Incest

A really interesting story in the Mail  last week.

A brother and sister who had a child together are to break the law and marry later this month, the Irish Mail on Sunday can reveal.

They first spoke to the newspaper in May about their shock on discovering that they shared a father and were involved in an incestuous relationship.

And even though the couple – known as ‘James’ and ‘Maura’ – realise it is illegal for them to marry, they say they are still determined to spend the rest of their lives together and will break the law to do so.

This weekend, the couple, whose identities the Irish Mail on Sunday has protected by changing their names, as well as those of their close relatives, spoke about their wedding plans.

James said: ‘We have applied to get married and there are no mistakes in the paperwork so we will be able to wed at the end of this month.

‘We were aiming for Christmas but we have decided to do it sooner. Maura has got her wedding dress, we’ve ordered identical suits for myself and our son. We’ve also ordered a cake and we plan to go on a honeymoon a few weeks after the wedding.

‘It will be a very small wedding. We have two witnesses who we know very well and they know about our situation. I don’t know whether our father will come or whether any of our parents will be there.

‘Our son is getting excited about the wedding. He knows what is happening. As for Maura and me, it hasn’t really sunk in yet that we’re getting married.’

In a story that made headlines around the world, James and Maura revealed how they met and fell in love completely unaware that they shared a father.

Now, before we go and say things like “That’s just disgusting”, perhaps a brief survey of Genesis 20:12-13 is in order?

I’m interested though in discussing what in the Christian moral framework is the issue with incest. We know that the law of the land forbids it, but we also know that Christians shouldn’t do or not do things just because the law of the land says so. That way lies the Deutsche Christen. However, the modern restrictions on incestuous marriage are based largely on the Levitical code (Lev 18:6-18). That leaves me asking “why”? Beyond the usual arguments about hereditary diseases and genetic make up, is there anything in the Gen 1 / Eph 5 husband/wife = Christ/church model that can help us understand why incest is (or isn’t) wrong?

Or to put it another way, what does incest say about Jesus?

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  • sue

    This is a very difficult and moving situation, I must say that that was my first reaction, I did not feel disgust at them being half brother or sister at all.

    It is not a good idea to allow the marriage of close relatives,even when the marriage of first cousins becomes a common occurence, genetic diseases become more frequent.It is also very unusual for those brought up as siblings to be attracted to or fall for each other, something about being raised in close proximity inhibits sexual attraction – as seen in the Kibbutz system with low rates of romantic interest among those brought up together.

    But these two did not know they were related, and in a way have just been very unlucky. They also have a child together. I don't know what *should* happen in this case. I do not think a sensible law should be changed for a fairly isolated case. I would not advise anyone to break the law either. But when it comes to their decision whether to stay together or separate, I would not feel able to judge the decision of any two people in such a difficult situation.

    I've said before that I don't think looking to the bible for a single "model" for marriage get us very far because there simply are so many models for marriage in the bible, including the fact that the whole human race is incestuous, if you believe in a literal view of Genesis! Perhaps you think that, if you cannot find biblical injunctions against it, incest should be widely allowed? I don't, but I certainly think compassion is called for in this case.

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Sue,

      Interesting. If they were Christians I might argue that they marry in order to make the best of (redeem?) the sin that they have committed, even though it was unwilling. That of course raises the question whether one can sin if one is unaware that one is sinning!

      Do you have anything to say on my question as to what this says about Jesus?

  • sue

    If you believe that incest is sinful, or forbidden, I can't see how marriage "redeems" it. They remain close blood relatives and so the relationship is still incestuous.

    If you believe incest is not sinful or wrong, and it seems that this is your view ,then marriage is not a problem (morally) anyway.

    I can't say I would be as decisive as you!

    I am not sure what point you are making about Jesus. You'll have to be more explicit.

    • http://dwhwar.wordpress.com/ Joe_S

      I don't think Peter is saying "incest is OK". I'm sure he believes the opposite is true.

      There is no reason within the modern secular moral framework of "if it is loving or consenting" to prohibit such relationships. The top "best rated" comments on the Daily Mail site are wishing them every possible happiness together.

      The question is why, for Christians at least, are some "loving" relationships far from OK.

