Do Family Values Lead to Family Violence?: A consideration of the idea of family

Among Christian conservative groups, the idea of family is considered both sacred and fixed.   It is sacred because it is the most fundamental unit of communal life that God has established for the development and nurture of humanity.   It is fixed because it is not a structure that needs to develop or change.   Change would be a deviation from the divinely decreed and perfect form that God has established for this structure. In this ideal form, a heterosexual man joins with a heterosexual female for a life long commitment where the man is given authority over the woman (the “weaker vessel”) and their children.   Any family structure that does not fit with this template is considered a grave distortion of, or a threat to, God’s ideal.   Singles, single mothers, same-sex relationships, second marriages, non-traditional families are all deviations from God’s ideal portrait of the family.   Moreover, problems that beset our society stem from the deviation from this divinely established structure.  This is not opinion, they argue, this is God’s truth as clearly portrayed in the Bible.But is this so?  

The Gospels portray Jesus as frequently turning away from the very structure of family that conservatives seem to hold as the norm that God (and his Word) have created.   In the Gospel of Luke 18:29 Jesus stated:

No one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and in the age to come, eternal life.

In order to become a follower of Christ, in fact, Jesus called his disciples to simply abandon their families.  For example, when Jesus encountered James and his brother John:

They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets.  Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. [Matthew 4:21, NIV]

Even more striking, Jesus declared that his mission would not strengthen any traditional family unit, as has been regularly argued.  Quite the contrary, Jesus himself professed that he has come to demolish the structure that tradition has brought forth:

For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.      [Matthew 10:35]

And again:

From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three.  They will be divided father against son and 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.  [Luke 12:52]

Far from a message upholding traditional cultural norms, this is message that does not hearken to a conservative idyllic past, but one that is far more radical, pointing to a liberating future.   It is clear that Jesus was leading us away from a structure that served to enforce unjust power dynamics, which imposed rigid and limiting gender roles and classifications, which subjugated one gender to another, and which, in turn, indoctrinated children to continue these social injustices.   The message of Jesus is clearly a liberation from this discrimination, from this limitation, and from the injustices that arise from their enforcement, including, as we will address, family violence. 

The message of Jesus stands in opposition to the traditional roles and expectations of family structures:

He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But the man replied, “Lord first let me go and bury my father.”

Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and

proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say

good-by to my family.”

Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit

for service in the kingdom of God.”  [Luke 9: 59-62]

If the family as idealized and seemingly idolized by conservative evangelicals is truly “sacred,” then Jesus either stands in opposition to the sacred or their sanctified idea of the family structure must be modified. 

The “Family Values” Tradition

Dr. James Dobson, one of the most well-known Christian conservative advocates of traditional family values has no doubts what form God intended the family to have.   Men work, provide for, and protect the family and women are to be home taking care of children and the house.[1]  Dobson is adamant that there must be rigid gender roles “exemplified by clothing, customs, and function.”  Dobson expresses with great clarity his views of these roles: 

Because of the fragile nature of the male ego and a man’s enormous need to be respected, combined with a female vulnerability and a woman’s need to be loved, I feel it is a mistake to tamper with the time-honored relationship of husband as loving protector and wife as recipient of that protection.  Because two captains sink the ship and two cooks spoil the broth, I feel that a family must have a leader whose decisions prevail in times of differing opinions.  If I understand the Scriptures, that role has been assigned to the man of the house.[2]

If the man is passive and weak, he argues, there will be problems, and if the woman is strong and powerful, more problems.   The family must be one form for all.[3]  Dobson realizes, of course, that we live in a time when these ideas do not seem to fit with standard contemporary living models.   But instead of reconsidering whether his model is flawed, Dobson and other conservative thinkers believe that the problem is that society is in error and the true “Biblical” model is under attack:

The Western media—radio, television and the press—are working relentlessly to shred the last vestiges of Christian tradition. [4]

The media presents models of diversity, transformation, and other alternatives to the “sacred” image.And along with the influence of the media is the diabolic power of feminism which, according to Dobson, is a direct attack upon the family. 

Dobson summarizes feminist thought in one sentence, stating that it’s message is:  “ Woman, you don’t need a man…”[5]  Under the influence of feminism, he says, women came to believe that they could raise children without men and so, they “don’t need a family structure…”[6]  Women were duped by these ideas which pulled them away from the traditional family structure and have led them and society into turmoil.

The answer to this problem, then, falls upon men, for “…husbands hold the keys to the preservation of the family.”[7]  Since women have been battered by messages that challenge the traditional family form, men must come to action:   “It’s about time you gave her some help.  I’m referring to the provision of emotional support…of conversation…of making her feel like a lady….of giving her one day of recreation each week…of taking her out to dinner…of telling her that you love her.”[8]  Whereas men are the solution, it appears that women are the problem.

