Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Family-Oriented” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Touchstone.
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David Marshall on How the State of Marriage Looks from China & Within China
As happy as I am to have spent much of the Obama administration in China, my relief only grew this past spring, during the run-up to the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision on so-called same-sex marriage, and during the weeks of endless commentary and celebration following it. But distance may also lend a certain perspective to the ongoing train-wreck. In any case, as I climbed a hill in southern China one Sunday, and watched as the sun broke through the clouds and flooded a valley and the surrounding hills with light, a mass of unbidden and somewhat unexpected reflections on the new landscape of American culture seemed to flood suddenly into my mind. Among them are the following:
• I doubt that, by itself, this Supreme Court ruling heralds the end of Western civilization. (Though I begin to almost wish that it did.) The Greeks were cheerful about buggering boys (in Lucian's heaven, every boy or woman always said yes—which reminds me of C. S. Lewis's famous comment about combining a hell for humans and a heaven for mosquitoes). Yet that buggering civilization conquered much of the ancient world, and in later centuries inspired both Christendom and Islam with its science, art, and philosophy. Clearly, ready acceptance of grotesque sin does not by itself immediately doom civilizations.
• The madness may indeed be a sign or consequence of—or an aid to—the demographic implosion that is greasing the wheels of Western decline while China and India rise.
• Chinese civilization still puts family first, however women were held captive within the Confucian family system (until the gospel liberated them), and however small and strained modern Chinese families have often become in our day. (Some of my students stay in school on weekends to avoid the complexities.) But prioritizing father and mother raising children who are expected to obey and care for them in turn, within the social matrix of an extended family, is how China reached its present population of almost 1.4 billion people. Inconsistently restrained but heavily prioritized sex between lifelong mates, and the longing that arises from that restraint, is the theme of many Tang poems, which the Chinese still learn and still love.
• Obergefell need not be the sign of the end of Christianity in the West. We managed to adjust when some of our preachers quoted the Bible to justify slavery. In some African and Caribbean countries, homosexuals are sometimes lynched. So social mores do not always unambiguously progress or decline. As Lewis was fond of noting, each generation faces its own special temptations, often corresponding in some way to its virtues (or to what Jacques Ellul called the "myths" arising from the spirit of a particular age, which propaganda inevitably
• What may be as bad as same-sex marriage itself is that the Untied States now appears to be ruled in part by a ruthlessly dishonest oligarchy of five officious nannies on the Supreme Court. They appear ready to tell any lie to arrogate power over 320 million Americans too stupid (in their eyes) to discern right from wrong and to make laws for themselves like adults in the best of the Anglo-Saxon tradition.
This is a political tragedy. America has been a great nation, despite its flaws. And I believe (and many here in Asia will affirm) that it has often been a tool in the hands of Providence.
• I am afraid that horrible things will be done by pedophiles under the cloak of this new "right." I am afraid that the police will be too cowed or corrupt to stop it.
And I am afraid that when Christians (and others) run up against this new "right," they will be persecuted for following their faith.
• But the greater danger to America, and the greater heartache, will probably be expressed with the words, "'Daddy?' What is that?" Only two percent of Americans are homosexual, and most of them probably don't really want a married life. Let's not kid ourselves. The normative "gay lifestyle" is not really "a white picket fence, two kids and a dog named Fido, with conjugal relations to match." But some 70 percent of black children are now born to unwed parents, as are more than half of Hispanic and a third of white children. This is the greater tragedy, where the tectonic plate of human intercourse inches over the plate of shifting ideals, grinding a new generation down into smoldering fodder for future social eruptions.
• I suspect that, in the court of public opinion, it will be harder to defeat Obergefell than that last great fit of Supreme arrogance, Roe v. Wade. Ellul was right in recognizing that if propaganda fails to appeal to the myths of its age, few will listen to it. Abortion is not really so easy to defend in an age that privileges Kindness and Equal Rights. "Live and let live" is an easier slogan to preach in such an age than "live and let die." But it also makes it harder to defend true marriage. That, I think, is why we lost this one.
