I apparently upset a congregation member last Sunday when I veered from the traditional reading in 1 Kings concerning Naboth and his vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-21). You see King Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard for his vegetable garden, since it was conveniently located near where the king lived. Naboth refused to sell the vineyard because his religious teachings told him that God would not allow the sale of his ancestral home. Tradition dictated that he must never relinquish the land that God had given him. Ahab’s wife—the dreaded Jezebel—concocted a plan that got Naboth killed, so Ahab could quit sulking and go get Naboth’s land.
In the traditional reading of this story, Naboth is the hero and Ahab and Jezebel the obvious villains. Naboth cleaves to God’s word and will not veer from the tradition he holds dear—even if it costs him his life. A noble example, for sure—standing up to royalty—sticking it to the man—speaking truth to power, and all that.
My point was, however, that often traditions—especially those that no longer serve us or bring us life—can be deadly, either bodily, like Naboth discovered, or spiritually.
The upset this caused in the congregation actually proved my point. These members were so accustomed to hearing the traditional reading of this story that they could not make room for any new revelation that we might read in the passage. No, Naboth is the hero—period. We cannot bear to hear that perhaps Naboth, in his zeal to follow what his religion dictated, had gotten it all wrong, and that it can be deadly to cling to old, worn-out traditions.
I thought about Naboth as I read through the transcripts from the Prop 8 closing arguments. Those arguing to keep same-sex marriage illegal in California are like old Naboth—arguing from worn traditions that a growing number of people find ridiculous—if not quaint.
A case in point: attorney Charles Cooper, arguing in support of Proposition 8 for the Alliance Defense Fund, who made his entire closing argument from tradition. He told the judge that marriage is intended for procreation and specifically for the control of unintended pregnancies. He argued (seriously) that the state has an interest in marriage between heterosexuals because they have the ability to produce unintended children—so the state has to have a role in making sure those little mistakes are cared for. Gays and lesbians don’t have this problem since they need considerably more than low light and bottle of wine to conceive.
Cooper told District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, paraphrased according to Prop 8 Trial Tracker:
”Again, the 8th circuit recognized that there is a state interest. Only opposite sex couples can procreate and therefore they can minimize irresponsible procreation. When procreation between men and women not in binding vows, more frequently, society itself has to cope with that adverse consequences of that kind of irresponsible procreation.”
So, his argument is basically that heterosexuals are far more irresponsible than gays and lesbians and therefore need more state supervision in the form of marriage arrangements. Seriously. Attorney Ted Olson, arguing to overturn Prop 8, made the argument that Cooper, like Naboth before him, was on the wrong side of history, clinging to dead traditions. Again, a paraphrase from the Prop 8 Trial Tracker:
“Nice people voted for Prop 8 and not nice people voted for Prop 8. We heard during the trial some awful stuff. Voters voted for Prop 8 because people are uncomfortable with gay people. The people did not see and too bad they could not see what psychiatrists said that these are not people engaged in bad conduct. Same as the Loving v. Virginia case (that struck down laws forbidding interracial marriage in 1967). People honestly felt wrong to mix the races. But were permitted under the Constitution to think that, but were not permitted to put that into law.”
That old Naboth rears his head again—it was tradition that led people to oppose interracial marriage, and it was that tradition that inflicted much pain and anguish on those who were caught up in the hatred and violence caused by that tradition.
In a press conference after the closing arguments, Olson noted that the Prop 8 supporters didn’t make one argument from tradition—something Naboth might have been familiar with: polygamy.
One of the judge’s questions was how did we get to this traditional view of marriage between a man and a woman. It is not correct factually that it has been that way which is why our opponents did not bring it up today. Intimate relations, spirituality, family are not connected to their definition of marriage. It has nothing to do with it.
Walker is expected to issue his ruling sometime this summer, which will likely be followed by an appeal. No matter what he decides, though, he’ll likely be seen as somebody’s King Ahab.