The reason that the family has come to this strained period in its history is that women no longer have the opportunity to spend time with other women:

A century ago, women cooked together, canned together, went through menopause together, and grew old together…Alas the situation is very different today…Depriving a woman of all meaningful emotional support from outside the home puts enormous pressure on the husband-wife relationship.  The man becomes her primary source of conversation, ventilation, fellowship, and love.  But she’s not his only responsibility.  He is faced with great pressure, both internal and external, in his job. [9]

While Dobson argues that God made man and woman as the building blocks of divinely sanctioned family structure, he states paradoxically to the woman that:

You cannot depend on this man to satisfy your needs…Instead you must achieve a network of women friends with whom you can talk, laugh, gripe, dream, and recreate…The point is, God gave your husband the temperament he wears, and you must accept those characteristics that he cannot change.[10]

Man’s God-given temperament is such that he is not particularly good with woman, so he needs to be absent to work and toil so that the woman is able to mix with other women.   (One is forced to wonder, then, whether a more perfect fit would not have been, in line with this reasoning, men with men and women with women.)

Since God has established this family unit, it must not be tampered with.  Men must treat their wives, who must submit to their authority, with love, generosity, responsibility, self-discipline, honesty, and respect.   And the family unit is takes on more importance even than their own lives, because they have moved from individual lives to divinely sanctioned form.  Therefore, they must not divorce, “except for radical circumstances of infidelity.”[11]   

Jesus stated in Matthew 19:9 that infidelity is an acceptable reason for divorce.  This shows that Jesus was not opposed to divorce at all.  He did not view marriage and family as more important than ethical and moral standards that are above the family structure and, if violated, cause that structure to be nullified.  Yet, this message does not fit with Dobson’s ideology, so he changes these words to read “radical circumstances of infidelity,” an expression that adds to the words of Jesus and provides a new meaning.  Dobson, however, provides no further clarification and does not note what he has done.   Apparently, Jesus was more comfortable with divorce than is Dobson.This is not surprising since Jesus was concerned not with upholding structures of power (i.e., the family), but in their demise.

Since Dobson argues that Jesus “provided an unshakable foundation for a stable and loving relationship between husband and wife, ”[12] he has to make Jesus a defender of what Dobson considers the ideal family, yet this family seems to be more a product of cultural inheritance than Biblical fact.   Dobson himself reveals:

My father exemplified what I believe to be God’s concept of masculinity.  And, as might be expected, he learned it from his father.[13] 

The family model that he extracted from Scripture appears to look very closely like the inheritance of 20th Century cultural tradition, not a divinely formed and never-changing sacred structure. 

But if it is a human construction than it is subject to the transformations and change that other human structures-- political, social, economic--must undergo.  If this is the case, then, then the family is not a fixed, one-size-fits-all form.  This Dobson cannot accept.   He cannot accept that the family structure has been transforming throughout history, that it is learned, like other ideas, and that it is subject to change.   For, if we view the family structure as fluid through history (as we see in the Bible from the time of Abraham, to the time of King Solomon, to that of Jesus, and to today), would open the door to forms that Dobson considers threatening and ungodly, such as same-sex relationships.   Only by maintaining a fixed form, can his image of who is “in” and who is “out” be maintained, even if it appears to contract the very texts upon which it is based, as we turn to now:  Scripture.  

 Observations on Biblical Families

We have already considered the ideas of Jesus who was himself from a family that is at variance from Dobson’s.Jesus was the “son of God,” which means he did not have a heterosexual human father and a heterosexual human mother, although he did have a step-father for the first half of his life.   Moreover, when Jesus did come of age, he chose to continue in a non-traditional family model by not marrying.   It seems that Jesus’ whole life was manifesting a model, but one far from Dobson’s.    Jesus was modeling a departure from traditional and accepted because they were ingrained with patriarchy, oppression, and violence and only through an abdication of the structure could he help open our eyes to what truly matters:  relationships between individuals, bound by ethical principles that he would willingly choose, not enforced by structures of power.  

To understand the danger of the structures of power which Jesus turned against, we need only look to Scripture to see the clear link between these structures and violence.   I will consider two families central to the Biblical narrative:  the first family, Adam and Eve, and the family of the Father of Israel, that of Abraham.

Adam and Eve [Genesis 2-3]

In Genesis 2 God created the male human first, before he made anything else.  He gives the male primacy of place before the rest of creation, including the female half of the human species.   All creation is put at the disposal of the male, with a small exception: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for when you eat of it you will die.”   Nothing is beyond the male’s reach or control, except this.  

