Imagine my shock at learning that I support polyamory.*
These are the perils of trying to shift discussion away from slippery slope fallacies and sound bites from people who are firmly committed to them. I wish I could say that I was misconstrued in my previous article, but I assumed that people would want to come along for the ride when I tried to establish some positive claims for monogamy beyond “one man, one woman” or “what the Bible says.” But apparently when I wrote the sentence “I’m not ruling out multiple-partner marriages,” some people got off the train.
Here is one of the most important points that I hoped to make in my previous article:
If there are good reasons to prefer monogamy for straight people…
then those same reasons apply to LGBTQ people.
Not “one man, one woman.” That slogan does not establish good reasons for monogamy.
Not “the Bible says.” It is not true, and it does not describe good reasons for monogamy.
Not “polygamy is icky.” That does not describe good reasons for monogamy.
If one can’t come up with good reasons for monogamy, one can’t rule out other arrangements. In other words, the “slippery slope” is only a problem for those who can’t give good reasons for monogamy, or who think the slogan “one man, one woman” is a convincing reason to support it. Naturally, if this is your main criterion for sexual ethics, and someone threatens to take it away from you, then you don’t have a way to make judgments about other sexual behavior.
Which, honestly, is both sad and scary.
There are a variety of ways we think about ethical questions. There is rule-based (deontological) ethics: Don’t tell lies. There is outcome-based (consequentialist) ethics: Lies have these kinds of consequences. And there is virtue ethics: We want to be people of integrity, who express honesty.
In real life, we use a variety of approaches.
Some Christians, having been so programmed to think in terms of the Ten Commandments, never grow beyond thinking of simple rule-based ethics: Don’t kill. Honor the sabbath. Don’t make idols. The sad thing is, they never have the joy of understanding what those rules do or the concepts they embody.
Imagine how much stronger we would be if we understood them: Every person bears the image of God, every person is a universe of subjectivity, so don’t kill. Every person, rich and poor, every animal and even the land deserve rest, so observe the sabbath—and pay laborers enough that they can, too! Don’t make idols that look like kings or celebrities because the image of God is already found in the poorest among you, in your neighbor, and in your enemy.
This is a very different way of doing ethics from rule based “don’t do this” lists. It asks us to think like grown-ups.
Naturally, we still have rules—society could not function without them. And we can still say don’t kill, don’t make idols, observe the sabbath. Sometimes we examine ethical dilemmas and come away with different or modified rules or norms. “Act justly” is a better norm than “don’t lie,” because if you’re hiding Jews from the Gestapo or Christians from ISIL, it may be good to lie. If you’re hiding money from the IRS, it probably isn’t.
When it comes to certain biblical regulations—don’t sleep with a woman while she’s having her period; if you have sex, take a bath in the evening and wait a day before going to temple; don’t wear clothes made of two kinds of fabric—when we search for reasons, we may have to think historically and anthropologically.
Christians often don’t think in these terms. But they know that we do actually have to disregard some biblical rules while following others. Rather than think in terms of ethics, they think in terms of covenant: New vs. Old. And even though which rules we observe and which we don’t are arbitrary from that perspective, if certain rules preserve sexism or heterosexism… well, that’s better than making God angry.
The other problem with thinking in terms of New vs. Old Covenant is that it is inherently anti-Jewish. Liberal Christians make this same mistake when they characterize the Hebrew Bible as being legalistic or the Hebrew God as being angry. Jews don’t see it that way at all, because they’ve been doing advanced ethics for thousands of years.
It’s time Christians grew up, too.
Good Reasons for Monogamy
I provided several good reasons in my article supporting the virtues of monogamy: equity, respect, mutuality, social stability, clear parental responsibility, clear legal rights, preventing the spread of STDs, and creating intimacy. If there is something good about monogamous exclusivity, if it makes us more human, if it helps us understand the concept of commitment, if it builds character, if it necessitates creativity, if it teaches us something important about covenant love and the nature of God, all of those good things should be available to all people. But if it’s just about a single penis being used in a single vagina, then that’s not a good way to do Christian ethics, nor is it a good witness to non-Christians that we have anything interesting to say about sexual ethics in the public sphere.
Let’s observe something about the way humans actually behave (which is an important part of descriptive ethics): It’s interesting that we celebrate not only marriage, but anniversaries. When people have been together for 25 or 50 years, we say “Congratulations! Good job!” because they have accomplished something: they have managed to stay alive and not only avoid resenting each other, but also they have remained committed, grown in love, and (hopefully) thrived. We celebrate these monogamous unions in a way that we don’t celebrate random hook-ups.
