A History of Divorce
A History of Divorce
January 17, 2016
Isaiah 62:1-5; John 2:1-11
For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.
Like the rejoicing of a groom for a bride, so will your relationship be with God. It is an analogy, of course, a way of understanding the shift in a relationship from bad to good, from disapproving to joyful. It is like a groom for a bride, as if that never changed.
Does that change? Does the relationship between bride and groom change? It does. Notice that the words even change, bride and groom becoming husband and wife. The joy of a wedding day is used as the image of the new stage in Israel’s sometimes difficult relationship with God. But even then, people knew that a wedding is one step, a threshold moment into marriage. The threshold being merely the beginning.
The relationship of the people of Israel with God was complicated, to say the least, the name Israel meaning those who struggle with God. So in another sense, the image of bride and groom is most appropriate. The joy of a wedding day does not always characterize a marriage.
This morning’s sermon is about divorce. But in order to understand divorce, it is important also to have an understanding of marriage. And to consider the state of divorce and marriage in America, it would be helpful to have an appreciation for marriage as an institution, legally and religiously, in Europe and in the Middle East.
Under Ancient Hebrew law, a marriage was essentially a purchase, a bargained for exchange. I often joke with couples planning their wedding about whether there will be the traditional tendering of sheep and goats at the service. It is only a joke, but it was not one for thousands of years.
Ancient Israelite women had no right to own property, no right to inherit whatsoever. And so the ability of women to function in the world was entirely dependent upon the men in their lives: fathers and husbands, brothers and sons. Women had no right to divorce, while men had almost unrestricted rights to place women aside.
Take this passage from Deuteronomy as an example: Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife. Then suppose the second man dislikes her, writes her a bill of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house (or the second man who married her dies); her first husband, who sent her away, is not permitted to take her again to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that would be abhorrent to the Lord…
Note the ease with which a divorce could be achieved, by certificate. It was noteworthy that a biblical example is given of this happening twice in a row. How is the second marriage described? As a defilement. Somehow the first instance was not an issue. The second marriage was a problem, it seems in part, because it might have implied a right of polygamy for a woman. There was nothing wrong with men having multiple wives and concubines, by the way. It was always possible to know a child’s mother but not the father. Children were also possessions of their father.
Marriage was never completely static. Polygamy gave way to monogamy even for men. Marriage was further complicated by the proximity of other cultures and the control of Israel by those cultures, such as when Israel fell under the control of the Romans. Divorce was no simple matter in Rome, but it was possible for women to divorce in the later Roman era around the time of Jesus and the disciples. Women also could own property and property was not comingled by marriage. This meant that at the time of divorce the main matter in dispute was the wife’s dowry as almost the only marital asset. Those sheep and goats became rather significant then.
For the Romans, divorce had become relatively frequent. Some people married for social or political advantage and then divorced and remarried if greater possibilities for advancement presented themselves. Marriage was therefore contractual with husband and wife operating with greater equality, though by no means complete equality. Women, for example, required the approval of the government to divorce, while men did not. This made it a more difficult and expensive process, but it was possible particularly for the upper classes.
Jesus expressly taught that divorce was improper. There were likely converging reasons for this prohibition. On the one hand, the Roman system left marriage as a marketplace with men and women entering in and out of marriages depending on changing interests and opportunities. On the other hand, Jewish custom was similarly mercantile in nature, but only men had any power to bargain. Fathers sold daughters or, depending on the going rate for wives, bought marriages for their daughters. The Roman system was too freewheeling and the Jewish system too one-sided. Neither way worked for Jesus.
So what was the balance struck? You get married, you stay married. Divorce was not an option, though some argue that Jesus would have permitted a dissolution of the marriage in the case of infidelity. Catholic tradition has maintained a fairly close hold on this teaching and so divorce is not allowed. Instead, Catholics seek annulments, meaning that a marriage was void, fundamentally unsound from day one. This could be because of some form of deception, such as an unspoken desire never to have children.
There are three traditional foundations of Catholic marriage: fidelity, procreation, and unity. Fidelity means that you are supposed to have had sex with only one person, only one person ever. Procreation means that marriage is intended as a means for bringing children into the world, and for Catholics this is of paramount importance. For this reason, abortion and birth control are prohibited because they are designed to defeat this central concern. Finally, marriage is about a union of two people together, in part to avoid sins of the flesh but also because God intended man and woman to become as one.
