Warning: This may be my longest post ever.
Two headlines at CNN.com yesterday caught my eye, especially since they both appeared on the same day:Man Faces 50 Years for Sex With Bride, 14Wife: Child Groom Is "No Victim"
The first story comes to us from the Great Plains, where a 22-year-old Nebraska man, Jon Bruning, impregnated a 14-year-old girl. With the permission of the girl's parents, the couple married in Kansas, because 14-year-olds are not allowed to marry in Nebraska. Bruning, as I understand it, was convicted not for marrying the girl, but for having sex with a minor prior to marrying her.
The second story is out of Atlanta, where 37-year-old Lisa Clark is being charged with child molestation after being impregnated by a 15-year-old boy, whom she later married. According to Clark, she had denied the boy's advances several times before agreeing to have sex with him. The article says, "Georgia law allows children of any age to marry -- without parental consent -- if the bride-to-be is pregnant. The law dates to the early 1960s and was written to discourage out-of-wedlock births."
To be clear, in both cases the legality of the marriage is not in question, at issue is the legality of sexual relations with a minor prior to marriage. At any rate, I think most of us would agree that, regardless of whether they have had sex, there is something morally wrong with a 37-year-old woman marrying a 15-year-old boy or an adult male marrying a 14-year-old girl. Though both children consented to the marriages, we know that they have not reached emotional or mental maturity and that they are prone to being taken advantage of. Differences in maturity, and thus power, make an equal, mutually beneficial partnership unlikely.
Still, Lisa Clark makes the following point in her defense:
She said the morality of their relationship was open to debate, noting that in the past it was common for 13-year-old girls to be given in marriage.
Let us then imagine that the couples in question did not have sex until after they married; does Clark then make a valid point? After all, our culture has more or less forgiven Jerry Lee Lewis
Here's where Christmas comes in. Through teaching Sunday school and working on Sunday school curriculum, I have directly or indirectly taught several groups of teenagers that Mary was about their age when she learned she was pregnant and married Joseph. Bruce Chilton writes, "Miriam, Mary as we now know her, was some thirteen years old—the age Jewish maidens of that time married— when [she met] Jesus' father" (Rabbi Jesus
, p. 6). Chilton describes "the widower Joseph" as "a journeyman . . . a roofer, stonemason, and rough carpenter" (p. 6). I quote Chilton because he offers a more detailed treatment of the Christmas story than most other "historical Jesus" scholars, but scholarly consensus says that Mary was in her early teens and Joseph was much older when the two were engaged.
Of course, for many years, humans (particularly girls) married as teenagers. Though my parents, like me, got married when both were 25, many of their peers were wed right out of high school. Weddings in which the bride and groom are both in their late twenties have only recently become common. This is in part due to the lengthening of adolescence. Chap Clark, a professor of youth, family, and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, writes:
Adolescence, then, is a psychological, independent search for a unique identity or separateness, with the end goals being a certain knowledge of who one is in relation to others, a willingness to take responsibility for who one is becoming, and a realized commitment to live with others in community. (Hurt, p. 28)
Adolescence itself is a fairly new phenomenon. The word teenager
, for example, was not coined until 1941. For much of human history, the transition from childhood to adulthood was immediate:
Before the Enlightenment, and certainly before the postwar creation of the "American teenager," identity meant social role . . . . Children gained their identities and their adulthood simultaneously; the self became established at whatever point youth assumed an economic role that contributed to the community, usually by marriage, entering a trade, or assuming responsibility for property upon the death of a parent.
But the Enlightenment's celebration of the individual gave rise to a new self-determinism. (Kenda Creasy Dean, Practicing Passion, p. 82)
Since adolescence has become a reality, it's duration has lengthened. Most people today do not truly become adults until they are in their mid or late twenties. On the other hand, Clark notes that "the age of puberty for girls has been slowly dropping, from 14.5 years old a century ago to as early as 12 years old today" (p. 28). So humans are reaching biological maturity (and thus the capacity to reproduce) earlier, but are reaching psychological, financial, and cultural maturity much later. If I am not mistaken, our brains reach full maturity somewhere in the middle—when we are in our early-to-mid twenties.
Even given the seemingly early (and earlier
) age when we start puberty, Jared Diamond in Why Is Sex Fun?
points out that we are unusual among other mammals because we are unable to reproduce until so late in life:
We do not protect ourselves against dangerous predators with our teeth and strong muscles, as do other prey animals, but, again, with our tools. Even to wield all those tools is completely beyond the manual dexterity of babies, and to make the tools is beyond the abilities of young children. Tool use and tool making are transmitted not just by imitation but by language, which takes over a decade for a child to master. (pp. 116-117)
In a sense, the idea that teens are too young to marry is a cultural construct. If we are able to have offspring at 14, why shouldn't we marry at 14, especially given the marriage practices of our ancestors? Well, humans are products of our cultures; and culture, not biology, has been largely responsible in recent centuries for our delayed adulthood. In some ways the evolution of culture is capricious (e.g. why do we all use QWERTY keyboards?*); in some ways it is crudely practical (e.g. why do we organize ourselves in self-governed nations?); in some ways it has in mind the best interests of individual persons (e.g. why do we consider running water and mechanical toilets in the home a necessity?).
I would argue that waiting to marry until we reach unusually old ages (our twenties) is cultural progress that favors individuals. We have come to recognize in recent years that biological maturity, mental maturity, and emotional maturity (at least in modern humans) are not congruent. (Sure, if you want to be picky, you could argue that mental and emotional maturity are themselves biological, but I'm not a scientist, so I'm not going there.) Thus the ability to reproduce does not automatically give one the tools to start and maintain a healthy family. We become sexual beings long before we learn how to be sexually responsible or before we fully understand the place of sexuality in our identities as whole persons.
Moreover, marriage today is less about reproduction and more about mutual love and support than it was in previous generations. As humans, we no longer have any pressure to sustain our population. God told Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful and multiply; and fill the earth and subdue it" (Genesis 1:28). That task has been completed; the earth is full; we no longer have any need to start cranking out kids as soon as we are physically able to do so.
So postmodern 14 year-olds shouldn't be getting married. They are not ready emotionally and we don't need them to have children. Marital or sexual relationships between adults and teenagers cannot be equal partnerships; teens are still developing a sense of identity and have not had time to individuate. Adults, by contrast, often have reached a level of independence and autonomy that gives them power and advantage over any teens they might seduce. (One could, however, argue that Jon Bruning, the 22-year-old mentioned above, is not fully an adult. Still, he started having sex with the girl when she was 12 and he was 20, so I don't feel sorry for him.)
What does all this mean for Mary and Joseph? Well, any parallels between Mary's situation and a situation involving a teen today are anachronistic. Maturity is not only a biological reality, but also a cultural reality. Still, most pre-modern marriages would seem offensive and misogynist by today's standards. We should not condone these relationships, nor should we spend too much time condemning them; they were what they were.
As for Mary and Joseph, we really know very little about their marriage, certainly not enough to make judgments about mutual love and support or power dynamics. Joseph is last mentioned in the second chapter of Matthew and is mentioned only once in passing after the second chapter of Luke. He is mentioned twice in John (1:45 and 6:42), both times as Jesus' father, not as Mary's husband; and he is absent in Mark. In fact, the idea that Joseph was significantly older than Mary is not supported by any written evidence, but is based only on assumptions about first-century Jewish culture and Joseph's absence from stories about Jesus' adulthood. It would be unfair to compare Joseph to Lisa Clark or Jon Bruning.
Anyway, Merry Christmas and don't seduce teenagers. If you must get married to someone under the age of 18, make sure that you can play the piano while standing on the keys