I had an interesting conversation the other day with some of the old men in my village. As I have been learning the language, much of my time has been spent in conversation with different people. The best way to learn a language is to try and speak it. During my time in the village, I have slowly developed relationships with people and these conversations have evolved from me simply asking questions about their lifestyle to them being curious about our lifestyle in the States. This particular day we were talking about family.
In the Islamic culture here, it is completely acceptable and commonplace to take up to four wives. Most of the men in my village, by the time they are middle aged, will have at least two wives, if not three or four. This obviously creates large families with many children. Several of the men in my village have over 20 kids running around their hut.
During this conversation, the men began to quiz me about my own family. They were terribly perplexed when I told them I was an only child. They asked me about my brothers and sisters and I told them I had none. Then they asked me how many wives my father had. I told them one. They were even more astonished that a man, whose wife had only given him one kid, would not remarry with the chance of having more children. They immediately asked how old my father was and upon learning that he was in his 50s could not imagine why a man so old had never taken another wife. Why was he content with only one kid?
At this, I made an attempt to explain some of the cultural difference. I told how people only take one wife in the States and that families are much smaller there. I explained that the average family may only have two of three kids. To my dismay, I had apparently painted myself into a corner with my discussion. I was then asked if I thought it wrong to marry more than one wife. I had not anticipated this question and struggled momentarily with how to respond. I did not want to offend my hosts, and yet I did not want to betray my personal convictions on the issue. I look back and wonder if I handled the situation right. My response was to inform them that America had laws against marrying more than one wife. So, I pushed it off on the government.
Now many of you may wonder why I did not simply use the bible as my support for denouncing polygamy, but upon a harder look, I do not find a sufficient scripture to ban it outright. Scripture clearly teaches that church leadership should only have one wife. But I have yet to find any biblical author who completely prohibits the practice for all of the Christian community. In addition, I find no scripture telling the new Christians Paul was evangelizing and discipling to get rid of all but one of their wives. (Many people in Paul’s day were also polygamists.) Now certainly, I feel the bible would profess monogamy as the ideal practice. One can look at the metaphor of Christ and his bride that marriage displays and see that it is not Christ and his bride(s). God created one man and one woman in the beginning and certainly we can see the pattern that God established in that. However, the outright confession that “polygamy is a sin” is another matter all together, but I digress.
My response seemed to appease the senses of these villagers, but it brought about a conversation amongst them that seared me to the core. In talking to themselves about the vast cultural divide on marriage, their commentary of our culture laid bare a reality that most Americans never see. “It is no different in America,” they said. “Men take many wives there too, but here, we do not get rid of our old ones in order to get a new one. We continue to provide for the wives we take.”
How easily we scoff the backward polygamists for the barbaric practice of multiple wives, when in reality our culture has its own way of doing the same thing. In America, slightly more than half of all marriages end in divorce. We all know the situations and scenarios far too well. Most of us have felt the sting of divorce in some capacity as it has ripped through our own families. We may not be polygamists in America, but we have gotten real good at serial monogomy. What kind of hypocrisy is it when we as Christians in the west stand back and cry out against the sin of polygamy and stay silent about the monster of divorce in our own communities? Truly, divorce is a sin, and one about which the bible has plenty to say, unlike polygamy.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Jesus, Matt. 5:31-32, emphasis added)
I thank God that he used this conversation with three old men in Africa to show me truths about my own worldview.