We can make too much of names. However I have always been puzzled by Christians who have actively promoted caring for close relationships under titles such as Family First without reflection on the name of the group. For can family, or anything else, really be first for Christians? Surely, for Christians, the love of God as found in Jesus Christ should always be first and foremost? Family, like anything else, must not become an idol. Whilst it is at the bedrock of life, it can also become suffocating and confining. Yet, if so, what place should family have in our lives and world? Such questions take us to the heart of many of the most profound, precious and painful personal issues of our time. These are issues which certainly lie heavily on our hearts and minds and which we need to address prayerfully and tenderly. What can we then say and do to make a positive difference, bringing some light to often over-heated questions?
In our most recent edition of our parish magazine Namalata, we sought to offer a few reflections on different aspects of family, without pretending that it has any simple or complete answers to the complexity of our human relationships. It is tempting to believe we can find easy, straightforward solutions. This is part of the appeal of fundamentalist religion. If only, the claim goes, we stick to a certain set of rules, or go back to an historic ideal which never actually existed, then all our human personal relationships will be sorted. This horribly ignores the reality of human life, with all its differences and struggles for identity. It ignores the heartbreak, courage and mercy in many relationships which do not fit pre-determined norms. Above all, for Christians, it ignores the teaching and practice of Jesus...
It is difficult to find a straightforward set of rules for family in the Gospels. Indeed, rather than being a strong advocate for building up family life as a priority, Jesus is sometimes scandalously provocative. Not only does he deal freely with those whose family morality others might question, but, as in the incident with the woman caught in adultery, he powerfully opposes those moral guardians who come to police and pillory More startlingly still, he sometimes challenges our very ideas of family commitment, especially the idea of family first. The most striking example is probably that in Matthew’s Gospel, 12.47ff:
Someone told Jesus, “Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
What is Jesus saying here, do you think? It is not at all likely that he was rejecting the call to care for his blood-relations! As a Jew, Jesus was deeply grounded in the Hebrew scriptures and Judaism is perhaps the greatest religion of the family. Jesus was not saying we should dispense with the challenges of caring for those closest to us, reflected for example in the repeated commandment to ‘honour your father and mother’. Jesus honoured the wisdom of his Faith, as should we. As in other aspects of his life and teaching, Jesus was however calling us to a more profound approach than conventional religion and morality usually allows.
Some years ago, I was exploring Christian morality with a small group of teenagers preparing for confirmation. We were looking at the Ten Commandments, when suddenly one young female exclaimed gently but very strongly, ‘well, I’m certainly not signing up for those rules.’ It was a surprise, for she was usually very quiet and compliant. ‘Why do you say that?’ we asked. ‘Well’, she said, ‘apart from the fact that, as a female, the 10th commandment is offensive to me - lumping together women with working animals and other possessions as things that men own – that 5th commandment about honouring father and mother is just not on. My father behaved terribly to my mother. He left us when I was very little and has had nothing to do with us ever since. There is no way I’m honouring him for that and for the other things he’s done.’ Uncomfortable though that was to hear, that young female was right to express her feelings like that, wasn’t she? Honour and obedience work both ways and the religious rules of our Bible and Tradition are indeed variously shaped by particular assumptions about men, women and children. Human lives and experiences do not always fit easily into patterns derived even from the greatest of spiritual literature and tradition. This does not at all mean that we should not honour the Bible and Christian Tradition. Rather it means that we should address them much, much, more seriously with all the hopes, dreams, experiences, contexts and complexities of our lives.
Anglicans do not have any special answers to the questions of family life today. Yet we do have an approach to them which honours our Bible and Tradition and our human reason and experience. This allows us to seek for the deeper and broader calling of God in all our close personal relationships. It helps us to seek the love of God and of all our neighbours first, so that divine compassion and mutual honour and care are placed at the heart of our dealings with one another. It does not solve our differences in a simplistic manner but it does offer us a way forward which can honour and engage us all. In doing so, it can assist us in making all our family and personal relationships not idols but icons of the love, mercy and grace of God.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.