But God has made man to be in relationship with another, as he admitted: “It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him.”  So God began to create a perfect helper for man and proceeded to create every animal, every bird, every insect, every living being, all to be subordinate helpers to man.   And Man was given the power and authority to name what God has created. Despite God’s efforts and perhaps the male’s earnest attempts to make it work, none of these creatures proved to be a suitable helper to man, no beasts, birds, nor insect quite did the task.  Moss and slugs failed the Man relationship test, so God decided to create Woman: 

So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh.  Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib that he had taken out of the man, and he bought her to the man.   The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman’ for she was taken out of man.”  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.  The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

In Genesis 3, the serpent appeared to tempt Eve who is Adam’s helper and acting as a servant of Adam.   Thus, the temptation was of Adam primarily and Eve, secondarily.   Eve innocently and naively explained to the serpent what she has been taught:

“We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.”

The serpent did not agree:

“You will surely not die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “For God knows that when you eat of I your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 

Eve listened to these words and then looked at the fruit of the tree as if she had never noticed it before, seeing that “the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband who was with her and he ate it.”  

The consequence followed swiftly.  When God asked Adam (not Eve) if he has eaten from the tree that God forbade, Adam did not accept responsibility for his actions. Rather, Adam began a pattern of denial and blame that is still heard to this very day.   Adam pointed to the woman and said that it was her fault:

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

It’s not the man’s fault, it’s Gods, it’s the woman’s, it’s anyone’s but his. 

Eve, in contrast, replied with complete honesty:  “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”  She accepted the blame that the male had heaped upon her, not because she  deserved it, but because she had been created, according to Genesis 2, to be the submissive helper to the male and so was fulfilling her role. 

Consequently, as punishment of them both, God cast them out of paradise and “reigns a curse down upon them:”

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing Good from evil.  He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”  So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.”

The woman is subjected to painful childbirth and is also “cursed” with a desire for man (which she must have lacked before).   She was in a relationship with her “husband” as a submissive helper, but had not desire for him.   The first relationship  appears to be a loveless, emotionless bond between animals until the fall.   Man is not cursed with desire for woman, but rather, he was punished with a lifetime of toil and labor. 

The male was deprived of his life of comfort and believed that the cause of his stress and toil was the female over whom he was given authority.   The dynamics of abuse in intimate relations between male and female were, in the Biblical narrative at least, sewn here.  The man has the power and opportunity to abuse with impunity, believing that the woman must be submissive to him, while (paradoxically) also blaming her for the problems and challenges in his life.   Thus, the woman provided the perfect excuse for male violence.  

Scripture does not present how Adam and Eve acted in their relationship, directly after expulsion, but we have a clue.We have already examined how Adam was given power over his wife, how he blamed her for his own actions, refusing to be accountable.  According to the Bible, Adam appeared to be the first perpetrator of abuse, emotionally and psychologically tormenting his wife by blaming her for his choices, while she was compelled to stay in their relationship, having no place to turn and also cursed by a desire for him.This was the model of behavior for their children.[14]   This was the ripple in the pond that is still felt today.   This is family violence.

Studies routinely show that children who witness family violence are at the highest risk of repeating the cycle of violence in their own lives.   What is witnessed at home:  poor conflict resolution skills, poor adult supervision, inconsistent discipline, aggression, etc., plays itself out in the lives of the children.   Not surprising then, male children who witness family violence are at the highest risk of perpetrating violence in their own lives.   And so, let us turn to the children of Adam and Eve.

Cain was jealous of his brother Abel, whose sacrificial offering was more pleasing to God.  Cain resolved this intense feeling through violence.   He murdered his brother.   How are we to interpret this story in Scripture.   One way is to simply accept it in a form of “naïve realism:” it just is.Yet, if we are to read Scripture as texts with meaning related both to life in general and to other parts of Scripture in particular.  Then we must ask the question:  What is the meaning for us of Cain killing his brother?  What is the meaning of a murder in the second generation, according to the story, of human existence? 

One answer is that Cain acted on a pattern that he learned in his family.  Since there was no other social influence on him (since no other social organization existed beyond his own family), his social learning occurred in his home.  When angered, frustrated, and bothered by a set of circumstances, he viewed violence as an acceptable means to resolve the situation.   Cain acted by enforcing power over his brother by murdering him.   He had learned a pattern of power and control from his family.  When the expectations he wanted did not manifest, he resorted to enforcing that order of expectation through violence.   We see in this tale that family violence begets violence.  

