You Don't Own Marriage: An Open Letter to Bishop Thomas

I got an email from a cousin of mine last week.

"Shannon,

Your dad wanted me to send you this horrible letter from our church- also sending you what my father sent back to them. He's looking for others to write as well."

I hadn't attended "our" church in over 10 years.

Below was a forwarded response to the church from her father, questioning, among other things, where the church's outrage was for lax gun control laws and ongoing wars--you know, things that actually hurt people. Attached were two official statements: one from the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops and the other from Bishop Thomas of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. Both were in response to the recent SCOTUS decision on Obergefell v. Hodges, which gave legal recognition to same sex marriages nationwide.

The statements were pretty much what you'd expect from a conservative Christian church: Expressions of disappointment and indignation about this "legislative fiat." Condemnations of not just homosexuality, but all sexual activity outside of marriage. Vague, fear-mongering concerns about this new "threat" to society in general and children in particular. In case you're unfamiliar about the Eastern Orthodoxy, it's like the more self-serious, somber older brother of the Catholicism. Much of the same dogma and incense, none of the humor or Pope Francis.

Bishop Thomas, whose name was attached to the longer of the statements, I recognized from my days at church camp as a child. He was only a priest then and infamous for leading crowds of campers in shouty choruses of a song called "In Heaven There Ain't No Beer." I remember adoring him.

I thought about what my cousin had said--"looking for others to write as well." So I did.

Bishop Thomas,

Here's my big coming out moment: I'm not an Orthodox Christian anymore. Maybe that automatically disqualifies me from this conversation, but I did once consider myself an Orthodox Christian and I was a parishioner at St. George's in Bridgeville, PA during my adolescence. I left the church for reasons some would consider less egregious than this recent statement, but it disappoints me nonetheless that in the wake of this momentous human rights decision which was met with celebration and acceptance by so many Christians--my wonderful family among them--the church I once called home has dug its heels into the mud of intolerance and is determined to stay rooted in antiquity--by which I mean eventual obsolescence.

Many of the church's objections to homosexuality are farcical and the basis for these objections seems to be either poor reading comprehension or a highly selective, highly self-serving interpretation of a few verses of Leviticus by the same straight, powerful, affluent men that have quite literally always written the rules--both secular and ecclesiastical. As I shouldn't have to tell you, there are 75 other transgressions listed in Leviticus other than homosexual sex, among them touching a dead weasel (11:29), attending church within 33 days of giving birth (or 66 days if the baby was an "unclean" girl!) (12:4-5), and eating animal fat (3:17).

I could go on listing other ludicrous rules, but the point stands: If you want to champion a holy text that promulgates slavery, bigamy, incest, a slew of degradations against women, and genocide, then you must either be willing to discard the aspects of the doctrine which more enlightened times have revealed to be at best ignorant and at worst barbaric, or you must be willing to stand by every word, every punctuation mark. To persist somewhere in the middle, jettisoning some inconvenient and backwards teachings and not others, places the church on thin moral ice. Beneath the ice lies outright hypocrisy, and in hypocrisy you lose the conscientious, considered, thoughtful Christians like my family and alienate my entire generation and all the ones to come.

There were biblical justifications for slavery. Biblical justifications for segregation. Biblical justifications for opposing interracial marriage. Does the church have its head so far into the Bible that it can't crack a history book for one solitary second and realize that it is, yet again, on the wrong side of the narrative? The way we look at photographs of protestors outside the first integrated school in Arkansas and feel disbelief and disgust is the way my children will look at you.

Nobody thinks himself a bigot, Bishop Thomas. Nobody wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror and thinks, "I am a racist." "I am a misogynist." "I am a homophobe." We know better than to believe that hatred and oppression and apathy only come from those with malicious and purposeful intent; they come from well-meaning people with convenient excuses for treating others as less than. Religion is historically the best such excuse.

As a non-Christian, I can go down to a courthouse tomorrow with my non-Christian boyfriend and get married and enjoy all the social and legal benefits without so much as mentioning God. And when I get married, it will have nothing to do with religion, but be a celebration of two autonomous people choosing to spend the rest of their lives together of their own free will because they recognize something sacred in one another and want to honor that partnership. (And let's not even delve into the sordid history of marriage as the original market for buying and selling virgin girls, hm?) If homosexuals apparently can't get married without the church being involved, then can I? Is my godless courthouse marriage automatically co-opted by you as "right" simply because it's mixed-gender? You will not define my marriage just as I cannot define yours. And neither can gays who can now legally marry.

I say all that in order to say this to the church: You don't own marriage. You didn't make it up. Christianity isn't the only religion to consider it a sacrament and as I just explained, in many cases, it doesn't have anything to do with the church at all. We don't need the church to get married, and when the church starts excluding those who would otherwise gladly join the flock, no one will want it either.

And that, I think, is the most upsetting aspect of this official stance against the SCOTUS ruling: You didn't have to say anything. This has nothing to do with you or the church or religion. No one can force you to perform or recognize these marriages, and no one is even asking you to. That's your right. And you know that. But you still went out of your way to make this decree, to belittle the gay community and to distance yourself from them. To remind them, in case they thought otherwise for even a second, that there are still people and institutions and indeed, even entire countries that find them less than, unworthy of the same rights and dignities that the rest of us enjoy through no special effort of our own.

I will not be coming back to the church, but that doesn't mean I don't recognize the powerful good that such institutions can do and the peace, guidance, and clarity they provide for the faithful. Don't undermine the deep goodness the church is capable of by spreading seeds of discrimination and condemning yourself to irrelevance in the process.

Sincerely,

Shannon Deep