Speaker: Dr. Bob Minor
You can look at a society’s humor and tell a lot about what they struggle with.
The American Heretic’s Dictionary defined “family” as: “A traditional means of passing on neuroses from generation to generation.”
Or as one person said: “I will always love the false image I had of you.”
Or: “As long as I have you, I can endure all the troubles you will inevitably bring.”
Closer to out hearts may be the image of the little boy standing by his parents’ bedside in the middle of the night and saying: “I need somebody.”
We all need somebody, and that is really what family is all about.
The so-called traditional family is in crisis. The dominant family pattern in the US in the 1950s was the “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Leave it to Beaver” television model – a bread-winning husband and a wife who stayed home with the children. In this kind of family there was no divorce, no stepchildren, no blended families, no children without being married. That model now represents seven percent of the US population! Even if you include that kind of family but where the mother works outside the home, it’s still only 12% of the population.
One in three Americans is a member of a stepfamily and some say that is now one in two.
The marriage rate fell 30% in the last twenty years. The divorce rate increased 40% the last 20 years.
One in four babies is born to an unmarried mother compared to one in twenty thirty years ago.
So, what is happening to our families today?
One way to understand this is to use a common analysis of “Four Stages of Growth.” As we grow up in life, we pass through four different stages:
Stage One: Undirected (infancy). Life is uncivilized, spontaneous, and totally self-centered.
Stage Two: Other Directed (childhood). We learn to be “civilized” and life is ordered entirely by others, the authority figures who shape and teach us.
Stage Three: Questioning Direction (adolescence). We begin to search for our own meaning and patterns in life. Adolescence is a time of questioning, upheaval, rapid change, and strong feelings.
Stage Four: Inner Directed (mature adulthood). We emerge into grown-up persons who know how to get along with others but also how to preserve out own integrity. Spiritually, we live life from the inside in an awareness of love surrounding us, with an inner spiritual reality, and in the mystical community of shared grace.
Family life in every culture might be described in these same four different categories.
A Stage One society (Undirected Infancy) is traditionless, chaotic, and by later definitions, uncivilized, an unstable culture which cannot exist for long. Some fear this is what is happening today with our family life.
A Stage Two society (Other Directed Childhood) is tradition directed concerning family life. Throughout history, most societies have been in this stage, very stable, although not necessarily just, free, or loving for everyone in the society. Traditional values and structures, the ones that have sustained the culture and been passed down for generations, are accepted and supported.
This was the situation of Jewish society for hundreds of years, the very one into which Jesus was born. The first-century Jewish family was a prime example of a Stage Two culture. It had been this way for hundreds of years. It was incredibly stable and strong. The family was carefully structured by its religious code of the Hebrew Bible and later traditions. The family was the way you survived, economically and physically. No society ever valued the family more than that of Jesus’ day.
Keeping Stage Two in mind, let’s look at how Jesus approached the family values of his day.
Jesus started his earthly life as an unplanned pregnancy from his parents’ perspective, and his teenage mother was pregnant before she was married. It’s interesting that those facts haven’t made their way into Christmas carols so far.
There is no reference to Jesus being married and his closest twelve disciples were either single or left their families as quickly as they dropped their fishing nets to follow Jesus’ call.
Now let’s go to Jesus’ specific teaching about family according to the Gospel accounts.
Jesus predicts that because of him, “Brothers and sisters will betray each other to death, and parents their children; children will rise up against their parents and have them executed. Everyone will hate you because of me.” (Matt. 10:21-22, Inclusive New Testament)
What a comfort Jesus was! Somehow those verses haven’t made their way into those books of comforting promises taken from the Bible.
And how about Matthew 10: 35-37:
“Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut – make a sharp knife-cut – between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law – cut through those cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.” (The Message)
Ouch! This pointed and radical statement can make any of us feel uncomfortable if we listen to it seriously.
Again, Jesus in Luke (9: 59-60) said to a traveler, “Follow me.” The traveler replied, “Let me bury my father first.” Jesus said in return, “Let the dead bury their dead; you go and proclaim the reign of God everywhere.”
Remember that the man’s father wasn’t dead. The man was affirming his traditional family obligation to stay around until his father died. There was no Social Security in those days and your provision for old ages was the number of sons you had to take care of you.