• In any case, no "gay marriages" will take place in reality, though, God willing, many real marriages will be full of grace and good cheer. Leaving aside the "gay" half of this newly favored oxymoron (or do we need a new term for a two-word phrase that manages three or four internal inconsistencies?), "marriage" implies the "union of unlikes." Being of the same sex, Adam and Steve, or Jane and Jill, cannot really marry and constitute a family. Of course, words evolve, and we can create a new definition for the ongoing "state of affairs" that such cohabitation may involve. But what really changes? Two men or two women lying together in sin do not alter the nature of their relationship by receiving a piece of paper from the state. (Old Sexual Revolution slogan: "It's just a piece of paper!" New Sexual Revolution slogan: "Universal human experience? The heritage of Western civilization? Human biology? Hah! Look at this piece of paper!") These two cannot really become "one flesh," biologically or spiritually. Marriage is constituted in the sight of God, and he has not gone blind or forgotten the nature of the creatures he has made.
Two Explanatory Theories
Why do post-Christian countries embrace this nonsense first? I hear no great clamor for "gay marriage" here in China. Yet Chinese families have historically been deeply influenced by the gospel, and much for the better. The great scholar Hu Shi, a follower of John Dewey, once wrote of missionaries, "You have taught us many things, but the greatest was to treat women as human beings."
So why, having transformed the world (not just China, of course), does the Christian vision of marriage seem to have run out of steam? Is Christian virtue a limited quantity, like so many loaves of bread, such that, having been distributed hither and yon, those who passed them around now have to go hungry? What happened to the miracle of the multiplication of loaves?
Two good theories seem to help explain why same-sex marriage has caught hold in countries that have long been influenced by Christianity:
First, there is J. Budziszewski's theory that guilt over lawless sex drove the need to transform abortion, and other sins (and lies), which were tawdry at the best of times, into a righteous crusade. The conscience must be quelled by the approval of the crowd. (How many lynchings were committed by lone wolves?) The world must not simply allow, but beatify, sin. "Bigots" must therefore be marginalized—propaganda requires an object of hate, in what René Girard described as mimetic violence. Thus, all this celebration and hoopla may be seen as an engine for the justification of subconsciously recognized, and thus
Second, there is G. K. Chesterton's adage that the world is not so much full of vice as of "virtues gone wild." Three virtues that run mad today are tolerance, kindness, and equality. The latter two, at least, reached their purest and most liberating (that is, balanced and sane) forms in the gospel. So it is no surprise that, the old synthesis having broken down, some few virtues have been set up as gods, but gods lacking even the crude Olympian balance of power to restrain themselves. (Here in China, the government is preaching twelve "core socialist values," including freedom and democracy, as well as kindness—but balanced by patriotism, harmony, and the rule of law.)
So where do we go from here? There are, no doubt, even madder "rights" being lined up in the queue, to be clamored for and given the attention of a media addicted to its own favored myth of liberation, and the need to hide its sins.
I thought a political backlash was overdue three years ago. But even with Democrats disavowing coal, not even Pennsylvania budged, and the more conservative party lost to a failed president even in Florida. Demographics seem to be lending the "progressive" party a strong and perhaps prevailing tail wind in these historical straits.
But God is not dead, and human nature is what it was last year.
In its campaign for "core socialist values," the present regime in China has plastered sayings of Confucius, the emblem of Asian conservative and family values, on construction sites, train stations, bus stops, and schools throughout China. Most of the Confucian sayings on these tens of thousands of posters are such that a Christian or a Burkean could only applaud.
These famous aphorisms are also posted in English, using the translations of James Legge, the great late-nineteenth-century Sinologist and a pious Protestant missionary. A sampling: "For one who is 'respectful to others and observant of propriety . . . all within the four seas will be his brothers.'" "In regard to the aged, to give them rest; to the young, to treat them tenderly." "The man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks to establish others." "When I walk along with two others, may they serve as my teachers. I will select their good qualities and follow them, their bad qualities and avoid them." "The will of even a common man cannot be taken from him."
During the era of Mao Zedong, another charismatic revolutionary who effected vast social change, who would have predicted that the Chinese government would one day promote "core socialist values" by citing the arch-conservative Confucius, along with a fuddy-duddy Scottish missionary who, at the age of 81, completed his last simple Chinese lesson at Oxford University by writing on the chalkboard the two-syllable Chinese name for "Jesus"? And now Confucius and James Legge are the poster boys for "socialist values" like "hard work," "kindness," and "liberty"?
Perhaps there is a lesson here, both for Americans who show contempt for the law in pursuit of power, and for the Chinese Communist Party. The center may not hold in the short run, but it will have its revenge. How safe can it be, in the end, for "Democrats" to practice oligarchy, or for Communists to preach democracy? Be careful what you preach. Those you rule may, in the end, learn those lessons better than you hoped they would. •
“Family-Oriented” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!
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