Margaret Court is right to stand up for a traditional view of marriage, but needs to nest that conviction in a Christian ethic of love for one’s neighbour, including one’s LGBTI neighbour.
The controversy surrounding Margaret Court’s open letter to QANTAS about its support for marriage equality, and the resulting furore about whether to rename Margaret Court Arena, is a reminder that our community is still deeply divided over marriage equality and the Bible is a playing field in that debate.
Personally I think Court went about it all wrong.
If you want to orchestrate a boycott of QANTAS, it is relatively easy. Just sit down with Alan Joyce over a beer, discuss your differences in polite fashion, agree to disagree at the end, post the video online, and some LGBTI activists will call for boycott of QANTAS faster than you can say, “Where’s my Coopers beer?”
What is more, some of Court’s religious critics are not necessarily convincing. My fellow Melbourne Anglican, Robyn Whitaker, tried to argue that the Bible endorses all sorts of things like polygamy and concubinage. She claims the Bible exhibits a “culturally bound ideology” which is “precisely why biblical scholars and mainstream Christian churches do not adhere to a literal interpretation of this ancient and diverse text.” In other words, don’t get too flustered, don’t take this stuff literally, even many Christians don’t believe everything the Bible says about marriage and sexuality.
The issue is not about whether one takes the Bible literally, but whether one takes it seriously. To take it seriously means recognizing the cultural frames the Bible is lodged in as well as the cultural frames of any reader. It also means refusing the temptation to re-make the Bible or even Jesus in our own image.
So, yes, there is polygamy in the Bible, but some parts of the Bible are reluctantly permissive (this was not ideal, but it was the least worst option available at the time) or merely descriptive (this is what happened, not necessarily how one should live). Yes, there is some weird stuff in the Old Testament that we’d never contemplate now, but the teaching of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament have been regarded by the universal church as the fullest expression of God’s purposes for human beings, and those purposes include the instruction that marriage is between a man and a woman (see Matthew 19:5-6, 1 Timothy 3:2, 12, 5:9, and Titus 1:6). In addition, Jesus was not a twenty-first century social progressive with liberal views of sexuality and a champion of identity politics. He was a first-century Aramaic-speaking Galilean peasant who probably had the same attitudes that other Jews of his day had about marriage. As Australia’s William Loader has shown, the world’s leading expert on Jewish and Christian views of sexuality in antiquity, a wide range of homosexual acts were proscribed by these communities.
So at this point, as a self-confessed “evangelical catholic” I agree with Margaret Court about marriage being between a man and a woman.
Where I disagree with Court is the spirit and tone of her discourse.
Let us remember that Jesus happily dined with prostitutes, tax-collectors, lepers, and outcasts. He even reached out to Samaritans, the main religious rivals to the Jews. Jesus wanted his disciples to be fishers of men and women, and he regarded no-one as beyond the pale. Or as I like to say, Jesus accepts the fish that John West rejects.
Court should feel free to stand by a biblical model of marriage, but only as long as she’s emulating the biblical love ethic of Jesus, which majored on love for neighbour. That means loving her LGBTI neighbour. If we are to love the “least to these” as Jesus commanded that will mean listening to and caring for those who have experienced rejection and marginalization. And the LGBTI community are among the best contemporary examples of modern outcasts if you ever care to listen to their stories. It’s easy for conservatives to whinge about the ubiquity of marriage equality campaigns, but it’s harder to be like Jesus, and welcome LGBTI people and even wash their feet. The Pharisees were good at pointing out who the sinners were, but Jesus excelled in loving the downtrodden and discarded, and letting the magnetism of his own presence drive people to follow his teaching (see Luke 19:1-10).
The problem with Margaret Court’s views is not that they are biblical, the problem is that they are not biblical enough. We’ve heard about God’s law about marriage, but where is the grace, love, and mercy that is scandalous in its scope because it dares to give hope to those who were supposed to have none? That’s what Jesus was known for.