Anti-Marriage?

A friend asked me recently why I “liked” a page on Facebook called “Anti-Marriage”. Though it was not meant to be a serious statement, I tried to explain my attitude to that issue. Since I’ve been planning to write something on the topic anyway, I decided to reproduce what I wrote there on the blog: by consent of the friend, of course. It was not intended to be a thorough study of the problem, but merely an expression of my personal viewpoint, which, obviously, contains many simplifications and slightly off-topic reflections on equality and gender issues. I hope, nonetheless, that my point will be understandable enough. Here it follows.

It is true that I dislike certain aspects of the institution of marriage. It doesn’t make me, however, an anti-marriage activist or anything similar, I just think it’s not that great a life choice. There again, it doesn’t mean I oppose what we associate with it nowadays: love, support, fidelity, trust, etc., but rather what it used to be (and sometimes continues to be even today), i.e. an institution which has been cementing the traditional sex inequality for centuries and was chiefly a social, economic and family contract rather than the romantic commitment people tend to see in it nowadays. It was a legitimate form of human trade, in a sense – a woman would be made her husband’s possession after being released from her father’s care, so it was primarily a contract between families, an exchange.

"Women on a ship" by Jerzy Nowosielski

The religious dimension of marriage is actually very similar, because its sacramental character was only an addition to what was the core of it, something designed to confirm the contract by a strong external authority (and it was only considerably late that marriage was labelled a “sacrament” – there were many fathers of the church who didn’t consider it to be one, and this is also my “theologumenon” – a theological opinion, which, I believe, is perfectly orthodox. By “sacrament” I mean the formal understanding of the word, one used in regard to the “seven sacraments” or other defined, doctrinal numbers). Love didn’t play a big role there, it was rather what one sought outside of marriage (like a knight adoring his lady, who was rarely, if ever, his married wife).

I think there are (at least) three basic models of relations between the sexes and the gender roles: hierarchical, complementarian and egalitarian ones. In most (if not all) ancient cultures, including the Greek and Hebrew ones, of which Christianity was born, the first one was definitely dominant. It consists in the belief that men are ontologically “better” than women in the sense that they are simply more human: the Hebrew and later Christian mythology associated it with the Biblical vision of the beginnings of humankind, which (interpreted this way) may suggest that men bare a fuller divine image. Men are thus the only human beings who are capable of the full spectrum of human activities in the intellectual and spiritual dimensions, and hence what was considered the sphere of divine likeness (if not even THE ONLY human beings – one synod in the 6th century debated whether women are humans, and eventually agreed they are. It was controversial, though).

Interestingly, if we took the way we see marriage nowadays – as a profound, emotional, intellectual and spiritual relationship between two equal parties – and tried to look for its ancient equivalent, I’d turn out that a friendship of two men would be the most similar type of relationship we could find: in both the example of Greek philosophers and Biblical heroes. In the Greek culture even an erotic relationship was fulfilled between two men and thought of as “higher”, “better” than one with a woman, since the latter couldn’t involve a spiritual exchange (women were considered incapable of it) and could be nothing more than an expression of reproductive necessity and shallow physical attraction. The Hebrew culture, on the other hand, didn’t allow it, because it was considered a violation of the dignity of men (those who had to “lay like a woman”, which is the implication of the Hebrew word denoting a homosexual act). I believe it is very important to emphasise the link between advocating women rights and the rights of the LGBT persons. As I explained above, the prejudice against (male) homosexuality originated from the belief that an act of penetration is demeaning for men, who were born as better, holier, fuller beings than women. The Old Testament doesn’t mention lesbian sexual activities at all, because its authors didn’t consider “the inferior kind” to be able to profane the human nature in the degree men, granted the full divine image, could. Even nowadays it is obvious that most of the contempt expressed in our culture is directed towards male homosexual persons, and includes mostly references to their sexual activities. In a still very much patriarchal and sexist culture, women are not treated seriously, also when it comes to violating social norms. Recently, a scandal in Poland reminded me about this. One Member of the Parliament from the ruling party remarked that “… but about lesbians… I’d very much like to watch”. Now, he was accused of homophobia and prejudice, which is probably true in his case, but that’s not what I think is the real problem. The real problem consist in his apparent conviction that only men are serious enough to be criticized, accused, condemned. Women are toys one can enjoy, rather than persons who should be granted the same attention, both positive and negative, approving and condemning. Still, after a few thousand years, homosexuality is judged from a male perspective: we condemn our “male brothers” and make fun of them because of their “feminisation” and “not being true men”, but women…  well, we look for the play button on the pink site we have open (that MP must have done it plenty!). I heard women activists say, probably in fear of being associated with something “filthy”, that the “women issue” has nothing to do with the “gay issue”. That is wrong and the sooner we realise it the better, because it’s all rooted in the same cultural context.

"The inner beach" by Jerzy Nowosielski

Let’s come back to marriage, though. Contrary to what the church teaches today (by “the church” I mean mostly the Roman Catholic Church which is the leading defender of “the sanctity of marriage”), marriage has not always been an expression of the contemporary “complementarian” vision – one that doesn’t see women as ontologically inferior to men, but only differently defines they roles. In the end they are subject to their husbands anyway, but it’s justified by other arguments, acceptable for modern human consciousness. It was developed only very recently, but the church’s propaganda can present anything as ancient and unchangeable, and it happened so in the case of marriage, concealing the “silent” revolution that even the church had to comply with. So the church preaches now that men and women need one another to “grow in humanity”, sharing their attributes – which the other doesn’t have – in the framework of a sanctified institution. It has been unthinkable for centuries, though, that men need women for anything – and especially that they need them to “complete” their humanity, because men were more human than women, and it was women who could “profit” from such a relationship, never the other way round. It’s a progress, undoubtedly, but I still disagree with both the “hierarchical” and the “complementarian” vision, and even though marriage is employed today also to signify all kinds of relationships and it’s up to people which model they prefer to realize in life, I think I wouldn’t like to choose this form of commitment because of what it had been before. It can work for some and I really don’t have the slightest intention to criticise anyone’s choices: people are entitled to choose symbols and “frameworks” they think help them achieve their aims. I just believe it’s not a right decision to choose an institution of that history (and to pursue it, as many gay activists do: not because equality doesn’t count, for it does and I fully support it, but because I think they could start something positive without referring to the old institutions, and, funnily enough, backing their quite infamous past. Instead of remodelling, improving the whole spectrum of social norms, they seem only to desire a place within them, which often results in much intolerance and prejudice of their own). And, in the end, I think (that’s only a personal opinion for personal use too) that marriage shouldn’t be made a “sacrament”, because love is a sacrament in itself and an external “sanctification” is neither needed to make a relationship sacred when it’s present, nor can make it sacred when it’s absent. A church blessing and a civic partnership make a perfect framework in my opinion. A partnership is at least something you associate with equality, cooperation and mutual sacrifices, while marriage, with all its history, tends to point in another direction… And there is another important argument: we would finally stop the controversy over gay marriages (not) being recognised by the church. So: considering the revolution that took place in regard to the way people perceive relationships and equality, as well as the groups of people entitled to have them, I’m tempted to ask: why pour new wine into an old wineskin?

Once again, I don’t intend to offend those who decide to marry each other and believe in the symbolism of marriage – as representing love, commitment, fidelity and equality – neither to say that they do anything wrong. I also believe the rights associated with it should be granted to everyone, including the homosexual persons. My doubts are aroused rather by those who get involved into various gay-rights campaigns and seem to put all their energy to win “marriages” instead fighting for concrete rights and trying to build something positive, new and unique instead of assimilating the old, traditional cultural script.

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