Thou shalt not commit adultery. Exod. 20. 14.
THERE WAS a man who lived with his wife in one of the Southern States of America. Hard-working respectable people they were, good church members, well liked in the community. Everyone was astonished when one day they were thrown into jail for "criminal converse." These two, it seemed, had both been married before; had gone out West, divorced their respective partners, married each other, and come home with the intention of living happily ever after. But someone had other ideas and started a court action. The case was hotly contested, eventually reaching the Supreme Court, but that body ruled that it had no jurisdiction and the couple sat out their terms in the penitentiary.
Doesn't it seem that, in spite of our occasional bursts of stonethrowing, we Americans are rather uncertain as to where marriage leaves off and adultery begins?
The Christian definition of adultery seems quite clear and hard. While you have a husband or wife still living, taking a new partner is adultery-and a sin. The legal, secular definition, on the other hand, is more pliable. Taking a new partner is adultery, to the law, only if you have not previously got rid of the old partner in a legally recognized fashion. And to the law adultery is not morally wrong; it is only illegal, a quite different matter. What upsets most of us is that we try to judge by both standards at once; the union that is a sin in the Christian view may be quite respectable in the legal one, and people don't really know whether they are doing right or wrong. Legality, though, is rapidly becoming the only criterion. The union of man and woman is considered "right" if you have a piece of paper to show, "wrong" if you haven't.
Once upon a time the three parties to a marriage were man, wife and God. Now they are generally considered to be man, wife, and State. Of course the State has a quite legitimate interest in marriage; it must protect the children, it must define the rights and obligations of husbands and wives. But is there any reason why, when the State walks in at the door, God must vanish out of the window? Marriage can easily be both a mystical union of two creatures into one flesh and a civil contract. For millions of happily married Christians, it is both. And there are a great many secularists whose honest intention of marriage turns a civil contract into a holy union, instead of leaving it just a business deal.
But what of the rest? of the people who furnish our divorce statistics?
Adultery occurs in many forms. There is the casual love affair, indulged in because a momentary temptation is strong, or because "everybody does it, and I don't think it matters." There is the intense, passionate long-drawn-out triangle (or even quadrilateral), adorned with conflict and heartbreak. And there is the legalized form, with its rapid and light-hearted changing of partners in the courts. All these, in practice, come to much the same thing : a corruption of the heart, a destruction of the home, an end to love. For the sexual union is a total commitment-as mystics used to say, in some ways it prefigures the union with God, demanding a self-surrender only less complete than the surrender to him. And where it is less than total it is hardly worth having-a momentary pleasure, a permanent loneliness.
One new marriage in three will end in divorce, statisticians tell us. How many more break up surreptitiously without aid from the courts, we cannot know. How many simmer in bitterness for years, pretences at marriage in which both partners pursue their love affairs outside-that we can make a shrewd guess at, if we have any experience of the modern world at all. Some of these couples were cynical from the beginning, no doubt, and sought in marriage only an immediate pleasure or profit. But most of them started with high hopes. They were going to have perfect marriages, as advised in the magazines. Must we throw stones at them, these failures in love-these people who attempt again and again something that they hope will be healthy marriage, something that turns out to be only an attack of their chronic adultery?
"An evil and adulterous generation," no doubt. But then, was there ever any other kind?
We are not the first era to make a mess of sexual relations; they've been a mess since Eden. The people who tell you, "It wasn't like that in my young days !" are usually merely finding out rather late in life what it has always been like. One may say, in fact, that the mess came before the laws. We can only conjecture about prehistoric marriage-anthropologists' guesses run all the way from the familiar cartoon of the cave man conquering his bride with a club to an imagined matriarchy in which priesthoods of women did as they pleased with the terrified male. Either way, possession was probably nine points of the marriage law. A wife has many uses in savage life; she chews the tendons for your bowstring, she sews the skins for your clothes and cover, she pounds grain for your bread, and cleans and cooks the meat you kill. So the chances are that once you've got her you keep her as long as you can stand her, unless, of course, some stronger male takes her away from you. And there's likely to be a good deal of tooth and claw about the process.
