The Common Good
March-April 1996

Is Marriage Obsolete?

by Elizabeth McAlister | March-April 1996

Sex, fidelity, and freedom.

In 1967, I was with the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary at our Provincialate in Tarrytown, New York. Jerry Murphy, a priest from Brooklyn, was beginning a sabbatical as our part-time chaplain. A parishioner drove him to Tarrytown. On their arrival, I gleaned this gem from their conversation: "The church in its teachings on divorce and remarriage is imposing a New Testament morality on pre-Christian people!" Jerry's words have been building blocks in the formation of my conscience on marriage and divorce, sexuality and nonviolence. I understand him to say that if we could assume the parties were two committed Christians (or two people committed to the practice of nonviolence), they could surmount any obstacle with forgiveness, justice, truth, and love. The broken marriages and relationships howl to heaven—an indictment of our entropy, our willingness to remain infants in both nonviolence and the way of Christ.

Like whole generations, I was raised in the school of "Thou shalt nots!" To surmount that formation was no easy task. My exchange with Jerry Murphy occurred in the heat of the sexual revolution—a frenzied, fiery sea change that continues to impress itself on all aspects of our society. Friends engulfed by and burned in that cultural conflagration compelled me to seek the wisdom behind the church's precepts—a wisdom deeply rooted in an understanding of the human psyche and spirit. One of those insights was the need for sexual intimacy to be protected by a long-term commitment that we often call marriage.

But nonviolence and marriage (or nonviolence and sexuality) are virtually never talked about. The subject is too fraught with anguish. My own spirit becomes leaden when confronted with yet another divorce, separation, failed relationship among people I love. But I propose that we spur one another to reflection and dialogue, and risk examining the values of the culture in the light of basic truths about human relationships.

Perhaps, in so doing, we may be able to generate enough hope to counter the inertia and despair that overwhelm us. Perhaps we may even be able to give some witness to fidelity in marriage and nonviolence in relationships in a world that claims them beyond the capacity of human beings.

THE CHURCHES ARE neither aid nor comfort. Jerry Murphy apprehended the disparity between the teachings of Jesus and of the church. Jesus (Mark 10) argued that Mosaic law permitted divorce because of the male's hardness of heart and mind. God never intended this, Jesus said, but "created persons as male and female" (Genesis 1:27). The Genesis passage to which Jesus referred is best translated as "the two persons—man and woman—enter into a common human life and social relationship because they are created as equals" (2:24).

With his intimate circle of friends, Jesus articulated a reciprocal formulation. On the one hand, if a man divorces and remarries, he commits adultery—in this he went beyond Jewish law, in which a man could commit adultery against another married man but not against his wife. On the other hand, a woman has the right to leave her husband—in this he contradicted Jewish law in which only the man could administer such proceedings.

Jesus recognized divorce as a spiritual and social tragedy, yet he acknowledged it as a given within which the fundamental issues of nonviolence (justice) must be nurtured. Both parties have the right to take initiative; both incur the responsibilities and limitations involved in the death of marriage. Jesus compelled his community to treat women as human beings, not as objects.

Half of all marriages today end in divorce, a profound spiritual and social tragedy. The conviction that marriage itself is at fault gains credence. Questions proliferate: How is it possible to bind one's self to another and commit to a future in which one's feelings will probably change? How is it possible for people to enter marriage with sincerity and integrity when they know that time will probably alter their sense of themselves and one another? If one pledges fidelity to another, doesn't one place oneself in danger of living in bad faith?

Our concept of marriage is profoundly corrupted when the images it invokes are all negative: possessiveness, property, rigidity, stubborn adherence to duty. This is a travesty, a betrayal of true fidelity. The gospel parable of the talents reveals that fidelity can't be identified with preservation of the status quo. No! Fidelity involves continuous vigilance against the inertia of conformism and the sclerosis of habit. Because authentic existence is a pilgrimage, faithfulness must be supple or it collapses into betrayal.

Marriage is an institution and as such shares in the corruption that befalls so many institutions; but marriage is also a form. Partners in a marriage accept a form that is not of their own making, a form that acknowledges the limits of creaturely life and urges the partners to live within their true orbit.

"The meaning of marriage begins in the giving of words! We cannot join ourselves to one another without giving our word!" Wendell Berry claims, with deep insight, that the form of marriage rests upon these immutable givens—words, bodies, characters, histories, places. He stresses that marriage is an unconditional giving.

When a writer determines to create a sonnet or a verse of haiku, she or he is limited by that form, but in a deeper sense is tapping a more mysterious level of creativity. So too, people can be challenged, enlarged, humanized by living with all the fidelity they can muster within the form of marriage.