So what are we celebrating when we celebrate those anniversaries? Presumably, if it were not a real achievement, we would not think of it as a big deal. It would just be the arbitrary passage of time. We celebrate it not because the Bible says to celebrate it, but because we attach certain virtues and social goods to the concept of monogamy.
When I do a wedding, if couples choose to write their own vows, I tell them that their vows need to be parallel. In other words, if they are making a covenant promise to each other, they both need to buy into the same promise. I do this because before I was ordained, I once attended a wedding where the husband made up his vows on the spot. I walked away with the impression that what he had promised was, “Forever is a long time, and I’m not making any promises.” I resolved that if couples wrote their own vows, their vows would have to be parallel—and they would need to be written and approved beforehand! They need to promise to be in it for the long haul, and to be equal partners in the life they are building together, to share their journey of faith and a commitment to their larger church and community.
Not all Christians follow this practice. Some straight couples I know and respect promise to fulfill different roles: the wife to “honor and obey,” and the husband to be “the spiritual head of the household.” I have to concede that although those vows are not to my liking, their marriages can be strong and admirable as well. I believe in a marriage of equals, but I can conceive of other ways of doing marriage.
I could list some of the virtues of my own marriage and the spiritual growth it has worked in me. But although I would wish that experience for everyone, I can’t claim that these are universal virtues of monogamy or that they are exclusively available to married folks. For some people, marriage is an abusive trap, a living hell. This is not the fault of monogamy or marriage. It’s the fault of one partner breaking their vows of faith. But monogamy is not more or less virtuous than polygamy, polyamory, or random hook ups just because it’s monogamy.
Ideally, monogamous marriage means someone has your back. There’s at least one person in the world who will not form a coalition with others against you. You make a vow to “forsake all others” because allowing third parties into the intimate parts of your life means that you are no longer someone’s exclusive concern. This is not about jealousy, but practical social arrangements. Being someone else’s “main thing” is important. Two or more people cannot be a main thing.
After February 9 during the brief window in Alabama when same-sex couples could marry, I talked to more than one couple who said that they had lived together for 10 or more years. They did not think that getting “official” recognition would mean much. Yet all of them said, “It’s different.” Marriage is different from living together. Exchanging vows and becoming “legal” imparts a social value that is difficult to put into words.
But we can measure it: in states where marriage equality has passed, LGBTQ physical and mental health are better.
We put rings on our fingers to signal to the rest of society that we are in a special relationship with another person. We are no longer sexually or romantically “available,” but attached even when we are far away. In a good marriage, this ring becomes a symbol for absolute trust. Having social recognition of this bond of exclusive partnership is important. Denying it is both cruel and costly.
Everything I’ve just said about the social goods of monogamy can be applied to marriage between same-sex partners as well as straight ones.
Which brings me to another question: Why do we not celebrate celibacy in the same way as we do heterosexual marriage? Jesus said some people make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God, and Paul considered it a spiritual gift. Why don’t communities gather to say, “Congratulations on your 25th anniversary of celibacy!” Yet in our culture, we either ignore it, denigrate it, or regard it with a kind of pity—even in most Christian communities (outside of Holy Orders). Because of this double standard and discrimination, sometimes people append “asexual” to the already-cumbersome alphabet soup (LGBTQIAP+).**
I suspect if we dig into the whys and wherefores of our attitudes toward our celebration of monogamy, we’ll find that it’s not about the virtues of marriage so much as it is about the support of patriarchy. This is why we do not celebrate celibacy. This is why polyamory or polyandry (one wife with multiple husbands) is so destabilizing—much more so than polygyny (one husband with multiple wives). This is why Christians shrug off Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Elkanah’s and David’s polygamy as being irrelevant to the discussion, or being rendered somehow irrelevant in the “New Covenant.” (Jews have been doing monogamous marriage for thousands of years without the benefit of ascribing to a “New Covenant,” so why do they also consider monogamy praiseworthy? A new covenant has nothing to do with it.)
As I said above, monogamy is not more or less virtuous than polygamy, polyamory, or random hook ups just because it’s monogamy. A monogamous marriage can be just as abusive, exploitive, sexist, and fatal as any other kind of relationship. This kind of exploitive monogamy is not limited to the distant past.
