Marriage, Revenge, and Unmerited Favor: Engaging Faithfully With Matters of Our Day

I’d like to reflect on a couple of different articles and news events this week that I think present helpful challenges for the church as we seek to bear faithful witness to the gospel.

There have been several reports on proposed legislation in Kenya that would legalize some polygamous marriages. Christian reaction has been varied. Some believe that traditional Christian norms should be the “law of the land,” while other Christians have suggested that, in light of the different cultural and religious traditions within Kenyan society, giving citizens multiple legal options for marriage is appropriate. For example, the government can recognize a marriage as “Christian,” which would preclude the husband from taking another wife, while the government could also recognize a polygamous marriage, based on the wishes of those involved.

At least one Christian leader, who heads an Anglican seminary in Mombasa, has suggested that, while the Bible prohibits church leaders from having multiple wives (cf. 1 Timothy 3:2), it “does not explicitly condemn it in all contexts for everyone,” so that, as long as there is an option for “Christian marriage,” allowing polygamous marriage isn’t necessarily wrong.

I find it fascinating that the discussion of marriage laws in Kenya has surprising parallels with the current discussion among American Christians regarding the legal definition of marriage – specifically related to same-sex marriage. Most conservative Christians believe that it is important that the government recognize marriages only between heterosexual couples, and lament the deleterious effects of no-fault divorce. Interestingly enough, there are some states, like my state of Arizona, that has created a separate “class” of legally recognized marriages called “covenant” marriages. In order to have a marriage recognized as a covenant marriage, a couple must attend pre-marital counseling and is only allowed a legal divorce under a handful of conditions like adultery, abuse, or imprisonment.

This law was created in order to encourage more committed marriages, but, unwittingly, these states have created two “classes” of marriage, much like the law in Kenya. Some Christians, such as Ron Sider and Richard Mouw, favor some kind of legal recognition, and thus protection, for same-sex couples, but reject calling such unions “marriages.” Thus, in theory, if Arizona were to recognize some kind of “civil unions” for gay couples, there would be three “classes” of legally recognized partnerships – heterosexual marriage with the possibility of no-fault divorce, “covenant” marriage, and same-sex unions.

[caption id="attachment_1244" align="alignleft" width="300"]People in U.S.A. (This way & that way) photo by tanakawho on Flickr and licensed by People in U.S.A. (This way & that way)
photo by tanakawho on Flickr and licensed by[/caption]

Speaking of issues of marriage and divorce, it was reported this week that Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop whose election and consecration in 2003 caused a serious rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion, was divorcing his husband. It is tempting for conservative Anglicans to make snarky “I told you so”-type comments here, but we must resist this temptation with everything in us. First, these comments do nothing to advance the cause of the gospel, and, second, advocates of same-sex marriage can easily point to recent high-profile cases of infidelity and divorce among conservative Evangelicals as evidence that our convictions about marriage aren’t any better than theirs.

These are complicated times for Christians to think through these important issues – we need to prayerfully and deliberately engage with our society around the issue of marriage, understanding that principled nuances will be necessary as we seek both to reflect the radical grace of the gospel and God’s intention for human flourishing. It’s not going to be simple or easy, yet it is where we find ourselves, so, let us respond by first living out, and then advocating for, God’s good intentions for us.

Along the lines of reflecting the radical grace of the gospel and God’s intention for human flourishing, there were two articles in the New York Times Sunday Review this week that explicitly raised theological questions related to grace, justice, and forgiveness. First, in an article titled “Revenge, My Lovely,” the author, Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo, writes that humans predictably crave revenge in the face of injustice, and that modern legal systems have, essentially, “institutionalized revenge,” which, in theory, satisfies the perceived need for avenging wrongdoing while also maintaining societal stability.

He suggests, however, that oftentimes modern legal systems must take into account the general public’s desire for revenge against wrongdoers. He cities the example of post-WWII Norway, which faced a decision of how (or whether) to punish those who collaborated – either actively or passively – with the Germans while they occupied the country. Nesbo observes that the punishments for collaborators became much less severe after the high profile execution of Vidkun Quisling, illustrating that once the public’s desire for revenge was satisfied, the need for the legal system to punish severely was considerably lessened.

