As Christians, we’re always told to support traditional marriage.
But we have to be so careful what we mean by that. A United Kingdom reminded me of that. The new film tells the story of Seretse Khama, a tribal king in Bechuanaland, and the woman he loved and married, Ruth Williams. It is the remarkable story of their defiance of “traditional” marriage.
It reminded me that there’s so much more to real Christian marriage than mere tradition.
A United Kingdom
Seretse Khama was the king of the BagammaNgwato people, one of the key tribal kingdoms in Bechuanaland, a British protectorate (modern-day Botswana). He studied law in London after the Second World War as a young man. There, he met and fell in love with a white British woman, Ruth Williams. In 1948, they were married.
The marriage between an African king and a white woman caused an uproar. The tribal leaders of the Bamangwato were horrified. Her family wasn’t impressed either. Both would come around but there were bigger problems.
The South African government, just south of Bechuanaland, was adamantly opposed to the marriage. In the late 1940s, apartheid was introduced across the Union of South Africa, segregating black and white in every possible way. Inter-racial marriage was absolutely forbidden. The then Prime Minister described the marriage as “nauseating.” They were furious that the marriage had taken place and worked for years to destroy Seretse and Ruth. The British, needing South African support, shamefully separated and then exiled the couple.
And all this from countries and peoples who were ostensibly Christian. Yet they were perfectly willing to separate a husband and a wife simply because they couldn’t stomach the fact people are people.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:24)
I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)
But Seretse and Ruth held their nerve. They refused to renounce their love or their marriage vows.
The Faith of Seretse
What the film doesn’t show is where Seretse got this extraordinary courage from.
What would inspire a man, brought up to serve his people above all, to defy everyone to marry the woman he loved and to remain faithful to her?
The answer, I believe, lies in his equally extraordinary grandfather.
Seretse was the grandson and heir of King Khama III. Khama converted to Christianity in his early twenties, one of the first among his tribe to do so. He would remain a life-long Christian and do much to spread the Christian gospel in Botswana.
Against the wishes of his own father, Khama married a Christian woman, Mma-Besi. Theirs was the first Christian marriage ever celebrated in Shoshong, one of the capitals of the BagammaNgwato people. That was bad enough but then he refused to take another wife, as was “traditional”. Mma-Besi died in 1889 and King Khama remarried after her death. But he never compromised his Christian belief in the goodness of marriage as the life-long, exclusive union of one man and one woman.
Seretse was also a man of faith. He and Ruth actually meant at a Lutheran church in London. All the reports at the time emphasis that the foundation of their marriage was their bond of shared faith. When he appeared before the tribe to justify his actions, he told them,
I acted as a good Christian. (Susan Williams, The Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse Khama and His Nation, 2007)
Seretse’s marriage, like his grandfather’s, was far from traditional. Yet both understood and embraced the true joy of Christian marriage: the union of one man and one woman, faithful to each other unto death.
As Christians, we believe in traditional marriage — if by “traditional” you mean the bond of one man and one woman, entered into freely and lived faithfully until death.
But history should teach us that traditional marriages have often been precisely not that. You know what else is traditional?
- Child marriage is traditional.
- Polygamy is traditional.
- Arranged marriage without consent is traditional.
- Marital rape is traditional.
- Concubinage is traditional.
- The oppression of women in marriage is traditional.
All these things are “traditional” in the sense that they have been practised and handed down through generations. They aren’t the whole story of “traditional marriage” but they are a part of that story.
But they are exactly the opposite of true Christian marriage.
The Challenge of Christian Marriage
The current attack on marriage in the Western world can make us a little myopic. We think that “gay marriage” is the only issue when it comes to marriage across the world. (Let along throughout history.) But marriage has never had an easy go of it.
True marriage, which is God’s plan for every married couple whether they are Christian or not, is difficult. It requires fidelity, sacrifice, patience and self-denial.
It’s no wonder that so many cultures have found it easier to concede to man’s “hardness of heart.” (cf. Matthew 19:8) When Jesus was asked if a man could divorce his wife, he answered them bluntly.
Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matthew 19:4-6)
Ironically enough, Jesus came to over-turn traditional marriage. He came to restore marriage to its original meaning: the exclusive and indissoluble union of one man and one woman.
Jesus wasn’t interested in what was merely “traditional” in marriage. In the traditional marriage of His day, a man could divorce his wife if he wanted and then marry another whom he preferred. (A woman, of course, could do no such thing.) Christ came to restore the Father’s creational will for marriage, to be a sign of God’s own faithfulness to us, His people.
Why We Need More Than Traditional Marriage
Okay, so why should this matter? We all know what we mean when we say traditional marriage — except that’s not quite good enough.
We are not called to defend tradition but to proclaim the Truth. In the 16th Century, St Toribio of Lima put it so well,
Christ did not say, ‘I am the custom’, He said ‘I am the Truth.’
It is this truth of marriage which we must defend and to which we must aspire. Mere tradition isn’t enough and never has been. If we are going to fight for marriage (and I believe we must), let’s fight for we actually mean, not an approximate idea.
We must also fight some forms of traditional marriage. Sometimes, defending Christian marriage will mean rejecting traditional marriage. No form of racial, social or cultural discrimination has any place in Christian marriage for God is the Father of us all. But there’s more than that. One of the highlights (for me at least) from the Synod of the Family in 2015 was realising that,
Some societies still maintain the practice of polygamy; in other places, arranged marriages are an enduring practice… In many places, not only in the West, the practice of living together before marriage is widely spreading as well as a type of cohabitation which totally excludes any intention to marry. (Final Report of the Synod of Bishops: The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and in the Contemporary World, 24 October 2015, section 25)
If all our efforts to defend marriage achieve is a return to the past, then it will have been woefully inadequate. Seretse and Ruth were an ‘un-traditional’ Christian couple and yet they embodied the best of Christian marriage.
Let us defend marriage, but marriage as revealed in Creation and restored again by Christ.
And then, what God has joined together, let no man — nor family, nor tribe, nor nation, nor empire, nor whim, nor fear, nor pride, nor desire — put asunder! (cf. Matthew 9:6)