Critics of the institution of marriage have often talked about the sexist roots of “traditional” marriage. We often forget that the process of marriage in the ancient world was simply the act of heterosexual intercourse itself, sometimes with the exchange of money or gifts between a husband and the wife’s family. These marriages were often arranged, and the sex was not always consensual. After the husband tore his virgin wife’s hymen, the bloody sheets were presented to his in-laws so that they might keep “evidence of her virginity:”
Suppose a man marries a woman, but after going in to her, he dislikes her and makes up charges against her, slandering her by saying, ‘I married this woman; but when I lay with her, I did not find evidence of her virginity.’ The father of the young woman and her mother shall then submit the evidence of the young woman’s virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. The father of the young woman shall say to the elders: ‘I gave my daughter in marriage to this man but he dislikes her; now he has made up charges against her, saying, “I did not find evidence of your daughter’s virginity.” But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ Then they shall spread out the cloth before the elders of the town. (Deuteronomy 22.13-17, NRSV)
This very process is still practiced today in places like Iran. A story on this American Life contains a reference to this ancient biblical practice, though the events took place just a few decades ago. These practices still exist in our world.***
But adopting a critical stance toward monogamy is not acceptable in our culture: witness the ginned-up outrage over my blog post on the subject. As I said, some of the criticism is warranted. I could have been clearer in my section on polygamy about what I was driving at. But the argument of the blog “rebutting” my article does not actually address any of my questions or points. The critical response simply implies, “This yokel (or this group) believes in polygamy—he’s a moral degenerate and should not be a pastor. Do not listen to him.” But that is not an argument that supports the virtues of monogamy. If an atheist polyamorist were to raise the question, “What are the virtues of monogamy, and why should they be denied to gay people?” it would still be a reasonable question, and one that Christians should take seriously.
The articles in question gleefully double down on the slippery slope fallacy. For their authors, the slide from interracial marriage to gay marriage to multiple-partner marriages to incest, bestiality, and marriage to mops is inevitable once you remove the cornerstone of Christian sexual ethics:
There are reserved parking spaces for penises.
This norm is the bedrock of traditionalist support for their understanding of marriage. They believe this principle is established in the Bible, and that if you take it away, anything becomes acceptable. What they want is not a set of norms to evaluate sexual behavior, but a list of sexual behaviors that are “inherently sinful,” a set of dos and don’ts.
To be fair, I do not think most straight men think of their wives primarily as places to park their penises. But I do think this idea is implicit in conventional Christian culture, and has everything to do with purity balls, promise rings, and anti-feminist rhetoric.
The widespread acceptance of this principle can be witnessed in the double standards our culture applies to women and men in language about modesty and sexual promiscuity and in victim-blaming rape culture. Our Christian culture’s support of heterosexual marriage has less to do with the value of marriage or the goods it provides. It has more to do with preserving patriarchy. Shame around “sexual purity” is the rhetorical weapon used to reinforce this principle (more on that below.)
In our culture, anxiety about polygamy or polyamory is seldom about one man with multiple wives (polygyny), but about legally-sanctioned threesomes, open marriages, or polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands). The fear is that people might, without shame, have lots of sex in ways of which we disapprove. But while conservatives can often describe this sexual dystopia, they have a difficult time framing those concerns as positive support for monogamy. They prefer to stick with the “one man, one woman” slogan.
There will be quick retribution if we question the virtues of monogamy in our culture or relativize it (by talking about the practices of other cultures). This is the “political correctness” of patriarchy, and it has been around for thousands of years.
No wonder people thought Jesus was possessed by demons when he spoke disparagingly of family ties. Patriarchy is a god and to question it is blasphemy.
What traditionalists fear is that if we kick away this patriarchal “parking space” norm, we will have nothing left. We will slide down a slippery slope into sexual anarchy. But, in fact, we can come up with several excellent norms, supported both by the Bible and Christian theology and tradition, that are much better for doing sexual ethics. I’m a big fan of Margaret Farley’s norms for Christian ethics from her book Just Love:
1. Do no unjust harm – this is also Wesley’s first principle of discipleship.
2. Free consent – a norm almost completely missing from the Bible, but which we should derive from loving our neighbor as ourselves.
3. Mutuality – both partners give and receive love and physical affection. The relationship is not one-sided.
4. Equality – power and responsibility are equally shared. The humanity of one partner is not denigrated.
5. Commitment – partners treat each other as ends and not means, as human beings instead of sex objects.
6. Fruitfulness – the relationship may not produce children, but produces spiritual and social fruit. The relationship develops other social goods for the larger community beyond the partners.
7. Social justice – partners think not only in terms of what’s good for them, but what’s good for the world, their potential children, and future generations.
These norms are so, so much better than “one man, one woman.” They give us positive ways for evaluating relationships. They allow us to rule out exploitive, abusive, selfish, or toxic relationships in a way that “the Bible says” does not. Moreover, they are intelligible to people who are not Christians. They give us a common language to talk with those who may not share our faith.
