See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Marriage in the Shadows

Leah Libresco and Pascal Emmaneul Gobry have been wrestling with exactly how awesome marriage is.

Gobry:

The orthodox Christian view of indissoluble marriage in many ways can seem “exalted” in comparison to secular society. And secular society certainly makes lots of noises about valorizing marriage. Thus, “You agree marriage is awesome, we agree marriage is awesome. Ain’t marriage awesome???”
But the problem is that this is an inversion of the Biblical theology of marriage. […] If marriage is a vale of milk and honey, then when the milk and honey runs out, the marriage loses its reason for being. If marriage is a vale of milk and honey, then not offering it to everyone is tantamount to sadism. Marriage is [really] a Cross. Marriage is a vocation to creation in total self-giving. To say that marriage is a Cross is to say that it is part of God’s design and that many graces flow from it and even that it is joyous. But it is also to say that it sucks sometimes and that it demands a total gift of self.  If we see vocation as a call to creative self-giving, we see that marriage and celibacy are two sides of the same coin.

Libresco:

Treating marriage as a relationship set apart prevents us from easily translating the same lessons we learn in love of friend or family into the partnership we’ve learned to treat as sui generis. [] It would be bizarre to say, “I’m not ready for friendship — I’m not prepared to make that kind of commitment to someone” but it seems perfectly natural to prorogue marriage[. W]e still view marriage as self-gift, but that we expect the self that we give to be well-polished and complete[.]  We don’t see a way that any gift worthy of the name could also be a constraint or a burden.

These are all excellent points, though they both neglected some vital context. Marriage really is harder these days, in some ways good (domestic violence is a no-no) and in other ways bad (you must be perfect partners in every sphere of your life). Simultaneous with ever-increasing standards of what a “good” marriage should be, the traditional support structures within the churches, communities, and social networks of married couples have weakened terribly.

Gobry clarified in the comments section:

And to the point about support networks–absolutely, and this is critical. To say that our cultural “script” about marriage is flawed is not to say that there aren’t understandable reasons for that and that we can’t sympathize with those who are victims of it. Our society makes it a lot harder to sustain marriages–and the Church has a role to play in that, Laws are one thing, but it’s also incumbent upon the Church to sustain and create the cultural institutions that make a healthy marriage culture possible.

I’ve been thinking about this response, and I think that while it is obviously correct it is also a terribly incomplete solution. But for getting involved with my wife, who is also my fiancée,1 I would never have noticed how badly incomplete that solution is.

I am a lawyer and that has created certain biases – distortions really – in my thinking. The French language has a wonderful term for this phenomenon, deformation professionelle.2 Lawyers in particular are susceptible to this distortion. American law schools regularly defend their expensive and lengthy curriculum as teaching their students how to “think like a lawyer”, probably in large part because lawyers are dimly self-aware of how very nearly useless we are as a class. 3 Laws themselves are supremely intangible despite their importance. For example, despite the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pages of case law, statutes, law reviews and memoranda explaining contract law, a tiny fraction of contract disputes actually end up in court where the law is actually decided. Lucky for us people make decisions in the shadow of the law, 4 acting in accordance to dictates from a system they will probably never interact with, on the off chance they might someday. So lawyers become very comfortable with abstract systems and take for granted the proposition that abstractions influence action.

Abstractions of course, do influence action. The scripts do matter, and the failure of churches to provide a system of theological, moral, symbolic and cultural support to less-than-ideal-but-still-valuable marriages is a driving force behind the retreat of marriage society wide. That pales in comparison to the simple loss of material support. Which brings me to the lessons taught to me by my wife’s family.

My wife, who is also my fiancée, is Hmong. The Hmong are an ethnic group that originated somewhere in the mountains of southern China and now has major populations in the mountains of China, Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. Most of the Hmong in the United States were themselves born in the highlands of Laos, or descended from those who were born there.5 During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmong en masse to tie up VietCong supply lines with the promise that after victory, America would help the Hmong create their own self-governing homeland. This ended poorly. After considerable doing and a number of deaths, the Hmong immigrated in huge numbers during the late 1970s, taking refuge in the United States, often sponsored by Baptists.6

Cut to 2011: the Hmong are a largely clannish, half-acculturated, half-insular, half-Christianized7 people trying their very hardest to keep to the Old School; and I had gotten serious with a cute Hmong-American girl I had asked out after meeting her at a college function. I am not Hmong. This did not thrill several of the more conservative members of my wife’s extended family, and after extended drama, I found myself in an Alaskan Hmong Lutheran Church wearing a traditional Hmong outfit, marrying my wife before God and the Hmong community, but not in the eyes of any state, and engaged before the wider American community.

It is in the lead up to that moment, in that church that really taught me the most important lesson. During the mostly traditional8 rituals, I was struck by how very concrete the rituals really were. For the Hmong, to marry is to become part of a network of family members, so when I married, all the other married couples pledged their support. Not just moral support, although that was there, not just respect and regard, although that was also there, but solid promises of monetary support; promises to guide my wife and I, as a younger inexperienced couple, through the rocky shoals of marriage; labor to prepare the necessary meals; material gifts to help build a life together. They promised support in the most pedestrian and flat-footed sense: advice, labor, and monies.

I trend strongly towards the individual and the rational, but I long for strong community bonds in this atomized age. It was relatively easy for me to become part of a community of conviction, but when I married my wife, I became part of a community of blood. The Hmong don’t have a word for “father-in-law”. My wife’s father is now my father, my father is hers. My wife’s brothers, hell, even her cousins, are my brothers now. It was a humbling thing to realize and fully believe in a single moment.

The solution for a modern married couple doesn’t lie in worshiping anachronisms, or worse trying to morph society backwards into the good-ol’-days of clans. It wouldn’t work, and there are downsides to clan thinking – no reason to repeat that whole Hatfields and McCoys business. In fact, it is a serious error to think the best solution to a sorry state of affairs is to reverse the cause. In the ruins of our traditional support systems, we must put aside the temptation to discard progress in exchange for restoring a facade. Instead we must build or rebuild great edifices to fulfill the needs that they once addressed. Yes, we need inspiration. Yes, we need culture. Yes, we need symbols. And yes, we need abstractions. We need all of these things. But we also need to be ready to fork over the cold hard cash. We need to do more than tell the young twenty somethings with no retirement account and a bevy of loans to forgo waiting for financial stability, we need to actually offer them financial support. We need to tell the young couple worrying about divorce that they have genuine wisdom of elders to fall back on. We need to tell the young couple dealing with an unplanned pregnancy that they will not be punished, and their child will be loved. We need to tell young couples that the village has their back, and we need for the village to actually be there with money, with labor, and with wisdom. We need every marriage license sealed with the full faith and credit of the community.

Divorce doesn’t end there, but the retreat of marriage does.

Footnotes

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