I am a man of split worlds. On the one hand, I can seem deeply conservative at times in that I have a high value for family and traditions. However, at other times, I may appear to be more progressive to others, as many of the tools of social critique used by the left I am also familiar with and can use on occasion, albeit with more care and caution than those on the left often endorse. One of the areas in which the “split” becomes evident is in my view of the family.
I am pro-family, but not necessarily in the way that the religious right tends to be “pro-family.” To be clear, I do think the home with a married man and woman presents the best, most flexible and stable social arrangement for children to healthily grow up in, all other things being equal. This isn’t become of some idolization of the “nuclear family” as much as it is that type of arrangement provides the potential for the widest array of positive emotional social interactions (PESI) that other arrangements are not usually as fit to provide. This isn’t to say that other arrangements are unhealthy or bad, but only that they present unique challenges to rearing children.
However, at the heart of my reason for being pro-family is less so about valorizing the family and more so targeting what I think to be the biggest culprit in the problems that people face in their life: society. There has been a deep, persistent bias that has tarnished our view of the family: that the wounds of adults were the responsibility of their parents. Now, to be clear, there are many terribly abusive parents out there; we should never valorize the family in a way that diminish or silences these stories. There are also relationships between parents and children where some strong desire of the child may not have been met by their parents.
However, I would put forward that parents have often served as an easy scapegoat for blaming the emotional ills and problems that people have, when there is in fact a greater cause of social harm: society and culture. While parents are the single most likely perpetrator of long-term harm on people, that is because we have more emotionally significant social interactions, positive or negative, with our parents than any other class of individuals. However, that doesn’t mean we have more emotionally significant social interactions with our parents than all other people combined. We have a host of social interactions with people throughout our life time other than our parents that can influence, for better or for worse.
The nature of most of these non-parental social interactions are largely determined by social scripts we have that direct our interactions with certain type of people. Social scripts for how we relate to people of specific ethnicities, genders, socio-economic statuses, specific personality types, age, etc. are responsible for molding the way people interact with others. Even though these social scripts are highly flexible and do not constrain any individual social interaction, these scripts have a pervasive impact in small and subtle ways over the course of many social interactions. Furthermore, since most of our social scripts are influenced by fears about different types of people, those people who have social statuses that are considered more dangerous are the repeatedly the recipients of negative social interactions. People of less privilege and status are persistently the recipients of negatively significant emotional social interactions.
I have found that it is often my fellow white people who are apt to talk about parental wounds, whereas other ethnicities like African Americans are less apt to talk about parent wounds and more to talk about the evils of discrimination. This is because white people as a group are less aware of the the impacts of negative social interactions, because we have fewer of them; our whiteness has shielded us from them. To be sure, some of us have been the recipients of negative social interactions for other reasons. Having been somewhat socially shy, emotionally sensitive, and overweight child lead to a lot of bullying for my in grade school and middle school. Having developed a sense of a non-aggressive honesty (that is, I will speak my mind and present my case but I don’t berate you simply for thinking differently) popular late in my college years and afterwards, rather than the more smooth-talking style that readily makes people have higher popularity and status, made me a target by aggressive people who did not appreciate my approach. Being white does not immunize ourselves from negative social interactions. However, because most white people as a whole have a positive social status, we have often been unaware of the influence of society on people’s pains and ills. Rather, we have focused more so the most important relationship with personal knowledge of individuals rather than social status has a more profound impact of our social interactions: our families.
Furthermore, it is easy to blame families for our ills because (a) we don’t have as much control over a faceless society than we do our relationships with our parents and (b) blaming society means those of us who have more influence having to risk implicating ourselves in the problem, even if it is only indirect.
Again, parents are a common source of problems for many people, especially in the case of abusive fathers and mothers. However, it has been a pastime of American society to blame the parents for things that are not really the fault of parents. For instance, it was once thought that schizophrenia could be blamed on bad mothers, when in fact schizophrenia is primarily genetic in its origins.
I am pro-family because I think families have gotten a consistently bad rap in American society. Their portrayal in the media and television only exacerbates the problem as people who are foolish, get in the way of their children, etc. Part of this is because adolescence is about differentiating oneself from one’s parents and media companies are apt to try to grab the attention of the younger generations. However, I would suggest the more pervasive problem is our ignorance at just how emotionally harmful a society can be.
This is however, where the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ comes. Unfortunately, the way the religious right has treated the Gospel as a carrier of family values has largely muted the thrust of the message of the Gospel, while also diminishing the reality of parent abuse. However, the story of Jesus is the story of how God has and continues to overturn the injustice of the wider world that God’s people inhabit and live among as sojourners. The Gospel is the story of how God is victorious over the evils of society, both by redeeming people from the way of life of society and by making the present way of life pass away in the emergence of new creation. The Gospel uses the metaphor of family to describe group of people that live a new way of life as God’s people under the Lordship of Jesus Christ through the transforming power of the Spirit, where love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control abide through the transformation of the community.1 The Gospel begins to transform the social scripts that we use in interacting with other people, so that we can cease to be part of the problem.
- It is important we don’t see the gifts of the Spirit as individual virtues of isolated individuals, because they can readily get turned into the valorization of people-pleasing that people do no matter what they face, rather than describing what God’s people like are together when the Spirit is transforming them.