We have a saying in English – “The law is an ass”, most often applied when the letter of the law overrides the spirit of the law or takes no account of the context to which it is being applied and is therefore made to look unreasonable and stupid.
We say it about civil and criminal law but it can equally be applied to religious laws as well.
You could say, and some do, that what Jesus says about marriage and divorce is cast iron. Marriage is for life and divorce is a sin and anyone who divorces a woman and finds someone else is committing adultery – no question! Really??
But this ignores the social context in which this arose. Notice the question was about allowing a man to divorce his wife, not the other way around. In the society and culture of first century Palestine, a divorced woman’s life was perilous. No means of support and shunned by polite society, as either a pariah or a threat, she was a marginalised and reduced to penury. The man could just carry on of course.
Seen against this cultural backdrop – the ideal that Jesus is upholding of a marriage as a commitment for life can be seen as a huge support for women’s rights and wellbeing, protecting them against the prospect of being cast aside on a whim of a feckless husband.
All laws and rules have to be set in context and applied in context. It is fine to have an ideal but even the most cast iron ideals are very easily bent out of shape by circumstance. Take perhaps the apparently most cast iron law of all – “Thou shalt not kill”
If a young man on a council estate in Hull takes a gun and kills someone he is an evil murderer who when caught will serve life imprisonment for his crime. But take that same young man out of the estate, put him in a uniform, send him to Afghanistan, and when he takes a gun and kills people there he is lauded as a Hero. He is still killing people but the context is different. In one he is a villain and the other a Hero. “Thou shalt not kill” is no longer so cast iron after all and becomes very elastic indeed.
Applying laws to the realities of life and ignoring the context potentially turns religion into an ogre, remote and condescending. In insisting on the letter of the law over the Spirit of the law, i.e. ignoring the humanity involved in every situation, religion is dehumanised.
The Spirit that motivated Jesus to say what he said I believe was said in a spirit of protection and love and concern for the position of women in the society that jesus was living in – not a cast iron irrevocable Holy law that could never be questioned.
Things change. All things change and develop, not least human relationships. And it is in recognition of that fact that the Church of England, while advocating the ideal of marriage as a life long commitment, quite rightly recognises divorce and the reality of marital breakdown. And we forgive and we re-marry people.
No-one ever goes into a marriage thinking that this will do for a couple of years and then I’ll try something else. I don’t think I’ve ever married anyone who didn’t aspire to the ideal, but life and circumstances and relationships change and we need to wake up and face reality.
What people need when a relationship breaks down is not condemnation for breaking a rule. Believe me most married couples quite happily condemn and accuse themselves when things go wrong. They need love and support in a very painful and difficult situation.
Every situation is different. When children are involved the situation differs even more significantly.
Solutions are not easy. Life and relationships can be messy and complex. One solution will work for one and not work for another.
My position as with so much of life and spirituality has become one of finding a balance. So it is not a simple battle between cast iron unbreakable rules versus situational ethics. It is rather holding both in a dynamic tension and respecting them both and allowing them to speak to eachother.
So I like most of us have to live with paradox. Yes I believe in “Till death do us part” but I also believe in relational breakdown – acceptance and forgiveness.
As a result, because we hold both these things in tension we can be accused of being wishy washy and betraying God’s holy laws, but I see it as being true to experience, and God speaks to us through experience.
The alternative is a hard, black and white religion. This kind is superficially attractive to many people, now as then, but this kind of religion leaves no room for the Spirit and leads not to peace and equanimity – it leads to the inquisition, to Saudi Arabia and to Iran.
The alternative is a system where human frailty and divorce is not recognised at all and the only way out is a hypocritical declaration granted by an arbitrary power that the marriage never actually happened at all – called an annulment. This is simply a denial of reality.
Christianity at its very root and core is about living in the Spirit, not according to law. On a deeper level using the Bible as a rule book rather as a signpost to a mysterious spiritual reality is actually a denial of the message of Jesus who advocated human flourishing by finding your identity in God.
Once we take the humanity out of religious law we end up with the inquisition or sharia law. I will prefer to live with paradox, messiness and uncertainty any day of the week. Jesus’ apparently harsh statement was I truly believe motivated by love and the desire to protect the position of women, supporting them and their ability to grow and flourish within the cultural realities of First century Palestine and Judaism as it then was. He was looking for the way of love. In our society we should also be looking for the way of love, but it will look very different to how it looked 2000 years ago.
Because taking God seriously means taking life, our culture and context seriously. We need to keep close to God both corporately and individually in order to be open to the wisdom and guidance of God, to be able to hear that “still small voice” guiding us into the truth.