“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For 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 one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
–Matthew 10: 34-39 (NRSV translation)
When I had just one child, still determined to be the perfect mother, I had this idea for a Family Rule Book. I also wanted a Family Creed, but that idea died even more quickly than the Family Rule Book. I wanted everyone to contribute to this book. Adam, my firstborn, not yet age 4, was puzzled. I believe his logic was something like, why would I want to make rules that I have to follow?
Still I persisted. I suggested things like: In this family, we love one another. We forgive one another. We help one another. We either finish the ice cream or leave a reasonable amount for the next person.
Adam, however, was not thinking about matters of such magnitude. At the time, he was learning the fine art of getting himself dressed. Which might explain why, when pressed, his contribution to The Family Rule Book was:
Never, ever put your head through the armhole.
The Family Rule book never really caught on, but it turns out I wasn’t that far off with the concept: I wanted to clarify that we had shared values and general agreement about how we would treat one another.
I listened to a lecture entitled: Communicating Across Political Divides, hosted by No Space for Hate. Before the lecture, we were encouraged to take a quiz that would reveal to us the weight we placed on differing categories of morality as described in Moral Foundations Theory. The categories are:
- Care vs. Harm
- Fairness vs. Cheating
- Loyalty vs. Betrayal
- Authority vs. Subversion
- Purity (or Sanctity) vs. Degradation
- Liberty (or Freedom) vs. Oppression
When I engage in conversation, particularly with someone who does not view the world the same way as I do, politically or otherwise, chances are that we both come to the conversation standing on different moral foundations. For example, if you have a conversation with someone whose primary moral value is freedom, while yours is care for creation and people, you can see how they might be more invested in owning a firearm because it represents to them the freedom to protect themselves and their family. In the same way, you might be more invested in seeing people, including the person to whom you are speaking, not owning a firearm, because you are invested in seeing a reduction in the incidents of school shootings and other random acts of violence in which a firearm in the wrong hands was a variable.
Sidebar: This post is not about the gun debate. I only use that as an illustration of how the moral foundations on which we stand complicate our ability to talk across divides of all kinds, including political ones.
I think what I was trying to get to with my Family Rulebook idea, was to articulate in a way that a four-year-old might grasp, the moral foundations I hoped for our family.
I have a friend whose child routinely was sent away from groups of children who were playing outside in the neighborhood. When she asked the parent of one host home why she allowed such hurtful expulsion from the group, the parent told her: “the kids don’t want to play with him. He makes them uncomfortable. They think he’s a faggot. And I’m not going to force them to play with anyone who makes them uncomfortable.”
Suffice to say that boy wasn’t a faggot, especially because a faggot is nothing more than a slur meant to shame and torment someone. As the character Juan, in the movie Moonlight, so eloquently put it: “Faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.”
The boy isn’t a faggot; neither is he gay. He does however have a high-functioning form of autism—something we now call Asperger Syndrome. And that did make him sufficiently quirky to be excluded by children over and over again, with the blessing of their parents.
I was reminded recently of a mother who was distressed because her 13-year-old said he hated her. If you’ve ever had your child say this, you can relate to how troubling it can be. It is a bit less concerning, when you hear that many parents have heard some variation of this from at least one child. Part of the reason that teens often say this is that they are striving to separate from their parents, and their first attempts to do so can be impulsive and hurtful.
Still, one reason that some parents find the inevitable separation that children seek as a threat is because they want to keep their children close. They want to protect them.
In fact, there are some who think that one way to protect children–to extend the love and security a family offers– is to see that those children are protected by the love and security of ‘Good Churches.’ Unfortunately, what is meant by a ‘Good Church’ is often at odds with Jesus’ values of inclusion, love of neighbor, and hospitality that is extended to all. In fact, many people also use the term, Family Values, in a narrow way to describe a specific kind of family, one that has a father and a mother, of the same race, two or more children, (and perhaps a well-behaved dog on a leash.)
In today’s world, few families look like that. Today, a family might have two mothers or two fathers or one parent. Today’s families include adopted children and multi-racial children. They have grandparents living with them, or friends who are not blood but who are like family.
Unreasonably trying to protect children from the outside world, from people who look or behave differently than their immediate family, is not part of God’s plan – it is a human desire. Churches that have a narrow understanding of who ought to be included or worse yet, who advocate for the exclusion of entire groups of people, are more invested in serving their own need for control than of serving the Creator who made such a diverse creation.
Even if a church extends its definition of family to be one that is more diverse and inclusive, placing the human family on a pedestal is simply not what Jesus would do. A colleague of mine, Rev. Fritz Wendt, explains it this way:
“Since Sigmund Freud revolutionized our understanding of human beings, we know of the potential destructiveness of families. When a family supports injustice, oppression and abuse, the pressure to conform will often cause the members to transmit these “family values” to the next generation. Jesus seems to agree with that skeptical view.
