Priest Sergei Sveshnikov is the Rector of the New Martyrs of Russia Orthodox Church, Mulino, OR, near Portland. He shares his thoughts on the recent decision of the Council of Elected Commissioners of Multnomah County on the issuing of marriage certificates for homosexual marriages.
We have recently witnessed the heightening of passions in America over so-called “same-sex marriages.” In those jurisdictions where such “marriages” have been approved (San Francisco, Portland), there were demonstrations, protests for and against, even to the point of arrests. At the same time, the overwhelming majority of Americans, having been reared on tolerance, look upon all of this with bewilderment. Television screens and newspapers are filled with images of men in passionate kisses and the stories of two older women who had spent their entire lives together, who only now have been given those same human rights which more traditional couples have had.
On the other hand, having already achieved the division of church from the state (unfortunately, not of the state from the church), Protestant movements suddenly, as one (well, almost, for each family has an ugly duckling), are calling upon judges and politicians to heed what is written in the Bible, or at least not to break centuries-old Christian traditions.
What are we to make of this turmoil? I do not wish to render an opinion on the position taken by the “gays” that they were ostensibly born this way and cannot do anything about it—I am not sufficiently educated in the natural sciences, but the dilettante in me feels that if we turn to the animal kingdom, we find that homosexuality may exist there, but it is a clear departure from “the natural order of things” (what would happen if Butch loved Fido and not Lassie?). Such a “gay” pedigree would quickly end in nature.
It is not worth overloading the reader with quotes from the Bible, which clearly speak of homosexuality, or retell the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. People of faith know the Bible well even without reminder, and citing the Bible to atheists will not persuade them. Let us get to the gist of the matter: what is marriage and what is its place in contemporary Western society?
But first let us address the so-called “deprivation of rights” of the homosexuals. It is not difficult to see that all their statements on the problems associated with visiting the sick (has any one of us not visited sick friends?) and medical insurance are insubstantial, because they can be (and should be) resolved without constitutional amendments and legislation on marriage. The only question worthy of consideration is the very “right to marry.” But there is no such right, in nature or in society. One has the right to life, the right to work, the right to vote and even the right to smear everyone and everything (so-called “freedom of speech”), but a right to marry? In the United States, marriage is more of a privilege than a right: for to marry (and to drive an automobile, and to go fishing), one needs a license, while the “right to free speech” requires no license.
What is marriage? In Western society (both civil and religious), marriage is the name for a contract between two people. This contract is the means of expressing mutual promises such as: “I will love you always,” “So will I,” “I will leave the house to you when we get a divorce,” “You can have the car.” The marriage contract is made before witnesses—before God, a preacher or a judge. As with any contract, a marriage contract assumes the possibility of its nullification, for example, if one side or the other violates the conditions of the contract. In Protestant culture one cannot discern in what way a civil marriage is different from a church marriage, since in both one and the other, the “active ingredients” are two people who make various promises to each other. It is precisely for this reason that the decision of the civil authorities to issue marriage certificates to homosexuals is received by the Protestant world as the effort to undermine the institution of matrimony. In a way, they are right. The fact is that the foundation of any culture is religion (even if it is atheism, or worldliness elevated to the rank of religious ideal). It is religion that determines the limitations of what is to be permitted. Indeed, what temporal logic can explain the ban on one man marrying several women (or the opposite)? If they wish to do so, then they were “born that way.” Does the civil government have the right to “suppress the rights” of polygamists? Let us set aside the matter of the potential “marriage” of John Doe and Lassie, since society will simply not allow it now, even if that means suppressing the rights of zoophiles. But pedophiles can try to exploit the crack in the judicial system and declare that no scientific findings show that the expression of “love” has any effect on the development of a child–there simply are none. And in fact, in India, marriages are often performed with 10- and 12-year olds, and that’s just the way the Indians live! In Russia in olden days, girls of the ages of 14-15 would marry and have children. It turns out that we are suppressing the rights of zoophiles and pedophiles, for they, too, were “born that way.”
Contemporary American society cannot find a good answer to this in jurisprudence: jurisprudence cannot rely on such unscientific notions as “morality,” just as science cannot forbid marriage to pots and pans. One cannot rely on the field of morality since it always depends on religion, for there can be no other foundation. Left without a means of support, morality turns into immorality. And no mythical “human” values will help, because they simply do not exist. In strictly Muslim societies, for example, homosexuals are simply exterminated, while polygamy, and that which the West considers pedophilia, flourish there.
