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Commentary

Family matters

Lisa Sowle Cahill, Mary Stewart van Leeuwen, David Balch, Pamela Couture and Don Browning discuss differing Christian responses to the idea of family.


'Then Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, 'Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.' 'Who are my mother and my brothers?' he asked.Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother.'

Mark 3:31-36
From the New International Version


LISA SOWLE CAHILL Christians do have a stake in the intact family, and one prophetic role of the Christian family could be to challenge serial monogamy. Serial monogamy would be a legitimate object of critique. But the supporters of 'family values' are often engaged in a critique of those who are on the social underside. I'm afraid that white, middle-class Christian families are trying to preserve the intactness of their families at the expense of families who are so economically and socially disadvantaged that it's almost impossible for them to be intact. So a critical question from a Christian perspective is, What are we trying to retain when we talk about supporting the family? Is it the middle-class nuclear family? Or is it the socially transformative family that challenges class, gender and economic barriers?

MARY STEWART VAN LEEUWEN When I hear statements about the 'breakdown of the family' I always suspect that an antifeminist agenda is at work - that behind the statement is an antifeminist view that thinks the problem is that mothers aren't at home to look after the children, and that women have abandoned their traditional role of being the buffer between the family and public life. The truth is, women haven't given up that role - they've simply added on a second shift: they work outside the home and inside the home.

DAVID BALCH For historical perspective it may be worth recalling that in the culture of the early Christians, as important as the family was, it was secondary because Christians' primary commitment was to Christ. This created tensions within the household. At least one effect of early Christianity was to foster a religious perspective that supported some plurality of family systems. For example, women functioned in new ways in early Christian communities - they took on more active, verbal roles. There was also a reversal in the way that children were perceived: they were seen not just as potential members but as full members of the community - as is suggested by some passages in the Gospels, especially in Mark. So there were more family options in a Christian setting than was the case in the broader culture.

LSC A lot of recent books on the historical Jesus emphasize that Jesus created a community that transcended some of the status boundaries of first-century culture. The issue for me is not pluralism or egalitarianism so much as solidarity - solidarity with the marginalized, with those who are beyond the social boundaries.

PAMELA COUTURE I asked my pastoral care students what they thought the church should uphold regarding families. They were concerned about a series of virtues: compassion, respect, love, the ability to help one another. It seems to me that 'intact families' can be defined as those in which such virtues are upheld, as opposed to families who succumb to the tendency to attack, to blame, to disrupt, to set apart and so on. The question we've been moving toward in this discussion is: What is 'Christian' in all this emphasis on the family? Does it have to do with the structure you're in, or does it have to do with whether you live with respect and compassion and care for others?

We often stop at structure. A lot of people in the world would say that a family consisting of a mother, a father and children is an isolated family - it's cut off from aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and others. 'Intactness' gives us some clues about a family's potential resources, but it tells us little about a family's ability to exercise Christian virtues. When you have parents with time to spend with kids and time to be part of the institutions in which kids are involved, more resources will be available in that family for nurturing children than would be the case if the household had only one adult, or if the family had two parents who didn't really like child-raising and so for various reasons got into all kinds of substitute pursuits. We need to assess how family structure interacts with resources and how that structure interacts with the larger community.

DB Another historical note: The definition of household in the early Christian community was in fact very complex: you'd have poor people living on the top floor, the wealthy on the ground floor and those of medium income in the basement. In that kind of structure, the gospel's idea of the reversal of values has a concrete setting. There was not the kind of zoning we have in modern cities, in which you are able not even to see the poor; you lived in the same houses with them. How to relate to these various people in the household was a primary question for early Christians. There's a lot of literature - especially, for example, in Luke - about caring for the poor in relationship to the household.

DON BROWNING One of the points that's emerged here is that Christians can't derive an understanding of family that makes sense just on Christian grounds alone. The work of New Testament scholars shows us that early Christians made huge assumptions about the family, about tribe and kinship, that were based on pre-Christian traditions. Nevertheless, you can conclude that throughout the ancient world kinship was valued. Was there anything else more important than kinship? Christians would answer yes. What is really interesting about the way in which family and the house-church interacted in early Christianity was that family metaphors were used by the church to give people a much broader understanding of who their kin were in the eyes of God.

MSvL I'd say that part of the early Christian message was that the family is dangerous to Christianity. It wasn't rejected, but it was relativized. Christians realized that family and kinship bonds can be a way of marshaling economic and political forces. In many cases it is through the family that the state and other large, oppressive social powers are focused, and there is a kind of mystification about this. That is exactly what I see going on in much of the family values debate. At the same time, I would say that the religious right sometimes says the right thing for the wrong reason. I'm very concerned, for example, about the hypersexualization of society - the hyperfocus on sexuality. The voluntary constraint of sexuality is part of the Christian ethic. I am not taking an anti-body position here. I'm simply saying, as Freud said, that sex is one of the loose cannons of our human nature. So the religious right is correct to be worried about issues of sexual morality. But to reduce this to a matter of moral will, and to say that some people have more of it than others - to address this at the 'Just Say No' level without issuing a critique of commercial involvement in sexual exploitation, pornography and so on - is a gross oversimplification.

PC I think mainstream churches have done a lot more than they've been given credit for. The entire rise of the pastoral counseling movement since 1960 has been a response to families as well as individuals and an effort to help them become as productive and flourishing as they possibly could be. An immense amount of effort has been poured into training clergy to be kind of front-line mental health workers.

MSvL As a psychologist, my first observation is that the clinical pastoral movement in mainline churches has generally been only as good as the psychology it has rested on. And one of the big problems in the past, until very recently, is that counseling psychology has been one of the main vehicles of expressive individualism. I don't know how much of that filtered down into mainline pastoral counseling situations, but I'd be very surprised if a lot didn't.

LSC The strong side of the Church is that it has held the line on the importance of an intact family, on fidelity in the family, held the line against divorce and on taking responsibility for children, and at the same time has made strong economic critiques. But the liability is that many times the way in which the church upholds traditional, moral and marital values can often be oppressive because it does so in terms of absolutes which are applied in a discriminatory way. For example, the church has a long history of being very strict with people who are seeking a divorce no matter for what reasons, no matter how valid. And yet the church has all these cases of paedophilia on the part of the clergy. That behaviour was never approved by canon law - the prohibitions against paedophilia were certainly as rigid and clear as those against divorce. But the energy of the church was never invested in fighting that. It was invested in the area where the clergy exerted control over the laity.

This conversation is extracted from a discussion among members of the Religion, Culture, and Family Project of the University of Chicago, as reported by Christian Century.