Thursday, October 28, 2004


Family values

"Christianity involves us in an inconveniently large family connextion." James Russell Lowell (1849)

Christianity is not a religion of family values. This fact, I know, remains contrary to popular opinion. Millions of American Christians today exhort one another to focus on the family, even though the earliest Christians primarily seem to have remembered Jesus telling them to love one another and to focus on God.

What the early Christians did remember Jesus saying about families would seem, at first glance, to give slight encouragement to "family values." When an anonymous character in Luke's gospel says, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home," Jesus literally rebukes him for, well, focusing on his family. There are other inconvenient passages. Matthew suggests that Jesus was not unequivocally in favor of stable families. (His own family had some instability, after all.) And if these are not evidence enough that Jesus might have looked askance at "family values," the clincher is the story, attested in all three synoptics, of his family reunion gone awry. (Yes, Jesus had family reunions, having been tested in every respect as we are.) Each text paints the same scene: Jesus is surrounded by a crowd of disciples. His family tries to get in to see him. Informed of this, Jesus points to the disciples around him and says, "Here are my mother and my brothers!"

And here's the trouble with that. If we view that story in the context of other stories about Jesus, then many of those disciples whom Jesus called his mother and brothers were not exactly the virgin Mary. Even the Marcus Borgs of the world -- those who believe that we can know very little about the historical figure of Jesus -- tend to agree that he associated with marginal people. You know, prostitutes and the like. People who were not exactly poster children for the two-parent household.

In short, according to his earliest acolytes, Jesus redefined "family" itself. "Family," in his vocabulary, no longer referred to biological, far less traditional, kinship ties. His mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, were those who gathered around him. And rather than enjoining his followers to love only each other, he encouraged them to brazenly widen the family circle even more than that. They were to love not only family, but neighbors, and not only neighbors, but enemies. Someone has said that Matthew 5:43-45 is the most admired and least practiced passage in all of the gospels: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven." See what he did there with "children" and "father"? He took "family value" words and then exploded their meaning -- your neighbors are your enemies, the exemplary Israelites are Romans and Samaritans, your abba is God. And God's family is a non-family.

Yet American Christians routinely rally under the banner of the "traditional family." It's no wonder that the unconventional fellowship practices of Jesus -- drinking with sinners, eating with tax collectors, speaking to prostitutes, and so on -- are valued less and less. That's exactly the danger of equating Christianity with "the family," or with any other false cognate like "civilization" or "nation." For each of those words substitutes a narrower definition of "we" for the community that the earliest Christians envisioned. How many Christians since, in the name of "family values," have cast stones at "home wreckers," or used the idea of family as an excuse for disowning one's own sons and daughters? That's what happens when "family" comes before "Christ" -- Christians start to look less like Christ, and more like the fallen families to which Christ's "family" represents a radical alternative.

I have been deliberately provocative in suggesting that Jesus was against "family values." Now it is time for some qualification. I admit that Jesus, according to the gospels, approved many of the things that some would classify today as "family values." But if so, then all that should matter to a Christian is showing that Jesus approved them. Why must Christians appeal to "family" for their ethics? Should Christians believe that Jesus's teachings need some additional stamp of approval? That Christian values need to be validated by "family research"? To subsume Christianity under "family values" is get the whole religion wrong.

Perhaps this seems to you like an issue of semantics. Perhaps. But you should know that I believe spirituality is often about semantics. Further, I do not find this to be a mark against the power of either. It matters whether people define themselves as "Christians" or as "pro-family." Call me a Romantic, if you will, like the German philosopher Novalis:
To signify through sounds and tones is a remarkable abstraction. With three letters I signify God, and with a few strokes a million things. How easy is the manipulation of the universe, how vivid the concentration of the spiritual world! ... A word of command moves armies, the word 'freedom' nations. [1798]
Words are powerful, and especially the word "family." It takes only a few strokes more than "God," after all, and over time it can come to take a God-like shape. I suspect that's why Jesus was adamant about not confusing his "family" with one's natural or traditional kin. Such confusion has allowed the word "family" to move nations, and even to send armies to war. Many Christians thus accept "collateral damage" abroad as the price we must pay to keep "our children" safe. We strangely rejoice that we can fight terrorists "where they live" so that we will not have to fight them "here," ignoring the fact that this just makes "their children" unsafe instead. American Christianity has almost reverted to the very thing it should consider pagan: instead of worshipping "family gods," families have become our gods. It is almost as if for hearth and home, for love of kin and country, you can set aside those pesky commands to love your enemies as yourself.

"Family values" consequently justify anti-Christian practices -- things like refusing to eat with the alienated, or resisting evil with evil. "Family" and "nation" are conflated in order to excuse militarism abroad. And when necessary, "family" and "nation" can be separated again for the sake of conservative policies at home. Why not privatize social security? As long as you can provide for your family, why value the families of others? And why worry too much about the fact that millions of "their children" are without health insurance? Putting "family values" first inevitably reduces the sphere of personal responsibility to smaller and smaller circles. By contrast, the Christian's family is supposed to be inconveniently large.

To love this larger family, does the Christian therefore have to desert smaller families? Not necessarily. If we're still referring to stories about Jesus as a touchstone for these matters, then remember that, according to John, he was able to consider the welfare of his mother, even while in the act of dying. If you start from Jesus' principle of love for neighbor and enemy alike, you have no reason not to love your natural family dearly too. In fact, it helps to start from Jesus' principle when you eventually discover -- as many people unfortunately do -- that you are sleeping in the same house with your enemy. But if you start from the principle that nuclear families are somehow sacred, if you focus on the family, then it is easy to lose sight of Jesus' principle of equally loving those who hate you. That's why the danger for Christians is not supposed to be in loving family. Rather, as Jesus put it, the danger is in loving family more than him.

Collective Improvisation:
In "The Word of God and the Word of Man" Barth says, "The family is not holy. It is in fact the voracious idol of the erstwhile middle class." That was almost eighty years ago in Germany. Jeez, we're in the same spot now.

Posted by Blogger greg on 10/28/2004 08:37:00 AM : Permalink  

Scary when you consider what the German church went on the become in the following decade.

Posted by Blogger Caleb McDaniel on 10/28/2004 01:34:00 PM : Permalink  

I wanted to reply to this, but as usual I went too long, so it is in my blog. Please check it and comment. Once again, very insightful.

Posted by Blogger TheMalau on 11/06/2004 05:48:00 AM : Permalink  

That's kind of twisted. There is no Spiritual family with the physical family and since sin has done such a number on God's created family and has been passed on to present generations, Jesus in no way is de-emphasizing the family structure and its importance. For you see, with Jesus, the family that has been marred by sin can now be redeemed and restored in the new creation. That's why Jesus placed so much emphasis on his followers in order that his followers would be re-made in the image of the Creator. 

Posted by Thomas Frierson

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/02/2005 09:09:00 PM : Permalink  

This post was very great. I'd love to see more like it.

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 4/06/2006 07:00:00 PM : Permalink  

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