The social dimension of marriage, part one

I wasn’t planning two posts on the social dimension of marriage. But when I saw this post by Tom Ackerman, I thought it was perfect fit for my purposes.

I no longer recognize marriage. It’s a new thing I’m trying.

Turns out it’s fun.

Yesterday I called a woman’s spouse her boyfriend.

             She says, correcting me, “He’s my husband,”
             “Oh,” I say, “I no longer recognize marriage.”

The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

             “How’s your longtime companion, Jill?”
             “She’s my wife!”
             “Yeah, well, my beliefs don’t recognize marriage.”

Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition. Suddenly the majority gets to feel what the minority feels. In a moment they feel what it’s like to have their relationship downgraded, and to have a much taken-for-granted right called into question because of another’s beliefs.

Mr. Ackerman’s little campaign might succeed in raising people’s consciousness — but I doubt it. More likely, he’ll succeed only in annoying his friends.

Ackerman can’t really put the shoe onto the other foot. He may not recognize the marriages of his heterosexual friends but, in general, society does recognize those marriages.

And so the marriages are legitimate. Not because the Church blesses them, or because the government registers them in a database somewhere.

Well, OK … in part because of the Church and the government. But the response of the broader community is just as important:  the people you encounter as you go about your day-to-day activities.

Neighbours, coworkers, the loans officer at your local bank, the doctor on duty in an emergency ward, family members, friends. They have the power to bestow legitimacy on a marriage.

Or not.

That’s the point that Ackerman illustrates so poignantly. What if society withheld its recognition of your relationship? You’d be powerless to turn it into a marriage without their participation:  no matter how much you loved one another, or how much you sacrificed for one another, or how many years you were faithful to one another.

A relationship isn’t a marriage until society respects it as such.

Let me return to the personal dimension of marriage for a moment. In the previous post I wrote, “To us [modern Westerners], marriage is not so much a social institution as it is a private agreement between two individuals.”

There’s some truth in that perspective. Society can’t declare you to be married without your consent. The first decision is always taken by the couple:  “We’ve decided to get married.”

Then it’s up to society to respond. “How wonderful!”

Or:  “You can’t get married. You’re both men.”

Whether we like it or not, marriage has both a personal dimension and a social dimension. Without both, a relationship can’t be a marriage.

In part two, I’ll talk about the social dimension of marriage as it was practised in ancient Israel. Then I’ll contrast Israel’s practices to ours.

But for now, I only wanted to drive home this foundational point:  A marriage isn’t a marriage until society recognizes it as such.

Et tu, Paul Wells?

Until now, Paul Wells (a Macleans journalist) has served as Stephen Harper’s court biographer. Though I’m sure Wells would hotly deny it.

This week the cozy relationship came to a prickly end! Wells loses his cool magnificently in a recent blog post:

The real outrage of [Thursday’s] economic “update” is not that it seeks to impose on most parliamentarians a change to funding rules that most of them would never ordinarily accept; it’s that it accomplishes nothing else. It’s that in the most dangerous economic times Canada has faced in 20 years if not far longer, this prime minister can’t wipe the smirk off his face and grow up a little. …

Stephen Harper is my prime minister and for all I care he can go on being my prime minister as long as he cares and can win the little fantasy confrontations that so excite him. But he is acting like an idiot and I am ashamed of his behaviour.

Et tu, Paul Wells?

Wells is a smart guy who likes to swim against the current of conventional wisdom. One of his “rules” of politics is this:  When everyone in Ottawa knows something, it’s wrong. (I’m paraphrasing from memory.)

Two examples of Wells’s contrarian style spring to mind. First, when Paul Martin pushed Jean Chrétien out of the Liberal leadership, everyone but Wells thought it was a win-win scenario. Journalists had grown sick of Chrétien. Everyone in Ottawa knew that Paul Martin was the real genius of the Chrétien government, so they were glad to see him succeed to the Prime Minister’s office.

Wells thought the putsch was a mistake; and he was proven right. Martin was a terrific Minister of Finance, but he made a lousy Prime Minister.

Second, Wells boosted Stephen Harper just as enthusiastically as he had jeered Paul Martin. Other journalists, and Canadians in general, never warmed to Harper, with his cold fish persona and his stunted vision of governance. They supported Harper primarily because the Liberals were in obvious disarray.

But Wells went his own way. He viewed Harper as a strategic genius who was implementing a long-term strategy to realign Canadian politics. Under Harper’s brilliant leadership, the Conservatives would displace the Liberals as the dominant federalist party in Quebec. They would become the choice of immigrant, Roman Catholic, and suburban voters. And thus the Conservatives would supplant the Liberals as Canada’s “natural governing party” for the foreseeable future. Wells wrote a book about it:

The Prime Minister hasn’t proven to be such a strategic genius. He made a big boo-boo just prior to the last election, when he failed to appreciate the symbolic importance of culture in Quebec. The Government’s petty cuts to arts funding, just prior to the election, alienated the Quebec voters whom Harper had painstakingly cultivated for two years.

