What would Jesus vote?

As Ireland votes on marriage equality, is the religious objection really as clear-cut as it seems?

Yesterday, someone very close to me said that, because of his religious beliefs he couldn’t bring himself to vote Yes. He had made his mind up to vote No because he believed it was what Jesus would do.

Two women kiss outside Trinity College Dublin as a ‘no’ protestor waves a placard above their heads. James Delaney/Twitter

I left the religious issue out of yesterday’s post because this is a referendum purely on the issue of civil marriage and that is what we need to focus on. But the reality is, many people will vote based on religious beliefs. In pamphlets, statements and homilies, bishops and priests have advised mass-goers to vote No, to preserve traditional religious understandings of marriage, even though religious marriage is not at stake in this referendum. For many people who believe they have God on their side, the rest of the discussion is irrelevant.

I was a Christian myself for the first 19 years of my life, but I’ve been an atheist for the last 19 and so I don’t have anyone quite of the status of Jesus to offer as an alternative voice. But I do still wonder: Would Jesus really vote No? We can’t just look up an answer in the gospels, because Jesus had nothing whatsoever to say on homosexuality. On marriage, he spoke of men and women, conventionally as we all often do depending on the context. But there is nothing in his teachings that says or suggests that only men and women should get married, that civil marriage rights should be exclusively theirs. Moreover, what might be relevant to that context is not necessarily relevant to our present, enormously different context. Marriage in 21st century Ireland is a world removed from marriage in 1st century Palestine. Indeed, marriage in today’s Ireland is already very different from marriage in the Ireland of just 30 years ago, as Fintan O’Toole wrote  yesterday.

So if Jesus had nothing to say about homosexuality or same-sex marriage, what can we infer from the rest of Christian scripture about how he might vote? In the Old Testament, God denounces homosexuality (and orders the killing of gay people) in the same book where he also condemns shaving, eating pork and being near a menstrual woman. He goes on to forbid disabled people and people with bad eyesight from taking part in religious ceremonies. This is hardly a reliable source for determining how we should behave today, and in any case, the New Testament says that those old laws are “obsolete and ageing”. In the New Testament, it is mainly Paul the Apostle who speaks of homosexuality. He only ever envisions gay people in the context of “lust” and “perversion” – never once as the loving, committed monogamous relationships that are seeking fair recognition in Irish society today. Instead, Paul denounces gay people as “vile… reprobate… and worthy of death”. It’s hard to imagine that his late master – who taught peace and love, tolerance and non-judgment – would have approved of language so vicious, violent and hate-filled.

Click to enlarge

To be honest, it’s virtually impossible to glean a consistent position on anything from the Bible. It’s a largely arbitrary compilation of more than 60 different texts written by many different people, many anonymous, over the course of a thousand years. It has been added to, subtracted from, translated, re-translated and mistranslated in countless ways over the course of another thousand and more years. Hardly surprising to find that there are around 500 internal contradictions and inconsistencies in the Bible’s teachings. So arriving at how Jesus might vote on an issue he never expressed any opinion on is not easy.

But he did say something that is directly relevant to Friday’s marriage referendum. He told his followers to “render unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” In other words, he told Christians to fulfil their civic duty within the civic sphere and their religious duty within the religious sphere – and not to confuse the two. Church matters and state matters should be dealt with separately, he said. That’s a message that is consistent across three of the four gospels. Friday’s referendum deals solely with marriage in the civic sphere. It has no bearing on religious marriage, any more than the referendum on civil divorce had. Religious marriage will remain just the same. That might not tell us how he would vote, but it does indicate that were he to vote, it would not be for religious reasons.

Image: YesEquality/Facebook

What does indicate how Jesus might vote is this: the Jesus portrayed in the gospels frequently ignored the dogmatic teachings and exhortations of the religious establishment when those teachings stood in the way of tolerance and compassion for ordinary people. People who the chief priests and elders treated as unclean, as second-class citizens and outcasts were the very people Jesus risked his reputation and his life to include, to accept with kindness and to treat as equals. To me, it would be completely out of character for someone who never expressed any opinion on the rights or wrongs of homosexuality; who advocated for church-state separation; who put compassion for people before adherence to doctrine; and who sought to include the most excluded in society, to vote No. I might not be a Christian, but I suspect that the Jesus of the gospels would have been in favour of respecting not just some but all couples and families equally. I believe he would voted Yes.

If you know someone is wary of any of the implications of voting Yes – particularly for religious reasons – it might be worth asking them to listen to Mary McAleese’s fantastic address. Former president, lawyer, parent of a gay child and a devout Catholic – she represents just about every aspect of this debate and she covers them all beautifully here.


5 thoughts on “What would Jesus vote?

  1. Jesus also didn’t mention kidnapping, child abuse or racism. Should we conclude that those things are fine and dandy with him?

    He also didn’t talk about murder, except when he said that being angry at your brother, and insulting him, and calling him a fool, is the same as murder and makes you liable to hell. (Mt. 5:21-26)

    Jesus didn’t make any changes to the moral law as the Jews already understood it. The exception to this is when he makes the moral law even stricter, for example when he says that Moses allowed divorce but that “it was not that way in the beginning” (Mt. 19:8) and that “he who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery” (Lk. 16:18); or when he says that not only is adultery a sin, but that when you even look on a women lustfully you’re committing adultery in your heart (Mt. 5:27-28), and that if your eye causes you to stumble in this way then you should pluck it out rather than burn in hell (Mt. 5:29).

    In light of this, it would be an unwarranted conclusion to say that because Jesus didn’t mention homosexuality, his intention was to overturn the traditional Jewish prohibition of homosexual activity.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Agellius. But you’ve misunderstood my point. Just to clarify again: I am not saying Jesus’ silence shows he intended anything. All I concluded from Jesus’ silence on homosexuality (and by extention, all the things you mentioned too) was that it couldn’t tell us anything about his intentions. That is not what I based my conclusion on – warranted or not. I based it on the way in which he treated as equals the people that the religious establishment treated as outcasts. I based it on his lack of discrimination and his non-judgment of others. I was clear: his silence on homosexuality does not indicate how he might vote. His behaviour, however, might.

  2. My point (not well expressed) was that if Jesus maintained the traditional Jewish prohibition of homosexual sex, then he would not approve of homosexual marriage, even civilly. The reason being that marriage and sex are essentially tied together. How could he approve of a union between two people, essentially involving sex, when sex between them is morally forbidden?

      1. When people say things like that, I can’t help wondering whether they’ve read the whole New Testament or only certain parts.

        He may have put compassion ahead of religious dogma, but not ahead of righteousness:

        “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Mt. 5:20

        He lists adultery and other sexual immorality along with murder and theft as things that make a man unrighteous:

        20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mk. 7:20-23

        He ate and drank with sinners, but for the sake of bringing them to repentance:

        “30 And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Lk. 5:30-32

        He taught that it’s better to pluck your eye out than to let it cause you to sin, since sin sends you to hell:

        “43And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” Mk. 9:43-48

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