Still, another traveler approached Jesus in this way: “I’ll be your follower, Rabbi, but first let me say good-bye to my people at home.” Jesus answered, “Whoever puts a hand to the plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God.” (Luke 9:61-62 INT)
About this time, Jesus received a letter from an organization called Focus on the First Century Family. It said:
We have noticed some devaluing of traditional family life in your teachings. You do not treasure the family as our people have for centuries. Your preaching against our traditional family values gores against all that we hold dear in our religious and cultural heritage, the very foundation of our society. If you continue to do this we will make you the subject of one or our future market-place programs
Sincerely, High Priest J. Dobson
Jesus evidently did not take heed. A short time later, this happened:
Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived and sent a message asking for him. A crowd was sitting around Jesus, and they said to him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who is my family? “ And looking around at everyone there, Jesus said, “This is my family! Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my sister, my brother, my mother.” (Mark 3:31-35 INT)
If we take these words seriously, they sound harsh today. But they were quite incredible to Jesus’ original audience, which valued family traditions above all else. Jesus said that he preferred his spiritual family over his biological family.
But even more radically, Jesus redefined the family as those who do God’s will. What’s the will of God that makes for family? John said that whosever loves is of God. Family is those who love you, not necessarily those who produced you.
According to the Gospels then,
Jesus’ idea of family is based on choices not genes,
On God not government,
On love not labels,
On life not law,
On behavior not birth,
On belonging not biology.
Here it is in one sentence: Where there is unconditional love, there is family.
Why did Jesus warn about he family of his day?
Why did Jesus contrast following the family values of his day with following him? Why didn’t he do that with the politics of the day? (He didn’t) Why didn’t he contrast following him with other religions of the day? (He didn’t)
So what’s going on with Jesus and family? Why did Jesus want to make people look very hard at the family and stop merely applauding it? What is family in the light of the Gospels? I believe there are two reasons.
First, Jesus was saying the Spirit, the Divine calling must always have priority in our lives. That’s the obvious part.
Second, the part that has apparently not seemed obvious, is that Jesus was subverting all family systems that did not embrace the love he believed God had for all people.
Jesus tried to lay the groundwork for the collapse of the family structure that was opposed to the values he taught. The society of Jesus’ day was incredibly pro-family. It was the very epitome of the strong family. Why mount an attack on it?
Because it had some serious flaws. The family was the man’s show. The father was in charge in a way that was not just, free, or loving, especially to women and children. That eventually had to change if the family was going to embrace Jesus’ values.
Jesus’ one seemingly positive statement about family was that divorce was wrong and not in the Divine plan. However, that needs to be seen as the powerfully subversive teaching towards one of the family values of the day that it was – anti- patriarchy, male domination. It was spoken only to the men, because only men could get a divorce by the laws, not women. Jesus’ words radically subverted the traditional, male dominated family of his day, Men were the only important figures in the family, Women existed only to bear and raise children. Children were not worth much at all, except male children if they grew up to be income providers. Children were merely potential human beings.
The traditional family of Jesus’ day had a false stability based on oppressing others. That meant it was inherently unstable.
Jesus attempted to plant the seeds for the eventual destruction of the traditional family of his day, the patriarchal family found throughout the Roman Empire. He set in motion the idea of a family of equals, a democracy.
Here is the point of this brief study of the Bible today: Every time Jesus talked about the family of his day, he attacked it! He insisted it must change to conform to higher values. Jesus said their Stage two traditional family was not the way it was meant to be.
Longing for the good old days
The conservative religious leaders’ answer to Jesus was to keep the family in Stage Two. That’s the answer many give today, too — longing for the way they believe it used to be. If we could just recapture State Two, traditional family values, all would be well. Of course, if the way it used to be was so great, why didn’t it keep the current crisis from happening? If Stage Two had worked so wonderfully well, then we wouldn’t be in this time of upheaval!
To some it’s been looking as if the family today is moving back into the uncivilized state of Stage One. The doom and gloom scare tactics of some warn of this. I think they are very wrong. This is what I believe has been happening today.
It really is a time of great upheaval, change, chaos, and crisis. On that we all agree. However, do you remember what stage that describes?
Stage Three! That’s where the family is now. Stage Three is Tradition Questioned, questioning the direction from others in the past because they don’t bring life in our world today for everyone.
I believe that the current family crisis can lead to a new vision of family. It is a great opportunity for religious communities to offer the world family, love and stability, and to take the lead in the new family Jesus’ envisioned back then, and the universe seems to be creating.
Change is costly
Deep change, moving from one paradigm to another, has always been a period of chaotic and costly crisis.
In this land over two hundred years ago we decided to risk it all to move from domination by England and the king to democracy. The revolution was a chaotic and costly time. But would we want to turn back the clock now to the days of English rule? I am grateful for those who paid the price for our freedom in the hope of democracy.
Then we tackled bringing democracy to more people in our country by recognizing the equal rights of people of color. This was, and continues to be, a chaotic and costly change, But would we want to turn back the clock to the days of slavery? Of course not! We are grateful to those who have paid the price.
