What makes a marriage?

2.06.2004 | Andrew Cameron and Tracy Gordon | Briefing 012  



... marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life. ... Certain unions are not marriages: A union solemnised in a foreign country between: (a) a man and another man; or (b) a woman and another woman; must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia. [Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004, p.3 lines 6-8 & 15-19.]

[T]he common understanding in our society of a marriage is a union between a man and woman and it has over centuries acquired a special status in our society, primarily but not only of course for the having of children and the rearing of children. I'm not suggesting that everybody who gets married must have children. I'm not saying that at all. But it is seen as the bedrock institution. It's seen of a union of a man and a woman and that ought to be entrenched in law. [Prime Minister John Howard, 28th May 2004.]

We live in an age of redefinitions. Our government has recently moved to prevent the redefinition of marriage by introducing amendments, reproduced above, to the Marriage Act (1961). The purpose of this briefing is to examine arguments for and against the amendments.

Introduction of the bill has, of course, created a furore. In recent newspaper correspondence, the first line of attack has been ad hominem, where people ‘play the man, not the ball’. The Prime Minster is described as bigoted, self righteous, or even ‘loony’. The intention behind the amendments is branded homophobic, or cynically political (to distract the electorate from other matters, or to grab the conservative vote, or to please George Bush). None of these are arguments, whether or not any are true. They are merely forms of name-calling and swearing. They might indicate anger, which is important; but people should articulate the reasons for their anger, rather than merely venting it and accusing opponents of bad faith. (It is odd that newspapers allow such ad hominem attacks, but in Australia, to ‘unmask’ the supposedly hidden motives of others is considered fair game and an adequate substitute to proper debate.)

The main actual argument against the amendments is that at first sight, they seem to treat some people as second-class citizens. For Somali Cerise, co-convenor of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby in Australia, “marriage is not something that a lot of gay and lesbian people want, but the fact that we don't have the choice if we want it is the problem.” In other words, the most precious demonstration of love and commitment that two humans can make to one another, called ‘marriage’, glitters in the window of a shop that only some may enter.

Perhaps it has become hard to see marriage clearly. Many marriages end early; there is no longer an automatic connection between marriage and children; and relationships are seen as private. Hence marriage has become a private contract of love and qualified commitment between consenting adults, so to exclude same-sex couples seems arbitrary.

But viewed from the perspective of children, things begin to look different. Just because technology permits sex without children, it does not follow that the connection between children and marriage has been severed. By far the best environment for children is with their biological parents, who each love the other for life. (To hope and work for this goal is not to denigrate anyone who finds themselves childless, or divorced, or a lone parent, although it is to say that such people have experienced a tragic loss.) A society needs to support and promote marriages in deference to its children, since marriage is the proper venue for children. The stakes suddenly become higher when children are at risk, so this consideration alone justifies the defence of marriage. This case concerning children was recently argued by Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian, and is Howard's stated reason for the amendments (as seen in the quotation above).

There is also something about marriage that is harder to see. Howard refers to a consensus that has emerged “over the centuries” about marriage, a “common understanding” that gives it “special status in our society”. Where does this consensus come from? Not all are prepared to talk about the elephant in the room, which in this case, is the historic influence of ancient Jewish and Christian thought about marriage.

The turbulent ‘journey’ of marriage in the pages of the Bible is worth wrestling with. It begins with a man exulting over a woman, and with men leaving father and mother to become ‘one’ with their wife. But marriage then endures terrible trials. There is male violence and negligence. There is a long-running experiment with polygamy. Marriage is trivialised into serial monogamy. It is only as God himself re-enters human affairs, picturing his own relationship with his people as a monogamous husband faithfully loving his only ‘wife’, that a hard-won vision of marriage re-emerges: it is “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.” But there is no biblical attempt to hide that this definition of marriage is not always obvious.

At the same time though, marriage on this definition is also stitched into the fabric of our very selves. So Christian thought about marriage has had its influence because it unveils something about ourselves and our children. Although hard at times, it proves very liveable. The definition of marriage has also critiqued many other redefinitions of marriage, such as ‘open marriage,’ some forms of arranged marriage, the harem, mistresses, and any form of ‘temporary marriage’.

The author to the Hebrews wrote that “marriage should be honoured by all,” [Heb. 13:4] and Christians will continue to do so—even if they are single, divorced or unhappily married. We are the natural allies of the government's amendments, because we realise that people are blessed when they ‘honour’ marriage too. Are we therefore ‘imposing our values’ upon others? No; we don't like imposing. We simply think that societal good order flows from the special honour of marriage, since marriage arises from what humans beings are, sexually, socially and spiritually.

We should be quick to sideline two false views:

To be clear about what makes a marriage is to know the proper boundaries of ‘equality’. When we ‘honour’ something as worthy of special protection, we hold it up as being precious in a particular way. The government's amendments signal that as a society, we honour men and women who work on the special project of lifelong companionship, sexual fidelity and procreation.

In a democracy, though, redefinitions of marriage may continue indefinitely, and the government's amendments may be overturned. States may attempt to marry threesomes or foursomes, or various non-human entities. People might ‘marry’ themselves (as Nebraskan woman Janet Downes did in a mock ceremony on her fortieth birthday, in June 1998). If such redefinitions continue, then marriage will become another area where Christian communities will hold out hope to a lost world by living out something different, just as many of us currently do when we try to keep sex for marriage, or bring pregnancies to term, or express the supremacy of Christ in public.

But perhaps gays can help our society. Rather than using the logic of the shopping mall, where the offence is that something they want is off-limits, perhaps they too could salute marriage for what it is. Perhaps they could say to men and women, “We don't choose your kind of life, but we honour it. Thank you for welcoming new children among us, in a way that we cannot. Thank you for working to love each other and stay together, even though you are so different from each other. Thank you for living out this form of life. We treasure it with you and will help protect it for you.”

Further reading:

Albrechtsen, Janet “No hatred in keeping marriage laws sacred,” The Australian (national edn.) May 12th 2004 p. 25. (Available online through http://www.newstext.com.au by payment of a small fee.)

Albrechtsen, Janet “Why gay marriage is a bad idea,” The Australian (national edn.) August 13th 2003, p. 11. (Available online through http://www.newstext.com.au by payment of a small fee.) Somali Cerise was cited in this article.

Ash, Christopher, Marriage: Sex in the service of God. Leicester: IVP, 2003. Available at http://www.moore.edu.au then click on ‘Bookshop’.

Social Issues briefing #011, “The dreams and realities of marriage,” http://sie.org.au/briefings/the_dreams_and_realities_of_marriage/.

Social Issues briefing #007, “Maybe not God,” http://sie.org.au/briefings/maybe_not_god_on_divorce/.

Marriage Legislation Amendment Bill 2004, p.3 lines 6-8 & 15-19; online at http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au/piweb/Repository/Legis/Bills/Linked/27050411.pdf.

Neil Mitchell's interview with Prime Minister John Howard, 28th May 2004; transcript at http://www.pm.gov.au/news/Interviews/Interview891.html.


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