I don't consider it extreme to suggest that the essence of marriage is a commitment to continue, through one's life, to struggle to become one in love and truth and freedom. When one or both parties abandon that struggle, the marriage no longer exists.

IN STARK CONTRAST to the marriage form as challenging, humanizing, and nonviolent, I submit that sex apart from a committed relationship is violent—in at least three ways.

If sex is destructive of the humanity and individuality of oneself or one's partner, it is violent. The root of our bewilderment may be that sex is natural, but marriage is not. I can still hear a couple of young friends defend their sexual relationship: "It's natural!" But a third party was jilted and shattered in their coming together, and they were ignorant of and indifferent to her pain. All three were doing violence to one another, to themselves, and to all who cared for them.

How? Violence simplifies relations by denying the other's existence (or their existence as a person). Nonviolence pleads the question: What does it mean to be fully human? To enter into a relationship "for as long as it feels good, for as long as it is satisfying" risks reducing both partners to the vitality and lustiness of a particular moment or period in time. Their unity of being, their center, their humanity is threatened (and can be lost).

We learn too slowly that part of the struggle to become human is the realization that we derive a sense of our identity, we achieve unity, and we triumph over the corrosive acids of time through those relationships and friendships that enable us to integrate our past, present, and future—relationships that put us in touch with what is of lasting value in us. In pledging faithfulness to another, we aspire to nonviolence because we apprehend the other as a thou, not an it; as a presence, not an object; as a full human being, not simply someone who is fun to be with for a while.

If sex is acquiescence to cultural excesses, it is violent. If what distinguishes the human person are gifts of mind and heart, then the tools of nonviolence are truth and love. Truth announced or spoken without love is violence—no one can hear it. Love offered without truth is sentimentality, and rotten to the core. Together, truth and love constitute the two-edged sword that can heal as it cuts—deep into the person. Truth and love are geared to human community—to recreating, liberating, forming us into the people we are meant to be. As an end and a means, nonviolence is a constant struggle to be or become more loving and truthful. If there were ever a time when that process was supported by the culture, it is not now.

Ours is a cheap energy culture, assuming that everything desirable lies within easy reach. The articulation of the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness has kindled terrible illusions in Americans, with perhaps obscure but nonetheless ruinous consequences. We seek happiness as an end in itself, rather than as a corollary of right living.

Truth, love, the struggle to become more human invite us outside the cheap-energy enclosure. As the traditional marriage ceremony insists ("for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health"), not everything in this venture of relationship will make us happy. The faith, rather, is that by staying with it we will learn something of the truth, that the truth is good to know, and that it is different and larger than we thought.

Truth, love, justice (nonviolence) imply (require) an attitude toward people that includes: absolute respect for the person—mind, heart, imagination; the conviction that every human being is, at least potentially, a sister or brother—that all are indeed one; and the resolution never to capitulate personal moral responsibility to any other person, group, or institution. Nonviolence is a refusal to do harm—in thought as well as in deed. It's a refusal of undue haste, of lying, hatred, wishing ill. This is impossible without a love that is grounded in truth and reality.

When our children were in inner-city public schools, their peers hankered after the culture without question. Classmates in the 7th and 8th grades had abortions and babies. Sex was raw, real, ruinous. The relationships they had with the younger adults in our community who regarded them as friends roused our children both to understand and repudiate the experimental relationships that prevailed among their schoolmates. Our daughter, Frida, put it this way:

When Jerry and I were in grade school, we were surrounded by children clamoring to be adults. In contrast, we found the company of adults liberated us to be young again. Liberated is a heavy word, but it is the word I mean. They gave us an alternative to the constant pressures to fit in—to be down, cool, in, hard.

We watched our classmates destroy themselves in an effort to be accepted. They forfeited respect in and for themselves; they abandoned the values imbued in them by parents and teachers; they settled for less than they deserved. We could have too; the pull to be a part of the in-group was very strong. It was in friendships with older people that we glimpsed real friendship, real belonging, real nonviolence in relationships. It was not about settling, or forfeiting, or losing ourselves—it was about becoming, being challenged, being valued, listened to, encouraged to grow, to be more fully human. It became clear to us that all that we would relinquish to be part of the in-crowd was not worth it.

In high school, our children and their friends learned to live levels of intimacy that were (and remain) wholesome, healthy, holy—relationships that enabled them to thwart the pervasive sexual mores. Now that they are collegians, their father and I continue to struggle with these issues with them, returning again and again to the considerations I'm trying to articulate here. Together we recognize these values as countercultural, and, more and more, maybe as true.

