“Aren't there more important things to campaign for?” It's a question I've been asked since enthusiastically backing the Equal Love campaign's efforts to secure marriage equality in the UK.
Resistance to the government's vicious cuts must be a campaigning priority for 2011. But it would be a mistake to think that campaigns for queer freedom should therefore be put on the back-burner. Issues of marriage and sexuality are closely linked to questions of power and money.
Marriage has gone through a wide variety of forms in the millennia of its existence. Differences of polygamy, arranged marriage, temporary marriage, forced marriage and other variations have existed across times and cultures. Money and love have been frequent themes across these variations. Conflicting interpretations of marriage have at times arisen over which of these two themes is emphasised.
For many people, marriage has largely been a property contract. It has been a financial deal between the husband and his wife's father by which the bride is passed on as a possession. But even in times and places in which this has been the dominant understanding of marriage, it has competed with notions of love and female independence.
The abhorrent notion of marriage as a property contract is no longer prevalent in most British weddings, although it lives on in the shocking practice of the bride being “given away”. Despite this, commercial concerns dominate marriage as much as they ever did. The Observer reports that the average cost of a wedding in the UK is now a staggering £21,000 – higher than the average annual income.
Nothing illustrates the wastefulness of capitalism more than the vastly profitable wedding industry. Many couples put off marriage not because of a lack of love and commitment because they 'can't afford' it.
As a Christian, I am painfully aware that Christians have a history of abandoning approaches to relationships based on love for those based on power and commercial values.
Jesus broke the sexual conventions of his time by allowing women to make physical contact with him. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, insisted that “there is no longer male and female because you are all one in Christ Jesus”. But the later parts of the New Testament show a shift towards acceptance of dominant social norms. The letter to the Ephesians (which is attributed to Paul, although nearly all scholars believe he did not write it) urges wives to submit to their husbands and slaves to submit to their masters.
Similarly, Christians today are on the whole failing to challenge the commercialisation of sexuality and relationships. 'Family values' campaigners are generally focused on opposing same-sex relationships and have little if anything to say about the consumerism that undermines marriage. To be fair to the Evangelical Alliance, they have begun to speak of the need to focus on marriages rather than weddings, but the more extreme groups do not seem to mention the issue at all.
True, they criticise the use of sexual imagery in advertising, particularly when aimed at children and teenagers. But rather than recognise this as an aspect of commercialised sexuality, they instead encourage panic about young people's sexuality in itself. As the feminist journalist Laurie Penny points out, the problem is not “that young women are 'growing up too fast' – rather it is that they are growing up to understand that they are erotic commodities”.
The failure of the 'family values' lobby to challenge commercialised sexuality gives them more in common than they might like to think with a sizeable wing of the LGBT rights movement.
Many LGBT group are uncritical of capitalism. The rights they seek amount to little more than the right to be exploited on an equal basis to straight people. Nothing illustrates this more than Tickled Pink, Britain's “first gay wedding magazine”, which predictably perpetuates the same consumerist values as its straight equivalents.
As Christians, we follow a radical messiah who constantly challenged the values and power relationships of his society. We are not called to perpetuate exploitative social norms in the name of a dangerously narrow understanding of either family values or LGBT rights. We need to be speaking about both family and rights at a much deeper level.
As the theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “Any sex ethic is a political ethic”. Our attitudes to sexual, romantic and marital relationships depend on our understanding of what it means for people to relate to each other in fair and ethical ways. Upholding ethics in 'personal' relationships involves recognising the social and political relationships that can both support and undermine them.
This is why economic issues are so important to questions of sexuality and marriage. We cannot defeat the ConDem cuts by tinkering at the edges while accepting the logic of capitalism and its idolatry of the market. A society that rejects capitalism will seek to build human relations based not on economic power but on love, care and mutuality.
Grassroots Christians are already campaigning against the cuts, with institutional denominations following more slowly behind. While a minority of Christians are campaigning for queer freedom, others are leading the backlash against it and the majority are stuck somewhere in the middle. The vision of relationships based on fundamentally different values should spur us on to resist both capitalism and the twisted, commercialised distortion of marriage and sexuality that it brings in its wake.
© Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia and a signatory to the Common Wealth statement of Christians opposed to the government's cuts. See http://commonwealthnetwork2010.blogspot.com.
In June 2011, Symon will walk from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for his former homophobia. He will urge churches to repent of homophobia and think differently about sexuality. See http://www.repenting.wordpress.com.