As everyone not living under a rock now knows, in an interview with ABC yesterday, President Obama–who recently had said that his views were “evolving”–announced that he now supports the right of same-sex couples to get married.
Some liberal critics complained that Obama’s announcement does nothing to change the status quo, with marriage still being essentially a state matter. This of course was vividly demonstrated just two days ago by North Carolina’s amendment of its state constituion to exclude recognition of any relationships other than heterosexual marriage, even civil unions.
But others pointed out–such as in this article–that this may be part of a broader strategy on the part of the administration. This strategy includes its ending of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and its decision to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in federal court. In addition to being good ideas on the merits, these may help set the legal stage down the road for the courts to recognize a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. As Chris Geidner, the author of the article, sums it up, “Obama’s legal, policy and personal views are not in any way contradictory and present a clear path forward toward the advancement of marriage equality across the country.”
Also worth noting is that the president couched his change of mind in explicitly religious terms. Writing at Religion Dispatches, Sarah Posner highlights this part of Obama’s comments:
when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.
Posner goes on to contend that
Obama didn’t just endorse same-sex marriage today. He abandoned conservative religious rhetoric about it and signaled that religious conservatives, even his close religious advisors, don’t own the conversation on what Christianity has to say about marriage.
Similarly, Ed Kilgore writes today that Obama’s “evolution” actually puts him in closer alignment with his own relgious tradition, the United Church of Christ, which has affirmed same-sex relationships as a denomination since 2005:
Relgious conservatives may scoff at the UCC (or the Episcopalians, or other mainline denominations that are, to use the buzzword, “open and affirming” to gay people). But the UCC is the country’s oldest Christian religious community, and among other things, was spearheading the fight against slavery back when many of the religious conservatives of the early nineteenth century were largely defending it as a divinely and scripturally ordained instituion.
So Obama has pretty strong authority for saying there’s no conflict between his faith and support for same-sex marriage.
Liberals are prone to arguing in bloodless, technocratic terms, so it was nice to see Obama making the case in explicitly moral–even religious–language. I personally think liberals could stand to do this more often.
Of course, no one seriously doubts, I think, that there was at least some degree of political calculation in this announcement. (Do presidents ever say anything that isn’t politically calculated to some degree?) And it remains to be seen if that calculation will pay off in November. But even granting mixed nature of his motives (and Christians of all people should be the first to acknowledge that we never act from completely pure motives), it was the right thing to do. Nice job, Mr. President.
Picking back up the thread of David Clough’s On Animals, let’s look at the third part, which deals with animal redemption. Clough’s argument throughout has been that it makes more sense to understand God’s great acts (creation, reconciliation, redemption) as including non-humans than as exclusively concerned with humans. This is no less true of redemption than of the other two doctrinal themes. He goes so far as to say that they are “different aspects of a single divine act of graciousness by God towards all that is.” The question then is: Will animals share in human deliverance from sin, suffering, and death, or are they destined to be cast aside as a kind of cosmic detritus?
Clough cites John Wesley, who argued in his sermon “The Great Deliverance” that non-human animals needed–and would receive–redemption, just as humans would, and John Hildrop, who maintained that God brought each individual creature into existence for a reason, and thus God has reason to maintain them in existence. Clough writes that “[j]ust as we are accustomed to picturing human beings as being gathered up in Christ without regard to when they died, so we must become accustomed to think of other animals, too–ammonites and stegosaurs, dodos and Javan tigers–beign gathered up in the divine plan of redemption.” What God has created, God will redeem.
An alternative argument for animal redemption draws on considerations of theodicy–the suffering of animals should be compensated for by life after death. While he strongly affirms the reality of animal suffering, Clought rejects this line of argument on the grounds that theodicies generally tend to justify suffering–by seeing it as a necessary part of some overarching plan or system. This portrays God as having to compensate animals for an injustice experienced at his hand. Rather, Clough says, “God must be understood to be the redeemer of all creatures, human and other-than-human, because God has determined to be gracious and faithful to them in this sphere, as well as in their creation and reconciliation, not because they would otherwise have a legitimate cause of complaint.”
Animal redemption is part and parcel of a vision of cosmic redemption that has deep roots in the Christian tradition. Key New Testament texts here are those that speak of “all things being gathered up in Christ” and God being “all in all.” Origen took these and ran with them in his doctrine of universal restoration. In fact, Clough suggests, the same sorts of considerations that point many in the direction of universal salvation tell equally well in favor of animal redemption.
