“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.