Fr. Panayiotis is a parish priest at Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church of Marietta, Georgia.
Fr. Panayiotis is also a member of the International Association for Patristic Studies, the Orthodox Theological Society of America and the North American Patristic Society. He continues his research in the Early Christian period and has published several articles in international theological journals. He has given a series of Lectures at the Nazarene University College of Calgary, Canada and the Pecos School of Spiritual Direction on Orthodox theology and Spirituality and has led numerous spiritual retreats locally and in various States of the U.S. Fr. Panayiotis serves as President of the Clergy Syndesmos of the Metropolis of Atlanta since July 2008 and has been on the Archdiocesan Presbyters Council since July 2010 and the Archdiocesan Council since July 2012.
Gay marriage has been in the news recently more frequently than ever before, since our President, the leader of the most powerful country in the world, threw his weight in with those who support the legalization of gay marriage. The question I raise here is whether this is just an issue of civil rights of a minority group or whether there are other issues associated with it that should concern us as Orthodox Christians.
On his behalf, the president of the United States made clear his intentions as he hurriedly announced his endorsement of gay marriage on the morning of that historic Thursday, while he was preparing to address a group of very liberal Hollywood actors and actresses who had pledged to his campaign 15 million dollars. It is clear to me that his decision to announce his support for gay marriage at that particular moment had very little to do with the civil rights of gay people and a lot more to do with campaign funds controlled by the ideological crowd that he was trying to placate that evening. His decision, certainly, had everything to do with his desire to be re-elected president. The final outcome is that the issue of gay marriage has now been fully politicized, which creates a problem for those of us who are trying to remain non-political or politically neutral. Yet the problem is not any less a moral and spiritual one and will have tremendous repercussions in our lives and the lives of those we try to lead spiritually.
As we venture to discuss this issue, however, we need to recognize that there has been an ideological cultural war going on in this country for the last 40 years in an effort to control the path of history and the ultimate shape of American society. Many of the religious leaders have been engaged on the conservative side struggling to at least maintain the status quo. On the liberal side, this war has been spearheaded by Hollywood elites in two major ways: (a) In the messages propagated through the movies and TV programming beamed directly into every living room of every American household and around the world, and (b) through the lifestyles of the Hollywood stars, which the media gossip engines are constantly glamorizing. Thus, chipping away constantly on the moral conscience of the nation, they have set us all on a moral slippery slope. Promiscuity and sexual activity outside of marriage have moved on our moral gauge from unacceptable to being the norm. Divorce has become commonplace and a social inevitability for many of us. Substance abuse and addiction are now seen as part of the American lifestyle, and pornography has gradually taken the place of daily entertainment. In the meantime, the concepts of “marriage” and “family” are being drastically reshaped.
Of course, I do not want to sound too simplistic by proposing that this is all a matter of an orchestrated conspiracy. I am merely trying to point out that there are powerful people pushing hard for a culture change, pouring millions of dollars into this effort like never before, as we saw in the recent events.
This cultural war at some point spilled over into the politics of the nation, as well, and has been polarizing the country for decades. Time after time, we are being called to side with one or the other political parties based on the moral issues raised in front of us. The politicians follow the polls and act according to the crowd they are addressing. They also follow the money offered by special interest groups and decide accordingly as to what position they should support in their desire to be elected into office. In the meantime, the rest of us struggle to sort out whom to vote for, but also which of the moral issues at play are worth holding on to and which ones are not. Most of the time we find ourselves compromising in one or the other way as we either vote for people we don’t trust or against our moral conscience, giving in to the ever sliding moral standards of the people who govern us.
Coming back to the issue at hand, the President’s sudden endorsement of gay marriage shocked the majority of the people of this country and caused ripple effects throughout the world, more powerful ripple effects than any other social issue has caused in recent history. Here he was, the leader of the most advanced society, leading the way into new territory for humanity, declaring that homosexual union should be accepted through the laws of this great nation as a legitimate family unit, declaring that the right to legal marriage of these individuals was more important than the established norm of “marriage” and “family” as we have known it for thousands of years in every culture and every religion of this planet. Through this declaration, the understanding of “marriage” and “family” is now being redefined, leaving us wondering what will be the next iteration of proposed legal marriage. (Would it be polygamy, union of siblings or perhaps an other absurd form? The possibilities are endless!) And, of course, this forceful redefinition of marriage was made not because any scientific anthropological or sociological development or any religious theological revelation has brought about the necessity for a radical change in humanity’s view of marriage and family, but only in order that this candidate may win a second term as president. It all happened because of the self-serving purposes of a politician.
This announcement by President Obama has left many of us, who hold to the more traditional concept of marriage, totally speechless. We are at a loss as to how we should react. If we stand with him, we are faced with many anthropological, theological and spiritual problems to solve. If we stand against him, we may seem to be backward and unenlightened, homophobic or prejudiced. Worse of all, we may seem as taking an opposing political position to a sitting president seeking re-election, or even worst, we may be seen as racists as we stand opposed to the first black president of this country!
So, how should we react? How do we address this issue from the theological and spiritual perspective as Orthodox Christians? Why should we even care whether gay marriage is made legal or not. Shouldn’t there be a separation of Church and State? Does it really matter what the state does, as long as it does not forbid us to practice our religion the way we understand it?
I should begin to address these questions by first declaring that the Orthodox Church has held to its theological beliefs and the high standards of moral values through hundreds of years of persecutions and enslavement by hostile governments and malevolent monarchs. We will continue to do the same until the end of time when the Lord comes again in Glory!
