I’ve always wondered what people mean when they say men are more visual than women. Do they mean men can read an eye chart better than women, that men can see the figure of women from a greater distance, that men can’t control their sexual desires? I think it’s the latter. Our society says sexual immorality is not a self-control problem, but a visual problem. It says that men are just not able to tame their sexual desires and that their eyes focus at the mercy of a “fallen” world, a world that has “evolved” with its own innate wisdom. This reasoning falls in line with what most churches are practicing today – visual ethics. Not the ethics associated with visual arts, but a theology of ethics based on things that can be seen while ignoring things that cannot be seen. Kate Hurley has an excellent example of this on Single Matters:
“When my dad died, I lost something tangible. People called me. They held me when I cried and asked me to talk about what I was going through. They came to his memorial service. It meant the world to me. I needed family around me during that grieving process. People bound up the wounds, told me it was going to be okay, and walked with me through the healing process. They rose to the occasion and helped me recover. When it comes to being in my 30s and facing the prospect of not having a traditional family, though, people don’t know what to do with my frustration. “There’s nothing there. How could you be in pain?”
The only way to see the invisible pain of barrenness is to get to know a person on a level that is deeper than what we know as “friends.” In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), consider how the concept of neighbor changed for a lawyer who was concerned with his own eternal life. At first, he was worried about definitions – like any good lawyer would be – and asked Jesus “who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus told the story of the man who was stripped and beaten and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. When Jesus asked the lawyer which three men was his neighbor, it would have made more sense for him to answer it was the priest or Levite. They would have been expected to show compassion to the sick and injured. But instead of answering with the only choice left, the Samaritan, he said it was “The one who had mercy on him.” Luke 10:37. Jesus forced the lawyer to see the invisible virtue of mercy. The kind of neighborliness Jesus had in mind required him to see beyond the taken for granted stereotypes of a priest, Levite, and a Samaritan. The same principles apply to us today. Meeting people’s needs should not depend on the visual of a situation. In this parable, mercy happened to be found in the least expected Samaritan, an enemy of mixed race, the very man who would be expected to walk on by. For the Samaritan to show mercy and stop and render aid, the visible stereotypes of a priest and Levite had to give way to the invisible thing called hope. Jesus did this by reframing the lawyer’s question from “who is my neighbor?” to “who is the neighbor?” He might have expected Jesus to give him the names of people he should and should not consider neighbors. Instead, Jesus expanded the question to “what does it take to be a neighbor?” In this case, it took mercy.
Likewise, meeting people’s needs should not depend on the presence or absence of wedding rings. Without the visuals of a family, soccer mom bumper stickers, and membership in the local PTA, single adults tend to disappear beneath the pews of American churches. They too have been beaten up and left for dead. Real faith does not wait on something to be seen or someone to cry for help. Just like life itself and the invisible human embryo, it puts other people first and us last. Just as we don’t need proof of God’s existence, we don’t need proof of a need before we can act on it. Consider Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”
For many in the religious community though, faith goes no deeper than what they see. Their moral compass is guided by the rightness of their sex lives, the visual of a pregnant abdomen, and sanctified by the love for children. It looks good. It feels warm and fuzzy. It brings money into the church. But it’s not biblical. Family values are not Christian values. Maternal love is not the pinnacle of love in this universe. And there is absolutely nothing eternal about marriage. If churches base their faith on the superficial and tangible, they will only respond to the superficial and tangible. The assurance about what they don’t see will be replaced by evidence of things they do see. That’s a shallow faith, one just as legalistic as the lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan. As Abraham Lincoln said: “To believe in the things you can see and touch is no belief at all; but to believe in the unseen is a triumph and a blessing.”
Married people may be tempted to say, “but I don’t do anything to make singles feel unloved or not part of our church family.” That’s precisely my point. Silence can be louder than anything you say or do, especially in the absence of action. This is especially true when it comes to lifestyle affirmations because we have only two choices, marriage and celibacy. Affirming one often discourages the other. When married life is affirmed without a concomitant affirmation of celibate life, it results in a discrimination that cuts just as deep as any racial discrimination. It throws salt into the open wounds of barrenness. It leads to a grief more profound than the loss of a family member. Think of all the things your church does to visibly affirm marriage and family life – requiring married preachers, marriage sermons, marriage conferences, wedding announcements, wedding ceremonies, baby showers, receptions, birthday parties, wedding anniversaries, graduation celebrations, age and marital status based groups, etc. Everything a church does sends signals to the community. Singles are free to draw their own conclusions. That’s part of human preservation. For instance, if a Protestant man walked into Jewish synagogue where he was the only person not wearing a yarmulke, would you expect him to feel out of place? Would it be reasonable for him to assume that wearing one was a requirement for that group of people? I would think so. A single adult can feel the same way in a church where everyone is wearing wedding rings and all activities are centered on nuclear families. Just like the man who was beaten could rightly assume the priest and Levite did not care about his situation, he can rightly assume that marriage is a requirement for that church. He could be waiting for someone to stop and just say hello, for someone to listen to him, for a neighbor who can see beyond the absence of a wedding ring on a finger.