Wendy has written a bit about pariahs in the past, and given the focus of her blog she's written about women who are pariahs in church settings. It might be a woman who is divorced or who has never been married or who has miscarried in a setting where most of her friends are expecting, or expecting again. A pariah might be someone whose spouse has left her or never found a spouse.
It's also possible, of course, for men to be pariahs. One of the singular memories I have of the old stomping grounds was that single men were considered near the bottom of the pecking order. The older and more reliably single the lower the status was likely to be. Even over at Wendy's blog I saw a number of women essentially explain the "epidemic of singleness" as the fault of the single men who weren't manning up to take wives. It sometimes seemed as though the epidemic of singleness and the men who didn't man up to take wives had a very specific, localized diagnosis but that temptation is understandable enough to forgive. :)
But there were times when I would hear a single guy say at Mars Hill, when a woman might broach the question of standards of beauty and attraction, "It's only ever the less attractive ones who keep bringing that up." That could begin to seem very much like the pot calling the kettle black in a number of cases but let's not dwell on that too long.
Having seen a couple of decades of dead end jobs and having a disability or two I do think that the unmarried Christian male can be a sort of pariah, particularly as age advances. There are worse things to be, of course, and the status may not always exist as firmly for others as it might in the mind of the perceiver. But once you feel like you're there, you can sure feel it--one of my longest standing friends was a Christian once and long ago became an atheist and he shared with me the miserable observation that he felt like a loser on either side of the great divide. He felt like a loser when he was a Christian for not having landed a wife yet and then after he became an atheist and cast off the various moral restraints customarily expected of practicing Christians he still felt like a loser in the company of fellow atheists and agnostics for not having managed to steadily pair up with someone. As we approach Valentine's Day I can think of the hand wringing some people will do simply because it's that day, the handwringing that single Christians may have about that day being here and not having a special someone.
It's just another day, people. You know this already.
There's a pretty decent chance I'll spend time visiting with a couple I've been friends with now for, what, a decade. The husband and wife are precious friends and at no point have I ever felt that my being single was ever some problem to be solved. Now if they were to recommend a woman for me to spend time with then I'd spend time with that woman but they've never seen my singleness as a problem, in itself, that had to be fixed. And for my part I have not necessarily envied married life. I've grown up in extended family settings where seeing the challenges of children with health problems and the difficulties of affording housing and food gave me the impression that marriage and family life was a collossal amount of work and that while some people extolled "date night" and "wifely stripteases" these were at most a tiny fraction of what actual shared life would be about.
We live in a society in which sexual relationships are entered into through mutuality and consent. This is great, but what we may not so readily observe, Christian or no, is that there will always be losers. When Jesus said "The poor you will always have with you" there are a variety of ways in which someone can be a loser in the game of life. What seems most striking about American evangelicalism in the last twenty years on the subject of marriage and singleness is a propensity to imagine that the way things ought to be is to be straight, married, and reproductively prosperous for the sake of ploughing a counterculture for Jesus.
Not everyone gets that lot in life and if Christian ethical teaching cannot account for those who lose out the gate for some reason or another then Jesus' comment about how there are eunuchs born eunuchs, eunuchs who are made eunuchs by men, and people who choose to be eunuchs will remain one of those passages that never preaches in the average American evangelical church. There aren't supposed to be eunuchs because they're all supposed to go get married.
Now I've particularly seen and heard some silly proposals as to how one may know one is going to stay single. One is that you're called to some deadly ministry smuggling Bibles into China (that it is so often white people imagining that a life-threatening ministry to non-whites is reason white Christians in America should consider singleness is a whole separate annoyance I don't feel like getting into in a blog post). Anyway, if God's somehow called you to smuggle Bibles into another country, then you should stay single but otherwise God's design is for you to marry.
Another proposal is that if you're called to singleness you'll be at peace about that. Go back and read the book of Jeremiah and explain to me where it was that the prophet was told not to take a wife and what the reason for it was. The reason was not because the prophet was given a ministry that would end in death. Didn't Paul write that the apostle Cephas (aka Peter) was able to travel with a wife? Didn't the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel mention wives? David was described as a prophet in the NT and had many wives.
