A few days ago, I went to the wedding of two dear friends. They’ve been together for 30 years, but with the advent of same sex marriage in Minnesota, they decided to have a public wedding.
Talk about a long engagement.
One of the passages used during the service was the first chapter of the book of Ruth. It’s the story of a Jewish woman named Naomi who sees not only her husband, but her sons die in this alien land. She decides to go back to Israel and her two daughters-in-law want to come with her. She tries to send them back and after more tears, Orpah reluctantly goes back to her home. But Ruth is still clinging to Naomi. After Naomi tries again to change her mind, Ruth says these memorable words:
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”
It’s a wonderful example of someone staying with another in the good times and the bad. It’s no wonder that it is used in weddings. This passage also tends to fire the imagination of gay and lesbian Christians. Ruth is pledging herself to another woman in a way that to our modern ears sounds like romantic same-sex love. For many gays and lesbians like myself, to cling to a verse that seems to offer a more positive view of gays and lesbians instead of the usual use of the Bible as a tool to oppress, makes sense.
Being gay, the tale of Jonathan and David should ring more true to me since it’s expressing the love two men have for each other. I Samuel 20 tells the story of these two men.
Like I said before, I can understand why we gay folk want to claim these two couples as our own. Except, that in doing that, I fear we are losing another important lesson that is so needed in our society- that of friendship.
Writer earlier this year, Kendrick Kuo wrote a review of the movie, End of Watch. The movie is about two male cops in Los Angeles and the friendship between the two. Kuo liked the movie’s take on male friendship, but feared that the message was lost because of cultural bias:
Taylor and Zavala actually tell each other at various times that they love one another. As is common in our historical context, such words are said often in a joking manner in order to get the idea across while guarding from accusation of homosexual overtones. And that’s what we see in End of Watch, though there is a moment or two of seriousness expressing their love. Is it ideal that our culture doesn’t allow the use of love language in a platonic sense between two men? No. But at least End of Watch doesn’t stop there since we actually see that love played out in the way they risk their lives for each other and face life’s challenges side-by-side.
The starkest example of this cultural bias is how later critics treat the love between David and Jonathan, which some have naturally posited as evidence of homosexual love in the Old Testament. David sang of Jonathan, “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women” (2 Samuel 1:26b). Or we’ve all heard historical speculation of Abraham Lincoln’s sexual orientation since he used to share a bed with a co-worker when he traveled around in his younger years; or the suspicions about Alexander Hamilton due to his overly affectionate letters to male friends. The list can go on. Our culture apparently cannot believe that two men can love each other in a non-sexual way.
I think Kuo is on to something here. Again, I can understand why LGBT folk want to see these same sex relationships as romantic ones. And while I think some lessons for gays can be drawn from the characters, I also think we, along with the rest of society, can’t understand that two people can love each other without having sex.
That wasn’t always so. Especially among males, there are examples of deep affection for a same-sex friends that dot history. Homophobia put an end to such affection.
About five years ago, the website the Art of Manliness, put out a blog post on the history of male friendship. The writers tell us that in ancient times friendship was a different animal from today:
In ancient times, men viewed man friendships as the most fulfilling relationship a person could have. Friendships were seen as more noble than marital love with a woman because women were seen as inferior. Aristotle and other philosophers extolled the virtues of platonic relationships- a relationship of emotional connection without sexual intimacy. Platonic relationships, according to Aristotle, were the ideal.
During this period of time, the idea of the heroic friendship developed. The heroic friendship was a friendship between two men that was intense on an emotional and intellectual level. Examples of heroic friendships exist in many ancient texts from the Bible (David and Jonathan) to ancient Greek writings. A man friendship that captures the essence of the heroic friendship is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus.
Achilles and Patroclus fought together during the Trojan War and had a close relationship. A really close relationship. When Hector killed Patroclus, Achilles was beside himself for days. He smeared his body in ash and fasted in lamentation. After the funeral, Achilles, filled with a mighty rage, took to the battlefield to avenge the death of his best friend.
The image of Achilles and Patroclus was an important one in the ancient world. When Alexander the Great and his war pal, Hephaestion, passed through Troy, they stopped, with the whole army in tow, in front of the tomb of Achilles and Patroclus, thus demonstrating the veneration they had for these men and their friendship.
I think that in the life of the church, we need to recover seeing the Ruth/Naomi and David/Jonathan texts as saying something about friendship. We need it now more than ever. As I sit here tonight, legislators in Washington squabble about the budget. People from different parties rarely talk to each other, in a reflection of what seems to be happening in America as a whole- a kind of sorting, to create a life where we don’t have meet people with different views. Mainline Protestant denominations are rife with conflict, with different factions wanting to leave for greener pastures. Liberals and Conservatives don’t speak to each.
What is amazing about these stories is that they cross ethnic and racial boundaries to create something new. American society circa 2013 is a society that is split in different ways. Would there be so much yelling if we got to know each other? I mean really love each other and prayed for each other despite our differences?
Friendship is something that is so needed in our atmoised society. We need to have people who will be there for us, people who aren’t always bound by marriage or blood.
The pastor did a good job of using Ruth at the wedding. But I also want to hear sermons on friendship. Maybe if we could make friends with people that cut accross the boundaries, our society would be a better place.