Thursday, January 08, 2009

The World is Too Much With Us

I picked this up via Street Prophets where, frankly, the issue generated more heat than light.

The clergy at one Ashland church are refusing to sign marriage licenses until same-sex couples can legally tie the knot.

The Rev. Pam Shepherd and three retired clergy members who attend the Congregational United Church of Christ will still perform weddings. For the license, however, couples will have to see a judge or justice of the peace.

Shepherd told the Ashland Daily Tidings she made the decision after realizing that by signing the licenses she was inadvertently giving her approval to discrimination.

"Every time I sign a license, it's like I'm saying, 'OK,' but it's not OK," she said.
Now, if you're astute, you're wondering how the AP got hold of this. Well, maybe it's because the clergy of the church announced their principled stand through an advertisement:

Readers of the Medford Mail Tribune will wake up Friday to see a full page ad about marriage equality.

Clergy from Ashland’s First Congregational United Church of Christ is taking a stand.

From the ad:

“For too long, churches have participated in the denial of civil rights to same gender loving citizens by our willingness to sign marriage licenses for heterosexual couples while gay and lesbian couples were denied this legal right. At First Congregational United Church of Christ we will no longer sign marriage licenses for anyone until we are able to sign marriage licenses for everyone.

We will continue to celebrate the beautiful sacrament of marriage for all couples who wish their love and their spiritual union to be blessed by the church. And we will continue to fight for justice for same gender loving people as part of our call to follow the radical Jesus who leaves no one out.”
I would quibble that marriage is not a sacrament in the UCC, but that's a pedantic point. The real question here is the ethics of this "principled position." Because the more I think about it, the more it sounds like: "Let's you and him fight!"

The pastor of this church is aggrieved that, by her position and by her performing weddings, she is participating in a state-sanctioned system which discriminates; and her solution to that problem is to not participate in that system. Which might seem a principled stance, except it does nothing other than inconvenience those who want this pastor to officiate at their wedding. The pastor assuages her guilt by not signing a document. The bride and groom still have to participate in the system (presumably, unless Oregon, like Texas, recognizes common law marriage), so they have to find a secular agent with authority to solemnize the rites of marriage (as my Texas marriage license put it, many years ago). Some at Street Prophets praise this as giving "straights" a taste of what gays have to go through; except, of course, it doesn't at all, since gays can't go through any process to get married in Oregon or almost anywhere else in America, at this point. All this does is make people who want to be married by the clergy of this church go through extra steps that only make the clergy feel good about their non-actions and non-involvement in a system they are involved in in every other way every day of their lives. What is the real issue here? It's this one:

Force has become the modern figure of being. Being has allowed itself to be determined as a calculable force, and man, instead of relating to the being that his hidden under this figure of force, represents himself as quantifiable power.
Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, tr. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 37.

What is this action, after all, except an attempt to exert force? And unable to exert it directly on the state, it is exerted through force on others. The "principled stance" here is that the clergy will not sign a legal document. The result is merely to leave the clergy's conscience clean, while forcing the married couple to go to the state and seek sanction a second time for their marriage. And this exertion of force is what defines the clergy of this church. They are, by public announcement, the ones who force you to sully yourselves with the state's unfair restrictions. They have washed their hands of the matter.

Derrida goes on to quote Jan Patocka:

Man has ceased being in a relation to Being and has instead become a powerful force, one of ths most powerful....As a social entity, especially, he has become an immense transmitter sending out cosmic forces that have been stored and locked up for an eternity. It would seem that in the world of pure forces he has become a grand accumulator that on the one hand exploits these forces in order to exist and reproduce, but that on the other hand and for the same reason, is plugged into the same circuit; he is stored, quantified, exploited and manipulated like any other system of forces.
Derrida, pp. 37-38.

Which is a philosophical way of stating the Christian ethical issue:

These conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your own cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you now know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that it is for nothing that the scripture says, "God yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us"? But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble."--James 4:1-6
The first question that has to be asked when one decides to act in an ethical way as a Christian is: where does this craving come from? Am I seeking justice? Or am I seeking comfort? It is a question of responsibility. And that raises the question of the conditions of responsiblity. On what condition is responsibility possible? On the condition that the Good no longer be a transcendental objective, a relation between objective things, but the rleation to the other, a response to the other; an experience of personal goodness and a movement of intention. But, as Derrida asks:

On what condition does goodness exist beyond all calculation? On the condition that goodness forget itself, that the movement be a movement of the gift that renounces itself, hence a movement of infinite love. Only infinite love can renounce itself and, in order to become finite, become incarnated in order to love the other, to love the other as a finite other. This gift of infinite love comes from someone and is addressed to someone; responsibility demands irreplaceable singularity.
Derrida, p. 50-51

Which is my problem with this very public stance. It comes from someone, but it is addressed to everyone and no one. It is addressed to strangers and innocent bystanders, and it puts the burden of responsibility on them. You want me to perform your wedding? Fine, but I will do it and not do it at the same time. And the burden will be on you, the responsibility to make your marriage legal and binding and recognized under the laws of the state of Oregon, laws which after all confer no small number of benefits on those in the marriage (including children as yet unborn), those burdens and responsibilities will be entirely yours. As clergy, I will renounce my irreplaceable singularity in this one arena, in order to reject my responsibility. This is what the clergy of this church have declared, and declared quite publicly. And this is an ethical act? This is praiseworthy? I don't see it. To quote Patocka again:

The responsible man as such is a self, an individual that doesn't coincide with any role that he might happen to assume....he is a responsible self because, in confronting death and dealing with nothingness, he takes upon himself what only each one of us can realize in ourselves, that which makes each of us irreplaceable. Now, however, individuality has been related to infinite love and manis an individual because he is guilty, always guilty with respect to that love. Each is determined as individual by the uniqueness of what situates him in the generality of sin.
Derrida, p. 52.

We don't escape sin, in other words, by refusing to participate in any particular system we deem sinful. All we really do is irresponsibly try to disavow our responsiblity. In short, we proclaim ourselves holier than thou, and redouble our sin. As James puts it: "therefore it says, 'God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.'" Or, as Dorothy Day wrote:

I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
We who are not gay are not naturalized citizens in the struggle for gay rights, either. We are always foreigners to their struggles. "So we have to make up for it by 'renouncing all compensations...'" We have to take responsibility for our actions, not renounce our responsiblity. The former we can do; the latter we cannot do.

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