Why I’m Voting Yes

As the rec­tor of my church drew atten­tion to the words of Angli­can Arch­bish­op Glenn Davies exhort­ing us to vote NO in the Same-Sex Mar­riage postal plebiscite, one of my friends turned to me and said: “I grew up in Apartheid South Africa, where the church that now denies same-sex mar­riage believed that inter­ra­cial love and mar­riage were also sins, and could point to Scrip­ture to pro­claim it. God help us, we’re mak­ing the same mis­take again.” By chance, I had in my own Bible read­ing late­ly encoun­tered the fol­low­ing in the Old Tes­ta­ment from Nehemi­ah Chap­ter 13:

…in those days I saw men of Judah who had mar­ried women from Ash­dod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their chil­dren spoke the lan­guage of Ash­dod or the lan­guage of one of the oth­er peo­ples, and did not know how to speak the lan­guage of Judah. I rebuked them and called curs­es down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: “You are not to give your daugh­ters in mar­riage to their sons, nor are you to take their daugh­ters in mar­riage for your sons or for your­selves. Was it not because of mar­riages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by for­eign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this ter­ri­ble wicked­ness and are being unfaith­ful to our God by mar­ry­ing for­eign women?

One can see how eas­i­ly Apartheid lead­ers might have turned such words to their designs, like­wise to the will of white nation­al­ists in Aus­tralia or the USA, or Nazis for that mat­ter. And yet, as far as I’m aware, in today’s Aus­tralia there are no church lead­ers call­ing for inter-racial cou­ples to be sep­a­rat­ed, still less threat­en­ing to beat them, rip out their beards, or for­bid them from learn­ing a new lan­guage.

Words such as these in Nehemi­ah engen­der dif­fer­ent respons­es from believ­ers. The prophet’s words may inspire some to xeno­pho­bia, or affirm them in a pre-exist­ing loathing. Oth­ers might stick their head into the sand and try to ignore the ancient prophet alto­geth­er, pre­fer­ring to focus on Christ’s teach­ings about love in the New Tes­ta­ment. For oth­ers again, such words might encour­age them to come to terms with the his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al speci­fici­ty of much of the Bible’s con­tents, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Old Tes­ta­ment. This is some­thing that the church once did well, but has now for­got­ten or sup­pressed, at least in cer­tain cor­ners of the earth.

Nehemi­ah lived and taught at a time when Israel faced exter­mi­na­tion. His belea­guered peo­ple were an eth­nic and lin­guis­tic minor­i­ty, swal­lowed by the Achaemenid Empire of Per­sia. The nation’s future, Nehemi­ah believed, required a guer­ril­la cre­do: band togeth­er now or die. He yearned to save his people’s lan­guage and tra­di­tions with the fer­vour oth­ers still seek to pro­tect endan­gered sys­tems of beliefs and lan­guage. If Apartheid South Africa saw itself in this ancient tale of geno­cide, then they were look­ing in the wrong direc­tion. For they, in fact, were the destroy­ers of minori­ties, the scourge of lan­guages and cul­tures. Ancient pro­hi­bi­tions in Leviti­cus were like­wise intend­ed to pro­tect a nation on the run in even old­er times. Those laws are not, and nev­er were, meant for us today. Not in the way that some would want us to believe.

To reck­on with such words in Scrip­ture is to expand or deep­en in belief, or to lose one’s faith entire­ly. One of the books my father – an Angli­can chap­lain – left me when he died was from Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Clas­si­cal and Mod­ern Hebrew Lit­er­a­ture at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty, James Kugel. Kugel’s How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scrip­ture, Then and Now is a won­der­ful­ly com­pelling intro­duc­tion for those wish­ing to take on such a chal­lenge with an open mind. Stay or leave? In most cas­es, it is up to church lead­ers to decide which it will be. Not every­one will, or could – even if they want­ed to – wade through thou­sands of pages of Bib­li­cal schol­ar­ship. Nor should they need to.

Mil­lions of Aus­tralians have now walked away from church, and with good rea­sons. A fail­ure to respond to sex­u­al vio­lence and abuse in the church is one. Many of us have seen first­hand the dam­age wrought by such abuse on human lives, and, as a nation, all of us have heard it in the tes­ti­mo­ny brought before the Roy­al Com­mis­sion. Abuse all too often inflict­ed on the vul­ner­a­ble by the very insti­tu­tions that dare name Same-Sex Mar­riage, of all things, as a threat to the moral fab­ric of our nation. No. What has shred, and dai­ly shreds, the fab­ric of our nation are crimes com­mit­ted in the name of those sworn to serve and to pro­tect Australia’s most vul­ner­a­ble. In church­es, and church schools and clubs across the land, the Roy­al Com­mis­sion has uncov­ered gen­er­a­tions of true sex­u­al dis­or­der and abuse, the insti­tu­tion­al­ized evis­cer­a­tion of human hearts. Yet even now, when advo­cates for SSM point out that LGBTIQ+ attrac­tion is nat­ur­al, the more rad­i­cal Chris­t­ian anti-SSM activists have the audac­i­ty to sneer that incest and rape are “nat­ur­al” too.

The sci­en­tif­ic real­i­sa­tion that same sex attrac­tion is nat­ur­al was impor­tant for the advance of LGBTIQ+ rights, but the argu­ment proved insuf­fi­cient to shift the minds of hard­ened skep­tics. (One wish­es that today’s fun­da­men­tal­ists might be as skep­ti­cal of scrip­ture and church lead­er­ship as they are skep­ti­cal of sci­ence. Inquir­ing minds well served the­olo­gians and church lead­ers of the past. They well served St Paul and Jesus Christ.) Tak­en alone, though, these crit­ics have a point. Nature makes a poor moral arbiter. It is not enough to iden­ti­fy a thing as nat­ur­al to declare it beau­ti­ful or good. And yet, the anal­o­gy of same-sex attrac­tion, still less same-sex mar­riage, to the soul-anni­hi­lat­ing crimes of incest, rape, and pedophil­ia is a moral and intel­lec­tu­al absur­di­ty. It is, more­over, in light of the find­ings of the Roy­al Com­mis­sion, an abom­i­na­tion.