In the final chapter, Clough goes on to consider “the shape of redeemed living.” While he is postponing discussion of ethical issues to the second volume of his work, he offers some general thoughts on what redeemed relationships between human and non-human animals would look like. He draws on the eschatological vision of “peace between creatures” offered in key Christian texts. These include the early chapters of Genesis, Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom, and the portrait of the New Jerusalem in Revelation, as well as the church’s stories of saints who “made peace” with wild animals. These suggest that God’s redemptive purpose is that “all creaturely enmity will be overcome in the new creation, and predator and prey will be reconciled to one another.”
This gives rise to a number of puzzles to which we can offer only speculative answers, such as: Will individual animals be redeemed, or only species? How can predators be reconciled with their prey without losing their essential nature? What does redemption look like for domesticated animals who have had their natures altered by human intervention? Are all animals ultimately to be “tamed,” or is their room for wilderness in the new creation? Clough offers some tentative answers to these questions with which I’m largely in sympathy, but he also cautions against dogmatic certainty when it comes to specifics.
But the trajectory, he thinks, is clear: the destiny of creation is to live in peace, even if it now “groans as in the pains of childbirth.” And this has practical implications. Whatever the details of our eschatology,
a vision of what the reconciliation and redemption of all things by God in Christ through the Spirit might mean for relationships between humans and other animals will cause Christians to be motivated to act in whatever ways they can to witness to redeemed patterns of creaturely relations.
I think the point here is that creaturely solidarity is, or should be, much more deeply woven into theology–and the Christian life more broadly–than has usually been the case. Animals are as deeply involved in God’s acts of creation, reconciliation, and redemption as we are. This has implications for ethics–and maybe also for community life and politics. For example, what would church life look like if we took seriously the view that we are part of a “mixed community” that includes many different kinds of animals? How should we anticipate the creaturely peace that is to characterize the new creation, even while recognizing that we still live in a fallen world? These are the kinds of questions I’d like to see Clough take up in his second volume.
The Rush Limbaughs of the world don’t get to define the boundaries of appropriate sexual or moral behavior. But something is happening: Women are defining those boundaries for themselves, with many men alongside them, and they’re being reminded that there’s a concerted movement to take that right of self-definition away. And we’re mad.
Hey, and let’s have serial killers define their own morality for themselves as well. It’s hard to see how Carmon could object to that, except to say it doesn’t fit her definition.
I agree that morality isn’t whatever we say it is (i.e., I’m not a moral relativist.). But let’s see if there might be a worthwhile point lurking around here.
Here’s one plausible (I think) account of what ethics is: a goal-oriented activitiy aimed at reducing suffering, increasing happiness, facilitating social coordination, increasing fairness, and cultivating virtues, among other things.
On this account, the purpose of ethical rules is direct us toward these ends. Obeying them isn’t good in and of itself; rather, following them helps us acheive the goals that morality is concerned with.
If this is the purpose of ethical rules, then as we learn more about the world and about human nature–about the sorts of things that lead to suffering, happiness, fairness, etc.–certain longstanding ethical rules could turn out to no longer make sense. That is, we learn that some rules are not as conducive to human flourishing as we thought and require revision or abandonment.
To take one fairly obvious example: much of force of the traditional prohibition on homosexual activity came from beliefs that it was associated with vice, suffering, and ill-health. But we now know that this isn’t the case, so the old rules seem–at least to many of us–obsolete. Note that this isn’t a form of moral relativism, but rather a revision of moral rules as our understanding changes (and, we hope, improves). (If the reader disagrees that the traditional prohibition on homosexuality is wrong, then she can substitute another outmoded moral rule of her choosing.)
Clearly this isn’t the only way to think about ethics. But, as I said, it’s a plausible one–and one that I think helps account for sentiments like the ones expressed in Irin Carmon’s piece.
A speech Rick Santorum made in 2008 has resurfaced in which he laments Satanic influence on many of the institutions in America. In addition to raising the alarm about the usual bogeyman of liberal academia, he opined that mainline Protestantism “is in shambles [and] gone from the world of Christianity.”
This is of course nothing new, as Sarah Morice-Brubaker pointed out in an article at Religion Dispatches. Mainliners are quite used to hearing from conservatives that they are too liberal, too accommodating to the surrounding culture, and are failing to uphold the integrity of the gospel. The numerical decline of mainline Protestant churches (which include the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) is often taken by conservatives as evidence of their slackening faithfulness.
The reality, as usual, is probably a little more complicated. For one thing, mainline churches are experiencing demographic shifts that are affecting pretty much all religious bodies in America, albeit at different rates. Second, numerical success is not necessarily a reliable indicator of theological faithfulness, as any number of suburban megachurches and prosperity-gospel TV ministries prove.
Moreover, the decline of mainline churches is almost certainly due in part to the increasing obsolescence of church membership as a matter of social respectability. Once upon a time, people went to church because that was what respectable, middle-class people (or people aspiring to be respectably middle-class) did. The fact that this expectation has largely vanished, at least in many parts of the country, is, on balance, a good thing. The conflation of Christianity with middle-class respectability is something we’re well rid of.