They also give us an opportunity to share what it is about our faith that should appeal to non-Christians. Some people call marriage God’s graduate school: It challenges us to learn how to love God and neighbor in a deeper way. We learn to love our neighbor better when we have another person challenging us to live beyond our own selfish tendencies every day.
These norms also give us language that encompasses both the sexual and non-sexual aspects of a relationship. As same-sex marriage supporters often point out, marriage is about more than sex. The vast majority of time we spend in a marriage is not sexual, but practical: checking calendars to make sure our families don’t have conflicts around school or work, balancing the checkbook, buying groceries, preparing food, enforcing discipline, celebrating birthdays, or supporting each other in crisis. Sexual intimacy can give us the strength to do all of these things better because we know and are known by another person. We trust that person with our lives, because we trust that person with the most intimate parts of ourselves in our “nakedness,” our vulnerability.
Again, all of these norms apply to same-sex marriage as easily as they apply to opposite-sex marriage.
The Problems (and Advantages) of Polygamy
We could also use these norms to critique polygamy or relationships that fall outside of monogamous marriage. Commitment is a problem for non-monogamy, because to value and understand an “other” as a subjective self takes a lifetime of knowing and being known, of sharing goals and dreams. Mutuality and equality are called into question in relationships that include more than a pair.
In my previous article, I mentioned that workplace relationships, like incest, violate equality and free consent norms. As I mentioned above, in places where polygyny is practiced, partners are often not equal, and consent is not free.
A commenter on my previous article asked me to clarify my take on polygamy, and I responded this way:
I suppose my biggest critique of polygamy / polyamory is that it violates a norm of exclusive commitment and calls into question equal power relationships. In classic polygamy (polygyny), women, girls, and even young boys often wind up the “losers” in that kind of social arrangement. It requires an unequal distribution of men and women, and anyone who is not an older male does not have the same level of freedom or power.
…it takes a lifetime of exclusive commitment to truly know another person intimately, [and] adequate respect given to that process doesn’t leave time for anyone else. I think exclusive commitment is one way to protect the idea that people are treated as ends instead of means, that others are not used for their sexual utility only (either for pleasure or reproductive purposes), but are valued as complete subjective selves.
We have to recognize also that these norms may not apply cross-culturally. In some cultures, men and women who marry do not live together. Men continue to live in the “men’s house,” and women live with their extended family. What do we say about monogamy or commitment or equality in this situation? How would people in this culture live out the gospel? Do we force them to live in single-family homes in the suburbs?
This doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize other cultural practices. Cultures that practice polygyny and female genital mutilation violate the norms of equality, mutuality, free consent, and doing no harm.
It also doesn’t mean that Christian marriage is safe from critique. All of these norms are available for critique once they are stated. Is commitment really important? Do we ever really value other people as “subjective selves?” Is that kind of long-term relationship necessary for people to develop mature love, and if so, what are we saying about people who choose to remain celibate, or people who are asexual, or people who are single? Are they not able to love maturely?
I welcome these kinds of questions from folks who have rejected traditional marriage and find our cultural idolization of it oppressive. Their voices need to be heard.
But doing this kind of thoughtful reflection on relationships is more work than just saying “polygamy is bad.” It requires us to examine questions about power, respect, and consent, which patriarchal Christianity cannot abide.
Nor can it abide moral imagination. Part of doing ethics for thousands of years has involved trying to come up with a scenario, no matter how far-fetched, in which something forbidden might become acceptable. The rabbis of ancient Israel asked “under what circumstances does it become okay to violate the sabbath?” Philosophers ask questions about how we make life-and-death decisions when choosing between the good of the many and the good of the few (see the trolley dilemma). So to test our ethical norms, we should ask, “under what circumstances can we imagine polygamy being acceptable?”
This would be a great discussion for a classroom, although by floating it I again risk the ire of right-wing bloggers. If one man and three women are stranded on a desert island without hope of rescue, does polyamory become acceptable? Most straight men will want to say yes—but does it really? What about one woman and three men? In proposing this scenario, do we recognize the danger of rape, the historical precedent of jealous male violence, and the question “How free is consent in this situation?” Can we really talk about any social and sexual agreement the four of them develop as “marriage?”
What if they are not on a desert island, but the last survivors on the planet, and the human race will die out unless they reproduce? Genetic diversity will be important for future generations, so do they have an obligation to sleep around as much as possible? Or do our norms override even the survival of the species?
What if we are colonizing another planet? Sending lots of men on a spaceship is an inefficient use of resources, so would polygyny be acceptable in that situation? Why use men at all, if we have the technology to allow for an all-female crew? Although it sounds like a setup for a sci-fi sexploitation novel, it forces us to clarify what norms we are using when we judge human sexual relationships.
