Thursday, 14 February 2008

On divorce. (God bless you Doxy)

The ever-inspiring Wormwood’s Doxy has posted a brilliant piece on divorce over at her place: as usual she’s left me wrestling with what it means to be alive by grace: challenged, but also inspired as she ponders a phrase I’ve also encountered across the broad spectrum of Christian discussion – “I don’t believe in divorce.”

My first reaction after reading Doxy’s work was to draw my breath and fight back tears; she raised so many of the issues that I’ve only recently begun finding enough courage to consider. Now, a few days later, her piece still touches me deeply, and I’d like to add a few thoughts of my own: The interludes are from Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby.

“When you're all alone and lonely;
It’s your midnight hour,
And you find that your soul has been up for sale”

Generally when people say “I don’t believe in divorce” what they really mean is “I think divorce is a terrible thing which doesn’t solve anyone’s underlying problems.” Which is - just ask anyone who’s experienced divorce, irrespective of the circumstances - a lot like saying “I think that the ocean is made of water, much of which is cold and salty.” The oft-cited serial divorcee blithely jumping from one severed marriage to the next free of guilt, remorse, and any sense of shame or failure is, as Doxy points out, hard to find in reality. Like the Vanishing Hitchhiker, I’ve heard the story told a number of times in a variety of ways, but never been able to pin down any of the details for myself.

“And you start thinking again about all those things that you've done
And who it was, and what it was.
And all the different scenes you made,
And you begin to hate just about everything.”

Divorce is like testicular amputation, or perhaps undergoing mastectomy: an agonizing, excruciating pain cutting to the core of one’s very being – ripping bare your heart, sexuality, identity, soul and spirituality, and irrevocably changing your entire world. Yet sometime’s that’s better than the alternative consequences. It’s not something to be ever wished on anyone, and having survived it once I seriously doubt I could do so again. Those who have are to be respected – for they are only alive through God’s grace and mercy.

Divorce shouldn’t happen: neither should cancer, bereavement or motor-neurone disease. But it does. Sometimes people emerge from the experience as only a shadow of their former self, just as they sometimes do from the other terrors I’ve cited, and sometimes they find themselves less changed than they had anticipated. But they are changed nonetheless, and I’ve yet to encounter the person who says they are not.

“And all your two-bit friends have gone and ripped you off.
They're talking behind your back saying, man
You' ain’t never going to be no human being.”

As the wounds which are inevitably part of the experience begin to heal by God’s grace they are all too often torn open afresh by people quoting Jesus’ well-known sayings about divorce and remarriage. To which the only response I’ve until now been capable of making has been (and I refuse make an apology for the language I’m about to use, because there’s no other way I know of conveying the devastation I’ve felt at these times) “Yeah thanks, but do you really think I don’t know that I’ve fucked up eternally. Think of me when I’m in hell; the foretaste that life’s become isn’t pretty.”

After experiencing this a few times most people learn to avoid anyone or anything even remotely connected with Christianity. Who the fuck needs still more pain? And then the evangelism committees wonder why so few people in the 35 - 50 age bracket want any contact with the church...

“But remember that the city is a funny place:
Something like a circus or a sewer.
And just remember different people have peculiar tastes...”

It’s taken a long time, over ten years, but I’ve finally come to understand how much bigger God is than all that shit. Christ’s promise of forgiveness is real. And all encompassing. And not just extended to those who chose to read the Bible in ways which empower them at the expense of others.

To which I can hear people respond “Great – but what about Jesus’ words? Are you saying people should just ignore all the things he said about divorce being a wicked sin, and remarriage being adultery?” After which the Matthian trolls will add ”You really are the evil godless liberal I’ve been told you are.”

Experience teaches that the Matthians and their ilk will only hear what they’ve been told they’re allowed to believe, at least until life kicks them down and they find the machine in which they’ve been enmeshed doesn’t want to know them any longer. Which is what invariably happens, and sadly for many it comes about through their own taste of divorce’s terrible bitterness. For the rest of us there’s a few sayings of Jesus in Matthew 5 which immediately precede the famous sayings of divorce, remarriage and adultery, but which I for one have never heard considered in this context:

“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.”
“If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away”

Now of all the weird and wonderful practices embraced by the early church, there is no record of eyeball gouging and self amputation gaining popularity. There is nothing to suggest any of the disciples underwent a poke and chop. Nor do any of those who deride the rest of us for “not taking the Bible seriously” appear to be one-eyed in any sense other than the metaphoric. These passages have since the days they were first recorded and distributed been read as figurative, not literal: Jesus using hyperbole to make a point.

Yet come the very next verse conservative teachers tell us to make a hermeneutical backflip. We must, or so we are instructed, no longer read Christ’s teachings figuratively, but literally. It’s adultery folks, and we all know from elsewhere in scripture that adulterers are heading on a one-way express trip to the place where God isn’t. Permanently.

Aside from being cruel, and resulting in a theology which denies the power of grace, this is also dishonest. There’s simply no justification for this interpretive about-face. Jesus doesn’t say “If your eye causes you to sin install a licensed copy of Covenant Eyes on every computer you touch.” He says to gouge it out, and if you’re going to be a literalist and condemn everyone who isn’t then it’s high time you found a stick and started getting that eyeball out and squished for good measure. Because if you don’t you’re just being a hypocrite – and a case can be easily made from scripture that as such your end will be no different that of the adulterers.

Interestingly enough, both sections are enclosed by passages demanding relational integrity: the first saying inter-personal reconciliation must take precedence over organized religious observance, and the second calling for transparency of speech and love for others – even for those whom might be considered unrighteous.

