"I Still Have Many Things to Tell You, But You Cannot Bear them Now"
The little girl in the video above is 11-year old Nada Al-Ahdal. See lives in Yemen, and her parents attempted to place her in an arranged marriage. She fled the marriage, and in the video above she passionately and articulately defends her decision. I am awe-inspired by her bravery.
The cheap move here is to chalk this up as more evidence of the backwardness of the Muslim world. And that's what it is--a cheap move. It's not as if Islam is the only religion and culture that has supported child brides. Warren Jeffs and his FLDS were doing it as late as a few years ago here in the USA. Age of consent in colonial America under the common law was 12, and the famous English legal commentator Sir Edward Coke noted that marriages often occurred earlier than that. Gratian, basically the father of Catholic canon law, said that a child could "meaningfully consent" to marriage at the age of 7.
We have a tendency to point fingers at other cultures and ignore the history of our own. Certainly, it is to our collective credit that we no longer tolerate marrying off women at very young ages against their consent. But that's shouldn't stop us from asking the hard questions about the fact that such behavior used to be tolerated.
But it's not just child brides. Consider Abraham and Sarah, the first couple of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. On two separate occasions, Abraham basically pimps Sarah out to the locals in order to secure favorable treatment. Perhaps even more tellingly, Abraham knew that telling the locals that Sarah was his sister would make it open season for the locals to have sex with Sarah, likely without her consent. So, he basically sets her up to be raped, in order that he would get favorable treatment. From the account we get in Genesis, God punishes the locals, not because they were rapists, but because they unknowingly had sex with a married woman. Abraham gets no condemnation from God.
These are horrible stories. But they are a challenge to those who identify with these traditions, and they leave us with three choices. One, you can cast aside the moral and ethical notions we have and conclude that if Abraham did it, it must be OK. Two, you can take the relativistic position, and say that what might be wrong for our culture might be OK for other cultures.
I cannot accept either of these two ideas. So, we are are left with the third option--it is wrong now, and it was wrong then, regardless of what people thought at the time. As wrong as what happened to Nada Al-Ahdal was, it was equally wrong when it occurred to Nada's nameless sisters back through the ages.
Where does that leave us with regard to Abraham--and with the religions that revere him as their founder? How do you rectify the at least tacit acceptance of these actions with our moral convictions?
I saw a video of a talk given by Gene Robinson, the former Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire best known for being the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican communion. He talked about his scriptural justification for gay marriage and gay rights, and he pointed to Jesus's Last Supper discourse in the Gospel of John:
I still have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you to all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
John 16:12-13 (NRSV). [Edit: Link to talk here]
Put aside the question of gay rights--maybe some things that we see clearly as wrong were things that our forefathers could not bear to see. Maybe the Spirit is working among us, allowing us to see what it means to be Nada and forced into a marriage at 11. Maybe we should give thanks for that.