These questions involve an element of storytelling and an openness to uncomfortable answers. This is where philosophy becomes narrative, and the stuff we’re talking about as abstract hypotheticals get incarnated by characters with whom we sympathize. This is why we should read fiction.
Rhetoric and the problem of doing Christian ethics in the public sphere
Unfortunately, my recent experience has shown me that not everyone appreciates this kind of imaginative exploration. Questions and narratives are as threatening to patriarchal Christianity as people who refuse to be shamed.
Conventional patriarchal Christianity is heavily dependent on shame to police behavior. Disgust and shaming are deployed against any who challenge patriarchy. Because these tactics are largely emotional instead of rational, they take advantage of a full range of fallacious logic: slippery slopes, ad hominem attacks, guilt by association, straw man arguments, and so on. Both articles attacking me doubled down on the slippery slope fallacy, but they do not address the question, “What good is monogamy?”
I usually prefer to ask questions rather than offer value judgments. I generally don’t repost or retweet moral outrage, because these are the tools of cable news networks. I prefer classroom-style discussion. These styles don’t play well together. Doing Christian ethics in the public sphere requires writing for a potentially hostile audience.
Shame, disgust, and violence are tools of patriarchal Christianity, partly because of its atonement theory (often called “penal substitutionary atonement”—which makes me snicker.) The narrative goes like this: God is going to send us to hell because God is disgusted with our sinfulness. But God chose to take out his (and he is definitely masculine) wrath on Jesus instead of us. If we buy into this narrative through confession and repentance, we can experience cathartic release of all of our guilt and shame, and God will not be violent with us (by sending us to hell).
The advantage of this individualistic atonement theory is that for people who need to be saved from their destructive behavior (especially addictions), who feel burdened by guilt and shame, they can have a cathartic release. God is not against them, but for them. They are freed from their past and can begin again. It can be a liberating story.
The problem is that not everyone feels particularly guilty. What is a Christian evangelist to do with someone who doesn’t feel particularly sinful? The answer is easy: make them feel sinful. Let them know how awful their sin is. Even if their sin isn’t particularly awful, it’s all the same to an infinitely holy God. This approach has worked well in America ever since Jonathan Edwards preached “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and described us sinners as disgusting spiders held by God over eternal flames.
But increasingly, Christians are becoming aware that being saved from personal sin and hell is not everyone’s prime concern. There are different ways to talk about atonement and what God does for us through Jesus Christ. For many who are ground under the heel of oppression, who are targeted unfairly for violent policing in American cities, who are trapped in abusive marriages, who are denied legal rights because they are gay, the primary thing they need to be saved from is not their own personal sin. Doubling down on shame rhetoric does not make them rush into the arms of the Lord. They have enough shame. We cannot turn the thumbscrews on them any tighter to make them confess. What they need saving from is the sin of injustice, of discrimination, of violence.
This is why conservative reaction against progressive evangelicals has been so vitriolic. If people stop listening to the shame rhetoric of conventional patriarchal Christianity, they won’t come down the Romans road to the altar. We will all go gaily traipsing down the slippery slope to moral anarchy and damnation. It’s why any ambiguous statement will be seized upon as evidence of liberal moral turpitude.
The church of conventional patriarchal Christianity has played the role of disapproving parent to our culture for so long that it doesn’t know what to do when adolescents give it the finger or shrug and say, “Nuts to you and your shame language.”
It’s worth noting here, as many others have pointed out, that Jesus doesn’t use much shame language in the gospels. At least, not with everyday people. The folks Jesus uses shame language with are religious leaders who themselves attempt to shame him by saying he’s abolishing Torah, destroying the traditional family, and turning the world upside-down. The tabloids published articles about him: “Rabbi from Galilee accused of Threatening to Tear Down Temple.”
When we bring up the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, people who want to preserve patriarchal Christianity desperately hang on Jesus’ last “go and sin no more” as a lifeline. “See?” They argue, while picking up more stones. “He’s not letting her off the hook.” Anything to preserve shame as a weapon.
And this is why doing what I do as a pastor at the margins—asking questions, describing history, talking about real (instead of imaginary) social problems, pointing out arguments that biblical authors have with each other, making friends with LGBTQ activists—is dangerous. Using my pastoral authority as a platform to create an open classroom for discipleship, rather than a secure position from which to attack others, involves risk.
But it also opens up the biblical text and Christian tradition to those who have been marginalized by patriarchal Christianity. It makes doing Christian ethics relevant to people who are not Christians.
*The headline is “Major United Methodist Gay Lobby Group Accused of Endorsing Polyamory,” which is a little bit like the headline, “Barack Obama Accused of Being a Socialist.”