There’s an obvious reason why the sayings on divorce have traditionally been interpreted literally: while the sayings concerning the removal of body parts in response to untoward feelings of desire apply primarily to men (or have long been understood as such), and there’s no incentive for men, who have for too long controlled both church and state, to do anything drastic about the hand that everyone knows we use for more than just shaking hands and signing cheques. Divorce, on the other hand, is something none of them wants being used in such a way as to empower women – who knows how that might upset the status quo? So things have traditionally been interpreted in such a way as to reinforce the patriarchy. Who have never given a shit about who gets hurt along the way.

Significantly, the people who most condemn the divorced are those who’ve least experience of what we've been through. But isn’t that the way with most things? It’s far easier to damn homosexuality when you so straight you won't even touch bent spaghetti - never mind the fact that in so doing you've let yourself become a judgemental hate-filled prig who alientates people from Christ every time you open your pharisaical mouth. Middle class Christians invariably find “working class” sins like drunkenness and profanity more heinous than their own materialism and pride. In the course of this hypocrisy those excluded along the way become nothing more “collateral damage” in the battle to protect one’s own dubious sanctity: “Thank you Lord, that while I am a sinner I am at least not as bad as them.”

Of all the words which can be used to describe this sort of attitude (and I’ve used enough obscenities in this piece already to throw around any more) “Christian” isn’t one of them. The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost. He came to bring life, and a way forward for those with none.

Contrary to what those who insist Jesus’ words on divorce be understood literally would have people understand, He brought forgiveness. Which is something I’ll blog more about in the next few days.

“and the Glory of Love, the Glory of Love
Just might come through:
The Glory of Love, the Glory Above
Might see you through…”

If there’s a soundtrack to the journey that’s been my survival through divorce, then this song has been a key part. Don’t worry if you can’t bring yourself to listen to it: the beloved One to whom I'm now married finds it almost unlistenable. For her Lou Reed’s voice is overwhelmingly depressing, and I’ll be honest: Pavarotti he ain’t. If you’re like her don’t worry – you’ve already read the bits that mean most, and the rest is probably just further proof of my eccentricity.

Just remember that the Glory of Love really can see you through, and will.


Wormwood's Doxy said...

I have my own tears now, dear friend. What a beautiful and heart-wrenching post.

But this:

to do anything drastic about the hand that everyone knows we use for more than just shaking hands and signing cheques.

Made me sputter tea all over my keyboard... ;-)

God bless you, Alcibiades. You have paid dearly for the happiness you know now. May God grant you the grace, peace, and serenity to enjoy it in full measure.

Luke Gilkerson said...

Hello Caliban,

It's the spin doctor from Covenant Eyes.

As you can imagine your blog came across my search this morning and I was eager to read what you wrote. I was really touched by your words—“ripping bare your heart, sexuality, identity, soul and spirituality, and irrevocably changing your entire world.” Wow. I have no comment about your brief mention of Covenant Eyes, and I won't try to pretend to be able to sympathize with the hurt of divorce. Seeing my parents go through it after 26 years of marriage was no pick nick.

I will say though that when I read the words of Jesus in Matthew 5, I don't see a tension of literal vs. hyperbolic meanings. Even if we believe that phrases like “right eye” and “right hand” were Hebrew figures of speech in Jesus day for the things in our lives that are the most valuable to us, that still doesn't dull the edge of his words. They still cut deep. They present a radical stance on lust. They reveal the righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). So do His words on anger, making and keeping vows, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies . . . and yes, divorce. We don't need to mince words: all of Jesus' words present a radical standard of righteousness.

So as Jesus' disciples we are to keep these commands and teach them to others, because doing so is the mark of true greatness in the kingdom of the Son of God's love (5:19). We take these commands seriously because Jesus came to interpret the Law and the Prophets so that we could live them out (5:17).

But that, I believe, is where we all fail miserably. What man who has condemned divorce can say that he has always let his yes be yes, that he has never lusted after a woman in his heart, that he has never retaliated, that he has never neglected to pray for and love his enemies. Like modern day scribes and Pharisees, some point out the obvious sin involve in divorce and pick up stones to rid the world of the the adulterer, while refusing to acknowledge their own guilt.

I go back, time and again, to the opening verses of Matthew 5. It isn't the ones who never fall short of the radical standard that inherit the kingdom, but the poor in spirit. It isn't those who merely strive for righteousness that are satisfied, but hunger for it because they recognize how empty they are. I am proud to belong to the fellowship of men and women who have empty pockets, who have nothing but the incredible invitation to come to water and drink (Isaiah 55:1).

Thanks for sharing about the glory of love.

Luke Gilkerson
Covenant Eyes

Doorman-Priest said...

I missed the original post. Thanks for reprinting it and for your thoughtful additions.

FranIAm said...

I will be brief- I stopped by from Doxy's.

This is brilliant.

Thank you and peace.

Alcibiades said...

Luke: I really appreciate you sharing your perspective. My usual experience is when those such as yourself who hail from different parts of Our Lord's Kingdom to that heretical corner which I by grace inhabit drop by here they simply throwing a few anonymous turds around and leave. Keeps the hit-rate counter high, but does nothing to help any of us see things through each others' eyes.

Unlike them you've clearly thought about what you've said, and while I won't pretend to agree with all your exegesis, but the conclusion - that none of us can stand before God except by God's grace, love & mercy - is really what matters, and something that brings hope to all of us. Thanks for reminding me that our common ground - Jesus - shall always be far more important than our differences.

As an aside, while I've made no secret about my opinion of Covenant Eyes, I'd sure rather people gave it a go before resorting to a session of eyeball and hand removal ;-)

God Bless

Nina said...

Yes, that's right.
And you said it so very well.

lj said...

Well and rightly spoken. Thank you.

Good to find you via Doxy.

Kate said...

Thank you so much for all of it, Lou Reed and all -- I love his voice.