This summer I’ve been reading a lot of eclectic stuff: fiction, poetry, police procedurals, even theology. One of the books I’m reading is a biography of a singer/songwriter I have long admired who self-destructed early and died relatively young. As you can imagine, this man’s children bear many of the scars left by their father’s behavior. As one of his children says, “As a father he had a lot of unforgivable shortcomings that can’t be excused by his music.”
I’m always faintly amused when I hear Christian preachers waxing eloquent about the virtues of the nuclear family. While it’s true that images of the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) tend to dominate our celebrations of Christmas, the rest of the biblical tradition is fairly skeptical about the pleasures of family life. Think of the Old Testament: Cain kills his brother Abel, Jacob steals the birthright from his brother Esau, Joseph’s eleven brothers sell him into slavery. And that’s just the book of Genesis. As the Hebrew Bible unfolds we read tales of consistent squabbling both within and between generations. Taken as a whole, reading the Bible is like attending a really dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner, one where the kids at that separate table are fighting over more than who gets the cranberry sauce.
I used to teach English for a living, and as a life-long reader of both serious and light literature, I can attest that most of the world’s fiction, drama, and poetry also depict the nuclear family as the setting as much for conflict and enmity as for support and love. If you’re tempted to counter the Bible with examples from literature, just think of Oedipus Rex or Hamlet or King Lear or any Jane Austen novel or Tennessee Williams play before you get all gooey about the joys of nuclear family life. The world’s authors, like the Bible’s writers, see the family for what it is: a complex arena in which human desires and drives get acted out.
Granted, the family is a complex arena. It’s also the structure we have developed for nurture, mutual support, and the sharing of love and resources. It can be a transforming place. But like all systems involving real people, the family contains all the contradictions of what it means to be human.
Now this is an important issue for Christians, because one of the default metaphors we use for the church is to call it a family. But just as our cultural celebrations of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can be painful for those whose parents were abusive or absent or self-involved, so the church consistently calling itself a family can present an image more scary than welcoming to those who come toward us. I don’t want the church to be my family. I’ve got a family. I want the church to be a community. We enter our family of origin without being consulted. We enter a community of our own free will.
While the family is not a good metaphor to describe the church, it is a very apt comparison for the nation. You are born into your country, just as you are born into your family. Like members of a family, citizens of a nation help each other in times of crisis; and like relatives, compatriots can squabble with each other over silly, pointless things.
As the news of the week has developed, all of us have been shocked and saddened by the unfolding events in Egypt. Violence in that country seems to be omni-directional: the military against the Islamists, the Islamists against the Christians, the liberal secularists running for cover. As I have watched the Egypt story unfold I have been reminded of times in our own history—the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, Jim Crow laws, the various Red Scares—when we have turned on each other with equal enmity and vitriol. There are times when a nation comes together in mutual support and encouragement. There are times when a nation turns on itself in fear and rage. Both things can be true at once. Again: just like a family.
As much as we like to portray Jesus as a cozy kind of nuclear family guy, the scriptural evidence suggests otherwise. Though we know the adult Jesus gathered a community around himself, we have no suggestion in the Bible that he had any kind of family life after his childhood with Mary and Joseph. And he really wasn’t much of a patriot either: he gave his allegiance neither to Caesar nor to Herod but to the one he called his Father. Since Jesus used neither the family nor the nation as his primary identification, we should not be surprised when, in today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus tells us that he has come to bring not peace but division:
From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus goes on to add, “one’s foes will be members of his own household.” [Matthew 10: 36] Not, to my mind, something you’ll ever see on a greeting card or a party platform.
In Robert Frost’s poem “The Death of the Hired Man”, the husband and wife Warren and Mary argue about the definition of “home”. Warren famously defines home as
‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’
Mary counters with this less well-known response:
‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’
The idea of home—family home, national home—brings with it both obligations and rights. As family members, as citizens, we need the sharpness of Jesus’s vision to help us see our families and our nations clearly. Where and to whom do we finally belong? We ask our families and our country to carry burdens of meaning that are finally too much for them to bear. If we make our household or our nation into our ultimate good, we will be disappointed when people act the way people always do—out of a variety of motivations and needs. In his critique of the family, Jesus is directing our allegiance further, beyond the love and security we experience at home onward to their ultimate source. In calling God his Father, Jesus brings both those roles into a creative tension, a relationship that clarifies our misperceptions of both “Father” and “God”.
Home is both the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. It is also something you haven’t to deserve. You may have grown up in a loving and mutual nuclear family. You may have grown up in a dangerous household. Today you may be in a marriage or relationship that grounds your life and gives it meaning. Or you may be oppressed and abused. But here’s the point: for Christians the household, like the nation, is not the source of our final value. Even as good as it can be, the love you experience at home points beyond itself to something more. And as bad as it can be, family tension is not all there is.
I love my family. I love my country. But neither my family nor my country can bear the weight of signifying life’s ultimate meaning. They are vehicles of that meaning, but they are not the thing itself. Neither, for that matter, is the church. I experience God in them, but they are not God. And the longer I live into the distinction, the more deeply I love them for what they actually are.
Family and nation are givens in human life, but Jesus offers us one thing more: a community like the one he gathered with his companions. In Jesus’s terms, you get through life by making common cause with others as you gather around a table where all are both welcome and equal. Families and nations can pull together, just as they can fight over scarce resources. At Jesus’s table there is always enough to go around.
There may be violence in Egypt, strife in our households, and bickering in Congress, but God is up to something that will heal, renew, bless, and forgive us. It all starts at this table, the meal at which we belong together as equals. As you center yourself at this table, you will come to see and accept yourself, your household, your nation as God means you to see and accept them: as vehicles of God’s meaning and purpose and grace. There is someone behind and before all this whose love and care will always surprise but will never disappoint us. It is in that one’s name we gather, in that one’s cause we go forth to love and serve our households, our nation, and the world. Amen.