Love, Laws, and Sex

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For more information about marriage equality, visit The Human Rights Campaign.

While the Supreme Court of the United States ponders questions about marriage equality, human rights, and states’ rights, I’ve been thinking about love. For those who support the right of two consenting adults to choose to marry, the question is fundamentally, after all, about love. It’s about the freedom to love whom we were wired to love and to covenant with that person. Yes, it’s also about the receiving all the privileges and accepting all the responsibilities that accompany that covenant. It’s about that covenant being seen as equal in the eyes of the government, regardless of the make-up of the 23rd set of chromosomes each person brings. But when it comes down to it, marriage is about love.

And that’s why I’m flummoxed. While my first thoughts about love revolve around family and those whom are dearest to me, my next ones, thanks to my upbringing and positive church experiences, turn to religion. God, it is said, is love. Jesus spoke of love throughout the Gospels. While I’ve lost in faith in God and in the divinity of Jesus, I’ve retained a respect for love — a reverence for the power of love, in fact — and a soft spot for the teachings attributed to the historical Jesus.

News flash. There’s no place in those Gospels where Jesus says anything negative about gays or lesbians. Nothing. Nada. Jesus does say plenty about love: Love your neighbor as yourself, love one another, and so on. He stands by the outcasts of the turn-of-that ancient-millenium society — lepers, prostitutes, the poor, and plenty of other regular folks. He encourages compassion, love’s active sidekick, to just about everyone, regardless of social position, life choices, or circumstance. We simply never hear about the homosexuals, possibly suggesting either they just weren’t the top of the outcast hit parade or at least that they didn’t make the cut when the Gospels were written. In short, it doesn’t seem that’s what was terribly important to Jesus or at least to those who wrote about Jesus decades and centuries later.

So why, tell me why, do some Christians –not all — not nearly — froth at the mouth at the thought of marriage between same-sex partners? As I’ve wandered the web today, I’m distressed by the vitriol by the Religious Right, both Protestant and Catholic. Reading through articles calling the equality sign above “The Sign of the Beast” and extolling teens that God “loves the person but hates the sin (of homosexual sex).” It turns out, at least in the eyes of those social conservatives, marriage isn’t really about two people committing to each other, either in a religious community or a secular ceremony, with the rights and protections that affords. It’s not even about love.

It’s about sex.

Isn’t it always? The funny thing is, most of heterosexual marriage isn’t about sex, so I’m not sure how it manages to be for homosexuals. Sure, both parties able and willing, sex is present in marriages. It can be an exceptionally good part of marriage, although it can get a short shrift when life gets busy.  And, if children are desired, the procreative end of sex is one way to bring them into the family.   But most of marriage, most of the time, isn’t about sex. Now, I’m divorced, so maybe I was doing something wrong during those 14 years of marriage, completely missing something, but I doubt it.

Much of marriage is about partnership. We generally marry to partner, to share our lives with someone we love and with whom we share values, desires, and maybe a few dreams. If we’re pragmatic about it, we may consider our future partner’s goals and approach to hard times as well as the legal benefits such union afford. Heck, we may look at credit ratings. But primarily, we marry because we love someone. We love so deeply and completely that we covenant with one another in the presence of others and share that commitment publicly.

Can that all be done outside of marriage? Sure, but in the eyes of the law, it’s not nearly the same. Those legal benefits of union — over 1,000 on the federal level — aren’t small details. Those benefits may include partner access to employer-provided medical insurance, tax benefits (or liabilities), exemptions from estate and gift taxes upon the death of a spouse, social security benefits for a surviving spouse, the ability of a partner to take family leave when the other is ill, visiting rights at hospitals, decreased costs on auto and housing insurance, and even child support should divorce occur. Yes, there are legal means to set up some of those outside of marriage, but many of those benefits only are realized for those in a federal government sanctioned marriage.

So let me get this right. As a nation, we’re denying same-sex partners a host of legal protections, many which better a family’s ability to care for those within it, even if a marriage is dissolved, because some of us are focused on sex? I’m not naive. I know religion is behind this as well. Not the religion I grew up with, one focused on love and social justice. This one is based on judgement and rules. Many people marry within a church because their belief system supports or even demands that way of partnering (and that’s often about sex and when to have it, too). Over eighteen years ago, I married in the Catholic Church, with marriage as sacrament as well as a legal contract. I married because I loved my then-fiance and wanted to partner with him. I then realized, in material terms, the benefits that people with the right to marry take for granted, building an appreciation for the legal end of marriage as soon as our first joint tax return occurred and when we discovered my company offered far better health insurance than his.

But love and legal arguments don’t work if you’re wrapped up in what happens in the bedroom some nights a week (more or less – no judgement here). In discussions with the religious right, it comes down to sex rather than love and stability.  And I don’t understand this. Jesus doesn’t have too much to say about sex, aside from some lines about adultery and lust. He never mentions the details, nor does he say that partners must be male and female. Jesus leaves out a host of details about other issues of life, such as dietary restrictions, fabric content of clothing, and menstrual regulations. I’m still stymied.

Love. Laws. Sex. Let’s embrace the first, allowing two people, DNA aside, enter the covenant of marriage. Let’s make the second equal across all consenting couples, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or shoe size. And as for the third? It’s not really my business, is it? Let’s keep it that way.

On Being a Compassionate People

DSCN1000A few weeks back, my younger son was having a hard time. He was anxious for reasons he couldn’t entirely identify, and when anxious, he acts irritable and stubborn with frequent outbursts. I know this about him. I have known if for years. I know that under that prickly, grouchy exterior is a kid who is worried, scared, and simply out of sorts. But two weeks back, as he became more prickly and grouchy, I responded with stubborn adherence to rules and withdrawal of computer privileges. Not surprisingly, this increased his anxiety, making him more prickly and grouchy. I suppose on some level I knew he was in distress, that he was worried or concerned about something, but I was focused on only my desire to have less opposition and conflict in the house and more sense of  control over the workings of our family.

