Our fight over same-sex marriage is a battle about relationships that is increasingly eroding relationships. Our diverse and entrenched beliefs about how to be together are driving us apart. What would be useful at this stage is a more relationship-centric approach to disagreement.
Judging from the volume and tone of the debate, our relationships matter a lot, yet, ironically, the depth, duration and number of close relationships continue to decline. My Flight From Relationships (FFR) Index, which charts the rate of rate of exodus from relationships across home, work, politics and faith, shows an increase of 214 percent over the past five decades. How is something we believe in so strongly falling apart so badly?
I believe it starts with our beliefs about how relationships should be structured and function. Some look to their particular brand of denominational belief about obedience to religious law or tenets regarding treatment of humankind. Others look to secular values about fairness or inclusion. It seems that the more we cling to and debate these beliefs and the tribes that espouse them, the worse shape our actual relationships devolve into.
What if we flipped things? What if we were to make our highest priority and greatest belief our relationships? Regardless of the beliefs one holds, I think that this approach stands on a very solid foundation.
The 77 percent of people in this country who self-identify as Christian have the answer Christ gave when he was asked to identify the greatest commandment:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22: 37-40)
Christ identified relationship as most important, placing religious law as a means to that end.
For those with no religious affiliation, the fastest-growing religious group in the U.S., Sam Harris, the author of The End of Faith, likewise points to relationships as a central belief:
We are bound to one another. … No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbor, that our happiness is inextricably from their own, and that interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish.
We can make similar claims for Judaism by citing Genesis 2:18: “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Whatever spiritual instruction that came after that — woman, marriage, children — was based on a profound warning about being isolated and alone. This instruction is as apt today as it was then. We were built for and function best in relationships.
Many other religious groups would agree. Separation, whether incarceration, solitary confinement in prison, separation from the herd by predators, or even being sent to our room as children, has always been associated with punishment and risk.
Making actual relationships our highest aim rather than arguing our beliefs about relationships does not mean checking our beliefs at the door. It simply requires that we hold something (our relationships) higher than persuading others to adopt our beliefs. It means loving what unites us, our relationships, more than hating what divides us, our diverse beliefs. What might that look like?
Those who oppose same-sex marriage might view it as an effort to validate romantic relationships among gays who, like the rest of us, are grappling with how to avoid being alone. Many who oppose marriage equality are also concerned about the relational chaos of divorce, single-parent families and cohabitation. Same-sex marriage is a structure for committed relationship, something strongly endorsed by the “opposed” camp. Whether scripture condemns it or not, that same scripture places the highest priority on relationships, loving your neighbors and even your enemies. It is hard to find license in that to attack those you are to love.
Conversely, if you support marriage equality based on fairness and inclusion, then how would it be relational to tear into those whose beliefs lead them to a different conclusion? If relationships are at the top of your list, then wounding those who disagree and mocking their beliefs is exactly the opposite of what you stand for: inclusiveness and openness. Inclusiveness means inviting and valuing those who are different into community. Those you oppose are often the strongest advocates for the very arrangement that you are promoting: marriage. It is hard to advocate for inclusion and fairness while you exclude and ridicule.
Author Henri Nouwen said that community is the place where the person you least want to be with lives. Putting relationship first doesn’t mean parking our beliefs at the door, but it precludes using partisan beliefs and values as weapons to bludgeon others. It leaves no room for self-righteousness, condescension and contempt, which are agents of hierarchy and ego, so toxic for relationships.
Niki Gumble, the British leader of the Alpha Course, uses a great example of our dyslexic tendency to deify our beliefs at the expense of their intended object. He says it is like someone buying a shiny new car, bringing it home from the showroom and parking it in the front yard, then, every day, pulling out the owner’s manual and reading it, studying it, memorizing it and even caressing it while ignoring the car. Our relationships are the real thing, the most important thing. When we allow our beliefs to trump and then destroy them, we defy the very purpose of laws, values and principles. In rules without relationships, there is no peace.