No, the reason the prophet Jeremiah was given to not take a wife is that everyone was about to face slaughter and war, so there wasn't any point in pursuing a wife or rearing children. Why work to find the wife and children who were about to be slaughtered anyway? Let's keep in mind that the prophet got this idea, somehow, and apparently acted on it. There probably aren't any conferences for American Christians about how if you observe how much disaster is about to befall the United States that's a reason to not marry or have children. The prohibition was grounded not necessarily directly on the level of danger in the prophet's activity but in the desolation that was planned for a disobedient Israel. As for Ezekiel and his wife, God ordered the man to not weep for the death of his own wife. As for the prophet Jeremiah, he wouldn't take long within the pages of his book regret the day he was born and lament that everyone hated him. This was not a guy who was at perfect peace with his singleness.
So why would Christians today in the United States take seriously some ideas about singleness that are so swiftly and readily debunked? Not sure.
Another curiosity I have encountered is what I might call the straight biological destiny of horniness. A single guy once shared that he knew he needed to be married because he wasn't gifted for singleness and the reason he wasn't gifted for singleness was obvious, that he ever felt horny in his life, ever, basically. But this is hardly prima facie evidence that one must be married. And yet among Christians there is a sense in which sexuality is only a positive if it is within marriage. The double bind this can put men and women in who aren't married probably needs no explanation.
Conversely, in some circles, it was possible to define and condone any sexual desire for one's spouse as above board by definition. In my Mars Hill days I recall seeing people say that it was simply not possible to lust after a person's spouse because lust was sinful sexual desire. Reframe the entire concept as inordinate desire beyond the value of the subject of desire (or object) and lust is entirely possible for one's spouse. In fact even among practicing evangelicals lust might even be considered a kind of prerequisite for marriage.
But the thing that has stuck with me in the last year or so is that what Christians may not stop to consider, what anyone in the modern United States may not stop to consider, is that there's a trade-off in everything, there's a loser in any criteria we might pick. In the past a sexual relationship might be socially acceptable if it was codified by two clans for the sake of a good business arrangement and it brought together a man and a woman who might not have any romantic or erotic affections for each other. Cue the great Monty Python joke, "Why wouldn't you want to marry her!? She's got ... huge ... tracts .... of land." We don't want that these days. We want a mutual spark. We want both parties to want to be together in a hot and heavy kind of way.
But lately it seems as though we don't quite get what price may come with that. When the measure of a proper pairing is mutual sexual admiration then how surprised should we be that a brand of lingerie will take up as its tagline "What is sexy?" Still less that it may become one of the cultural arbiters of defining "hotness". We should not be entirely stunned that our society disproportionately rewards the sexy, whoever may meet that cultural definition. If in the past an injustice of socially endorsed sexual pairing was that good business was not necessarily true romance we may have another culturally ingrained and equally unavoidable inequality, that in the genetic lottery not all people are born with the same level of "sexy".
What's particularly striking to read in feminist criticism of evolutionary psychology is how so many of the proposals for what males find desirable look astonishingly-but-inevitably like just-so stories about what straight men find sexy right now. That is a point worth considering, really. But it's also worth considering that it's not just women who are considered hot who may be disproportionally compensated for simply looking a certain way and meeting a certain standard. What kind of money do professional athletes rake in these days? The Superbowl star, the supermodel and the megachurch pastor may all be separately symptomatic of rewarding a particular extremity that exemplifies what we aspire to in one quarter or another for male and female.
What may be different about our society compared to the societies of the past is that if you were considered unmarriageable material because of a physical defect, a lack of financial or social standing, or want of opportunity, there might actually be things for you to do. Sure, you might get consigned to a monastery or the military but there'd be some role within the culture found for you to play. There might not have to be an existential crisis over the simple fact that for whatever reasons you have not said "I do" or have not gotten laid. Your destiny might not have been your own but that had some consolation to it, in its way.
As we approach Valentine's day there may be any number of single Christians who want to know why they don't have that special someone and may rail against the injustice of the way things are. Ecclesiastes, after all, has warned us not to be shocked by the sight of injustice because, after all, one lord is under another who is under still another. Don't be surprised that in the realm of the sexual there are losers because in any metric of success there will always be a failure. Tom Petty has a song with a chorus that says even the losers get lucky sometimes. But the song resonates because "sometimes" is the highest rate we usually see.
