Friday, 6 July 2012

Defense of Marriage

I know this may be an unpopular entry, but as a linguist, I just have to address the issue of marriage and the fact that there is a group of people who feel it "owns" the term and doesn't want it sullied by expansion or removing it from its religious "basis". Sorry, but the word "marriage" has nothing to do with religion. It's politics, all politics!

Right off the bat, I have to disabuse anyone reading this of the idea that marriage is inherently a religious issue and it is certainly not a purely Christian one either. Obviously marriage is an institution that exists in many different traditions, so it can't simply be a Christian concept. Nonetheless, even in terms of Christianity, marriage did not start out as any kind of holy union.  

 Historically marriage has been a political affair.  In Ancient Greece, for example, it was promoted as a civic responsibility (although the ceremony was generally a private personal occasion.) The Magnus Hischfeld Archive on Sexology quotes Demosthenes' explanation, "We have prostitutes for our pleasure, concubines for our health, and wives to bear us lawful offspring."  (Okay, so this is not a culture with a good model for current relationships - let's move on!!)

 In Rome too, producing children was considered an important aspect of marriage. The word "matrimony" literally means state of motherhood (matrem - mother / monium  - state condition).  (See I wasn't kidding about being a linguist!!)  

Romans (legal eagles that they were) made all manner of laws and instituted several varieties of marriages including those called "usus" (with no ceremony - essentially what we call "common law" marriage) "coemptio" (initiated before witnesses and a public ceremony) and "confarreatio" (the big enchilada with witnesses, a public ceremony and a priest). The Magnus Hischfeld Archive on Sexology (MHAoS) suggests that Roman marriages were monogamous, however anyone who has read that hypercynical historianTacitus will remember his praise of the Teutonic marriage for its faithfulness in contrast to the behaviors of the "more civilized" Romans. (Monogamous maybe, but not virtuous.) MHAoS concludes, "marriage and divorce were always personal, civil agreements between the participants and did not need the stamp of governmental or religious approval."

And honestly, Christianity doesn't have the most consistent record on the issue of marriage.  As noted by Stephanie Coontz, Jesus wasn't exactly supportive of marriage in many of the things he said. Take for example, Luke 14, "If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple." Not exactly what you call family values, now is it? And don't get me started on Paul! In Corinthians 1,7 he notes, that "It is a good thing for a man not to marry." (from Jeff Nall, Since When did Marriage Become a Christian Institution?) See either article for many more examples.

 Nall highlights Christian contempt of marriage, citing Edward Gibbon, "[E]arly Christians tolerated [marriage] as "a defect," and exalted celibacy "as the nearest approach to the divine perfection." According to Gibbon, the early Church fathers believed Adam would have best served God had he remained a virgin: "The use of marriage was permitted only to his fallen posterity, as a necessary expedient to continue the human species, and as a restraint… on the natural licentiousness of desire." Virginity was the purist condition possible and in early medieval times there was massive debate on whether non-virginal women could even enter into heaven.  Rachel Hartmann clarifies, "St. Jerome, a fourth century theologian, claimed virgins would receive a hundred times their desserts in heaven, compared with sixty for chaste widows and a mere thirty for wives."  So you see, at best the odds were stacked against the married.

For medieval European culture before the 11th century, marriage remained a political issue - a way of joining landed and important families and it was celebrated publicly in the main square of the town (in front of the church, not inside it). This public ceremony underscored the worldly/political nature of the union. Afterwards the couple might go into the church and celebrate mass, but it wasn't until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that marriage even became a sacrament. 

Pope Innocent III made many important pronouncements at this Council, including that priests were not to gamble, get drunk or be unchaste, that Jews were not allowed out publicly during the Easter holidays, that Non-Christians should be clearly distinguishable from Christians by dress, and that no incompetent person should be made a priest. (All good material for a future blog post for sure!) 

By making marriage a sacrament, the Church got to rule on who deserved to get married and who did not. In other words, the Church decided that it wanted control over who could be officially married or not (which sounds to me like a political decision.)

And that is what this whole defense of marriage debate today boils down to in my opinion. It is a political debate among people who want control over who has the right to be married. 

The word marriage has changed in meaning and nuance over time but it does not confer any particular necessity of meaning either religious or political.  After all, we have numerous words for marriage in English and they all relate to the same social concept.  The word marriage comes from the Old English and Old French (marier) which comes from Latin and maybe Proto-Indo-European "mari" (young woman).The Old Norse at least gave a divided perspective to unions by having separate words for men and women (Etymology on line):

O.N. kvangask (of men) from kvan "wife" (cf. quean), so "take a wife;" giptask (of women), from gipta, a specialized use of "to give" (cf. gift (n.)) so "to be given."

This is an interesting contrast to those Old Germans that Tacitus was admiring so much. We get our word for wedding from them and the responsibilities seem to be reversed.  Here men don't "take" they "give."

O.E. weddian "to pledge, covenant to do something, marry," from P.Gmc. *wadjojanan (cf. O.N. veðja "to bet, wager," O.Fris. weddia "to promise," Goth. ga-wadjon "to betroth"), from PIE root *wadh- "to pledge, to redeem a pledge" (cf. L. vas, gen. vadis "bail, security," Lith. vaduoti "to redeem a pledge"). Sense remained "pledge" in other Germanic languages (cf. Ger. Wette "bet, wager"); development to "marry" is unique to English. "Originally 'make a woman one's wife by giving a pledge or earnest money', then used of either party" [Buck]. (Etymology on line) Personally I like the idea of marriage being a wager, and maybe that is why the Fourth Lateran counsel prohibited priests from gambling. You never know!

So here's my question. If "Mari" comes from the idea of wedding a young woman, then do you think that only lesbian and sexist heterosexual unions should be allowed to marry? We'd have to use the word "Nuptial" (from the idea of taking a husband (Latin and Greek)) for gay men and heterosexual women head of households - I guess we would need a new word - Should they be connubialized? Think of the fun we could have - a woman marrying another woman could be gynunited, a man marrying a man could be andronubilated, a heterosexual woman could be feminaried and a heterosexual man, well, how about enmascowedded?  Or we could all be bespoused! (Of course the word spouse doesn't offer any improvement really since the Latin origins of "spouse" offer both a feminine and masculine form: (O.Fr. spus (fem. spuse), from L. sponsus "bridegroom" (fem. sponsa "bride"), from masc. and fem. pp. of spondere "to bind oneself, promise solemnly," from PIE *spend- "to make an offering, perform a rite". (Etymology on line))

Still, in my book, performing a rite seems better than being given or taken!  Maybe we could settle on a single word for everyone like marriasponsored! Or how about just using the word "marry."

If you think this is getting silly, I agree, and that is really the point. We have a lot of terms for these social unions with each other and none of them are "owned" by anyone, nor should they be. 

It is not however funny that there are people who have no rights to visit their life partners in the hospital, to be buried together, to share insurance, or to publicly commit their lives to each other simply because their hearts have led them to a "non-sanctified" union. 

And enough of this WE get the word "marriage" and YOU can use "civil union". Now really, who wants to be called "civil unionized"?!!! (Not me!) It sounds like some kind of proclamation by Abraham Lincoln!
And why do we keep dragging God into this mess? In the long run, I say, if God really has an issue with Gay Marriage, then let him/her sort it out on the other side. That's kind of his/her job. In the mean time, maybe we could concentrate on something else, like maybe loving our neighbors.

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