The View from Bolton Street

The View from Bolton Street

This week in the Gospel Jesus puts his foot down. There is no real other way to read Jesus’ words in Mark about Divorce other than as a strict condemnation: “He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Jesus acknowledges to the Pharisees that Moses does allow for divorce, but only because of the hardness of our own hearts; but that God - once he has put two people together - does not like to see them pulled apart.

This is a tough reading in 2018.  For Christians of all stripes. For more conservative Christians who attempt to take too literally readings on the sanctity of life and the validity of homosexual relationships, they will quickly turn the page when confronted with Jesus’ teachings on divorce.  We all know a thrice divorced born again Christian who blames ‘the gays’ for ruining the world, don’t we?

But it is also a tough reading for more liberal or progressive Christians. In a #MeToo era where women are finally able to come forward about abuse - physical, sexual and emotional - the voice of Jesus saying ‘if you divorce your husband/wife you commit adultery’ seems out of character. And we too, perhaps, desire to ‘flip the page’ quickly and move on to other things.

But Jesus is quite adamant here. The breaking of the bonds of marriage is sinful. AND IS BORNE BY MALE AND FEMALE ALIKE. Now, to understand this you have to step back a bit in time.  Because 1st century marriages were not like 21st century marriages. In fact we wouldn’t recognize them as marriages at all.  In the first century, women were treated functionally like property. A woman rarely had a say in whom she married at all, and if a man found any reason to dislike her (she wasn’t attractive enough, couldn’t bear enough children, wasn’t healthy enough, couldn’t cook) he could petition for a divorce and suddenly she was an ‘unclean’ woman. Not suitable for marriage to anyone else, presumed unfaithful and, if she was lucky, left to work in her family’s home the rest of her life. The ‘sin’ of divorce only went one way.  It was always the woman’s fault - no matter what the man did. 

And in THAT context Jesus stands up and says FIRST that a man who divorces his wife is guilty of adultery. HE is guilty FIRST. As the main arbiter of power, after all, it is/was incumbent on the man to maintain and preserve the relationship; and they failed, and so bear the burden of the sin.  This was Jesus calling for a 1st century #MeToo movement. 

Now here in the 21st century we are facing a different kind of challenge regarding sexual ethics - but we can approach it with the same question. Perhaps today the Pharisees would ask ‘Should not a woman prove she was assaulted? Raped? Abused? For that is what the law requires?’

And perhaps Jesus would respond - ‘only because of your hardness of hearts is the burden of proof put on the accused. Only because of a system built by men of privilege and power are those with the most to lose asked to risk the most to obtain Justice.’  Indeed in the 1980s, 90s, and even today — the only person ‘guilty’ of adultery if you drank too much, stayed out too late, or wore the wrong clothing, was the woman. The men were just ‘doing what men do’.  ‘Boys will be Boys’.  But Jesus’ message continues to resonate today — that the sin of adultery whether in marriage, after a first date, at an all-night-kegger, or a Church function – is borne first by those with the most power, authority, and control.  And so too the responsibility: to treat people respectfully, to ensure a safe environment for the most unsure, and to be prudent, judicious and honest when accusations of harassment and abuse arise. 

The #MeToo moment IS a challenging moment for the Church, because it requires us to ensure that the Church is a safe space not only for previous victims of abuse, but also a space that can be kept as free from abuse as possible AND that commits to responding honestly, appropriately and fully to reports of abuse when (not if) they happen. Jesus offers us a good model in the gospel today - to put the onus on those with the most power to recognize their collective responsibility for that work - and a model we can strive to enact every day.