When our country moved into democracy over two hundred years ago, we also left out the family. It was still patriarchal, male-dominated – not democratic. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were literally about men and men only when they wrote about the right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Women couldn’t even vote.
Only now is the family beginning to become a democracy between two equal human beings. Family life as a cooperative venture between equals is impossible except where women are esteemed as highly as men.
We are witnessing the death of the male-dominated society. The current “crisis” in the family is really a sign of transformation, not the collapse of civilization as we know it. It is the invasion of democracy into the family. It is a chaotic, costly time at work, at home, and in our religious institutions. The question for us remains: Are we willing to pay the price of that today?
Stage Four: Tradition Redeemed!
If we are, then we will enter the Promised Land, Stage Four.
Stage Four is the inner-directed stage of mature adulthood. It is Tradition Redeemed! Here we have taken the best parts of the traditional family and rejected the worst parts, and in doing so we have expanded family to include new families. It is created and sustained by inner-directed persons who follow the Spirit’s guidance through these difficult times. Its goal is the Stage Four family so that everyone can be a part of lasting love. Then we can bring true stability with justice and peace.
The answer to stronger families is not to define everyone out of family who doesn’t fit into the traditional mold, but to include all kinds of families, and to promote family stability. Where there is unconditional love, there is family.
All the answers are not in yet, but they are coming. Those of us committed to love in a world of fear know that the way is love, just as it was for the Jesus of the Gospels. The call to our institutions, therefore, is to be the spiritual family that is radically pro-family for all those who walk in our doors. While we move through stage three recovery, and into State Four, here are ten of the kinds of families we need to include and support.
1. Let’s love and support so-called traditional families that come our way, Let’s work hard to encourage them so they might avoid the terrible price and effects of confusion, violence and divorce. Let’s provide training in communication and parenting. Let’s continue to welcome and value children.
2. Let’s support family for divorced people who walk in our doors. There are so many who still expect churches to reject them. They are expecting people to think: You blew your chance to have family – no family for you now. Thankfully, many churches had moved beyond this stage.
3. We need family support for the blended families we have been given. They face a great challenge.
4. We need support for single moms and dads. They desperately need lots of uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters in our religious institution to hover around them in love and care. Children need the attention and care of more than one adult. They need to see the people in this place as their extended family, The old African saying is absolutely right: “It takes a village to raise a child.”
5. We need support for interracial families. Up until 1967 in Virginia, same-race restriction clauses in the law prevented interracial marriage from being recognized and legal. The reasons given then were familiar — spurious references to a few Biblical passages to support that kind of bigotry. How we are reminded of love overcoming all obstacles by interracial couples.
6. We need to support the lesbian and gay families that the Divine gives us. Remember, patriarchy is intrinsically homophobic. I find it incredible that otherwise intelligent people in our culture would actually believe that denying marriage to lesbian and gay people will somehow keep their marriages strong. Just how is it that telling our gay friends that they cannot be family together will make heterosexual marriages any better?
If two women or two men love each other and want to commit themselves to one another in a caring, covenant, partnership for life, how can we not bless and support that. Gay men and lesbians deserve family just like straight people.
7. The singles among us need to have families. Spiritual friends will be moms and dads, brothers and sisters, and close friends to share deeply in life together, Every single person needs a family of those who care.
8. Those who are not able-bodied need family. Being accessible means more than having a ramp into a building.
9. The elderly among us need family.
10. Those with AIDS or any other chronic disease need people to brave their fears and be family.
And certainly there are more categories.
Jesus’ teaching about the family was a warning, especially to the Church to never put any tradition or structure, no matter how sacred beyond reach. If we are to take anything from the teachings of Jesus, we must be willing to change anything and everything, including our idea of family, to be people of Spirit and love.
The cry for “traditional family values” today does not sound to me like a plea for the preservation of love, mutuality, respect and caring in the family, but the preservation of the patriarchal values of male domination. Over two thousand years ago, the ethic of Jesus’ vision already called for equality, not hierarchy, inclusively not exclusivity in our family life.
So, I hope this is a real family congregation of people, a family of choice, the kind of gathering Jesus would attend. It’s a family congregation for all kinds of families. Family, after all, is too important to let James Dobson define it. Jesus’ did a better job.
So, Jesus back then was not opposed to family. He was opposed to absolutely any definition of family that avoids the values of love that he lived and taught. And that’s quite a model for all of us.
When I hear that some church is a family-oriented church, I know exactly what that means. It means that the only real family they affirm is young, white, middle class, heterosexual, married couples with kids – where men are in charge of the church!
My hope is that your congregation is known as a family for all families – a different kind of family reunion.
Wherever there is unconditional love, there is family.
*I owe Rev. Paul Smith much credit for the ideas and inspirations for this sermon.