Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Traditional" Family and the Bible: Snapshots from Recent Discussions of the Topic

Matthew 12: 46-48

In her recent book, How the West Really Lost God, Mary Eberstadt argues that the decline of the traditional family has led to the secularization of the West, rather than vice versa as many sociological theories propose. Robert Hunt disagrees.

He notes that Eberstadt's book almost totally ignores what theologians have to say on the topic of family and what constitutes family, and that she uses as "her implicit touchstone for authentic Christianity" Pope Benedict XVI's notion of traditional family and how the decline of the traditional model of family has, the emeritus pope maintains, led to the decline of religion in the West.

Hunt's brilliant counter, as a theologian, to Eberstadt's thesis: 

It is hardly surprising that the biological family is a key assumption of both Jewish and Christian scripture. Yet scripture also understands that the family can also be a broken and even oppressive institution. The most memorable families in the Bible are the most dysfunctional. Indeed, with the exception of Ruth and Boaz all the families in the Bible are dysfunctional. Even Jesus was raised by his stepfather. 
It is precisely in God’s care of the widow, the orphan, the childless, the outcast, the adulterer, the prostitute, and even the murderer that God’s full nature as lover and redeemer of the world are revealed. Thus it is these for whom care is demanded by scriptural ethics, and these are among the first gathered into the family of those who call God father and Christ brother. Only God’s love for all these broken and incomplete families rescues the common trinitarian symbolism from itself being exclusive and oppressive. It isn’t the family that brings (or pace Eberstadt fails to bring) these refugees from the family to God, it is God that makes family a possibility even for them.

The apotheosizing of "traditional" biological family, particularly in its middle-class Western form, and the equation of the gospel message with such deification of the middle-class Western idea of family, run directly counter to significant strands of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in other words. These strands emphasize that family must potentially include everyone, if the concept is to mean something unambiguously redemptive.

And it must, in particular, include the cast-off, the dispossessed, the widow and orphan and eunuch. The love modeled by the trinitarian God does not huddle within the circle of its own tightly guarded familial relationships, jealously defending its prerogatives and claiming to be under assault, as the "traditional" "Christian" family does all too frequently today.

It divests itself, pours itself out, and draws into the circle of its love those who have been excluded from love.

Here's Frank Strong insightfully applying similar analysis to the arguments of the anti-marriage equality movement:

I wonder if some day in the future, when we're looking back at the wreckage of the anti-equality movement, we'll reckon their decision to emphasize "family" as a fatal misstep. Lord knows that all of their talk about the good of the children has backfired: judges from Justice Kennedy in Windsor to Judge Carlos Lucero on the 10th Circuit have pointed out that truly caring about children means making sure that everyone raising them has access to marriage. After all, if you insist that having married parents offers essential protection to children, then it's morally suspect to deny that protection to children being raised by gay couples.  
But, in a larger sense, by talking about "family," NOM & friends have pointed right at the inhumanity, the anti-Christianity, of their own arguments. It’s one thing to say "marriage is between a man and a woman" to people who have never thought otherwise. It’s something else entirely to tell people that a couple that has been together for thirty or forty years is not family, that they’re just friends, that they’re “playing house.” That kind of argument is destined to be rejected.

(I'm indebted to Andrew Sullivan for the link to Frank Hunt's response to Mary Eberstadt.)

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