Monday, October 30, 2006

Sermon: "The Idolatry of the Family" (Delivered 10-22-06)

I bet that when you got an email this week announcing that I would be preaching against family values you wondered what exactly I could be thinking. So, I brought a couple of props with me this morning that I want to use to frame what I will be trying to explain.

The props are both books written by Senators who are up for re-election in just a couple of weeks. The first book came out in 1996 and was written by now New York Senator ( then First Lady) Hillary Rodham Clinton. The book is called It Takes a Village and deals primarily with public policy that affects the lives and welfare of children. Clinton’s book quotes people like Marian Wright Edelman and the back cover of the dust jacket shows a photograph of Clinton surrounded by a racially diverse group of children. The second book came out in 2005 and was written by Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum who is currently trailing by double-digit percentage points in his bid for re-election. The title of his book is an obvious take off on Clinton’s book; his title is, It Takes a Family. Santorum explores what he considers to be the major threat posed to families, namely liberalism. Santorum’s book quotes people like James Dobson and the dust jacket contains artistic renderings of an Asian family and an African-American family.

So, the question I put before you is this: Does it take a family or a village? Now, I know that’s not really a fair question. But it is a question that I hope to use to frame our exploration this morning.

But before I come back to this question, I want to say something about the “family values” discourse that exists in our culture. As far as religion often plays a role in that discourse, I want to explore family values from a religious perspective as well.

Family values, religious values, values voters… this language is nothing new. Indeed, it is often politicized language, coming in to play especially during election seasons. It is my thesis this morning that the concept of the family has not only been made into a political tool, but also into a religious idol, an idolatry of the family. I’ll explain what I mean by that term a little later.

It is normal to hear in this discourse that “families are under attack.” But what exactly is attacking them? If you ask someone like Santorum, who is a conservative Catholic, or James Dobson, who is the head of Focus on the Family, they would tell you that families are afflicted by the consequences of decades of liberal social and economic experiments which have led to relativism, permissiveness, and irresponsibility. (I’m not making this up. That’s their thesis.) If you ask someone like Clinton what families are threatened by, she might say that families are threatened by poverty and inequalities in access to health care, education, and other services.

What I am describing in some sense are the “culture wars.” For example, each side would say that the media has a toxic effect on family life. Santorum might say that the media encourages “sexual deviance”, disobedience, and hedonism: our children cannot stand to be exposed to Janet Jackson’s breast, Teletubbies, or Keith Olbermann. The opposite side’s concern with the media tends to be directed at things such as the effects of advertising on children, messages about body image, and the effects of exposure to violent forms of entertainment. When liberals, or conservatives, or whomever, declare that families are under attack they are often talking about different things.

I bet that what you are expecting me to do is to grapple with what those different things are and separate the wheat from the chaff, the gold from the dross, and the legitimate threats and true family values from those false threats that are not legitimate, but hysterical and ignorant, and those false values that are not holy, but ill. But I am not going to spend all morning dissecting the culture wars. (Although this would be worthy of a sermon all its own.) Nor do I plan to spend a lot more time getting inside these worldviews, critiquing them, and showing why they do or do not work.

Suffice it to say that “Family Values” is a term that means different things to different people. It is a term that usually signifies conservative religious positions. But it is also a term that religious liberals have attempted to reframe and reclaim. Consider the bumper sticker available from the UUA which proclaims, “We are all family & We all have value.” Or the bumper sticker that reads, “Hate is not a family value.”

In 2002, Bill Doherty, a Unitarian Universalist family activist co-wrote a book entitled, Putting Family First. Doherty is a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. In this book, the authors write, “Today’s families are sorely lacking time for spontaneous fun and enjoyment, for talking over the day’s events and experiences, for unhurried meals, for quiet, bedtime talks, for working together on projects, for teaching and learning life skills such as cooking and gardening, for visiting extended family and friends, for attending religious services together, for participating together in community projects, and for exploring the beauty of nature. Not enough time to be a family with a rich internal and external life…. A rich family life alone is not enough … because we need strong neighborhoods, schools, communities of values and beliefs, governments, nations, and a cooperative international community. But none of these, alone or together, can substitute for family life.”

Religious liberals have tried to play the family values game. Putting family first. If you drive down to 143rd Street you’ll find someone who claims to put families first. His name is Jerry Johnston and he pastors the extremely conservative First Family Church. Their church insignia features a stylized picture of a family holding hands. The family is a father and mother, son and daughter – and “very white looking” according to a friend of mine who is a person of color who serves a different church in the same part of town. “Plus,” she says, “as a single person, I always feel excluded driving by that church.” “You’re not the only one excluded,” I quipped back, “exclusiveness is central to their entire theology.”