In short, I felt his distress but overrode it with my own discomfort. Yes, I eventually broke through that override and comforted my son, working with him to find the source of his distress, the very process of which brought his anxiety down several notches. It was then that I expressed what Merriam-Webster calls compassion: Sympathetic consciousness of other’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

As humans, we are at out best when we are compassionate. Compassion occurs when we recognize and then respond to our shared situation of being human, namely being prone to suffering. We all suffer. We all watch others suffer. And, like it or not, we all contribute to the suffering of others. When my son was lashing out and melting down because he was suffering, I added to his suffering initially out of lack of awareness followed by a desire to maintain control of the status quo.  I didn’t act with malice. But I added to his suffering by reacting to his behavior without thought the cause. When I found compassion, his suffering decreased simply by the acting on my desire to alleviate his suffering. He knows as well as I that I can’t rid him of his anxiety, and yet knowing I would want to makes a difference.

I belong to a faith tradition that operates from a place of compassion. According to our second principle, Unitarian Universalists affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relationships.” Compassionate people are whom we proclaim to be. Not compassionate to just some. To everyone.

Compassion can come easily. It is easy feel compassion for the injured child, the oppressed worker, and the abused woman. We generally express this compassion at a distance, with words, signatures, and financial contributions, hopefully also finding opportunities to work with our hands to ameliorate some of the suffering this world metes on its weakest and most disadvantaged. This is, however, the easy sort of compassion. While the world’s problems can bring us to despair, question the purpose of our lives, they can also bring us to our compassionate selves.

Compassion finds its voice in the UUA-sponsored Standing on the Side of Love campaign, “an interfaith public advocacy campaign that seeks to harness love’s power to stop oppression”. “Standing on the Side of Compassion” doesn’t roll of the tongue so easily, but the sentiment is the same. This organization advocates for those who are suffering at the hands of others for simply being themselves, whether GBLT, immigrants, or the otherwise oppressed. Immigrate rights and GBLT rights are close to the hearts of many Unitarian Universalists, receiving time from the pulpit, discussion from pews, and action from congregations. This sort of organized compassion also comes fairly easily, with these issues resonating with UUs, since they speak to fundamental equity principles we as those of a liberal religion find compelling, important, and immediate. In short, we see them and feel them and feel for those oppressed.

Compassion is harder when it’s more personal, especially when we feel injustice has been done to us. When we feel a sense of being the victim, we’re apt to struggle with the very human responses of anger, hurt, and even vengeance. To some degree, this is what I experienced with my son. It was easy to take his irritability and stubbornness as intentional actions to subvert my authority as the adult of the house. It was easy to forget that, like all of us, he wants to be good, to do right, and to be thought well of. Behaviors come from somewhere, and objectionable behaviors are no exception. Few people desire to be mean, thoughtless, hurtful, careless, or just annoying.  We do, however, become just that when we’re afraid, tired, overwhelmed, or simply because we’ve always done them and don’t know how to do otherwise.  All of us fall into that. It’s human

So back to compassion with those who sit closest to us, those in our homes and most imitate communities — our families, our workplaces, our churches, and our friendship circles. If these behaviors that look so intentional and therefore, well, mean and hateful, really come from fear, fatigue, and full plates, then what we are seeing in “bad behavior” is someone suffering. And the recognition of suffering calls for the desire to alleviate (and often first to understand the cause of) that suffering.  Therefore, we’re called to compassion in the face of bad behavior.

This is hard. Hurts can run deep if not addressed swiftly, and it can be hard to feel compassion for the person who seems to wrong you over and over. Towards its end, my marriage suffered, among other ailments, a loss of compassion. I imagine that’s true of many ended love relationships, although I don’t think it is a mandatory part of the finale. I’d like to have been able, during those failing years, to have been more compassionate to my now-ex-husband. Not because it would have saved the marriage but simply because I’d likely alleviated some of both of our suffering.

Holding grudges and refusing to look at the causes behind a person’s suffering cause more suffering. When we deny the suffering of others, we deny the other the chance to be seen as simply a fallible human. When we compound that suffering with our actions, often on the grounds that they’ve wrongs us so we can wrong them, we increase the suffering for all parties. When I’m looking at suffering with a sneer and a swear, I suffer, too. I lose some of the tender part of humanity that accepts that none of us behave perfectly. I gain a gritty, tough exterior that places more distance between me and the other person, thus dampening my ability to see the person as a suffering human.

Being compassionate doesn’t mean being a marshmallow or doormat. It doesn’t mean allowing injustice to continue or wrongs to go unanswered. My compassionate response to my son’s underlying compassion didn’t reverse the consequence we have for tantrums, but it did make it less likely that the next tantrum would come, simply because the true cause — his suffering — was somewhat reduced simply by my caring. No, in the adult world it isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, as in my marriage, divorce is the most compassionate answer. Often, it means having challenging conversations and risking feeling uncomfortable and vulnerable. Consequences can come along with compassion, but we must take great care to let the compassion lead us to those consequences, with our eyes wide open to the process by which we hand down those consequences.

My younger son’s anxiety has lessened as of late. It’s not gone, but he is more comfortable.  During our rediscovered peace, I’m better able to listen to his words and actions, noting when the anxiety rises a bit. Knowing I’m attuned, he’s better able to check himself and ask for assistance, knowing a compassionate response complete with hugs, advice, and sometimes firm reminders are available from someone who understands that he, like all humans, suffers and who wants to reduce just a bit of his suffering.  And, perhaps not surprisingly, he’s acting more compassionate himself.