That said, liberal, mainline churches have plenty of self-inflicted wounds: shallow theology, a lack of economic and ethnic diversity, and an emphasis on social reform to the exclusion of personal piety and devotion being the ones that spring immediately to my mind. Not all mainline churches have these problems, obviously; but they’re common enough to have become cliches.
Note, though, that none of these are matters of “liberalism” per se. And this is where I agree with Sarah Morice-Brubaker. There are good Christian theological reasons for embracing liberal social and political views. This is what Santorum and other religious conservatives often miss or ignore: the social ethics of liberal Christians, at their best, are motivated by the gospel. In my view, too much mainline preaching and social action fails to make this connection explicit, and mainliners too often surrender the mantle of “orthodox” Christianity to social and political conservatives. But the connection is there.
To the extent that I agree with the conservative critique of mainline Protestantism, it’s that I think mainliners have failed (not always or everywhere, but often enough) to make their churches places where people encounter the holy and loving God of the Bible. When this encounter happens, it often results in radical transformation–both personal and social. But when it doesn’t, the church becomes little more than a social club, an amateur social-service agency, or a political lobbying group.
There’s been quite a bit of discussion lately in the Christian blogosphere and twitterverse about sex and gender roles, stimulated in part by comments from high-profile preachers like John Piper and Mark Driscoll. Unfortunately, the view that gender hierarchy (or “complementarianism” as its proponents call it) is an essential component of the gospel seems to be gaining ground, at least in some circles. Or maybe it’s the death rattle of an antiquated worldview. Time will tell.
At any rate, I thought I’d offer a contrasting viewpoint, from L. William Countryman’s Dirt, Greed and Sex, which is a study of the sexual ethics of the Bible and their relevance for today. Here’s Countryman on gender equality:
Both Jesus and Paul laid it down as a principle that women and men are basically equal in marriage. Although Paul, in the circumstances of his own times, did not find it necessary or appropriate to carry that principle into practice in all areas of married life, the church today with the shift from familial to individual society no longer has any reason to delay in this process.* Indeed, society has led the way in this matter, and it is entirely consistent with New Testament practice for the church to accept the emerging marital customs of the modern West as the basis for its own usage. This is not to suggest that the situation has stabilized, however, or that the acceptance of equality will be easy either for men or for women.
What is called for is something more than the revision of household rules and the alternation of household roles. It involves new understandings of manliness and womanliness that can come about only with some pain and anxiety as well as some sense of liberation and joy. If the husband gives up the image of himself as sole ruler of the household, waited on by wife and children, his whim the family’s law, he must also give up its spiritual equivalent–the image of himself as the family’s unique sacrificial sustainer, isolated in his moral strength and grandeur. If the wife gives up being the servant of all, with no life or her own except in responding to the needs of others, she must also give up the spiritual vision of herself as the one who gives all for others’ good. Men cannot give up their responsibilities as sole wage earner and still claim the benefits of that position by demanding an uneven distribution of labor and services; women cannot claim equality and still reserve the right to be dependent if equality does not yield what they want. None of this will be easy but the survival of marriage in our society surely depends on it.
Spouses in heterosexual marriages will have much to learn in this process from partners in stable, long-term homosexual relationships. They have long experienced the difficulties of maintaining enduring relationships in a society which is even less supportive of them than of heterosexual couples; and they have had to do it without socially prescribed divisions of roles and labor. If there are useful models to be had, they will probably be found among them. (pp. 239-40)
Countryman’s main argument is that sexual ethics in the Bible largely revolve around concerns about ritual purity (“dirt”) and property (“greed”) that arose in a particular social context, whether it be that of ancient Israel or the first-century Mediterranean world. Consequently, contemporary Christian ethics can’t simply adopt the allegedly “biblical” view of sex without attending to the massive social changes that have occurred in the interim.
*By “the shift from familial to individual society” Countryman refers to the historical process by which the locus of social importance and moral concern has shifted from the family to the individual.
This article at Grist observes, I think accurately, that, at least among eco-conscious foodies, “conscientious carnivorism” is in, and vegetarianism is out:
At some point over the past few years, vegetarianism went wholly out of style.
Now sustainable meat is all the rage. “Rock star” butchers proffer grass-fed beef, artisanal sausage, and heritage-breed chickens whose provenance can be traced back to conception on an idyllic rolling hillside. “Meat hipsters” eat it all up. The hard-core meaties flock to trendy butchery classes. Bacon has become a fetish even for eco-foodies, applied liberally to everything from salad to dessert, including “green” chocolate bars and “sustainable” ice cream.