He spoke of the family’s worth as a creation of God, but also made it clear that its importance is not absolute. He told a would-be disciple who wanted to honor his deceased father, “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Luke 9:60). When his own family came to see him, he said, as he looked at the other people standing around, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31–35).
Now consider Jesus’ words in Sunday’s gospel lesson from Matthew. Luke’s version of this passage (Luke 14:26) goes further still: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
How could Jesus (who taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves) be so hard on parents? The answer to that question is hinted at in the story of King Presenjit and the Buddha.
King Presenjit came to the Buddha with a problem: “I would like to become your disciple, but my old mother may feel hurt—she is too old.” When the king was sitting in front of Buddha, one of his disciples (called a sannyasin) came by, touched Buddha’s feet and said, “I am going on a long journey. Bless me, please.” Buddha looked at Presenjit and said, “This man is the answer to your question. He has killed his father and mother both!” King Presenjit was disturbed and thought: How can Buddha entertain a man who killed both his parents? The king said, “You praised that man even though he is a murderer!” Buddha smiled and said, “I mean he killed them metaphorically; what this sannyasin has learned is to kill his clinging and his dependence”.
That’s what Jesus means when he says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” He does not mean that we should literally hate our parents, but that we need to uproot our tendency to cling and attach to what we know in order to become mature, centered, and grounded people. When the disciples argued over who would be the greatest in the kingdom, Jesus placed a small child before them as an answer, to indicate that what matters first is to become like children and recognize our utter dependence upon God.
Because Jesus expects his disciples to give him priority, biological families can’t play first fiddle any more. What Jesus envisions is nothing less than a new social order, an all-encompassing community based on discipleship, rather than biological ties, where people are more valued than possessions, and love for our “natural” kindred gives way to serving everyone around us, even those most unlike us.”[i]
This is good news. Because the truth is, many people come from biological families that are unhealthy. I learned firsthand in one community in which I lived, that hatred of certain groups of people is systematically taught by parents and even teachers. For people to reject deeply ingrained teachings that are not aligned with Jesus’ vision for the world, they often need to detach from the family in which they were raised and the community in which they learned to hate.
For those whose families are relatively healthy and who were not necessarily abused or taught hatred, God’s design is still that they go into the world and live lives of service in communities that can best support the work to which each has been called. That place is rarely in one’s hometown.
As many have learned, there are people who can become your family when the pain inflicted by your family of origin is something you no longer choose to bear because you realize it is hurtful to you and to the world.
There are people who will look out for your children, even when they wander far from home. The separating of children in varying degrees from the families in which they were raised is a plan that offers community far beyond what any of us could’ve imagined as a child. When it is experienced at its best in the church, it is one based on the values given priority by Jesus: values of loving God, neighbor, and self, and the inclusion of all people.
Throughout the month of June, many cities and churches have been celebrating PRIDE. The celebration is marked by parades and rainbow colors and it recognizes the right of LGBTQ people to live unashamed about who God made them to be. LGBTQ folks often know too well what it means to have to form a new community that is not dependent on blood. Many LGBTQ persons have been deeply hurt and rejected by the communities, families, and even the churches in which they were raised.
The damage caused by those who speak of Family Values in a narrow way and misuse God’s word to oppress or abuse LGBTQ folks pains the heart of God. Including LGBTQ people in communities of faith just as they are is one way they can begin to heal from the pain they have experienced.
As a Reconciled In Christ Congregation, we at King of Kings Lutheran are committed to not just welcoming, but fully including LGBTQ people into our congregation. We do this in response to God’s love for us. It is a love that calls us into relationship with one another in all our endless diversity.
I am humbled and grateful to be called to lead a congregation who made the decision to officially be counted as a Reconciled in Christ Church in June of 2014, and for the 740 other ELCA congregations with which we share this commitment, as well as numerous other denominations and religious bodies who are committed to full inclusion. I look forward to having the more than 400 congregations currently making this transition added to this number. I stand in awe at the transforming power of the Holy Spirit who continues to reconcile us with one another and offer us a vision of family that is not bound or limited by blood, but gathered into one by the grace of God.
And finally, I am grateful that that boy with Asperger’s that I mentioned earlier has grown into a man who found his way into a community in which he is loved, valued, and included — quirks and all.
To God be the glory.
[i] The Politics of a New ‘Family Values’, Fritz Wendt, Political Theology Today. http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-a-new-family-values-matthew-1024-39-fritz-wendt/