Secondly, I need to point out that we view homosexuals as all other human beings created and loved by God. The Church as a spiritual hospital does not reject them and receives them like everyone else with open arms into the journey to God’s Kingdom, attempting to help them (as everyone else) to enter the Kingdom of God. From a pastoral perspective, we are all in the same fallen condition and we all need to come closer to God seeking to experience His love and spiritual healing. God’s mercy is the same for all of us despite our particular state of existence or sexual inclination. All He wants from us is “a broken and contrite heart” in order to unleash His healing mercy.
Having said that, I need to point out that from an Orthodox perspective there is a specific path to the Kingdom of God, understood and lived by millions of Christians before us. That path involves conquering our passions, taking control over our urges and calming down these unbridled forces that have overtaken us as we distanced ourselves from God. The holy men and women of the Church that we call “the saints” have done exactly that. Invoking their Faith, they took hold of their passions; they did not focus on their sexuality; they surpassed their shortcomings by God’s Grace. This is what we know as “ascesis” in Orthodox spirituality, which is aided by the Grace of God. The ascetic life (appended to Faith) is the only path to God’s Kingdom! God’s loving presence is only experienced through the spiritual struggle aimed at taming and controlling our desires and urges, not by immersing ourselves in them and trying to satisfy them.
The difficulty here, however, comes from the pressures we are faced within our modern secular society. We are being bombarded with the idea that we should seek as much pleasure and satisfaction from the world as possible. One has to turn on the TV for only a few minutes and watch the commercials or any of the movies coming out of Hollywood in order to quickly realize that contrary to the experience advocated by the saints we are encouraged to feed our passions and desires. Our worth as human beings is directly connected to the material things we own. Our eyes are flooded with images that aggravate our passions. Sexuality is at the center of all the pleasures. Pornography (a 100 billion dollar a year industry) is only a click away, while a multitude of products are offered everywhere with the promise to enhance and extend our ultimate sexual experience.
Hence, this discussion is not just about homosexuality. Both heterosexual as well as homosexual behaviors are being pushed beyond the boundaries. People are being encouraged to try all kinds of things in order to find more pleasure. Sexuality has become the center goal of human experience. Ascesis and self-control (as proposed by the saints) seem out of place in this world of hedonistic endeavor. The message of the Church is so different that it gets trampled by the noise of our passions.
In such a world it is only logical that the discussion becomes one of rights. The rights of people to their own view of pleasure are being invoked. Who can deny a person the right to his/her own pleasure if this is at the center of our human experience? Who has the right to tell someone that they have to restrict their own sexual inclinations or chosen path of sexual expression if that seems to be what makes them happy? And for what reason should one place a limit on sexual experimentation when the whole society is seeking love and happiness in the same way? (Love and sex have become synonyms in this context). It would certainly be unfair for homosexuals to be restricted when heterosexuals are free and encouraged to seek ultimate pleasure in sexuality. The conclusion is, that If marriage for heterosexuals is about fulfilling their sexual desires, why should it be prohibited for homosexuals?
As Orthodox Christians, however, we have an alternative approach to offer. Marriage, according to our Faith, was given by God for procreation and the cultivation of unconditional love that transcends sexuality and leads us to His Kingdom. Even within marriage, we are called to exercise ascesis and self-control as we struggle to attain perfection in the likeness of God. Marriage is not about satisfying our unbridled passions. Our bodies were not made to be instruments of pleasure but Temples of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 6:19). Marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman that safeguards the structure and propagation of human society and provides a harbor of salvation from the tempest of the world and a sacred place where spiritual love is perfected through self-sacrifice in the image of Christ.
In other words, our objection to the legalization of gay marriage does not constitute a denial that people may have varying sexual inclinations, but stands, rather, as an objection to the encouragement of human enslavement to the passions and desires that will deprive us from the ultimate experience of the Love of God, a far greater source of joy and pleasure than anything our unbridled sexuality can provide.
Following St. Paul we need to accept that “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.” All things are lawful for me, but I will not be enslaved by anything.” 1Cor 6:12; 1Cor 10:23). St. Paul forsook his right to take a wife as the other Apostles did (1Cor 9:5), as he chose to serve the Lord with all his life. Sexual pleasure was not on his agenda, as a higher love, the love of God, consumed him completely (Cf. Rom 8:39).
If we were to learn anything from the mystical experience of the saints, it would be that sexuality is not at the center of human experience. On the contrary, humanity is actually called to transcend sexuality: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mat 22:30).
If we were to learn anything from the last two thousand years of Christian experience we should realize that healthy families, built on the foundation of stable Christian marriages and centered on God’s Love have produced many great spiritual and civic leaders that benefited society and the human race. The family has constituted the fundamental structural unit of human society. Some nations survived wars and natural disasters, succeeded and thrived because of the strength of their family unit, while others collapsed and disappeared as the foundation crumbled because of the weakening of marriage and the family.
Civil rights can be granted to any group of people without redefining the institution of marriage, for we need to understand that it is dangerous for humanity to tamper with marriage, as the many significant benefits that come from it will be lost with severe consequences for this great nation. Above all, we run the risk of losing the Kingdom of God. Then, no earthly pleasure will satisfy our fallen human desires. No river, nor ocean will be able to quench our thirst for the Divine Love that will be lost forever.