If sex is destructive to community, it is violent. This is a truth I unearthed and learned to embrace only because I was guilty of violating it. When Philip and I were trying to understand the gift of our love and how both to appreciate and be responsible for that gift, it was important to us to clothe it in secrecy. We did not yet understand the relationship between our love and our religious communities, though we knew that it would not be welcome there. And we were not ready to make our love the subject (or object) of the favorite indoor sport, later termed "bochinche" (loosely translated as "life-sharing with other people's lives").

Did we put a wall around our relationship and refuse to open it up to scrutiny or celebration? Had someone inquired about our relationship would we have bristled or labeled the inquiry invasive? For a time, yes—and for too long a time.

We used the pretext that our love was a private thing against the truth that the condition of marriage or a relationship like our own is worldly; its meaning communal. There is a profound tension between keeping something private to give it a chance to grow and knowing the moment when it needs to come into the light in the wider community.

As we learned more about nonviolence, we understood that nothing exists for its own sake, but for a harmony greater than itself which includes it. Our interdependence is so complete that even our thoughts have cosmic consequences. We all are one! And marriage is a sign and symbol of our relationship with all that lives.

I came upon Living My Life, the autobiography of Emma Goldman, on the shelf of a jail library. I was beginning a three-year sentence; she seemed an apt companion. What peacemaker hasn't been gladdened by Emma's, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution!"?

But Emma was an early believer in free love. I was offended by her musings about the ruptures that developed among comrades once they had been lovers and were no more. I was astonished by her astonishment. Her conduct was explosive, devastating others and herself with abandon, destroying the very community she was seeking to build.

Sexual relationships have profound consequences for the wider community. Who of us has not called for a meeting or an action or a party and found that friends we wanted to call together couldn't be in the same room because they were once lovers and were no more?

People are too important; when one is violated or abused, we are all affected. Until we learn to treasure each other, nothing is going to change—not for the better. Our communities are so small; those willing to consider serious issues and humane response to them are so few. Even in a healthy society the connections that join people, land, and community are complex and our society is far from healthy. But we cannot forever refuse to focus on the affairs that create such havoc among us.

If the principles I articulate here are valid, the question imposes itself: Where does this leave us? I think of Peter's amazed response to Jesus' instructions: "Who then can be saved?" And Jesus' response: "With people this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God" (Mark 10:26-27).

Maybe Nietzsche understood the root of our malaise: "When God dies human relationships are reduced to the level of the will-to-power." He forces us to ask, Is faith in God the condition of fidelity in our relationships?

There is a hidden identity between faith and the unconditional love that people have for one other. Maybe fidelity is as entwined with faith as love of neighbor is entwined with love of God. Fidelity in human relationships is not something added to faith; it is the way a believer is faithful to God. Those who live in fidelity create a climate in which belief can grow Their love is a spring keeping the life around them free from despair, self-hatred, meaninglessness, by a testimony they do not necessarily articulate. Their fidelity is a participation in the mystery of being because it is the underlying significance of life that they experience within love. The mysteries of faith, which believers know as revelation, can be communicated only where the sacredness and mystery of being are still experienced in wonder. Where this sense of being is lacking, life ceases to be human and the word of faith falls on deaf ears.

IN OUR MARRIAGE, Philip and I learn the good of living within the limits of our reality as creatures, as created, as responsible, as not totally "our own." Our marriage stipulates that we continually give our word (and not just that we gave it); that we welcome a future that may not seem desirable; and that we be generous toward it. At times, the word we have given to one another and the world may appear to be wrong, or wrongly given. But the unknown still lies ahead of us, so we can't finally say.

With the Jonah House community and the support and help of a lot of friends, we have recently been building a house in an abandoned cemetery here in Baltimore. When complete, we will move there and take care of that 22-acre piece of property. A friend, witnessing a disagreement between us on some detail of the project, reiterated the adage: "Build a house; lose a spouse!"

We understand the warning. In this project, as in so much of our lives, neither of us is in charge. Both of us, as well as the press of time, life, history, and the world itself are carving, cleaving, and crafting us and our love. Uncertainty dogs every effort. But that is real. What is unreal is the pretense of security, the projection of five-year or 10-year plans for our lives. Reality comes home—three times in the last months, Philip has faced yet another spell in prison; and still it hangs over us.

In our marriage we acknowledge that good is possible; it invites us to be alive, to hope for what is good, to await it, to prepare to welcome it, but not require it. We hope that our love, like the love of others who inspirit and inspire us, can be a witness against the prevailing gloom, against the deadly conviction of our futurelessness; against the hopelessness and faithlessness and despair of humankind.

When this article appeared, Elizabeth McAlister, a founding member of Jonah House, a resistance community in Baltimore, Maryland, was a Sojourners contributing editor.

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