The piece goes on to argue, however, that vegetarianism remains indispensable, as a response both to the challenges of sustainability and the inhumane treatment of animals. This is true for a variety of reasons. First, as the article points out, the percentage of meat produced in this country that could accurately be described as “humane” is vanishingly small. Second, it’s extremely doubtful whether a model of humane, sustainable meat production is scalable enough to meet the current demand (which is growing worldwide at an alarming rate, even if meat consumption in the U.S. has declined somewhat).
I’d add that not only is genuinely humane meat a tiny niche market, it’s also extremely difficult to know if what you’re buying actually fits that description. This is because there are essentially no agreed-upon or enforceable standards for “humane” meat (or for that matter, “natural,” “free-range,” etc.). Unlike “organic,” which is regulated by the USDA, these terms mean whatever the producers say they mean. The only way to be sure that the meat you’re buying actually conforms to a specific ethical or environmental standard is (a) to look for a third-party-certified label (there are some) or (b) to buy directly from a farm that you have personally visited to observe how it operates. (Significantly, almost all discussion around this focuses on how the animals are raised, but even animals raised under not-terrible conditions are typically slaughtered in just the same way that factory-farmed animals are.)
So, I agree with the author of the piece here:
To nudge our horrific food system toward sustainability, we don’t need vegetarians to shift to occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. We need the American masses who eat an average of half a pound of factory-farmed meat a day to shift to the occasional consumption of ethically produced meat. (Americans are actually eating a little less meat overall these days, no thanks to the meat hipsters.)
Eating truly sustainable meat, in modest quantities, is a fine thing. But it’s not better than eating no meat — certainly not when we’ve got more than 7 billion people on a fast-heating planet competing to feed themselves via shrinking, oversubscribed cropland and increasingly limited, degraded freshwater supplies.
That’s why, when people ask my advice (not that they often do), I simply encourage them to eat less meat. Eating less meat doesn’t require a radical lifestyle change. It’s flexible and open-ended. It’s not elitist the way conscientious carnivorism often tends to be–after all, almost everyone has access to plant-based meat alternatives. And it doesn’t lead to situations like this:
I don’t know if universal vegetarianism is a real possibility–or even a desirable one. But if we agree that our current system of meat production is both inhumane and unsustainable (and we should), then our only viable future is one of drastically reduced meat-eating. This means that vegetarianism remains one important–indeed indispensable–path into that future.
I posted the other week on a conference on dialogue between Peter Singer and Christian ethics. I wanted to note that audio of the sessions is available here. I haven’t listened to any of the sessions yet, but the topics suggest that they’ll be very interesting:
–Utilitarians and Christians
–Animals and the environment
–Utilitarianism, Christian ethics, and moral theory
–Utilitarians in church?
–Responding to global poverty
If you listen to any of the presentations I’d love to hear your thoughts.
–Why Washington doesn’t care about jobs.
–Metallica’s classic album Master of Puppets turned 25(!) yesterday. This was the first real metal album I ever heard, and it’s still one of the best.
–NPR’s “First Listen” is streaming the new REM album in its entirety.
–For all the sci-fi nerd parents of small children out there: Goodnight, Dune.
–David Brooks will decide when it’s time for you to die.
–A lecture from Peter Singer: Evolution versus ethics.
–How all the extra noise created by human beings affects animals.
–On James Alison and discipleship.
–Peter Gomes, the black, Republican (at least until late in his life), openly gay Baptist preacher who was the long-time minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, died unexpectedly from complications associated with a stroke this week. Michael Westmoreland-White has an overview of Gomes’ life and work.
–In honor of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 9th, Oxfam is “raising awareness about hunger, climate change, and other crises facing women worldwide.”
Henry S. Salt, who I believe I mentioned in a recent post, was a 19th-century humanitarian reformer involved in causes ranging from socialism to pacifism to animal rights. Salt wrote a number of books, including books on social reform, animal rights, and vegetarianism, as well as studies of Thoreau and Shelley. (When Gandhi was living in England, it was Salt’s Plea for Vegetarianism that provided him with an ethical foundation for his vegetarianism, which he had previously been sticking to because of a promise he’d made to his mother.)
I recently ordered a used copy of Salt’s book Animals’ Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress, and in searching for a little more information on him I came across this article he wrote on Herman Melville, published in the Scottish Art Review in 1889. Interestingly, Salt seems to consider Typee, Melville’s earliest novel, to be his best, though he does have some positive things to say about Moby-Dick.
This video from Bishop Gene Robinson has been making the rounds as part of the “It Gets Better” campaign:
Bishop Robinson doesn’t tap-dance around anything. He simply says that those who tell gay kids that they’re “intrinsically disordered” or “an abomination” are “flat-out wrong.” I wonder how many young gay or lesbian people have never heard a religious leader speak like this?
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