By lex, on February 13th, 2004
I was listening to NPR yesterday, on the way home. There was a eulogy on for Eric Severeid, the retired CBS commentator. He spoke in his last editorial about the need to maintain the courage of one’s uncertainty, when faced with so much implacable and deadly conviction, or words to that effect. That struck a nerve with me – yes, that’s about right, I thought.
‘The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”
– W.B. Yeats, from “The Second Coming “
There are so many things in motion now in our culture now; I guess there always have been. And on so many of them, I am not quite sure where I stand – I occupy the restless middle, while zealots on either side look for heretics to burn and hang metaphoric burning tires around the necks of their adversaries. So little room is left inside the public sphere for people of good intent to disagree, in civility and mutual respect.
There is a movement afoot in support of gay marriage, with the Massachusetts Supreme Court equating such marriage with a fundamental human right, that cannot in a free society, be denied to all of its citizens. This argument has the element of reason to me, an element of fairness. And who among us is harmed if some three percent of our polity decides to wed a consenting someone of the same sex? For those who take such umbrage at this idea, I wonder if they even know any mainstream gay people. Not the ones that try to rub their sexuality in the face of middle America, those people are acting out, and these types of actions are not limited to the gay and lesbian community, witness the equally offensive 56 hour marriage of pop icon and teen idol Britney Spears. I’m talking about those quiet folks who have houses, careers, lives and loves they share in common, who happen to be of the same gender. They are asking the state to recognize the reality that exists, the world as it is.
I cannot believe that people choose to be gay, in the face of all the social opprobrium that would attend to such a choice, but that they are somehow acting in the way that their God or nature made them. If they are as committed to each other as “normal” people, who are we to stand in the way of them formalizing this commitment?
Homosexual acts are as revolting to me personally, as I am sure heterosexual acts are to gays, but no one is asking me to marry inside my gender – besides, the Hobbit would kick my butt. Perhaps that’s a bad choice of words…
Anyway, I’m aware that for some religious folk there are scriptural reasons why homosexuality is considered taboo, but so is shellfish and pork in the Old Testament, and Christians have found a way around those earlier objections. I find nothing in any of Jesus’ words that speaks to the issue one way or the other, beyond a general theme of inclusiveness in God’s salvation, freely offered to all.
Paul wrote the some of the most beautiful words in the bible, in my view, when he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“13:1If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. 13:2And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 13:3And if I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profiteth me nothing. 13:4Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 13:5doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not its own, is not provoked, taketh not account of evil; 13:6rejoiceth not in unrighteousness, but rejoiceth with the truth; 13:7beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. 13:8Love never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall be done away; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall be done away. 13:9For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; 13:10but when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part shall be done away. 13:11When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child: now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things. 13:12For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know fully even as also I was fully known. 13:13But now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”
But a little later he wrote:
“As in all the churches of the saints, 14:34let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also saith the law. 14:35And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.”
Which is a little hard to reconcile, these days. We have moved on, since then. And my own church rests on a three-legged stool of scripture, reason and tradition, believing that one of God’s principal gifts to us is the ability to use our minds to wrestle with these issues, and try to divine the intent of the Divine.
But I do not think these people are agitating for the right to the sacrament of marriage in the church that opposed that intent. Such an agitation would be an obvious breach of the 1st Amendment’s wall of separation between church and state. Importantly, that would breach the framers’ actual intent of the 1st Amendment, i.e., against the state meddling with the church, and not as the weapon it has come to be used, for driving faith out of the public sphere:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
On the other hand (and you had to know this was coming), I cannot foresee the consequences of so enormous a shift in one of the fundamental underpinnings of our society, and that concerns me. I believe in the law of unintended consequences. I know that some people are rightly concerned that having opened the door to state sanction of unconventional marriage, there is a slippery slope argument that goes to bigamy and polyamory, if not worse.
And, having recognized homosexual marriages, we in the military will shortly be stuck with dealing with the social consequences in our ships, and tents and office places and on-base housing, and that won’t be fun or easy, and I can promise you that we have far, far better things to spend our time and efforts on.
And from a pragmatic perspective, the only reason (it seems to me) that the state is even interested in marriage, and to the rights and privileges that appertain to that condition, is that it encourages the ideal, two-parent environment for raising the next generation that contributes to the state’s continued existence. If gays can’t have children, then why should the state encourage or recognize their commitment to each other? What business is it of ours?
Oh, I know – lots of heterosexuals get married who either don’t want children, or are unable, or are beyond their childbearing years. As a practical matter, we don’t want the state meddling too closely in that aspect of our lives, or making those sorts of distinctions for us, in social or fiscal policy.
So the debate goes back and forth in my head, with my conservative brain saying, “Don’t rush in, think about the extended consequences, stick with what you know works” while the libertarian side says, “Who cares? Everyone must find beauty where they can, and the more love there is in the world, surely the better off we all shall be.”
I guess I wish that we could settle on some sort of compromise, “civil unions” perhaps, with all the necessary rights and privileges, and stop talking about it. But once again the opponents on either side would be left without a foe to demonize, so compromise must be ruled out. And in the meantime, I can’t figure it out, so I’ve committed to retaining the courage of my uncertainties.
A similar conundrum revolves around the issue of human cloning. It’s only for stem cell research we are told, there is potential to ameliorate the lives of so many people, while everyone (well, nearly everyone) agrees that cloning for human reproduction is morally repugnant.
But I’ve got real problems with creating human life only to destroy it, to in fact craft a law that states that such life must be destroyed, for someone else’s benefit. Oh sure, a clone cell cluster doesn’t look like you or me, but we don’t resemble what we looked like 20 years ago either, or in our mother’s wombs, just prior to delivery. Or in the month prior to that…
But on the other hand, I don’t have liver disease (just yet) and don’t have to tell the patient that does that no replacement organs are on offer, or that the ones available aren’t suitable because of the likelihood of rejection. Or the burn victim that he or she must always be traumatized, that nothing can be done, when in fact it could be.
This one’s a little easier for me, I’m deeply skeptical – but I’m trying to keep an open mind.
Some things I am relatively apathetic about:
Did President Bush make all his guard drills, 30 years ago? Don’t care. It was a long time ago.
Did Senator Kerry dip his quill in the wrong inkwell? Doesn’t matter all that much to me. It’s between him and his millionaire heiress wife, with her lawyers and pre-nuptials.
But some things matter to me deeply:
I’d love to hear a civil debate about the competing visions of domestic policy that each political party has. And then, if it’s not too much to ask, I’d like to know how much it’s actually going to cost, and where that money is going to come from.
I am concerned that scorched-earth domestic political campaigning drives a wedge between the people and the government of, by and for that people, just when we’re embarked in a long, costly, drawn out war against a patient, fascist enemy. It makes us question who we are, and who the person next to us is. It makes us wonder if he’s “one of them, or one of us.”
I am concerned that the politics of personal destruction offers aid and comfort to our enemies, and may actually embolden them.
I am concerned that the political philosophy of “win at any cost,” may cost us all a great deal more than we have reckoned on.
I think that if you have a bumper sticker on your car that says, “Anyone but (fill in the guy’s name you don’t like),” then you are a part of the problem in our civil discourse.
I think it’s time for us to realize that we’re all in this together, and that no matter who wins in November, we’ve still got a long, hard fight ahead of us.
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