And now this deplorable development. In Wells’s words, “Harper decided an economic crisis would be an excellent cover to use for a little political kneecapping.” The opposition parties are in full-fledged revolt. They may actually bring the Conservative government down.

Hence the intemperate language Wells uses in his blog post. It’s personal:  Harper has embarrassed him, the way Paul Martin embarrassed his boosters not so long ago.

When even the court biographer has turned against you, Mr. Harper, you know you are going to regret this misstep for a long while.

Stephen Harper’s bully pulpit

It takes a special kind of immaturity to look at an economic crisis — one that has people worried about their jobs and their homes and their life savings — and consider only how it might be turned to your advantage. But then, for all his ideological roots, [Prime Minister] Harper has demonstrated time and again that nothing interests him so much as cementing his hold on power. He may have evolved in terms of openness to pragmatic policies when they suit his political interests. But this is a leader who very clearly sees politics as a game, and who sees government — rather than what you do with it — as the ultimate victory.

That’s Adam Radwanski, writing for the Globe and Mail. I say “Amen!” to every word of the paragraph.

I expected that the next couple of years would be an interesting time in Canadian politics. But I didn’t think things would get this juicy this soon.

Canada’s Prime Minister is a bully. We’ve seen it repeatedly during the two years that Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party have held office.

In the recent election campaign, the Conservative Party tried to soften the Prime Minister’s image. But voters weren’t really buying it:  Stephen Harper has been a public figure for some years, and voters long ago took the measure of the man. Advertisements featuring Mr. Harper in a sweater vest weren’t very likely to change the public perception of him.

Stephen Harper uses the Prime Minister’s office as a bully pulpit. He takes great satisfaction in manoeuvering political opponents into a corner. In particular, he has succeeded in humiliating Liberal leader Stéphane Dion several times.

But this time the Prime Minister has overreached. The opposition is now standing up to him — which is the only appropriate response to a bully.

Yesterday, the Government announced (as part of a fiscal update) that it will end public financing for political parties. Currently, each party gets a subsidy based on how many votes it received in the previous election. The arrangement was introduced as a kind of consolation prize when a previous government banned corporate donations to political parties.

It was the Liberal Party (under Jean Chrétien) that introduced public financing. And it is the Liberal Party which has suffered most under the new arrangement. The Liberals traditionally relied on corporate donations, and so far they have failed to build a substantial base of individual supporters.

In the meantime, the Liberals are making do as best they can with public financing.

In other words, the Prime Minister is using the economic crisis as a pretext to eliminate public financing, knowing full well that it would have a devastating impact on the main opposition party. That’s what Radwanski means here:

It takes a special kind of immaturity to look at an economic crisis — one that has people worried about their jobs and their homes and their life savings — and consider only how it might be turned to your advantage.

The Prime Minister figured he had the opposition backed into yet another corner. They can’t possibly vote against the ways-and-means motion, can they? To do so would trigger another election, barely a month after the previous election ended.

Alternatively, the opposition parties could band together to form a government. But that would require cooperation among all three parties:  one of them the separatist Bloc Québécois, which fields candidates only in Quebec. Moreover, the arrangement presumably would make Stéphane Dion our Prime Minister. But Dion is widely viewed as a political disaster:  surely the opposition parties couldn’t unite behind the cringe-inducing figure of Prime Minister Dion.

Surprise, surprise! The three opposition parties are seriously considering a vote to topple the new Government. According to the Globe and Mail, one option is to let Ralph Goodale, the Liberal House Leader, stand in as Prime Minister. Another option is to let Dion assume office temporarily, with a promise to step down as soon as the Liberals can choose a replacement.

(That’s how the system works in Canada. We don’t choose a Prime Minister by electing someone directly to that office. Instead, the leader of the party which elects the most Members of Parliament serves as our Prime Minister. If that party changes leaders between elections, the Prime Minister changes, too.)

The Globe and Mail reports:

By noon, however, there were indications the federal Tories had begun looking for ways to avoid a showdown.

Sources told The Globe and Mail that senior Tories have reached out to members of opposition parties in an effort to find out what compromise might be possible. It’s the first sign the Tories are nervous that their economic package, which so incensed the opposition, needs to be altered in some way so as to avoid the government being toppled.

This time, it seems, Prime Minister Harper’s bully tactics have backfired. And it looks good on him!

The personal dimension of marriage

(Part two of a series. Part one is here.)

Contemporary Westerners regard marriage, first and foremost, as a personal matter. The two people must decide for themselves whether their relationship has the right stuff, such that they wish to spend the rest of their lives together.

The government, the Church, the couple’s neighbours — all of them should basically butt out of a matter that is not really their business.

The legitimacy of this emphasis on personal choice seems self-evident to us Westerners. We are aware that other cultures practice arranged marriages, but we would never submit to such an arrangement ourselves.

This is really only half of the equation. As I will soon demonstrate, there is an essential social component to the institution of marriage, even here in the West.

But even the phrase the institution of marriage is liable to grate a little. To us, marriage is not so much a social institution as it is a private agreement between two individuals.

In ancient Israel, the scales tilted in the other direction. Ancient Israel placed tremendous emphasis on the social dimension of marriage.