We might not harm ourselves if we keep in mind that every society will have its losers and that the definition of the loser may vary but that this doesn't mean we don't define someone out when we define who's in. Single people on Valentine's day wishing they had a special someone may or may not think past the lonely night itself to trials of other sorts. Parents who watch their children die or deal with untreatable physical limitations are probably not feeling like they won the lottery just because at least THEY'RE married and at least THEY get to have sex. There's a kind of heartbreak that's possible in married life and as a parent that's inconceivable (or nearly) to many a single person. Those who covet married life and romance for what they perceive to be its rewards may be oblivious to its burdens. And those who may see the burdens in one sphere may not recognize how far-reaching a desire can be in having a life of its own.
An old college friend of mine told me she visited a college reunion, of sorts. She saw few people there, most of whom were mothers. She was considering how sad it was that these women had dozens of children in tow and they all had careers that could have amounted to something. Perhaps being too cynical I replied that once these people crossed the threshold of wanting a romantic partner of any kind their fate was sealed. There is a kind of narcissistic sentimentality to erotic attachment we can have in our culture. If you want a special someone for how you feel then you want that feeling for yourself and "maybe" for "them". This friend of mine has had a boyfriend for quite some time, which is fine, and yet to be a bit of a gadfly I thought I would point out that the boundary between wanting a boyfriend or girlfriend at all and wanting to be a parent is not necessarily impermeable. We cross one threshold and may find that we are not content to stay on the side of what turns out to be the gateway to a new threshold. A man or a woman who seeks happiness in the arms of another may seek the happiness of the arms of another, a child rather than a lover. Desire may be all the more merciless a master if we always insist it must be obeyed.
But being wanted, obviously, has its price. What we're less able to celebrate, in any of these spheres of relationship, is that the moment you become truly needed is the moment and space in which that relationship can and will feel like a prison to you. When someone needs you, literally or figuratively, that's when you may feel you've become stuck and by then you may be stuck, imprisoned in the embrace of who and what you most eagerly sought out. It may well be that we want the opportunity without having to pay its costs. For many an evangelical single I've begun to suspect that this may flare up most pointedly and poignantly on Valentine's day when many a single wishes he or she had that special someone or perhaps would settle for some variation of constituent fragment of the perceived benefits thereof. Plenty of people feel stymied by how, now that they've got someone, they should best celebrate the day.
What we have gained through a society in which mutuality and consent becomes the basis for normalized sexual relationships is a great deal of good that comes with a different price than the norms in which reproduction and sustainability of family estates were of primary value; the price for that good gained through mutuality and consent is that anybody, at any time, can tell you no. There's a sense in which the critique of a rape culture as one predicated on the idea that men have a right to sex must be a critique of the more fundamental idea that anyone has a reproductive "right" at all. If consent and mutuality are the foundation for sexual relationships we endorse and embrace (and they should be) then all sex that isn't forced will necessarily be a negotiated privilege rather than a right, a privilege that we must continue to renegotiate in spite of what might appear to be rights, and it will necessarily be contingent. We have gained a society in which people who don't wish to marry won't be forced to marry each other for the sake of preserving family estates and trades but we've gained it at the price of a society in which a lot of single people will feel miserable because they haven't yet convinced someone to voluntarily spend Valentine's Day with them and this is what would be the highest emotional state in human experience, maybe. Let's playfully suggest that the injustice inherent in this trade-off is that those people are the ones who are not only considered the losers in this game but who will self-identify as losers for precisely that reason. And the striking thing is that nobody who has "won" the game ever needs to identify the losers as losers for the losers to self-identify themselves.
So when we celebrate the successfully negotiated mutual erotic bond on a certain day, we're going to see that not everyone can or will win that lottery. Or even if a person wins, time and gravity defeat us all. In the end the flower of youth, however dazzlingly beautiful, will inevitably fade. Everyone dies at some point. The star athlete or model who exemplifies the impossible standard of beauty won't be able to embody that standard for long and probably couldn't even do so without a huge support team that may or may not be observed when someone is beholding a subject or object of desire alone. When we prize mutuality and consent we do prize good things, of course, but with that prizing we may not always be happy with the reality that once we extoll the greatness of two people getting together who find each other sexy that institutions and individuals are capable of arbitrating the public imagination about what sexy is and may come up with answers that may leave us out in the cold. If Ecclesiastes is even half right about this particular matter of injustice we may be offended but we should not be shocked. It's not like it was going to be any other way.
First I went to a conventional doctor, who told me I needed blood pressure meds, heartburn medicine, sleep medicine, anxiety medicine. I'm like, Man, I'm in my 30s. That's a lot of medicine! [emphasis original] So I went and found a naturopathic doctor, who said, "You need to quit your job and find a different vocation."