Jesus is quoted in the Gospel of Mark as saying: [F]rom the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.” “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
I was ordained as a minister in 2008, almost seven years to this day. In all those years not one couple has asked that these words be spoken at their wedding. And so we hear that love is patient, love is kind. We hear about the virtues needed for marriage, asking the new couple to clothe themselves “with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We hear about forgiveness: “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance…”
This would not have been the case not so many years ago. Even the current Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church has as a line: Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder. And yet that bond can be put asunder.
Divorce became more common after the Reformation. One of the precipitating events of the English Reformation was Henry VIII’s attempt to relieve himself of one of his early wives, Catherine of Aragon. Henry sought an annulment, which he was denied by the Papacy. This led to a series events sundering the relationship between England and the Church – what God had joined in marriage and in church was now put truly asunder.
One of the reasons for this shift in understanding of marriage was that it was not considered entirely Biblical, wholly sacramental. Protestants looked to the Bible as the source for religious matters, exclusive of church traditions which were primarily Catholic at that time. Marriage is mentioned frequently in the Bible, but it was not a major concern of Jesus. Paul was in certain ways openly hostile to the idea of marriage. For Protestants there were two sacraments, two sacred undertakings specified in the New Testament: baptism and communion. Marriage did not make the list and was often relegated to a civil matter rather than a religious concern. If that sounds surprising given modern arguments calling marriage a fundamental religious institution upon which all society is based, well, surprise. Marriage is a social chameleon, changing time and again.
Marriage remained a contractual undertaking throughout much of European history. Women had little power in this tradition as they had little power in society. While not the near slavery of Ancient Hebrew tradition, the ability of married women to function freely in society was limited. Underline married women.
Single women had greater rights to own property, to make contracts, and so forth. The status of English married women (and therefore by analogy American married women) was described in the legal treatise, Blackstone’s Commentaries on English Law: By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in the law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing.
Why? Well, the Biblical description of men and women joining as one was perhaps an influence. How then to navigate one joined life when there are two people involved? One way is to have the two people make decisions together. The other is to ignore one of those people. The choices of English and American married women were ignored for centuries.
So why then get married? Because that was the script, it was the social role of women to be wives and mothers. Unmarried women were peculiar in that social story. Working women were strange, which also meant that few career paths were open to women. This made marriage nearly an inevitability for women, even if it meant losing their legal positon in the world. Even if it meant risking their lives to the not inconsiderable dangers of pregnancy and child birth. For example, the mortality rate for women in in late 19th century England was 5 for every 1,000 women. That rate of death exceeds every modern cause of death in England, from cancer to heart disease to car accidents. But the “cure”, not having children, not getting married, was considered far worse.
In the 20th century America, everything began to change, that old story of marriage rewritten. Women gained the right to vote in 1920. They began to work in large numbers outside the home during the Second World War and that accelerated during the latter part of the 20th century. Birth control became widely available in 1960s. It was no one thing. In fact, these changes worked in concert, shifting the understanding of the role of women in society. It was a new story.
Women gained a greater degree of autonomy in society. Women could vote, meaning that women’s legislative preferences could not as easily be ignored. Women could work more widely and more lucratively, meaning there were opportunities to function outside of the financial support of marriage. And women could avoid getting pregnant, meaning that women could have sex lives independently of marriage.
What does any of this have to do with marriage and divorce? That legal description of marriage I mentioned, that women were submerged in a marriage under the legal control of their husbands, became harder to justify. Prior to these changes, a woman may have wanted to leave a marriage, but she had no place to go, no way to live easily without her husband. With the right to vote, strict laws on divorce could and did change. With the ability to work, there was a place to go. With the ability to delay having children for a time, or not having children at all, there was the possibility of advancing in a career.
As the one sided nature of marriage evolved into a more balanced dynamic, women were making different choices. Divorce became more common. From 1975 to 1988 in the U.S, two thirds of all divorces of marriages with children were initiated by women. The same study found, by the way, that the standard of living for women divorcing declined by about 72% compared with men whose standard of living declined 42%. Economic interests alone suggest that divorce may be a bad idea. But economics are not the only reason to get a divorce.