As times grow more peaceful, marriage by purchase replaces marriage by capture. From the woman's point of view this is only partly an improvement. In the old wild days a girl was at least herself, with her own assets, and if she changed hands freely at least she went to the better man in a fight. But in the new tame days a girl became her father's property, a valuable asset to be exchanged for sheep and oxen and other useful household beasts : to be served for, twice seven years is necessary, as Jacob served for Rachel. She was bought and sold, with or without her consent. Once the man who took her from her first mate may have been entitled to her in public opinion, as a conqueror and as the best male available. But under the purchase system he became a thief, an offender against property; rights, and she, if willing, was an accomplice in a crime. Somewhere along here the concept of adultery was born.
"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house ... thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, . . . nor his ox, nor his ass," says another commandment, clearly demonstrating the status of wives as property. And in Deut. xxii an explicit distinction is made between the seduction of a free virgin and the seduction of a betrothed virgin : the former automatically becomes the wife of her seducer once he pays her father a stated price, but the latter is treated as the property of her prospective husband, and consequently the seducer must die. In all this there is no awareness of the identity of women as free agents; only the indignation of a man who discovers that he has paid the full market price for what, by his standards, is a damaged article.
Justice and decency, without doubt, were at work here along with property rights, for Deuteronomy exempts from death the raped virgin who "cried, and there was none to save her." And another passage forbids a man who has raped a woman captured in war to sell her afterward as a slave-"because thou hast humbled her." And even the sense of ownership in women had an admixture of something better. For these people the bloodline was of supreme and mystical importance: adultery was wrong because it was the cuckoo's act, leaving your chicks to be reared in another's nest. The point of mating was children thus if a man died childless, his brother must take the widow and raise substitute heirs, and Onan in Genesis is struck dead for refusing to do so, and Tamar the widow is commended for seducing her father-in-law to produce an heir for her dead husband. This child-centred view of marriage persisted as late as the time of Jesus, as we know from the Sadducees' test question about the seven brothers all of whom married the same woman. It was a view that hardly considered the woman's rights and opinions at all, but only the man's right to produce his own heirs and safeguard his own property. The adultery forbidden in the Seventh Commandment originally meant any infringement of the man's rights-and, possibly, nothing more.
Jesus took this old negative prohibition of adultery and turned it into the positive affirmation of marriage.
In practice, of course, male dominance is always tempered by the undoubted fact that the average man is more or less afraid of his wife. But in theory many ancients seem to have held no misuse of a woman wrong, as long as it did not interfere with another man's rights in her. In much of the Orient, even into modern times, you could have innumerable wives and mistreat them in innumerable ways; you could throw out any woman you got tired of; you could visit a harlot and feel no guilt, since no man suffered a property loss thereby. All around little Judea, the Orient rioted and wantoned, nor was Judea itself (for all its intense interest in God) particularly strict in its sexual behaviour. The Testaments tell us a good deal about that. However ready to stone a woman taken in adultery, the men of the time seem to have taken their own freedom for granted.
It was this male self-satisfaction which Christ attacked by defining lust as a certain view of women rather than as a certain act - "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart."
The naive and the prudish have sometimes thought he meant that all erotic desire was bad in itself. To this let his own words answer-the famous words that call a man and his wife one,, flesh. Our Lord's command about marriage was as sharp and straight as a sword. Your wife is your wife for good, he said; d you can't get rid of her, except for adultery (and only one Gospel permits even that exception) and a divorced woman is committing adultery if she remarries. Now this is a difficult doctrine, as the disciples were the first to point out. Flesh and blood find it an unbearable doctrine. And, obviously, it is an incomplete doctrine, for it says nothing about what constitutes a marriage in the first place, nothing about marriages ended by the act of God, nothing about the woman's rights of action, and nothing about the status of a divorced man. All that is left to those who come after. Nevertheless the command is there and it is perfectly clear as far as it goes. We can only escape it by deciding arbitrarily to throw out that part of the Gospels as a fake : or else by throwing out the divinity of Christ altogether so that wee needn't obey his commands at all.
With that particular command, the old half-slavish status of women vanished, and a new concept of womanhood and wifehood came into the world. Every statement our Lord made: about sexuality works to protect women and to awaken men to? their own responsibilities. Condemning adultery, he yet forgave the adultresses who repented and loved God, and denounced the lustful and loveless men who caused them to sin. Perhaps that, in itself, is enough to prove him more than man. For throughout history even the best of men have usually sought to shift the blame for their sexual weaknesses to the women. "The woman tempted me and I did eat ! " cried the father of the tribe, and "The woman tempted me!" has been the cry ever since, whenever someone ate where he should not. True enough, most women try to be as tempting as they can. But what Jesus, and later Paul, pointed out was that, although men are not always free agents in love, they are still on the whole far more free than the women are.
