What Would He Say?

Jack Miles is the author of "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God" and "God: A Biography," for which he won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Were Jesus to return to Earth, he might be excused for guessing that the Defense of Marriage Act that was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996 had something to do with the prohibition of divorce. Back in Galilee, Jesus had been fierce in his condemnation of divorce. “What God has joined together,” he said, “let no man put asunder” (Mark 10:9). And he allowed for no exceptions to his rule. A man could divorce his wife if she committed adultery, but he could not remarry without committing adultery himself; nor could his ex-wife remarry without repeating her sin.

His disciples objected: “If that’s the way it is, then it’s better not to marry at all” (Matthew 19:10). But Jesus would not back down. He grounded his opposition not in law (what God said on Mt. Sinai) but in nature (what God did when he created the human race male and female). Thus, even though the Law of Moses permitted divorce, Jesus, arguing in a very Jewish way, trumped Exodus with Genesis to forbid it absolutely. He quoted Genesis 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” In effect, he maintained that a man who divorced his wife after becoming “one flesh” with her would be committing an unnatural as well as an immoral act if he married another woman.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. March 7, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 07, 2004 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 6 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Adlai Stevenson -- A March 2 Opinion article, “What Would He Say?” stated that Adlai Stevenson ran for president in 1948 and 1952. Stevenson was the Democratic nominee in 1952 and 1956.

How disappointed, then, Jesus would be to discover that the Defense of Marriage Act had nothing at all to do with repealing no-fault divorce or otherwise returning the United States to the era when divorce was culturally as well as legally stigmatized and millions of Americans voted against Adlai Stevenson in 1948 and 1952 because -- and only because -- they did not want a divorced man in the White House. Jesus would be surprised to learn that the Defense of Marriage Act had nothing whatever to do with criminalizing divorce but was, instead, a law that criminalized the creation of new marriages -- namely, gay marriages. The Savior, who never spoke a word about homosexuality, would need to have a young conservative activist explain to him that Congress regarded gay marriage just as Jesus regarded divorce -- namely, as a crime against nature.

The earnest young fellow would then explain that the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts had ruled that only marriage, called by that name, could guarantee gay couples their civil rights under that state’s constitution. Though Massachusetts may still block gay marriage by constitutional amendment, the amendment process could take years. In the interim, the Massachusetts decision and a recent flood of gay marriages in San Francisco have given new momentum to Federal Marriage Amendment legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives. This effort, now endorsed by President Bush, has more than 100 sponsors and aims, in effect, to enshrine the earlier Defense of Marriage Act in the federal Constitution.

A conservative Christian group wrote the first draft of the Federal Marriage Amendment, but other Christian conservatives now oppose that formulation. Why? The young activist would explain to the Lord that merely banning gay marriage was not enough for some of the largest and wealthiest Christian conservative groups. They want a more sweeping amendment that would block not just gay marriage but all forms of legally recognized sexual partnership other than heterosexual marriage.


As for the president, although he said states should be able to decide for themselves on civil unions, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush approves a formulation by Rep. Marilyn N. Musgrave (R-Colo.), who has proposed the following wording: “Neither this Constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.” Anxious to impress the Master, the young man might conclude by gravely quoting the biblical verse that may soon be enshrined in American law: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; this is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22).

What would Jesus say to all this? On the ethics of homosexuality, we must assume that he would maintain his silence. Had he wanted to take a position about that matter, he, who never hesitated to speak his mind, had three years in which to do so back in Galilee. Pushed to speak out today, would he endorse Leviticus 18:22? Perhaps he would, but perhaps not: Biblical inerrancy is not a doctrine that Jesus ever taught. On the contrary, his zero-tolerance prohibition of divorce is an example (and not the only one) of his bold and deliberate revision of the biblically grounded but (in his view) unacceptable Jewish practice of his day.

So Jesus might well refer his conservative disciple to the one unmistakable defense of marriage that he saw fit to mount. Divorce, not homosexuality, was obviously the threat to marriage that most preoccupied him. “If your people are determined to bring your country into accord with my teaching,” he would say, “they might begin by criminalizing all remarriage after divorce, dissolving all such remarriages as may have taken place and then writing my blanket prohibition of divorce into their Constitution. But if they refuse to go so far, if they insist on overruling me when it comes to divorce, then let them look to their other prohibitions and consider revising them as well. For how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the mote out of your eye,’ when there is a beam in your own?” (Matthew 7:4).

And then, abruptly, Jesus would take his leave, saying to his young friend in his steely and unflinching way, “He who can take this, let him take it” (Matthew 19:12).