Family Values

I’ll post the next Sunday Paper Editorial in a few days. In the mean time, like so many others, I feel called to respond to the “Nashville Statement.” Not because I have any profound disagreements with the many other gracious and thoughtful responses out there, but because I feel my peculiar take on these issues of scriptural interpretation and enculturation may, perhaps, add something to the conversation. 

This is a piece I wrote over ten years ago.  I have made only the most minimal revisions to it. The lead-in connects it with the issue of children’s ministries, which is always my first concern.


Mark, Chapter 10, strikes to the heart of the “family values” debate that is tearing apart our civil society and our churches. Asked his opinion of divorce, Jesus reminds us of God’s design in creation: we are made male and female in the image of God. We are to form lifelong bonds of love. And in the next paragraph, Mark describes Jesus welcoming and blessing children.

In the patriarchal culture in which Jesus lived, divorce could be initiated only by the husband, and it left the wife without status, social protection, or economic support. This grave injustice toward women, Jesus points out, reflects “hardness of heart,” and deserves condemnation. In a different culture, the justice equation may compute differently. Most Christians in our culture now believe that there are circumstances where divorce, however sad, is better—more just—than remaining in an abusive relationship or one in which caring and trust have been violated or lost.

What of “God made them male and female”—the issue that now consumes so much ink, and so much time and energy? What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say?

There are honest and wrenching differences of opinion here, as well as much shallow prejudice on both sides, and much cynical manipulation of the issue for the sake of power and political gain, both within the church and within the wider society.

What we do know, if we read the Gospels with an open mind and an open heart, is that Jesus consistently took the part of the powerless, the outcast, the marginalized, the “unclean.” He set far more store on justice than on purity, and more store on love than on justice. We who, in baptism, have turned to him as our savior, put our whole trust in his grace and love, and promised to obey and follow him as our Lord, would do well to bear this well in mind.

Jesus consistently took the part of the powerless, the outcast, the marginalized, the “unclean.” He set far more store on justice than on purity, and more store on love than on justice.

The social structures through which we enact our response to Jesus’ love may change. What does not change is Jesus’ love itself. As I have struggled with my own prejudices and the rapid speed of social change, I’ve tried to come to a nuanced response to this issue, and one that I hope addresses some of the real causes of people’s powerful feelings in ways that have perhaps not been articulated before.

I want to begin with one of the arguments raised a generation ago in the controversy over the ordination of women. It has to do with the fact that most people think in pictures. Everybody knows how hard the media work to exploit this simple fact. Until we have enough pictures in our heads of a new idea or social trend, we are likely to find it alien and threatening. This is, of course, doubly and triply so when the picture involves something so basic and primal as human sexuality or religion—let alone the areas where the two overlap. When all the pictures for “priest” in our heads involved a male figure, the idea of a female priest was felt by many as profoundly bizarre. When the word “marriage” conjures up primarily “wedding,” and “wedding” means “bride and groom”—she, blushing and radiant in gauzy white, he, earnest, serious and proud, if also rather charmingly nervous—then there is no room in our heads for an alternative image.

And we must tread carefully here, because Scripture is a tissue of images. So is liturgy. Our faith is incarnational and sacramental, and depends on the primal power of images to stir our hearts and inspire longing and hope. We should not want to empty language and images of their traditional meanings in order to replace them with images that are less concrete, less highly flavored. We must not lose the language of “Father” and “bride” that, along with so many other ancient, specific and sensory images—garden, desert, city, mountain, fortress, well, king, sword, shield, shepherd, lamb, vineyard, winepress, bread, wine, oil, salt, water, blood—give us a rich and fertile vocabulary for faith, hope, and love.

What we need instead is to be open to allowing our images of our daily life to be changed and augmented even as the ancient archetypes retain their power. So our image of “mother” or “bride” or “priest” must mean much, much more than (say) June Cleaver or the model on the cover of Bride magazine or kindly old Father Fluster. We need to relearn the difference between archetype and cliché. Archetypes are deep and wide and flexible; they bend and stretch and can absorb new elements while bringing their ancient richness to bear on new circumstances. Clichés are thin and shoddy, easily rendered worthless but hard to discard, and ultimately damaging to the flesh and blood realities that try to adopt them or accommodate to them.

We need to travel more widely in time and space to enrich our vocabulary of images. It is a pure shame, for example, when an eight-year-old girl has only an image of Barbie with fairy wings to draw on if she tries to paint a picture of an angel. We need to tell and see and read many more different myths and folk tales and great works of art, to enrich our imaginations and make us more discerning, less provincial and defensive, about our mental images.

We need to travel more widely in time and space to enrich our vocabulary of images. We need to enrich our imaginations and make us more discerning, less provincial and defensive, about our mental images.

And we need to meet and know real individuals from that category of people we still think of as alien and scary. Forty years after the first women priests, most Episcopalians have come to know enough ordained women that their image of “priest” has stretched to include a female figure in a clerical collar or eucharistic robes, and have found that their imaginations are no longer challenged, but rather enriched, by that stretching. Incidentally, they are no longer socially or politically prejudiced against women in the priesthood. We may find that “bride,” “groom,” “husband,” “wife,” “marriage” and “wedding” can stretch in the same way, or we may need to call on new words. But we will, inevitably, come to know committed same-sex couples as neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances, and friends, out of the church if not in it. Our categories for “couple,” “household,” and “family” are going to change, broaden, and become richer and more complex. To think that they will not is an illusion. Even if we managed to insulate the church from such images, they are everywhere in our culture. And, if Jesus places justice above “purity,” and love above all, we are bound to welcome this change.

Like it or not, we live in a post-Freudian, therapeutic culture, that places supremely high value on individual self-realization and self-expression, and that expects individuals to achieve that self-realization and self-expression first and foremost through intimate—that is, typically, sexual—relationships. Such a culture was bound to give rise to the un-closeting of gays and lesbians, who would demand, in the interest of justice, that in such a culture, this form of personal fulfillment be made available to them in a way that does not deny who and what they most deeply felt themselves to be.

We live in a post-Freudian, therapeutic culture, that expects individuals to achieve self-realization and self-expression first and foremost through intimate—sexual—relationships.  In the interest of justice, this form of personal fulfillment must be made available to all in a way that does not deny who they most deeply feel themselves to be.

Scripture speaks of “God’s right hand” and we know what it means. We speak of “left-handed compliments” and we know that gauche and sinister, with their obviously negative meanings, are the French and Latin words for “left.” Our archetype of “right” and “left” is alive and well, and very useful; but we no longer feel threatened by actual left-handed people—about ten percent of the population, approximately the same percentage as LGBTQ folks. We long ago gave up trying to make left-handed children change, to do it “right,” to become “normal” like the rest of us. Perhaps some day we will look back and be able to see that our images for human sexual intimacy have also stretched to include those who are sexually “left-handed;” that we can reject the shallow clichés, and respect the real flesh-and-blood people who actually live with us and interact with us in our actual contemporary culture, without our world of archetypes falling into chaos around us.


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