It is here that the article takes an explicitly theological turn, observing that both the humanism that has influenced the modern legal system and the medieval crusades begun to avenge the seizure of the Holy Land have Christian roots, and Nesbo points out that the Apostles Creed speaks both of forgiveness and judgment.

How might Christians respond to this seeming contradiction? I thought of a section of Miroslav Volf’s profound book Exclusion and Embrace, in which he writes about forgiveness and justice:

“Hidden in the dark chambers of our hearts and nourished by the system of darkness, hate grows and seeks to infest everything with its hellish will to exclusion. In the light of the justice and love of God, however, hate recedes and the seed is planted for the miracle of forgiveness. Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God’s love for him. And when one knows that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of God’s justice and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.”

As we seek to live, then, “in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah,” we can show the world that its often just craving for revenge is ultimately satisfied on the cross, where we are both convicted of sin and assured of ultimate justice and forgiveness. The gospel is radical grace and forgiveness, and, as we experience that grace and forgiveness, we can live in such a way that invites others into the presence of our God, knowing that ultimate justice and forgiveness are demonstrated in, through, and by the crucified Messiah.

Finally, in an article titled “Do Kids Get Off Too Easy?”, Alfie Kohn seeks to demonstrate that the current insistence among many parents that, in order for children to thrive, they must experience failure, disappointment, and even suffering (the phenomenon that they are reacting against is often represented by the trophy that a child often receives simply for participating in a given sport) isn’t actually beneficial. In fact, Kohn argues, emphasizing depravation (i.e., suffering is good for you), scarcity (i.e., only a handful of kids can get A’s), and, especially, conditionality (i.e., you don’t get something unless you merit it), does damage to children, observing that, “One of the most destructive ways to raise a child is with ‘conditional regard.’”

It is here that he explicitly raises a theological issue. He writes that this sense of conditionality is where “economics and theology intersect,” “where lectures about the law of the marketplace meet sermons about what we must do to earn our way into heaven.” As a pastor and as a parent this line gave me pause. Do I preach this message of needing to earn one’s way into heaven, verbally or non-verbally, to my congregation? Do I model conditional acceptance to my children? The heart of the gospel is God’s radical acceptance of humans through Jesus, God’s crucified Messiah. Any hint of earning God’s favor or acceptance is anathema to the heart of Christianity, yet, at least in the eyes of some, sermons are often about earning one’s way into heaven.

I find it difficult to navigate this fine line between modeling God’s unmerited grace and acceptance and also articulating the boundaries within which a good life is lived. I don’t want to communicate that God’s love and acceptance are earned – that would lead to self-righteousness for some and despair for others – but neither do I want to communicate that, since God accepts you unconditionally, everything is OK. This would be, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “cheap grace.” The same goes for my children. I don’t in any way want to communicate that my love and acceptance of them must be earned, yet I would be shirking my duty as a father if I didn’t set proper boundaries for them, knowing that it is only within certain boundaries that they can flourish.

Biblically, Paul wrote to the Romans that, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Thus, God’s love and favor are unearned and undeserved. However, in the Letter to the Hebrews, quoting the book of Proverbs, we read, “the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts” (Hebrews 12:6). The tension is real, and one that, again, takes intentional focus to navigate well. We must engage the tension, because, to the extent that we’re content with teaching and living either a moralistic standard of conditionality or a lax, “anything goes” ethic masquerading as grace, we do harm to those under our care, which, in turn, harms the witness of the church to the transforming grace found in the gospel.

Both of the articles mentioned above demonstrate the fundamental human longings for justice, forgiveness, and grace, just as the public discussions about marriage are, ultimately, about the common good and human flourishing. The church has resources to contribute to these discussions and to answer these longings, but, again, we must be willing to engage thoughtfully, prayerfully, and openly with those with whom we disagree, diving deeply into the riches of Scripture, in which we find justice, forgiveness, and grace in abundance, an abundance from which we can’t help but share.