How new-and how appalling-the doctrine of a husband's obligations must have seemed to many early Christians! Jew and Greek divorced at pleasure, and the law of Rome was not unlike the law of Reno. Into this indulgent world tumbled the dreadful statement that a man's wife was neither his property nor his amusement; she was a part of himself, flesh of his flesh, and must be treated accordingly.
Even the disciples were appalled. Even Paul was afraid; the real point of his famous "Better to marry than to burn!" passage is that marriage may be no sin but it's certainly a mess of trouble. Elsewhere he exalted wedlock in terms that established it as holy, yet his fear is more remembered than his love. For a moment, however, the Christian world did accept in its full austerity and its full glory our Lord's doctrine of marriage.
Only for a moment. Human weakness and human necessity combined to demand modifications. The historian Gibbon remarks, "The ambiguous word that contains the precept of Christ is flexible to any interpretation that the wisdom of a legislature can demand." Yes, and flexible also to any interpretation that our folly, our sins, and our bad habits can demand. In the crowded and corrupt Roman world, children had become a burden and pleasure a horror, and extremists in the Church often reacted by rejecting all sexuality as evil. In the feudal days, a half-tamed nobility took whom it wanted when it wanted-and the Church, though insisting that marriage was indissoluble, perforce discovered all manner of loopholes by which a marriage could be declared void. The jumble of rules governing holy wedlock-Roman law, Jewish law, canon law, strange blends of the three devised by Honorius and Theodosius and Justinian-left room for much sharp practice. Our new legal licence will frighten us less if we read a little history and discover how old it is.
And of course some addition to the doctrine was needed. There are marriages which God puts asunder-cases of desertion and presumed death, cases of danger to body and soul, cases where children must be saved at all costs from a destructive parent. The Church, however reluctantly and sorrowfully, always recognized the need for some way out of the hell of a bad marriage. Paul himself declared, of Christians married to pagans: "If the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases."
Two thousand years of interpretation-and the upshot today is that some churches recognize no divorce at all, some churches admit divorce but not remarriage, some churches accept divorce and remarriage too. But all unite to condemn mating that is not sanctified by the intention of marriage, whether it be fornication, ordinary adultery, or the legalized adultery which, as we have seen, permits a series of marriages that are for pleasure and not for life. To quote C. S. Lewis : "If people do not believe in permanent marriage, it is perhaps better that they should live together unmarried than that they should make vows they do not mean to keep. It is true that by living together without marriage they will be guilty (in Christian eyes) of fornication. But one fault is not mended by adding another: unchastity is not improved by adding perjury." (Mere Christianity, Geoffrey Bles.)
And marriage reduced to no more than a civil contract may easily degenerate into just that-unchastity made respectable by perjury. Thousands of young people today marry with outward hope and love, but with a secret mental reservation - "if it works." They may hereafter be disastrously ready to assume it isn't working, whenever life gets a little rough on them. And they may readily fall into the vices that keep marriage from working: into self-seeking, suspicion, fault-finding, excessive demands, tentative glances elsewhere, all the infidelities of the heart which lead so naturally to infidelity of the body.
It must be admitted that our society rather encourages the vices that lead to adultery. Consider the romantic lie, fostered by many magazines and films and radio programmes, that love in the erotic sense is the real meaning of life; that its presence guarantees an effortless and unending happiness; and that its absence means that your marriage is over. Consider the sexual confusion which permits a terrified prudery to rear many of our young people knowing no more of mating than that it is "not nice"-and which combines this ignorance with the constant erotic incitements of our advertising and entertainment. C. S. Lewis again : "We grow up surrounded by propaganda in favour of unchastity. There are people who want to keep our sex instinct inflamed in order to make money out of us. Because, of course, a man with an obsession is a man who has very little sales resistance."
Consider the current psychoanalytic notion that you can't be sane without sex, which impels into ill-starred marriages a good many people who would be much happier celibate. And consider, above all, the tendency to regard marriage only as a civil contract-a sort of business deal in which each party should try to get as much and give as little as possible-which each party may feel free to end if the business isn't showing a profit. Marriage cannot live by legality alone, however necessary legality may be. The first consequence of our bit-of-paper morality is a population largely convinced that you are entitled to have anyone you want, as long as by hook or crook you can make it legal. And the second consequence, inevitably, is a widespread conviction that you should have anyone you want, legal or not.