  • Blair

    Belatedly popping into this thread…

    Given what you say about the law of the land, Peter, thought I'd look up the sentencing guidelines to see if they gave any hints as to the rationale behind making adult incest illegal. (I take it that this thread is strictly about incest between adults…?). In case anyone's interested (no pushing in the queue please) the guidelines are a biggish PDF document located here:
    http://www.parliament.uk/deposits/depositedpapers

    Click through to pages 95-96 for the 2 offences under the heading 'sex with an adult relative'. Relevant to the case above is that it is a defence "that the offender was unaware of the blood relationship, unless it is proved that he or she could reasonably have been expected to be aware of it". The list of aggravating factors could be of interest too:

    – high level of coercion or humiliation of the victim;
    • imbalance of power;
    • evidence of grooming;
    • age gap between the parties;
    • history of sexual offending;
    • sexual intercourse with the express intention of conceiving a child or resulting in the conception of a child; and
    • no attempt taken to prevent the transmission of a sexual infection.

    I'm somewhat with Sue in that I'm not sure what to say about this particular case, and also that I don't understand where you're coming from with the reference to the Eph 5 husband / wife = Christ / Church model. Am not sure how that would be applied to incest as your previous use of the model has been about arguing that sex is only Godly within the relationship of husband and wife – but of course incestuous relationships could happen with any gender mix.

    Admit I'm not really sure what a good rationale for prohibiting adult incest would be. Maybe Robert Gagnon is on to something with his argument about 'too much structural sameness'…. except that he links sameness of genes with sameness of gender and uses this as a key argument against any same-sex sex. That could be a slightly garbled summary… but I've said before on here (and indeed on Fulcrum I think) that the way Dr Gagnon uses the argument is flawed in that it suggests same-sex incest should be deemed morally worse than other-sex, and the Bible makes no such distinction (nor does current UK law for what it's worth). Am wondering if it is possible to 'split off' sameness of gender from sameness of genes… but that could be too convenient for my own position! Not sure how clear all this is, but it's pretty tentative.

    in friendship, Blair

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Hi Blair,

      The aggravating factors are interesting, but they head us down the path again of making the law the moral arbiter. Yes, the legal guidelines help us understand what the framers of the law understood to be the issue with incest (putting aside issues of of consent and power, the only other thing that stands out is sex with the intent of conceiving, which makes one think that the incest laws are ultimately about the prevention of the creation of genetically compromised children) but that doesn't tel us anything about the morality, since that is revealed, not legislated.

      I guess the task for myself is to show how the Husband/Wife = Christ/Church model works (incorrectly) in the case of incest. Why is it wrong is a question that is answered by understanding why un-related Husband/Wife is right and then working backwards from there. We can disregard same-sex incest straight away as it is not heterosexual – it can never be right (ooh controversial) so we don't need to go further.

      No, the issue is consensual incest – what is wrong with that when you start with the Eph 5 model. Which of course is the question I asked in the post.

      Watch this space.

  • Blair

    Hi Peter,

    it's not that I want to "make the law the moral arbiter", but it was something I thought worth exploring, especially given that as you say, "the modern restrictions on incestuous marriage are based largely on the Levitical code". Have to say I'm not any further on in working out what a rationale would be for why consensual adult incest is wrong – I don't suppose this is an urgent matter for either of us… I think you're right about your task but as I implied before, you might struggle to apply the Eph 5 model to this.

    One little thing though: after banging on in the thread on the LGBT Anglican Coalition's letter, I looked up the Catholic Catechism section on chastity. The web link is http://www.vatican.va/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6…. by the way. Further down the page there are 2 paragraphs on incest. It's the end of #2388 that caught my eye: "Incest corrupts family relationships and marks a regression toward animality". Wondered (albeit vaguely and not in depth!) if that would add anything to the discussion? I note there's no footnote to back up the assertion about 'marking a regression to animality' but is there some truth in this – e.g. animality in the sense that an animal might have sex with a relative because not making any proper sexual distinctions….? Question remains if that's in fact true of animals though. Also I guess the part about "corrupts family relationships" would need expanding on.

    in friendship, Blair

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Would it surprise you for me to say that I think I now have an answer to the question why a consensual incestuous relationship is wrong, an answer which fits in with the husband / wife = Christ / church model? Just got to find time to blog it first…

  • Blair

    Only a little ;)
    I'll watch this space…

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