Sunday, March 31, 2013

In Which I Finally Understood Easter After I Stopped Being Christian

One of the last times I visited my grandmother, she wanted to give me 'a little money' (I think it was $20 or so; she liked to tell me to 'get myself a treat'), and I followed her into her bedroom so she could get her purse.  Looking at all the family pictures on her dresser, I noticed one that wasn't a relation.  Neatly tucked in among the shots of my mother and aunt, sister and cousins, of my great-grandmother and my great-uncle and my nephews, was a small framed picture of Christ.  I didn't really think much of it until I was headed home, but it says something profound and significant about my grandmother's relationship with her faith.

She had, of course, all the other pictures of Jesus that Midwesterners have, the one over the TV, the one in the guest room, and so on.  But here was one that made a statement that defined her: Jesus was part of my grandmother's family.  He was not a remote and unknowable being, a distant mythical figure to be worshiped but never understood.  He was a friend, a brother, a father to her.  When she prayed, she genuinely believed that he heard her, and that feeling of being heard gave her comfort whether her prayers were answered or not.  Though, my grandmother's prayers were usually answered -- not because she was better than the rest of us, but because she knew what her God could give her.  She wouldn't pray for an end to a sickness, but for the wisdom of the doctors and the courage to endure.  She wouldn't pray for a good harvest, but for the strength to work hard and the skill to make the most of weather and circumstance.  When my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer, she didn't ask God to take it away: she prayed for smart doctors, and her own courage, and her husband's comfort.  She understood that faith isn't about waving a magic wand to get what you want; it's about having support and comfort for your journey.

I'm thinking today about my grandmother's relationship with her gods because it's Easter, the most holy and joyful day of the Christian faith.  A lot of my friends like to mock it with faux-clever quips about zombie Jesus, but I can't really see my way clear to mocking something that meant that much to someone who's meant so much to me.

When I was little, I didn't really like Easter because it wasn't as fun.  Sure, there were eggs and candy, but Christmas had a TREE and PRESENTS and maybe even SNOW and time off school.  I left the Christian faith at 19, before I fully understood the idea of self-sacrifice, of making life choices for the love of others.  Within paganism, as I've chosen a path of duty and service, I've finally come to understand Easter, to understand why this story of incredible love and compassion is so powerful to those of the Christian faith.

My grandmother believed that once upon a time her God had looked forward to everyone who would ever be, and had known that someday she personally would exist, and he had asked his son, "I love these people.  Will you also love them enough to die for them?"  And she believed that Christ had looked forward, and had seen her (and everyone else who would ever be), and said, "Yes, I will."

In the Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, a character named Kevin Laine swears an oath: "Though he be a god, and it mean my death ... to this I will make my reply."  Later, another character references that promise and points out that you give a little leeway to a man who says that sort of thing, even if he doesn't quite know how he'll accomplish it when he says it.

That's sort of how I feel about the Christian promise.  I am not a Christian theologist, and I have my own ideas on the nature of free will and redemption that may or may not jibe with the Easter story.  But the gist of it is that one man said, "Yes, these people, I love them so much, even the ones I've never met, that I'll go through this horrible thing for them, just because of my own belief that somehow my sacrifice will make something possible for them that they couldn't have otherwise managed."  And...I have to give a certain amount of respect to a man who swears that sort of oath, even if the fundamental mechanics are sort of unclear to me.

If you've read Fionavar, you know what Kevin's reply was.  If you haven't, you should.  And it remains to be seen what Christ's reply really means in the long run; people have their own beliefs ranging from 'nothing' to 'everything'.  Maybe he never existed.  Maybe he existed as a man and teacher who's been expanded to the Son of God to fill a mythic role.  Maybe he was the literal Son of God.  I don't know.  I can't know.  Personally, I don't need to know.

But I do know that my grandmother loved him deeply, with all her heart, and that her love for him was profound and important enough to her to inform every single aspect of her daily life, to color every interaction, every conversation.  And just as I wouldn't mock someone's dead father, or dead brother, and just as I would be hurt by someone mocking my grandmother or the best friend I lost in 2004, I simply cannot find it in myself to disrespect her love that way.