The fact of the matter is that Western European culture, since ancient times, was Christian. For this reason, laws and traditions are based on religion, which until fairly recently did not need to be defended or explained. Since the time of the separation of church and state, the latter is undergoing a gradual de-Christianization, when the remnants of Christian underpinnings and traditions (for example, prayer in schools, Christian symbolism, traditional marriages, etc.) are attacked one after the other through the courts and removed, since there is no foundation for them in a godless society.
How should the Orthodox Church approach such changes in the world today? I should correct myself right away, because in the opinion of many Orthodox theologians, all these changes show the apostasy, the decay and the irreversible processes of the corruption of society. In the words of Deacon A. Kuraev, temporal history will end with Christianity almost completely defeated, with the triumph of evil and the reign of the Antichrist (just as the earthly life of Christ ended with the triumph of the devil and of theocides), before the Resurrection and the advent of the “day without eve” of the Kingdom of Heaven. So in this sense, this is to be expected anyway.
But while keeping this in mind, it should be noted that it is hard to remain indifferent to living in Sodom or Gomorrah. Every normal Christian cannot but have a negative reaction when all that is holy is trampled and mocked, when the very bases of Christian life, built by Christians for centuries, traveling along the path of the cross to our day, are razed. For to destroy—not to build—does not take centuries. We must think of our children and protect them with all our strength from that which destroys the soul. If someone gives our child a bottle of poison, will we not leap up and cry out, will we not try to take it away? How can one look calmly upon this poison being poured into the souls of our children? For we must fear not those who can only destroy the flesh, but those who can also doom the soul to eternal Gehenna. It is difficult enough to rear a child in the Christian spirit in a society where “all roads are equal—choose your own at your pleasure.” Try, for instance, to explain to Johnny why he cannot pray in school, but you can meditate, why yoga is taught in college, but the Jesus prayer is not. Try to add to this why in contemporary society it is normal and lawful not only for Pete and Mary to have a family, but for Pete to marry Billy, for Mary to marry Elaine.
By the way, about marriage: It is specifically the Orthodox institution of marriage in this matter that continues to stand undisturbed. The Orthodox marriage is different from the Protestant marriage, or that of the “Western” type. Again, the Western marriage is a contract. The Orthodox marriage is a Mystery, that is, it is one of the Mysteries of the Orthodox Church, alongside Baptism, Communion, etc. For this reason it is not those entering into matrimony who perform the Mystery, for during the entire service, they promise nothing to anyone—not to God, not to each other—but it is God Himself Who performs it. That is, the newly-married take the first steps towards the altar, “under the crown,” but the Mystery happens not by them but over them. Compare, for example, the Mystery of the Eucharist: the person taking Communion does not transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, but piously approaches the Chalice and accepts the Holy Gifts. Of course, the one who partakes of Communion is not a soulless object upon whom some action is occurring—he is an active participant, but he is not the one who performs the act. In Protestantism, Communion is lowered to a purely symbolic act of the Protestants themselves, who swallow a biscuit and grape juice, throwing the remainder in the trash, while God Himself, in Whose “memory” this is done, plays no role in this action. The same applies to matrimony. The Orthodox marriage is a union of grace, blessed by God, while the Protestant or civil marriage is an action taken by mortals, and for this reason is without grace. Often such a marriage is considered unlawful in Orthodox literature, and is nothing more than sinful cohabitation. Of course, this determination applies only to unwedded Orthodox Christians. To state that a non-Orthodox person sins because he does not take Communion, does not make confession, cohabitates in a graceless civil union makes no sense—the problem lies much deeper than that.
And although the Orthodox Church sternly denounces the “gays,” for instance, in the official statement adopted by the latest Pastoral Conference of the Western American Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, held on March 10-12, the Orthodox Church has nothing to do with homosexual marriages, strictly speaking: there is nothing unusual about the godless acting in a depraved manner. It is more accurate to say that civil unions have no direct connection with the Orthodox Church, its Mysteries or institutions.
As one who is in service to the Orthodox Church, I wish to call upon all Orthodox Christians, especially those who live in “hot spots” of the United States, not to be troubled by the apparent victory of atheism in the world, and to struggle against it with a stricter attitude towards oneself, to one’s spiritual life, to protect yourselves and your children from worldly corruption through the Mysteries of the Church, and not to despair: even in Sodom and Gomorrah, which were infected with sin, Lot was able to protect himself and his family from this disease. How much stronger is the hope for salvation for us, who have “notЙ an Ambassador, norЙ an Angel, but the very Lord Himself.” And “if God be for us, who can be against us?”