When I was a pastor I visited one home which had the normal number of windows, open to the sun during the daytime; but remembering my visits I recall the place as dark and cavernous. I think I know why: the family was a mess, with madness, resentment, sexual confusion, mutual recriminations, and a constant anger seething below the surface, all part of an awful mix. Even full of sunlight, it was a dark place.
There was another home I visited, one in which the husband, wife, and daughters lived in such loving accord that I felt blessed being there. They lived in a tiny, crowded apartment, and it was radiant.
I thought of both places when the phrase “family values” came up once again in the context of the fight against state recognition of same-sex unions, which have unfairly been seen as a grave threat to the family. Simply given the numbers, divorce would seem to be a much greater threat (if indeed same-sex unions pose any threat to the family at all, something that remains to be demonstrated); but before we get even to that place in the argument, let’s ask some questions about the thing we’ve put on the pedestal.
Most of us will find our way to salvation, or for that matter to damnation, from within the context of a family. Even celibates are formed in large part by their relationship with parents and siblings; married people live with their partners, well or badly, and do a more or less decent job of raising their children.
We all know what a mixed endeavor family is. There are corners in every family, even happy ones, where you can find depression and chemical dependencies; in unhappy families, cruelty and control reign. The family, like anything human, exists in a wounded world, and shares to a greater or lesser extent in its woundedness.
Yet we have the talk of family as a kind of Eden, the place within which we would all be free and happy, if only it were not threatened from without by some invading worm-gay marriage, divorce, bad television programming, fragmented meal schedules, over-busy parents and children... It is true that there are many pressures on families, and some are indeed deplorable, but many of the dangers lie within family life itself. The freedom in many homes is very often the freedom to speak abusively to mates, children, siblings, or parents in ways we would never speak to friends or fellow workers. There is in many homes a level of malice that can range from teasing to torment, and this isn’t the result of any contemporary cultural failing. As Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, we are eager to locate evil in the other, but the line between good and evil runs through each of our hearts.
Even in good homes there is at some level a psychological pressure that is much like the Stockholm Syndrome-the phenomenon in which captives begin to identify with and even defend the values of their captors. After all, children are smaller and weaker than the adults who demand things of them, tell them what they should consider good and bad, important and unimportant. For a lengthy portion of their lives they will go along with what they are told, in large part because they must. Later there may be some rebellion, but it is natural for parents to want their children to do what seems right to the parents, and to share their beliefs. There is no way around this, except for total parental neglect, but it is not an uncomplicated-or always beneficent-process.
Families and family life itself can become idols. This is clear from Jesus’ own views of family, which were hardly reverential: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household” (Matt 10:35-36). Those who do the will of the Father are Jesus’ mother, brother, and sister. Family and marriage were clearly important to Jesus-his teaching on marriage is quite strict, and his compassion for children apparent. Some things matter more than family, however, and when family becomes an obstacle, an idol, it must be rejected.
If some families are havens of peace and love it is because the people in them, parents and children, have learned to love and to forgive. This can be communicated by parents to children. But there are striking phenomena that show a grace beyond the family at work-children, for example, who learn to forgive abusive parents, and work hard to break the cycle of abuse. That the family can be holy is seen in our central Christian metaphors: God as father, Mary as the mother of the Lord, Jesus the first of many brothers and sisters. Yet that families can also breed sorrow and even evil-from within, not because the culture made them do it-is all too apparent, and we can see the effects all around us.