The question hanging in the air after the California Supreme Court’s recent grenade lob into American family structure is, What do we do now? For an answer, I turn to nothing less bizarre than a Martin Scorsese film. Remember Gangs of New York? It was the unsettling and exceedingly violent film of five years ago, about the turf battles between mid-19th century Irish immigrants and long-established Nativists in Manhattan’s notorious Five Points slum. Like the recent There Will Be Blood, Gangs was another tour-de-force by actor Daniel Day-Lewis. In Gangs he plays Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, a brutal born-American warlord literally hell-bent on exterminating the newly arrived waves of Irish potato famine refugees. While the conflict was principally cultural and political, Scorsese casts it as religious since the Irish were very Catholic and the Nativists very Protestant. Ironically, the solution to the vexing and bloody feud would, in reality, be a religious one.
The film follows a compelling true story (albeit with great artistic license) that unfortunately ends romantically but frustratingly unfinished. What really happened to close this miserable chapter in New York’s story? (If I‘ve lost you, please rent the movie. Believe it or not, you can get a lot of meaning from it, including some fairly good theology—or perhaps I should say, harmartiology –from the Greek: hamartia, "missing the mark" or "sin." Once you’ve seen it, you’ll know why I keep focusing on, What really happened in the end?)
What really happened to end the Five Points’ turf war wouldn’t play well in Hollywood. First, it didn’t happen overnight. Idealists, artists and poets want peace and harmony over a single campfire. That doesn’t happen in the real world. What did happen, though, was none-the-less amazing. It’s best summarized in the words of then New York Catholic archbishop and Irish-born John Hughes. He was asked what he would do about the mess and answered curtly, “We are going to teach them their religion.” That, in fact, is what happened. Both priests and ministers were brought in to teach their respective co-religionists what the Gospel of Christ really commands. This spiritual reformation became a moral reformation. The results were dramatic—not only did the violence and hatred abate, but the enormously disadvantaged Irish would quickly rise from humiliating abasement to prominence in the community.
Why am I telling you this tale? Because the same solution applies now in the aftermath of the California High Court order on so-called “same-sex marriage.” What we are witnessing is the delayed evidence of a great demoralization in American culture. Supreme Court justices, whether on the state or federal level, reflect the general condition of society. We got the dreadful Dred Scott decision 150 years ago because American society was so morally degraded it would abide slavery and the dehumanization of blacks. In 1944, we got Korematsu because the culture would permit internment camps for Asians. Now we get Consolidated Marriage Cases out of California because the Justices, like the people of California, are ignorant of what marriage really is.
What’s the solution? “We will teach them about marriage.” Marriage is a sacred, time-honored and time-tested, universally beneficial institution involving a man and a woman pledged to each other in a unique covenantal relationship that includes physical, emotional and spiritual union with a view towards the raising of children as father and mother, respectively. Marriage is the foundation for what has proven over and over to be the best possible environment for child development: the married, two-parent of opposite-sex family structure.
Could it be that California’s Supreme Court justices don’t know this about marriage? You betcha! And could that be because California’s citizens don’t know this about marriage? Absolutely!
What then do we do? TEACH THEM ABOUT MARRIAGE! The most important and effective teaching tool is, of course, role modeling, but theory is also important. Who best to handle this material? Preachers, Bible and Sunday school teachers and religion instructors; parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles; even newlyweds! Our churches, synagogues and other houses of worship must become platforms for critical information about-- and joyous promotion of--Holy Matrimony.
It’s time for your church to have a special “Celebrate Marriage Sunday” that includes renewal of marriage vows--and a class on the joy and challenge of life-long marriage. It’s overtime for your home group or Bible study to take on this critical subject. What about your book club or discussion group? We need to pass around good material on marriage via E-mail and the Internet. And, let’s bring back anniversary parties—they’re showcases for enduring marriages.
All this to say that this is a wake-up call! Of course, if you live in California, you must immediately participate in the movement to pass a marriage amendment to the state constitution preserving the sanctity of this bond as between one man and one woman. That goes, too, for citizens of every state—because if this decision is allowed to stand, it will further encourage more states to do the same.
There’s a lot to do here—but the specter for success is good. Remember, people often need to reach rock bottom before they look upward. California and some other states have hit bottom on the holiness of marriage. There’s nowhere to go now but up!
I’m working with the team that used this same strategy in Hawaii 15 years ago and successfully overcame their morally corrupt court by passing an airtight constitutional amendment. The most important outcome, though, is what 19th Century British activist Sir William Wilberforce called, “the reformation of manners.” For him it meant eradicating the slave trade, caring for the poor and even protecting animals from abuse.
Today we might call this, “The reformation of lifestyle.” For our times this means welcoming into life and protecting every human being, from the very youngest to the very oldest. It means watching out for the sick and disabled. And, of course, it means preserving and protecting the incomparably magnificent and enormously beneficial estate if marriage.
Are we up to the challenge? May God find us faithful!
Your missionary to elected and appointed officials,
Rev. Rob Schenck
Faith and Action
109 2nd Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002