October 01, 2009

Visceral Responses

by Brian Volck
Genesis 2: 18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11 (Catholic); Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 (Revised Common); Mark 10:2-16

Texts like these that make me grateful I’m a pediatrician and not a preacher. Given the diversity of understandings and practices among Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox regarding marriage and remarriage after divorce, and the contemporary fault lines around which these and other marriage-related battles are fought, it’s dangerous to speak before anything but a homogenous congregation. As it happens, the Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries both select from the Letter to the Hebrews for the second reading this Sunday, but the verses barely overlap, so the safe road is out, too.

So, let me make one brief observation and go. The image used for marriage in Genesis and Mark is literally visceral: “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” This language is reserved for the most intimate and important relationships in the Bible: David to the tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-3), Christ to humanity (John 1:14), and Christ to those gathered as the Church (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 4:11-16, and Colossians 3:14-15). This is not the language of a contractual relationship between rights-bearing individuals that the nation-state regulates as part of its interest in property and – rather farther down its list of concerns – child welfare.

In other words, the Church embodies marriage quite differently than the nation-state. One might even say that the nation-state doesn’t embody marriage at all, but sequesters it to the realm of contracts and property. In any case, I humbly suggest that future conversations among Christians about marriage and divorce take into account these stark differences in language and embodiment and decide which vision takes precedence. For instance, does it make sense for priests and ministers to serve as state functionaries at weddings, signing state documents, licenses and so forth? What is the theological basis for this?

I have no doubt well intentioned, faithful Christians may reach very different conclusions about quite a few things from this starting place, but at least they’ll know whence they’ve come. As Wendell Berry puts it, we inhabit “The Country of Marriage,” where, “Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange/of my love and work for yours, so much for so much/of an expendable fund.” Here again is Wendell Berry, to whom I’ll grant one last word:

Marriages to marriages
are joined, husband and wife
are plighted to all
husbands and wives,
any life has all lives
for its delight.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks Brian,

While I'm trying out Hebrews for protestors Sunday morning, I am reminded of a former pastor who was run out of the profession for falling in love with and marrying someone who had been divorced. (Is it just me or do many ex-pastors go into insurance sales?) This was after years of sermons of condemning the practice. Ironically, one of his chief accusers later left his wife and children to pursue another relationship. "He who is without sin..."

Is all of this pointing toward the idolatry of "using" Jesus and the Church as a "help" for families instead of the other way around? I have several couples whose lives together give a faithful witness to Christ and his bride. I have others who witness in other ways. Those who come because they think it is good for their families I hope are being dissapointed.