Accordingly, Israelite marriages were typically arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. The parents’ primary consideration was the social connections that would result from their child’s marriage.

Nevertheless, parental authority was not such as to leave no room for the feelings of the young couple. There were love marriages in Israel. The young man could make his preferences known (Gn 34:4; Jg 14:2), or take his own decision without consulting his parents, and even against their wishes (Gn 26:34-35). It was rarer for the girl to take the initiative, but we do read of Saul’s daughter Mikal falling in love with David (1 S 18:20).

Actually, young people had ample opportunity for falling in love, and for expressing their feelings, for they were very free. 2 M 3:19, it is true, speaks of the young girls of Jerusalem being confined to the house, but this text refers to the Greek period and to an exceptional state of affairs. The veiling of women came even later. In ancient times young girls were not secluded and went out unveiled. They looked after the sheep (Gn 29:6), drew the water (Gn 24:13; 1 S 9:11), went gleaning in the fields behind the reapers (Rt 2:2f.) and visited other people’s houses (Gn 34:1). They could talk with men without any embarrassment (Gn 24:15-21; 29:11-12; 1 S 9:11-13).

Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, p. 30.

Wherever young men and women come into contact with one another, sexual attraction is liable to follow. Parents in ancient Israel were not so hard-hearted as to completely disregard the romantic longings of their children.

Still — the social dimension weighed more heavily in ancient Israel; whereas the personal dimension weighs more heavily with us.


Proponents of same sex marriage prefer to emphasize the personal dimension. Their position is, Who I marry is no one’s business but my own.

It’s a strong argument. It is consistent with our Western emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. For example, freedom of conscience suggests that individuals can decide for themselves what is right and wrong, and order their lives accordingly.

Some people deny that the prohibition against same sex marriage is discriminatory. Homosexuals are free to marry just like anyone else, they claim:  they can marry someone of the opposite sex whenever they choose to do so.

It’s a facile (even contemptuous) argument. Sexual orientation is deeply personal and evidently involuntary. (That is, homosexuals do not choose to find people of the same sex attractive, any more than heterosexuals choose to find people of the opposite sex attractive. It just is that way.)

If a woman is attracted to others of the same sex, of course that is who she would choose to marry. To deny her that option is, indeed, to discriminate against her. It is to deny her the personal choice that is open to heterosexual couples.

On the other hand — proponents of same sex marriage can’t deny that there are three other dimensions to marriage:  the social, the religious, and the statutory. Those dimensions also must be taken into account.

Marriage is not solely a personal matter, and it can’t be treated as such. That will be our focus in the next post on this topic.

The four dimensions of marriage

Marriage has four dimensions:  personal, social, religious, and statutory.

This post is a follow up to our recent discussion of same sex marriage. Same sex marriage is a contentious issue precisely because of marriage’s four dimensions:

  • Personal:
    Same sex couples maintain that the decision to marry is a personal one. No one outside of the relationship should tell them whether they can or cannot marry.
  • Social:
    Some opponents of same sex marriage assert that changing the definition of marriage affects their marriages, too. It’s a weak argument, in my view. But it is true that all citizens have a stake in the institution of marriage:  it is a fundamental building block of society.
  • Religious:
    Traditionally, church officials are the public figures who solemnize marriages. Some churches insist that the state cannot change the definition of marriage because (in their view) the definition was established by God.
  • Statutory:
    The state is responsible for giving legal recognition to marriages. The state is obligated to treat all citizens equally. On the other hand, there may be public policy reasons for protecting and promoting one kind of family arrangement over alternatives to it.

Each dimension can come into conflict with one or more of the other dimensions. But all of the dimensions must be preserved and respected. In other words, we can’t resolve the same sex marriage controversy by pretending that marriage is one-dimensional:  for example, by emphasizing the personal (as same sex couples tend to do) or the religious (as Christians tend to do).

I intend to explore marriage’s four dimensions in a series of posts. As part of our discussion, I will outline the available data on marriages in ancient Israel.

Too often, Christians have a vague idea that Western traditions about marriage are derived from the Bible. On the contrary:  each culture has a distinctive “take” on marriage. We shouldn’t expect to find a close correspondence between the traditions of ancient Israel and the traditions of contemporary Western democracies.

In any event, when we consider marriage from the perspective of a different culture, that information will clarify the issues we’re debating in contemporary society. What did the four dimensions of marriage look like in ancient Israel?

My primary source for ancient Israel’s traditions will be chapter two ("Marriage") in Roland de Vaux’s book, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, 2nd ed. (translated from the French by John McHugh; published in London by Darton, Longman and Todd, 1968).

My first dog

Sometime I have to post about my dog again. I need to tell you about Indie’s tennis ball relocation service, for one thing.

But the other day I dug out an old photo album and scanned some pictures of my first dog — the dog we had when I was a kid.

Yes, I was a kid once!

my dog and me

And here’s a favourite photo of Pat, taken just a couple of weeks before he died. I always thought it was as if he stopped to say, “Goodbye”.

my dog B&W

It brings me a lot of pleasure, owning a dog. And it brings the dog a lot of pleasure, owning me.

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