I then go on to comment to her that “First Family Church” is a funny name for a church because we know what happened to the first family in the Bible: They got expelled from the garden, then Cain killed Abel, and somebody had to be sleeping with mom.

For that matter, the entire Bible is not much help in suggesting positive images of family life. Just about every family in the Hebrew Bible is profoundly dysfunctional, often criminally so. We are in deep trouble if we look to families in the Bible as role-models. (Fortunately, that is not how it is meant to be interpreted. Most characters in the Bible, like characters in Greek dramas, are there for warning, not there imitation.) And why limit ourselves to the Hebrew Bible, with Cain killing Abel, and Abraham trying to sacrifice Isaac, and Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing? The Christian Scriptures exemplify no better family values. In Matthew 10:37 Jesus announces, “Whoever loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me.” “Who are my mothers and brothers?” Jesus asks dismissively in Mark 3:33. Luke 12:53 has Jesus stating, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace?… No I have come to bring division: father against son, son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter- in-law against mother-in-law.” And then there is this zinger found in Luke 14:26, “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.”

I want to bring us back to the question, does it take a family or a village? Yes, it is a false dichotomy, a false duality. But, actually, the Bible more strongly emphasizes the village side of things. Biblical theologian Paul Hanson interprets the Bible as a continuous revelation that challenges narrowness and exclusivity in human groups – a family becomes more inclusive to become a tribe, a tribe becomes more inclusive and becomes a people, a people become more inclusive and become a nation, a nation discovers a moral obligation to other nations. According to Prof. Hanson, the Bible should be read as a chronicle of the idea that we require greater inclusiveness.

This is not to say that families don’t face difficulties. If I asked you about difficulties you encounter, the responses might include: geographical dispersion (having family live at great distance); economic factors (the pressures of finance on family); balancing work; balancing all the demands on family from school, sports, and other activities; communication; and reconciling political, religious, and other differences.

But, there are other people who would say that while the family faces hardship, we should not forget that the “village” struggles as well. Several years ago Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone about the decline of civic organizations such as bowling leagues. More recently, a non-partisan organization called the Institute for American Values released a report authored by a group of thirty-three leading psychologists, neuroscientists, and social scientists. The report, titled, “Hardwired to Connect” found that American children suffer from a lack of “connectedness” both in terms of close connections to other people and feeling connected to “moral and spiritual meaning.” The report finds that, “In recent decades the US social institutions that foster these types of connectedness for children have gotten significantly weaker.” This is a problem because human beings and children are hardwired to connect and, the researchers argue, a lack of an outlet for connection leads to antisocial behavior and mental health issues.

The report goes on to recommend the creation of what it terms “authoritative communities” which it defines as, “groups that live out the types of connectedness that our children increasingly lack. They are groups of people who are committed to one another over [extended periods] of time, and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.” So, what title did the Wall Street Journal select when it wrote about this report? “It takes a village.”

Does it take a village or does it take a family? Clearly, the literal answer is that it takes both. But, on another level, what research like the “Hardwired to Connect” report and Bowling Alone make clear is that we should be very, very suspicious of any discourse that puts families first in the sense either of constructing family as a discreet entity uniquely under-siege or of imagining the family as all-powerful unto itself.

I hope you don’t feel that this argument that I have constructed so far is convoluted or confusing. It is kind of a subtle and ambitious argument: That, in fact, the popular discourse about family values has had the unintended effect of narrowing our minds, of causing us to forget the proverbial village, to neglect authoritative communities and chosen communities.

The definition of idolatry is taking the partial as the whole, confusing the partial with the whole. And so the title of my sermon this morning really refers to the putting-of-all-eggs-in-one-basket, lifting up this idea of family as some be all- end all salvation unto itself. Such a discourse of family values actually constitutes an idolatry of the family.

And please don’t go away saying, “Well, Thom was really disparaging to families this morning.” Or “Thom said families don’t matter.” Because that is absolutely not what I am saying. What I am saying is that the way we’ve constructed a discourse about family is too narrow, that it takes a village and a family. The fact that it takes both and perhaps even more is not an insult to the family.

In this disperse nation… in our hectic society… in this context where public space and civic organizations have often eroded, bought up by corporate entertainment… in this era of corporate religion… this church, our church, represents one of the last, best vestiges of an authoritative community, and one that is not an authoritarian community. It is so important that we are here for each other and, increasingly, for more than just ourselves. So we try to be a “group that lives out the types of connectedness that our society increasingly lacks, a group of people who are committed to one another over [extended periods] of time, and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.” Amen.

One of the best resources available on UU Family Values is the blog of Rev. Phil Lund, Lifespan Religious Education consultant for the Prairie Star District of the UUA. Browse his archives.

This sermon was the 150th I've preached!