For anyone who thinks at all will soon ask, "How can a bit of paper make adultery right?" And the usual answer is, "It can't, but why is adultery wrong?"
Are we sure that it is wrong, today? Sexual morality has changed a bit since women were set free to earn their own living. For centuries they have suffered in dumb resentment the double standard, explicitly condemned by Christ, which stoned the woman and let the man go unscathed. The true and Christian remedy, obviously, is to hold the men to as high a standard as the women. Finding that impracticable in a man's world, however, many women have concluded that the remedy is to behave as badly as the men; and in an age of birth control and economic freedom they can often get away with it. We've all heard the arguments-something like this : "My self-expression as an individual demands sexual freedom ! I am not my husband's property; and I've no intention of presenting him with another man's child to bring up. Why shouldn't I follow love?" Because it is not love; because it is the pursuit of one's own pleasure coupled with a disregard of the needs and emotions of the other people involved; because it begins in self-love and ends in lovelessness. But try to tell them that! You will be informed that you are old-fashioned, Puritanical, and ignorant of modem science.
Other women prefer to punish the men as they could not in the days of woman's dependence; divorcing a husband for adultery is a comparatively modern privilege. The defence of women's rights by our Lord has eventually brought us to a world in which women have rights, and are determined to use them. To make marriage last, in the old days, only one person had to be satisfied-the husband. But now two people have to be satisfied, and marriage is correspondingly more unstable.
Half our people are secularists-that is to say, half our marriages are not intended as Christian marriages at all. And the Christians, seeing their neighbours have what seems to be an easier and pleasanter time of it, are tempted to relax their own standards. Hence the slack divorce laws and the casual adulteries. What remedy? Well, first let us eliminate a few remedies that won't work. We are not going to get anywhere by a revival of stone-throwing. It should be enough that our Lord commanded, "Judge not." If that is not enough, remember j that newspaper scandals only serve to convince the public that the real principle of sexual morality is, "Don't get caught."
And we are not going to get anywhere by force. All over the world there are well-intentioned clerical politicians trying to write Christian marriage back into the civil statutes-to make the non-Christians of their country live by a religion they do not believe. Two thousand years of failure have not taught some reformers that you can't stop sin by declaring it illegal. Two thousand years have not taught them that you can't save a man's soul by force-you can only lose your own in the attempt. Drunkenness and gambling and secularism and lechery -various hopeful churchmen have earnestly tried to outlaw them all; and what is the result? A drunken nation, a gambling nation, a secularist nation, an adulterous nation. And, often, a ruined Church.
It might be wise, as C. S. Lewis suggests, if we worked instead for "two distinct kinds of marriage; one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by it on its own members." If we are to produce a generation that is not blithely adulterous, however, we must start long before marriage-with the young. Education for marriage cannot decently be left, as it is too often left now, in the hands of self-styled marriage counsellors, psychological faddists, popular publishing, and popular entertainment. Education for marriage is part of the business of the Church; getting a sane doctrine of sexual relations before the public is a most important task of the Church. The matter cannot safely be left to the State and its schools, for they too are at the mercy of the spirit of the times-and, as Chesterton says in The Everlasting Man, "only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard or a status by which to criticize the State."
There is only the Church to teach the young what marriage really means-a union of two into one, not a tentative bargain between warily sparring antagonists. There is only the Church to teach fidelity of body and heart and soul, to remind us that without understanding and honesty and charity any house we build is built upon sand. And who but the Church can explain why adultery is a disaster-can remind us that it is not just a passing physical contact, but a violation of the most tender and sensitive of all relations between human souls?
Meanwhile let us remember the twin duties of compassion toward others and severity to ourselves. Making our own marriages fully Christian is the chief of our tasks. Christian marriage is not easy; Christ never said the Christian life was easy-he came to bring "not . . . peace, but a sword." Yet the Christian form of sexuality is the only form worth having. Either the sexual union is a means toward complete love - a whole-souled joy in which the other becomes the self, an earthly prefiguration of the union with God - or else it is adultery. Let us, then, forget about what we stand to get out of marriage and concentrate on what we must give. Let us put all our charity and patience and justice and fortitude into our matings, so that they must become true marriages and cannot lapse into adulteries.
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