The first relationship, according to Scripture, started out with an imbalance of power and ended in violence.  This is the model that sets the stage for all other families in Scripture. 

Abraham [Genesis 12-25]

Abraham was called from Mesopotamia by God to found “a great nation” in Canaan.  He uprooted his family and followed the call and became a model of faith throughout the Biblical narrative, but he also served as a model of infidelity and family violence.  When Abraham took his family to Egypt, fleeing famine in Canaan, he feared that the Pharoah of Egypt would murder him in order to take his wife Sara.  Therefore, Abraham forced his wife to pretend that she was only his sister and allowed her to be taken into the king’s harem.  

The most famous story involving Abraham, however, is that of his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac.   In Genesis 22, God called Abraham to kill his son as a test of his devotion.   The very next day, Abraham set out for the mountains with his unsuspecting son and soon found just the right spot for the sacrifice.

 “Father,” the innocent child asked, “…where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”  

“God himself will provide the lamb,” answered the father, intentionally deceiving his son.   (Genesis 22:7-8)

Abraham then prepared a makeshift altar, while the boy stood by in anticipation of the lamb’s sacrifice.  Suddenly, Abraham grabbed his son, bound him and placed him upon the altar. 

Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.  (Genesis 22:10)

Here was Abraham caught in the act.   Here was a father about to kill his son to prove his obedient devotion.  God was watching and the proof he was looking for was family violence.  Of the infinite possible tests, quests, and challenges that God could have put before Abraham, he chose an act of family violence over any other measure.

But before Abraham plunged the blade into his son’s body: 

…the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven.  “Abraham, Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said, “Do not do anything to him.  Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:11-12)

God stayed the hand of Abraham.   Abraham did not kill his son, but Abraham did abuse him.   Consider Abraham’s willful deception of his son to facilitate his sacrifice, was this not abuse?  Consider the act of seizing, then binding Isaac and placing him on the altar, was this not abuse?  Consider the blade raised high and about to plunge down upon Isaac, was this not abuse?  Consider a father turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to his son’s struggle and pleas, was this not abuse?  Consider the emotional and psychological effect on a son watching his own father betray familial trust, was this not abuse?   Though there was no murder that day, there was abuse.  After Abraham shows is willingness to express the divinely sanctioned violence, God pronounces his reward:

“I swear by myself declares the Lord that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…because you have obeyed me.”  (Genesis 22: 16-18)

Abraham, the founder of a great nation, the forerunner to thousands of years of history leading up to Christ and beyond, changed the world forever by his act of abuse.

The family of Adam and the family of Abraham provide models, but ones that no one could hold up as appropriate models for healthy families.  Rather, they provide models of power, oppression, and violence.   Other Biblical families have similar stains:  Jephthah was abused by his family and then killed his own daughter, Samson regularly mistreated women and then suffered at the hands of his own wife, David had a man killed in order to seduce his wife and later was attacked by his own son.  The nation of Israel is often portrayed as an “unfaithful” wife whom God punishes to restore their proper relationship roles of one (the wife) submitting to the other (the husband).   This model enforces a structure of power that condones and utilizes violence to maintain itself.It seems that what started with Adam and Eve, according to Scripture, was passed down generation to generation in a power structure than allows and condones oppression and violence.   This is the original sin of the Bible and it is still with us today.

Family Violence

In early January 2002, Brandon Norris asked his estranged wife Lori to converse with him.   Their marriage had already collapsed and each was involved in personal relationships with others.   Despite these facts, the situation was unbearable for Brandon.He drove his wife to the Paradise Valley Park and Recreation Center in Southeast San Diego.   There, in the car, amidst the center where youth and families come to play, relax, and learn, Brandon left his wife’s body.  He had stabbed her 230 times.  Since she did not act according to his wishes, submitting to his authority, he killed her.   Tragically, their 3-year old child was deprived of his mother and, for all intents and purposes, his father too since he was arrested soon afterwards and sits in County custody awaiting trial.This is the face of family violence.[15]

Violence in families is a world-wide phenomenon.[16]  For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on the United States.  Currently in the U.S., domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women.[17]   Women are at greater risk of violence committed by a loved one (i.e., current or former intimate partner), than a stranger and 25% of all women in the US reported being raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner at some time in their lives.[18]  The medical community treats millions of rape cases that are never reported to the police, of these, nearly 5 million occur within intimate relationships annually of which 2 million result in a physical injury.[19]  For women, the home is often a dangerous place and the forces that restrict their roles, their freedom, and compel them into a particular place “on the totem pole” theaten their very lives.  The reality is that the family structure for women seems to be inherently dangerous.  This problem not only manifests itself among adults, it appears among those raised under the influence of these structures of power:  youth.

