Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Would Jesus vote for family values?

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it."

- Matthew 10.37-39 (NLT).

Families are a wonderful gift from God. At their best, they can be places of loving acceptance and stable endurance, where virtues are nurtured and many needs met. They can also be ongoing nightmares, filled with bitter disappointment and all manner of brokenness. Christians need have no illusions about how difficult they can be at times. In affirming their goodness, we admit that this is often taken on trust, a step made in the hope of discovering such goodness in the slow unfolding of loving effort over time.

Some Christians want to say much more than this, and claim that defending "family values" ought to be the primary political goal of Christians. While there are many good things worth preserving bundled up in this phrase, it can also be somewhat misleading, or can receive too much emphasis. Familial relationships do not exhaust or even provide the focal point of Christian discipleship. I am a family man, married with a child and a large extended family with whom I enjoy good relationships, but holy scripture and the gospels assume that my love for my family needs to be converted, deepened and shared with a much broader family, namely the household of faith, and indeed with all, even my enemies. To focus on the family is to limit the scope of this call to what is easy. Even the pagans love their own (Matthew 5.47).

Christ even instructed his followers to "hate" their parents (Luke 14.26) and effectively disowned his own family (or at least radically redefined it) when they came to collect him lest his teaching attract too much attention (Mark 3.21-35). Whether hyperbolic or not, Christ presents a serious critique of an ethic built around familial obligations.

Therefore, I am not sure that Christian hopes and goals for political engagement are best summarised through the categories and concerns of “family”.

Karl Barth gives a good attempt at reading these passages and feeling the weight of the critique that it contains. He is not alone, but is in my reading firmly within the mainstream of Christian tradition on this.

However we end up applying the gospel passages in question, it will not do simply to set them aside as hyperbole. We may not cut off our hands (Matthew 5.30), but at the very least, we try to take Jesus’ words about the dangers of sin seriously.

If we are to follow Christ today, then family too must not be excluded from the orbit of his total claim upon our lives. Within that claim, the demands and goodness of family life are not simply endorsed without qualification, but are re-located and redirected towards a family that includes the widow and the orphan, the poor, the lonely, the single, the isolated and, ultimately, embraces the entire groaning creation.

My hunch is that taking seriously God’s commitment to relationships means relativising the place of blood family, not ignoring them or undermining their dignity (which I appreciate can happen in some quarters), but neither setting them up as the model of all human relationships and the highest social good.


Anonymous said...

Hi Byron,

I'm not sure that family still isn't the focal point of discipleship in the ordinary course events. But yes there is a change with the coming of Christ.

Two thoughts:

i) I'm not sure this is really the risk at the moment.

ii) It is hard to know what relativising the place of blood family in our political discussion means - without a concrete policy to consider. Where do you think Christian political discussion is in danger of over-privileging family.

Tim A

glorya said...

well said. "Family" is an Aussie idol. I wonder though what it would look like to love your family but love Jesus more. In practice...

Jin Russell said...

Byron - do you think the emphasis on 'Family values' etc is really just a cover for policies that seek to exclude from our care and compassion those who are judged to be morally deficient in someway e.g. divorcees, single parents, same-sex relationships. I suppose I am thinking primarily about how this issue is discussed in America as a political point to win Christians over for the Republican vote. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13751433 (recent example)

Byron Smith said...

Interesting thoughts al and I look forward to replying at greater length when I get a chance (though that might be a few days).

Byron Smith said...

*al = all

Jeremy Kidwell said...

Hi Byron,

Glad to be catching up on blog posts this afternoon. This post struck me as a bit dissonant on a few fronts:

1) Use of scripture: I think you might do well to consider more carefully how quickly you move from the plain meaning of a text in the bible to an application in a present-day context. Certainly there are clear parallels between Graeco-Roman society and our present social context with respect to thoughts on gender and sex. But I actually think we're quite a ways different in respect to the place of the family in the midst of social ethics. If anything, I think we've taken the relativistic of the family to a profound extreme. On the whole, I think most of the people living in urban centers as we are are geographically distant from their family, and their day to day moral decisions rely on an atomistic view of themselves as an isolated moral agent than one which is overly enmeshed in the concept of 'family'. The emphasis on family in many conservative Christian circles is certainly out of place and lumped in with other strange and sometimes tragic commitments, but I'm not sure that a conception of a healthy society which begins by relativistic the family is a coherent one. I think that broader contour of Jesus' words in the gospels might be better seen as expanding one's view beyond the family rather than merely relativising it. I'd love to hear more from you on this.

2) You get a bit close to the 'citizen of the world' language that is often so unhelpful for ecological reflection and I actually tend to think that an emphasis on the family unit would be a useful emphasis for environmental philosophy (I think Wendell Berry would agree with me on this one). Again, it isn't a matter of relativising the notion of family, but extending it beyond purely genetic relations. But such an extension (where perhaps we invite the man down the street who lives alone with schizophrenia to become part of our family) relies on an especially robust notion of family, and on a psychological level, expanding one's pool of neighborliness in my experience requires similarly robust and healthy family relationships (excepting the monastic context and perhaps not even then).

I'd love to hear more from you, and would also be happy to chat about some of your exegesis - though I'd have to be a bit more study myself before I'd be prepared to approach those texts in particular...

Jeremy Kidwell said...

I've just read the bit by Barth, and your post again, and I think I may have over-expressed my disagreement with your original post. I stand by my discomfort of your fairly quick use of some rather complex biblical passages and might revise my reservation. Why ditch the 'family' (as even the notion of God's being - the trinity relies on this social construction) or even 'family values' and not instead re-deploy the concept. As Barth observes, the man's objection in Lk. 14:20 seems to rely on a commodification of his family - they are obligations upon him and not loving relations to which he submits. I do still wonder if (at least in the small passage quoted) Barth's emphasis on 'leaving' gets at a 20th century missiology that I'm rather glad we've left behind. Mission isn't after all only defined by leaving - but also by arriving and loving a particular place and its proximate people in submission to both.

byron smith said...

Jeremy - I'm happy to discuss this further and quite open to the accusation of some overly hasty exegesis. It may help if I come clean about the origin of this post as a slightly modified version of a comment in another discussion where I was attempting to engage a spokesperson for a new-ish Australian political party called Family First, which sometimes portrays itself as a "Christian" party (a number of its founders, candidates and leaders have been ordained clergy), but which then seems content to more or less identify Christianity with "family values".

Taking a comment on another thread and turning it into a post was a lazy option I indulged in for the sake of having a few posts scheduled to go up while I was recently away. Looking back on a few of them, they may have been a little sloppy.