Stanley Hauerwas writes in an essay called “Resisting Capitalism: On Marriage and Homosexuality” that the people of the United Methodist Church don’t have any idea how to talk or think about homosexuality.
They do not know how to think about homosexuality because they do not know how to think about marriage and divorce. The churches have generally underwritten romantic accounts of marriage — that is, you fall in love and get married so that sex is an expression of your love. Such accounts not only destroy any understanding of marriage as lifelong monogamous fidelity but also make unintelligible the prohibition against same-sex relations. After all, the latter are often exemplifications of a loving relation.
Hauerwas’ overarching point in the essay is that we as a church have capitulated to the idea of marriage as an easily voidable contractual relationship that is only valid so long as those in the contract deem it in their interests to remain so. Such an understanding leaves out questions about the purpose of marriage as an institution ordained by God, and reduces it only to an expression of our choices. Hauerwas writes that when that is the meaning of marriage, our conversations about homosexuality and same-sex relations make no sense. He argues that we first have to recover the concept of marriage from liberal capitalism before we can hope to talk coherently about any of the related questions — promiscuity, fornication, adultery, polygamy, divorce, homosexuality.
Hauerwas offers us a list of provocative questions, particularly for those who support the United Methodist teaching on sexuality:
Do they think that a marriage is no longer a marriage simply because the people in the marriage no longer love one another? Do they think people who have been divorced can remarry after they have found someone else to love? How should people be examined to discern whether they are capable of making the promises we still ask people to make when the church witnesses their marriage? Should people who have been divorced bear a greater burden of proof if they wish to be remarried?
These are tough questions, but I find persuasive Hauerwas’s insistence that our answers to these questions should inform our answers to other questions. For Hauerwas our discussions about what some call “the clobber verses” of Scripture should be done in the light of the scriptural witness regarding singleness and marriage, letting our discernment about those matters shape our reading of other parts of Scripture. Of course, as Hauerwas notes in his essay, when he offered his arguments as part of a General Conference appointed task force he was ignored by both sides of our ongoing debate.
For what it is worth, though, I find his proposal more appealing than slinging slogans and scripture at each other, and I do think theological questions about sex and sexuality are best understood as secondary to our theological understanding of what marriage is and why people do or do not enter into it. Put into question form, we need an answer to the question “Why should people get married?” before we can have a coherent answer to the question “Why is sex outside of marriage bad?”
I don’t think either question ignores Scripture. Rather, I think they force us to read Scripture and wrestle with its witness to us.