Marriage & Community
The marriage of two lover joins them to one another, to forebears ,to descendants, to the community, to Heaven and earth.
– Wendell Berry
They truly saved the best essay for last in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays in making Berry's essay of the same name the eighth essay. Berry possesses profound insight into the nature of community in this essay. He particularly notes the ways in which "community" is neither "public" or "private" as so much of our current political discourse tends to make things. Rather, "community" is the only way that something as vital as sexuality can be handled.
The reason for this is because sexuality cannot be properly handled in either a completely public or private situation. If sexuality is made public (as we have seen happen recently) it becomes reduced to the bait of commercialism or the fumbling banal action taught to fifth graders (or earlier) in public schools. Conversely, if sexuality is confined merely to personal privacy it again reduces to nothing more than the feelings and impulses of the unguided individual. This is reflected in our current sexual confusion over homosexuality, polygamy, and pedophilia. Berry proposes that the only way that sexuality can be handled properly is through the community, which is neither "public" or "private."
Berry continues to lament the fact that our communities have, almost universally, been destroyed by the centralizing forces of the industrial economy that have emphasized profits and quantity over relationships and community.
There is one particular portion of the essay that especially caught my eye that I felt like sharing here. Berry notes how marriage is, in its essence, a communal event. It is an event that is not just about the two lovers but involves the entire community that they are to be a part of. Listen to Berry:
If they had only themselves to consider, lovers would not need to marry, but they must think of others and of other things. They say their vows to the community as much as to one another, and the community gathers around to hear and to wish them well, on their behalf and on its own. It gathers around them because it understands how necessary, how joyful, and how fearful this joining is. These lovers, pledging themselves to one another "until death," are giving themselves away, and they are joined by this as no law or contract could ever join them. Lovers, then, "die" into their union with one another as a soul "dies" into its union with God. And so here, at the very heart of community life, we find not something to sell as in the public market but this momentous giving. If the community cannot protect this giving, it can protect nothing—and our time is proving that this is so. (pg. 138)
While the whole of that quotation is quite good, it is the first part that marks the centrality of Berry's argument. If marriage were merely an act of two individuals for those two individuals then a ceremony would (or even a marriage) would not be necessary. That is because, at its heart, marriage is a public and communal event. The two joining in marriage are not making their vow just to each other, they are actually telling the community that they are a part of that they will be true to one another for the sake of the community.
Earlier in the essay Berry makes the striking statement that "sexual love is the heart of community life." (pg. 133) If sex were merely a private concern (as seen in the arguments for homosexuality) or a public concern (as seen in advertising campaigns) then this statement cannot be true. However, if communities are deeply concerned in the welfare of the community (which they should be) then this must be the case. The reason being that marriage, the vehicle of proper sexuality, is also at the heart of community life. This is why marriage is to be seen as a communal event.
All of our current confusion over sexuality and marriage has only been made possible through the prior disintegration of communities. Both city life and suburbia give the guise of community by either placing one amongst many people (city) or by placing the family in a "guarded" castle (suburbia). Yet in both instances community (for the most part) is far, far away.
Food for thought.