As many of you know, I am divorced. I married my college girlfriend six months after graduation. We put ourselves through graduate school and somehow managed to have two children during that rather busy time of life. We were married for 15 years and have had a generally amicable divorce. Our post-marital relationship has been so positive that people have suggested that I write a book on getting a divorce. I have thought about it. Someday I might even write something about my divorce, but I could not write a book on how to get a divorce. Not because I have qualms about the possibility of people divorcing, but because my personal experiences are unique, meaningless for someone else in his or her unique circumstances.
Jesus spoke against divorce for good reasons. Marriage should not be easily dismissed. It should not be a fleeting mistake one Las Vegas evening easily annulled the next day. And one person, in Jesus’ time the man, should not have the power to cast aside the other with no more than a piece of paper. Jesus was addressing the problems of that era. I do not know what he might have to say these days, so I can only offer my own suggestions.
When I offer a homily at a wedding, I use the readings selected by the couple (with some coaching) to present a message for the future of their marriage. Our reading this morning, the Wedding at Cana, is one of my favorites. Jesus turns water into wine and the wedding steward puzzles over why they have kept the best wine for later rather than serving it first.
I love this reading because it lets me explain that a wedding is not a marriage. Lacy dresses and tuxedoes are not the stuff of marriage. Something has to happen after the party, after the expensive liquor is drunk and all the guests sober up. Marriage starts when the couple begins living a life together.
And that is in many ways like the making of wine. The grapes are prepared, crushed to let out the juice to ferment. No matter what you do, those grapes will change into something else. But it takes work. If you do nothing, the grapes will rot. If you stop paying attention, the wine may turn into vinegar. Jesus performed a miracle by turning the water into wine. And in the same way, marriage is a miracle, a miracle of the couple’s making and of their attention.
And so marriage is about hard work and it is about change. If you get married when you are 21 right out of college, like I did, you barely have any idea what you are doing in life let alone along with someone else in a marriage. So you try to sort it out as best you can. You figure out priorities about money and careers, children and family expectations, housekeeping preferences and other matters great and small. You often start off that process drenched in the hormones of attraction. Those hormones help for a while and then they can fade a few years into the relationship. I think of it as a biological stalling technique giving a few years to build a relationship that will last longer than initial infatuation.
Children can complicate that process. They are hopefully a shared project, but no longer one that always serves to keep a faltering marriage together. Staying together for the sake of the children is often a way of thoroughly messing up those children if husband and wife cannot stand each other.
Why do we marry? To have children? In many cases, but not all, especially later in life. Because we love one another? True, but infatuation needs to blossom into friendship and then partnership, otherwise marriages become convenient rather than convivial. To ensure financial stability? That is a less popular one to say out loud, but it is not unheard of.
The idea that marriage is two becoming one has never been my favorite image. There is another Biblical passage I fall back on from Ecclesiastes: Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Notice it is not just two against the world but threefold. Why three? The third cord is God. And God is love. Not hormones and infatuation. Not the desire for children or financial wellbeing. Love, the love that two people can foster, make together like fine wine. The love that is possible if you work at it, not just to plan one big party, not just to have kids or to start a career. Love is the process of caring for and listening to each other, of hoping the best for that person. And with those three strands woven together, marriage can be miraculous. It’s still a lot of work. It still has ups and downs, joys and sorrows. But when it is two against the world bound together by the love of God and for one another, it is stronger by far than any one person. The threefold cord creates one loving heart out of two lonely souls.
Marriage has not always been a choice. It was required socially, expected legally. Men historically controlled marriage and divorce. As women gained more power over their lives and within society, the emphasis on marriage shifted and the duration of marriages has changed. Some would say this is a bad thing, a social tragedy in need of fixing. I am not so sure.
My ex-wife and I are divorced, but we have never stopped loving each other. Love was not enough for us. We cared about different things, focused on different goals in life. But we have supported each other in divorce, raising kids together, helping one another through times of struggle. We stopped being husband and wife but we never stopped being friends. In that sense we are still together, I suppose.
As the story of marriage is rewritten all around us, that is something to consider. That the gift from God was never the marriage itself but the love that arose from and within that marriage. The threefold cord binds two together with love. No man or women can put love asunder. Marriage is a wonderful place for love to grow. But it is no longer the only place, for better or for worse.