I love you all.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In Which I Advocate for Domestic Partnership

Almost everyone I know is currently up in arms about gay marriage.  It's understandable; a substantial portion of the American population is being denied basic civil rights on a flimsy 'moral' pretext.

The argument as to whether homosexuality is moral or immoral is relevant to the social and personal treatment of gays, but it should be irrelevant to law.  Law is not, contrary to popular belief, derived from a moral argument.  It's derived from an ethical agreement we participate in as a society.  Things are not illegal because they are 'wrong' on a moral level.  In a pluralistic society, things should be illegal because they're detrimental to the social order, not because they're in opposition to a theological position.

Civil rights are not detrimental to the social order.  Equality is not detrimental to the social order.  If you give everyone the same rights and privileges under the law, it creates a more stable system, not a less stable one.  Greater social stability is an inherent benefit to those who live within a society, so long as it doesn't prevent the growth and progress of that society.  Any expansion of civil rights encourages the growth and progress of a society.

Marriage equality is a complex issue, and one that affects me on a number of levels.  As a non-Christian, I object to living under the assumption of 'Christian morality'.  As a straight ally, I see my friends and loved ones denied a basic right I enjoy simply because my sexual preference is more palatable to a certain segment of the population.  And as a clergyperson, I have to wrestle with the issue of whether or not I will perform heterosexual marriages when I can't legally solemnize same-sex ones.

The first two are larger social problems, but the last can be viewed as a matter of contracts.  Ultimately, what I've come to consider is that I should give up my power to confer legal status on anyone, straight or gay.  When I perform a wedding, it should be solely a spiritual and social ceremony, with no legal standing at all.  I believe that clergy should play a simple role, managing the rites and rituals of community life.  But I believe that ultimately, the only way to maintain a proper separation of church and state is to create two separate elements to marriage.

The first element is the social and spiritual one, the ceremony before community in which consenting adults swear oaths to one another by whatever they hold sacred, oaths that create no legal obligation.  This element of a wedding confers a social standing upon the participants, by which those who share similar values can recognise that these people have made promises to one another.  It creates a moral obligation, but no connection under the law.  I feel, as a priestess, that I am qualified to perform these ceremonies because I intimately understand the structures of oath and obligation, the social fabric of community that makes that ritual meaningful.

The second aspect of marriage is the legal contract.  It creates a connection under law, a set of obligations with fiscal and legal ramifications, and a set of privileges that affect property transfer, parental rights, healthcare decisions, and financial standing.  The set of promises entailed in civil marriages all relate to simple contract law, and should be handled as such by a state-appointed official well-versed in contracts, estate law, tax policy, and property rights.  As a priestess, I am not an expert on contract law, and am not best qualified to legitimize that relationship.

I propose a complete severance between the aspects of marriage, that the clergy be left unmolested to perform any marriage they choose:  man to woman, man to man, woman to woman, three or more people.  In cases where one party is unable to legally consent (age, mental incapacity), clergy marriage shouldn't provide protection to the relationship (if you find a priest to marry you to a twelve-year-old girl, "she's my wife" should not protect you from statutory rape), but otherwise there should be no legal restrictions on who can be married in such a ceremony.

In tandem with this, any domestic partnership should be required to undergo a civil contract registry to obtain the rights, privileges, and legal standing available to married persons.  Any number of consenting adults can sign a contract, provided all signatories agree to the terms.  You can be married all you like, but without a domestic registry the state recognises nothing about your union.  Each state has a standard set of rights and privileges associated with marriage, and a simple "John Doe and Jane Smith agree to enter into a domestic partnership according to the laws of (state) with no exceptions," contract would cover most marriages, and those with more complex relationships are free to seek legal counsel to codify the terms of their marriage contract, just as a couple can seek legal advice for a prenuptial agreement now.

Most suggestions of 'domestic partnership' offer a 'separate but equal' dodge around marriage equality, creating a second tier of 'almost the same' to be offered to gays and lesbians, but that creates a second-class marital status.  Pure equality under the law requires, ultimately, that only the law determine who has a legal standing.

This involves me giving up a power I currently hold under law, but I've been feeling a growing conflict with that power for some time.  I am not qualified to advise on the legal ramifications of contract marriage, and if I am truly taking the responsibility of officiating weddings seriously, I should be able to intelligently explain to everyone involved the full ramifications of the thing we are doing together.