It is very fashionable, on both the left and the right, to talk about people who blithely get married with the idea that they can “just get divorced if it doesn’t work out.”
Maybe you know someone this callous and foolish, but---like the fabled woman who goes out shopping/partying after having an abortion---I’ve never met one.
People may end their marriages for reasons that you (or even I) find insufficiently grave, but I don’t think most people start their marriages thinking the relationship will end. I believe that, in many ways, getting married is the ultimate demonstration of faith---the hope, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that true love exists and can be claimed in this life.
That was certainly my take on marriage. Both times I made my vows, I did it with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
Both times, that wasn’t enough.
I started this post because two priests I really admire, Father Jake and Mother Elizabeth, recently said this in the comments section of Father Jake's blog: “I don’t believe in divorce.” (I wish I had copied links to their comments, but I didn't. Mea culpa.)
Their statements got me thinking… What does it mean to say you “don’t believe in divorce”?
And what are the spiritual and social implications if you say you do?
I also decided to write this post because I’m tired of being the whipping girl for my friends on the left in the Current Unpleasantness over the full inclusion of GLBTs in the life of the church.
You see, I’ve noticed that the first thing progressives like to do when conservatives yammer about homosexuality being contrary to scripture is pull out The Divorce Card.
You know... “Well Jesus said divorce was wrong, but you never talk about that because so many fundangelicals are divorced...you big bunch of hypocrites!”
I understand this impulse---truly I do. Especially from those who actually are GLBT, and are unable to get married to begin with. It must seem like the greatest hypocrisy of all for the bibliolators to sanction divorce (even while deploring it rhetorically), while doing everything, up to and including destroying the church, to deny GLBTs their place in it.
I understand the desire to play tit-for-tat. I am a former fundagelical myself, and I am much better versed in the Bible than your average bear. There is plenty of scripture we can use to bash one another over the head, and the temptation to engage in proof-texting is well-nigh irresistible, given the hateful rhetoric that is bandied about in Christ’s name.
But there is something hurtful about being hit over the head, repeatedly, with my relationship failures by those who proclaim themselves to be loving and inclusive.
Recently, a regular contributor at Father Jake’s---a gay man whose writing and gentle heart I truly admire---made the comment that those who divorce betray Christ. It was like a completely unexpected slap in the face from someone you’ve always considered a friend.
I got divorced the first time because both my emotional health and my physical health (think 1991 and the threat of AIDS…) were in danger. I got divorced the second time because I came (this close) to killing myself out of despair.
Did I betray Christ by saving my life? And, if I did, what does that say about Christ?
By now, I can see you shaking your head and saying “Somebody’s got ISSUES!”, and that is undoubtedly correct.
To be clear, however, I’m not asking for absolution or a Get Out of Marriage Free card. My priest offered me the former, without my asking---and, as those of you who have done it or witnessed it know, there ain’t no such thing as getting out of a marriage “free.”
I did not enter marriage lightly---and both times, I have left it, battered and bruised in heart and spirit, if not in body.
I am asking those who make blanket statements about divorce to think long and hard about what they mean---and what wounds they may be opening, or salting, by their words.
And I am asking myself to think seriously about what divorce means from a spiritual perspective.
Although, as I have noted, I have a pretty strong biblical background, I decided it might be helpful to go back to the scriptures and see what Jesus really said about divorce.
I got a big surprise.
I actually thought I had a biblical “out” for my first divorce, since my gay ex was repeatedly unfaithful to me. Most people instantly give me a “pass” on my first marriage when they find out why it ended.
But upon re-reading the Gospel texts, I noted something interesting. Jesus gives an “out” to MEN...not to women. Almost all of his injunctions about divorce are aimed at men.
31. 'It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'
32. But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
And this one:
Matthew 19: 3-9
3. Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?"
4. He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,'
5. and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?
6. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
7. They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?"
8. He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
9. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery."
But here's the kicker:
Mark 10:2-12So a man has the “right” to divorce if his wife is unfaithful---but there is no similar right for women. Apparently any woman who divorces her husband and remarries commits adultery. Period.
2. Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"
3. He answered them, "What did Moses command you?"
4. They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her."
5. But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.
6. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'
7. 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,
8. and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
9. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
10. Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.
11. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;
12. and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (italics are mine)
So much for "in Christ there is neither male nor female..."!
You can reinterpret those passages all you like---can tell me that Jesus really meant this to improve the lot of women who were at the mercy of their husbands' whims, or that this passage was added later and Jesus probably didn’t say it.
But on the scriptural evidence that I've got, not even Jesus is on my side.
So who, exactly, “believes in divorce”?
Well, having done it twice now, I guess I do. Both times, in some sense, my life depended on it.
Which leads me to some questions I want to ask. Before I ask my questions, however, I feel compelled to state one important thing: I firmly believe in commitment and fidelity.
If I didn’t, I would never have gotten married in the first place.
I know full well that every relationship has its doldrums and hard times, and that working through those difficult periods can bring personal growth and restore happiness to a relationship that seemed moribund. I don't advocate running at the first, or second, or even tenth sign of trouble.
But I also know from experience that there are commitments that can kill you---either physically or emotionally---if you honor them. And I will state categorically (again by virtue of experience), only the individuals involved are in a position to evaluate whether that point has been reached.
So my questions to you are these:
- Why is it a “godly” thing to stay in a relationship in which you are miserable? Do you get extra points in heaven for being wretched and staying anyway?
- What do you do when you are in a relationship where one person sees the other as the only source of marital problems, and isn’t willing to take any responsibility for improving things? Why does God expect you to stay in a relationship where you take all the blame, but can’t “fix” the problem?
I didn’t “believe in divorce.”
I got divorced, anyway. Twice.
The funny thing is that I still believe in love. Still believe in commitment and fidelity. Still long for the feeling of connection that---at its best---only the regular, intimate contact of “marriage” (however you define that relationship) can bring.
My idealism is demonstrated by the fact that I am in a new relationship.
We have both failed at marriage, and we are wary of any attempts by others to force our relationship to fit some predetermined mold. We have agreed to be faithful to one another---and we are content to enjoy each day, because we know that there are no guarantees of happy endings.
There is love and joy, despite our bad experiences. Because we believe in miracles and mercy and grace. How could we not, seeing that we are both people of faith?
What would Jesus say to us, I wonder?
Would he tell us that we have forfeited our right to love and happiness because we could not make our marriages work?
Would he call the happiness and delight I feel in life these days a sinful mirage, because I have found it outside marriage?
I do not want to answer those questions glibly, because I feel, in my heart of hearts, that much of the relationship between God and humanity rests on a willingness to take relationships and covenants seriously.
But, somehow I doubt that Jesus would tell me that I've had my shot at love and don't get another. Somehow, I think the last thing in the world Jesus was out to do was to consign people to lovelessness.
If you have never heard Eva Cassidy’s rendition of Sting’s “Fields of Gold,” please go and listen. The first time I heard it, I wept. It sums up so poignantly for me the story of my failures, and my hopes for the future:
I never made promises lightly,
And there have been some that I've broken--
But I swear, in the days still left,
We'll walk in fields of gold.
Happy Valentine's Day. May you and the beloved ones in your lives walk in fields of gold.
UPDATE: Alcibiades, over at Caliban's Dream, has written an amazing and heart-wrenching follow-on to this post. Please don't miss it.