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Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)
Sunday 7 October 2018 – Sung Eucharist
Genesis 2:18-24 Mark 10:2-16
Who’d have thought that the presidential nomination of a circuit judge to replace a retiring Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America would become so contentious, that it would be among the top news stories for days, not only in the USA but in the UK and elsewhere around the world, too? The nomination by Donald Trump of Brett Kavanaugh has inadvertently or even deliberately served, amongst other things, to fan the flames of strong emotion around the issue of sexual politics.
In the middle of September this year, just a little over two months after the announcement of the nomination, Christine Blasey Ford made an allegation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, which was followed shortly thereafter by two further allegations of sexual misconduct, made by Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick. Prior to the confirmation of the nomination by the Senate, an FBI investigation of these allegations was commissioned by the President, and it became clear that this case was to expose the fault lines in American politics even further than they were already perceived to be. America’s deeply divided about many things, as is the UK, and matters to do with sexual politics lie, amongst other things, at the heart of that division.
Part of the backdrop for this is the #MeToo movement, which arose initially as a result of women in various walks of life coming forward with allegations of sexual impropriety on the part of men. Among the best known among the accused, perhaps, is the American film producer, Harvey Weinstein. There’s been an eruption of anger, frustration and resentment on the part of large numbers of women, who’re no longer willing to put up with the demeaning and abusive behaviour and attitudes of some men towards them. Only the other day, one of our own female staff here told me that when she worked for another organisation, it was made clear that if she wanted to get on, she’d have to sleep with various men to gain promotion. An offer was even made to her to set up such a liaison. Fortunately, she’s a person of great integrity, so she resigned rather than collude and conform. Despite huge advances in Western society in relation to women, misogynistic and patriarchal attitudes still lurk, and they’re deeply unpleasant.
Inevitably, though, there’s also something of a backlash against the progress made by women. At a recent press conference, Donald Trump said that it’s now very difficult to be a man in the face of allegations made by women, because it’s come to be assumed that you’re guilty until proven innocent. Now there may well be more than an element of truth in that. It’s just as much the case, though, that, as a matter of course, women have often been assumed to be making false allegations. Why didn’t the President say that as well? The suspicion lurks that there’s still something of a hidden agenda to reinforce male power and influence. In the end, all of us, men and women alike, lose out in such a climate.
In one sense, there’s nothing new here. Jesus was tested by a question to do with sexual politics, as we heard in the gospel reading. In this case, it had to do with when divorce was permissible. Some Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ On the surface, this looks like a fairly straightforward question, but notice the way it’s framed: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ The question was put by men in a patriarchal society. Women had no rights in Jewish law. In this regard, Roman law was actually rather more enlightened, for female citizens of Rome were permitted to sue for divorce against their husbands. The way Jewish law was practised meant that women were little more than the property of their husbands. This legacy continued until fairly recently even in our own culture and, if you choose to be married according to the order prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer, that’s implicitly the view you’re accepting even today. That’s why the woman is given away by the father to her husband – to be his property. Fortunately, that assumption isn’t to be found in Common Worship.
When the Pharisees came to Jesus, he would have been well aware that there was a division of opinion among them as to the conditions for divorce. Some advocated very easy divorce, while others were more stringent. As far as Jesus was concerned, the debate was framed in entirely the wrong way, for its starting point was an assumption based on an imbalance of power between men and women. Instead, he took them back to the basic premise of all relationships as intended by God: that of mutuality.
When Jesus quotes from the book of Genesis, he clearly has in mind the second creation narrative in chapter two, where we read that a man and woman become one flesh in marriage. There’s an ambivalence there, though, because there’s a subliminal imbalance in the relationship, since the woman is created from the man. In other words, the man assumes priority over the woman.
At the same time, though, Jesus clearly has the first creation narrative in mind, too. When he says that ‘God made them male and female’, he’s referring to the first story, in which we read: ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ It’s quite clear from this that to be created in the image of God is to be created not only for relationship but as relationship, in which male and female are completely and unambiguously equal. Female isn’t created after male. Male and female are created together at one and the same time. The true dignity of every human being as created in the image and likeness of God lies not in asserting power over and against one another, but in a relationship in which neither can be without the other. As Christian experience and reflection unfolded, so it came to be seen that Jesus himself embodied a love grounded in the life of God as Trinity, the one whose very being is a mutuality and communion of love. To put it bluntly, God isn’t God without this essential relationality, and since we’re created in the image and likeness of this God, we can’t be human without a similar mutuality of relationship. Relationships aren’t or shouldn’t be about power, but about love.
All this is really important when we’re thinking about marriage and divorce. I wonder how many people here this morning have been through divorce themselves and felt not a little uncomfortable as the gospel was read. How many such people feel a sense of guilt and shame, of hurt and failure? The point Jesus was making is that marital relationships aren’t to be seen in isolation. All our relationships, of whatever kind, are grounded ultimately in the reciprocal exchange of love which is God the Trinity, and in that sense it’s not just marriages which fall short; all our relationships do. The real issue is how we deal with this fact.
To insist that there can never be divorce or remarriage runs the risk of preserving a marriage but killing the people. Jesus recalls us to the ideal of marriage not to weigh us down with yet another burden of guilt but to remind us all of our inherent dignity, residing not in power but in love. For some, it’s the very experience of marriage itself, particularly when based on an abuse of power, which whittles away that sense of God-given dignity and worth. In such circumstances, it would seem right to reject the very basis on which the relationship was made. And when things are difficult, as they are for all of us in all our relationships from time to time, marital or otherwise, what’s called for is wisdom and compassion, a gentle acceptance of ourselves as loved, as well as the affirmation, often from others, and the belief, that we’re more than the difficulties which temporarily seem to define us.
Jesus recalls us to who we truly are, whether married or not, and sets before us an aspiration, something to aim at: the perfect fulfilment of every human being in divine and human relationships of mutual love. The ultimate realisation of that aspiration is sometimes enabled, paradoxically, by our experience of failure. This is the mystery at the heart of Christian faith and experience. As is sung in the Exultet on Easter Eve, ‘O happy fault, O necessary sin.’ And if what’s going on in the public arena of sexual politics in the United States and elsewhere is an expression of deep dissatisfaction with asymmetrical relationships based on power, and of the desire for something different, then even the pain and trauma arising from all that can itself in the end contribute to the ultimate fulfilment of God’s purposes of mutual, transparent and power-less love.
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