Macklemore sang “Same Love” and 33 couples, some of them same-sex couples, were married on stage at the Grammys. It’s the latest in a chain of flashing neon signs that the cultural debate on this issue is over even though the religious debate will go on for a while. My own tradition, the Presbyterian Church (USA), will debate this subject this summer at our General Assembly, for example. While we Christians are pedantically debating whether same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, others have a bigger goal in mind.
On Monday evening Amanda Palmer tweeted this:
while i 100% support gay marriage (equality = good) i 1000% a revolution dismantling of the outdated/useless system of marriage in general.
— Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) January 28, 2014
I replied in agreement which resulted in this:
word RT @aricclark I’m a very happily married pastor and I support dismantling legal/institutional marriage.
— Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) January 28, 2014
And then my twitter feed blew up. Most of the responses were positive, but I got a few that impugned my motives and character, told me to “shut up”, or threw shade on the validity of my ordination or marriage vows or both. People easily blocked and forgotten, but since there may be others curious about this subject and why I would say what I did to Ms. Palmer I thought I’d offer some rationale.
Firstly, I don’t know all of Amanda Palmer’s reasons for wanting to dismantle marriage. One of the reasons I like her is that when she starts conversations like this she invariably retweets and replies to a wide variety of people many of whom disagree with her. She likes a good-natured fracas and celebrates the kaleidoscope of human-expression, which I suspect is a key reason she dislikes the institution of marriage. I don’t presume Amanda and I agree on all the stuff I’m about to say.
Reason #1 institutional marriage should be, um, reimagined: patriarchy. The wedding industry sells you things you don’t need with the idea that marriage is about romance, but at its root marriage is a property arrangement designed to secure paternal bloodlines for men. Hopefully it is obvious to everyone nowadays that women aren’t property. Their fathers can’t sell or give them to anyone. There’s no compelling moral argument for men to have legally-enforced monogamy to secure paternity and in the advent of DNA tests monogamy isn’t even necessary to establish a paternal relationship. Basically, the institution of marriage was built on rotten foundations.
Reason #2 marriage needs deconstructed: the wedding industry. I am having a hard time thinking of an industry that spins a worse mythology of superficial self-fulfillment and excess and I just spent a long time watching videos of the Grammys. Women and men, but especially women, are told that their happiness is bound up in this single fairy-tale romantic occasion, which not only fails to deliver as every product which promises happily-ever-after fails, but actively undermines the courage it takes to commit to enduring intimacy.
Reason #3 marriage should probably die: the beautiful diversity of human relationship. I’m in a curve-wreckingly wonderful marriage. Life-long monogamy is working for me and I’m happy to extol its benefit. I believe there is an intimacy to be gained through that kind of commitment akin to a musician who puts the dedication in to become a virtuoso of a particular instrument. But people are not all alike, thank God, and not everyone thrives in that kind of relationship. Many people only enter marriages because their family, friends, and culture didn’t provide them other good options. It’s time we recognized that love and affection can flourish in a variety of arrangements and stop trying to force everyone into the same mold. For people like me who want life-long commitment, said commitment can only mean more when it is freely chosen from an array of options rather than accepted as the default setting.
Reason #4 marriage should be lovingly pushed out a window: bad relationships need to end. We’ve come a long way by getting women into the workforce and allowing no-fault divorce, but too many people still find themselves stuck in abusive relationships. An important step to fostering healthy relationships is making it possible for people to escape toxic ones.
Reason #5 that this pastor doesn’t like LEGAL marriage: church and state need to finalize their divorce. There is no reason that citizens of our country should want religious leaders like me serving as agents of the state to solemnize legal contracts. There is every reason that I, as a Christian, want the state out of church business as we discern how to live our faith. It is a rich irony that conservative Christians are now so invested in this fight over how the state defines marriage since when the state first began issuing marriage licenses the Church vehemently opposed it as an infringement of religious liberty. Let the state establish simple and versatile contracts for people to enter into for the purposes of property sharing, visas, citizenship, hospital visits and sundry other rights. Let religious people separately determine what ceremonies and arrangements they will bless. Let these different things, legal contracts and religious ceremonies, never be confused for each other in the future.
In conclusion, there are a lot of good ways to have loving relationships. Marriage can be one of them. I am married. (So is Amanda Palmer). But marriage as an institution, especially as the monopolistic institution demanding total hegemony over all family structures in our culture, is broken. There are people out there imagining things much wilder and more creative than marriage equality for same-sex couples – which is still a worthy goal for those who desire it.