As St Paul taught the church in Corinth, in some of the most beau­ti­ful words ever writ­ten of love:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dis­hon­our oth­ers, it is not self-seek­ing, it is not eas­i­ly angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoic­es with the truth. It always pro­tects, always trusts, always hopes, always per­se­veres.

It is gut-wrench­ing­ly trag­ic that it needs repeat­ing in Twen­ty-First Cen­tu­ry Aus­tralia that pedophil­ia, incest, and rape bear no resem­blance to any sort of love, same sex or oth­er­wise.

The num­bers of Aus­tralians who have left the church are now ver­tig­i­nous. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, like many in a dark­ened hole, church lead­ers keep on dig­ging. Like fail­ing tyrants they imag­ine that stricter rule might turn the tide again. And yet, almost mirac­u­lous­ly, despite the exo­dus of Chris­tians from Aus­tralian pews, many have remained. I attend a con­gre­ga­tion where many, pos­si­bly most, Chris­tians are like­ly to vote YES in the SSM postal vote. Oth­ers will search their con­science and vote, NO. Their rea­sons may vary, and I will try to remem­ber Mar­tin Luther King, Jr’s reminder that lov­ing some­one and dis­lik­ing their point of view need not be mutu­al­ly exclu­sive. Nev­er­the­less, evi­dence sug­gests that the trend towards inclu­sive Chris­t­ian atti­tudes towards SSM is grow­ing, with a recent Galaxy Poll sug­gest­ing some 54% of Aus­tralian Chris­tians sup­port mar­riage equal­i­ty.

Which leads us to a stark con­clu­sion. Either the lead­ers of our church­es have lost their con­gre­ga­tions. Or, more like­ly, the church­es of Aus­tralia have lost their lead­ers. Too many cler­gy remain mired in the­o­log­i­cal obscu­ran­tism and sex­u­al solip­sism. Is there any­thing more trag­ic then a priest’s lament that his mar­riage is dimin­ished each time a gay man weds? Mean­while, mil­lions of Aus­tralians across all demo­graph­ics and reli­gions have come to know their LGBTIQ+ sons and daugh­ters, fam­i­lies, neigh­bours, and friends, as equals in all respects … except the law. This trans­for­ma­tion has come too late for gen­er­a­tions lost to fear and hatred, and yet it has come, and grows now every day. The rev­e­la­tion that the Angli­can Dio­cese of Syd­ney has donat­ed $1 mil­lion to the “no cam­paign” will do irrepara­ble dam­age to an already tar­nished rep­u­ta­tion and, in my opin­ion, con­signs the dio­cese to a very dark place in church his­to­ry.

As St Paul wrote to Corinth, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoic­es with the truth.It always pro­tects, always trusts, always hopes, always per­se­veres.” In the face of vio­lence and exclu­sion, we have seen first-hand the love and truth and per­se­ver­ance of our LGBTIQ+ broth­ers and sis­ters. They have per­se­vered in love, as gen­er­a­tions before them pre­served, not only to be seen, but to be rec­og­nized as equals before the law. Not to be tol­er­at­ed, but to be loved and be defend­ed. As Paul taught the church in Gala­tia, “there is nei­ther Jew nor Gen­tile, nei­ther slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If Paul had lived to know the LGBTIQ+ com­mu­ni­ty, as we know it today, I have faith that they too would be includ­ed in his words. For oth­ers who remain uncer­tain how to vote, recall that the con­ver­sion of Saul of Tar­sus from per­se­cu­tor of Chris­tians to the author of such words of Chris­t­ian love reveals a man unafraid to change his mind. Afraid per­haps, but brave enough to dare. LGBTIQ+ Aus­tralians love their part­ners, their chil­dren, their fam­i­lies, and com­mu­ni­ties as well as the rest of us. Per­haps bet­ter. For such fam­i­lies have had to fight for every inch of recog­ni­tion of that love. I am proud to attend a church that seeks to redress the fail­ures of the church’s past, and “wel­comes all peo­ple regard­less of age, race, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, or reli­gion.”

As our Rec­tor, the Rev­erend Andrew Sem­pell, drew atten­tion to the words of Angli­can Arch­bish­op Glenn Davies exhort­ing us to vote NO in the Same-Sex Mar­riage postal plebiscite, he also drew atten­tion to the words of Pro­fes­sor Gary Bouma, Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at Monash Uni­ver­si­ty, and Asso­ciate Priest at St. John’s Angli­can Church, East Malvern, Vic­to­ria. As Pro­fes­sor Bouma wrote for ABC Reli­gion and Ethics, “my heart aches for those who are told their com­mit­ted rela­tion­ships are not wor­thy of mar­riage, that their lov­ing is infe­ri­or, and that their being is evil. My com­pas­sion for those exclud­ed moves me to vote ‘yes.’” Along­side many oth­er Angli­cans in Syd­ney and around the coun­try, I too am vot­ing YES with­out hes­i­ta­tion.

For the love of God is broad­er
Than the mea­sure of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eter­nal
Is most won­der­ful­ly kind.
But we make His love too nar­row
By false lim­its of our own;
And we mag­ni­fy His strict­ness
With a zeal He will not own.

Fred­er­ick W. Faber