose same-sex marriage are simply misinformed, don't understand science, or are somehow on the wrong side of history (for a response to such thinking, see "Beware the Science of Same-Sex Marriage" and The Weekly Standard Podcast with Andrew Ferguson). 

It is not uncommon to hear people ask questions such as "How does ending discrimination cause Christians to suffer?" or "If interracial marriage used to be considered a sin, why isn't it possible that churches will eventually accept same-sex marriage as legitimate?" or "What were the real sins of Sodom and Gomorrah? Were they not pride, injustice and failure to care for the poor and needy among them?"  Other prevalent questions include: "Why do religions try to impose their beliefs on others?" or "Aren't religious people just superstitious and overly passionate about their views?" or "Aren't there people who get married just for love and not for having kids?"  Yet another question that is particularly popular among the youth is: "How does a gay or lesbian couple getting married infringe upon your rights or hurt you in any way?"  And the list goes on.    

Accurate and well-thought out responses to these kinds of questions are often rejected by those who perceive people of faith and defenders of traditional marriage to be "uneducated" or "fear-mongerers" or wielding an improper "tone".  There will most likely be a similar reaction to the new Pope Francis' frank and forthright statement:

“Let us not be naive: This is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan... It is not just a bill (a mere instrument) but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”