Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Not To Unite But To Divide - Are Religious Disagreements Inevitable?

When I was in junior high, one of my friends had very strict parents. Because I didn't share her Christian denomination (Pentecostal), her parents didn't want her to spend time with me. I decided to join my friend's church youth group. My mom worried about that. When she'd grown up, Catholics were prohibited from attending services at other churches. It was thought that learning too much about other religions would be damaging to their Catholic faith. My mom eventually agreed I could join the youth group, but she never felt quite comfortable with it.

After hearing about my mother's concerns, the youth group leader pointed me to a section of the New Testament, which I'd also heard quoted in Catholic mass, where Jesus says basically that he comes not to unite but to divide:
"Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; ....They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
Years later, I shared a draft of a supernatural thriller chapter with my writers' group. In it, a character quoted part of the above language. A group member who was Christian said I should not make up Bible verses. He didn't believe me that the gospel of Luke included this section. When I showed him the source of the quote at our next meeting, he suggested I include the citation in the dialogue. I did. (Luke 12:52-53.) I figured if my friend didn't believe this statement was in the Bible, readers might not either.

I've been thinking about that quote a lot lately with all the publicity about the clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, an elected official, refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples. According to a Wall Street Journal article I read, one of her reasons is that gay marriage is against her religion, and she does not want her signature on a certificate allowing it. According to the Journal, she also rejected a proposed compromise where a deputy who was willing to do so would sign in her place. The clerk is Apostolic Christian.

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In the Chicago area, which is where I grew up, Catholicism is a fairly common Christian denomination. In 2014, according to Sperling's BestPlaces, 38% of Chicago residents were Catholic compared to 19% in the rest of the country. Catholicism prohibits divorce, as well as remarriage after divorce. Yet I am not aware of any Catholic Cook County clerks or judges refusing to sign orders granting divorces or refusing to sign marriage licenses for people who, like the clerk in Kentucky, have previously been married and divorced.

There could be a few reasons for that. For one thing, right now at least, divorce is more common than gay marriage. Even Pope Francis recently tacitly recognized that. And the Cook County clerk's office and court system are extremely busy. So perhaps Catholic clerks and judges would simply find it too difficult to refuse to sign every single order allowing a divorce or license for remarriage that comes before them. Also, many Catholics don't follow that particular rule of their own church, so perhaps they feel it is impractical to expect people who don't share their religion to follow it. Or it could be that Catholicism as a whole is more open to the idea that not everyone subscribes to every church rule. There is even a name for people who profess to be Catholics but reject the Church's teachings on numerous points, from attending mass every Sunday to eschewing artificial birth control to remarrying after a divorce: "cafeteria Catholics." Perhaps the Apostolic Christian church is more hard line about members adhering to all the rules, and so members also feel more obligated to not appear to condone non-members living by different rules.

The Richard J. Daley Center plaza in downtown Chicago.
Finally, Rowan County had about 23,000 people in 2013, while Cook County had about 5.24 million. The larger county makes it easier to recognize something that seems lost in the current debate. An order issued by a court or a certificate issued by a clerk's office are exactly that. They are documents issued by a government office, not by a person. As a lawyer, when I file a motion asking the court to issue a certain order, I file the motion with the court itself, despite that it will be heard by a particular judge. And though a particular judge signs an order to grant a divorce or dismiss a case, the judge rules not based on her personal beliefs about questions such as abortion, sentencing of juveniles, divorce, or birth control but based on the law. Likewise, the person who holds the office of Cook County Clerk changes, but whoever holds the office must follow the same laws. Cook County Clerk David Orr's signature appears on both my parents' death certificates. But that doesn't make me think he knows anything about how they died or that he could testify one way or another based on personal knowledge whether they are living or deceased. This sounds obvious in a county of over five million people. In a county with 23,000, it's probably much easier to forget that the person holding an office is not acting as himself or herself but as the government office. This may be the most important reason that I've never heard of officials in Cook County who happen to be Catholic refusing to appear to take part in divorces or in divorcees remarrying.

I haven't read most of the web traffic about the issue of the county clerk in Kentucky, and I've been avoiding the comments from political candidates. If I read everything, though, I'm sure it would show strong feelings on every side, including differences among those who belong to Christian churches. Whether you think Jesus was a real historical figure or not or whether you think he was quoted accurately if he was, the statement about religion dividing people was perceptive. It holds as true today as it did two thousand years ago.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list.


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