Among teenage girls, 20% are already experiencing physical or sexual violence at the hands of a dating partner.[20]   Children under 18 also have the highest risk of being sexually assaulted.   And in all these circumstances, the face of the person who beats, rapes, strangles, and assaults her is far more likely to be loved one than ever a stranger.   And collectively, it is estimated that 10 million teenagers are exposed to family violence in the United States each year and at least one third of children have been exposed to some level of family violence.[21] Nationally, the costs of family violence are staggering.  The police and judicial costs alone are estimated at $67 billion per year.[22]  In addition, we can add the cost of medical care, counseling, social and legal services, shelter, lost wages and the intangible costs of damaged life-outlook and self-esteem.   Families are often violent places and this violence impacts the entire community.  

The tradition that Dobson argues has been decreed by God is the same structure that allows men to victimize and terrorize those under their authority while working and living “normal” lives beyond the family structure.   Since this structure is presented as “from God,” it is not surprising that religious leaders regularly give precedence to the structure over the treatment of individuals within the structure.   That is, for the sake of preserving the sacred idea of family, they have largely ignored or even condoned violence in the home.   In a poll of religious leaders:  26% stated they normally tell an abused woman that she should continue to submit to her husband, “and to trust that God would honor her action by either stopping the abuse or giving her the strength to endure;”  25% viewed the lack of submissiveness of the wife as the trigger which set off violence; a majority  stated that it is better for a woman to tolerate some level of violence in the home…than to seek separation that might end in divorce.  And finally, 71% said that would never advise a battered woman to leave her husband or separate b/c of abuse and 92% said they would never counsel divorce!  Preserving the family, they argue, is more important than the protection, safety, and integrity of the individuals within it.[23]   

Considering the scope of the violence, both Biblical and modern, it becomes clearer that the message of Jesus was an abdication from any structure that empowers one group over another.  The teaching of Jesus emphasized a liberation from oppressive norms.  Jesus spoke with Samaritans when they were a despised ethno-cultural group, he supported women in an age when they were subjugated, he associated with criminals, outcasts, the sick, and the hated.   His life stood in opposition to conventional and accepted structures and social classifications.  Jesus provided a model of liberation from all structures which enforced discrimination and injustice.  Hence, his abdication of traditional family structure which was inherently abusive by forcing the submission of one gender to another.   Thus, the traditional structure is a form of violence. 

This is also reflected in his messages concerning children.  For if anyone, Jesus says, were to cause children to enter into sinful ways, than:

It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause on of these little ones to sin.  So watch yourselves.   [Luke 17:2]

These words could not have been any stronger and reflect the depth of insight into how exposure to violence or traumatic events in the lives of children put them at-risk for a range of social and emotional problems that can affect the outlook of the rest of their lives.By preventing this exposure, a child’s life can be spared pain and torment.For millions of children in our society, this warning was not heeded and they are now at greater risk for behavioral, emotional, and learning disorders.  They are also at the highest risk of perpetuating physical or sexual violence in their own relationships and in their lives.   Beyond these millions, myriads more perpetrate violence of a more “mundane” and legal dimension in the form of sexism, racism, intolerance, and other destructive behaviors that they have learned in the family and in the society around them.

Jesus understood the challenges facing children in a world where children are raised in structures that impose an ethic of injustice that perpetuates abuse.  Our children are at-risk even in their families.  Today, in the United States, homicide is the fourth leading cause of death of children ages 1-10 and the perpetrators most often are their care-givers.   Among teens, suicide is the third leading cause of death and homicide is the second, making the second decade of life the most dangerous in American society.[24]   Teens are not only victimized at higher rates than adults (they are five times more likely to be victims of crime), they are often the victimizers.[25]   And more often than not, the teen perpetrator experienced family violence.   In my own work in juvenile detention facilities, nearly 75% of teens in custody had experienced violence in their homes.  The violence we see among teens is closely linked to the warfare or the neglect that they experienced in their families.

This is a reality today and it was a reality, according to the Scriptural portrait, at the origin of families themselves in Genesis.  The solution is not to idolize a family structure and devote ourselves to a “one-size-fits-all at any cost” strategy, but rather, to realize that the structure of power does not have any inherent sanctity.  What matters is not form, but ethical behavior and healthy relationships between individuals.   This ethic, however, goes beyond where conservative Christians, as championed by Dobson, are willing to go.

Dobson is articulate and intelligent and does not advocate women tolerating abusive relationships, but he does not go so far as approving divorce.[26]  In fact, he paints an extremely dire picture of the woman who divorces her husband: “She has to get a job to maintain a home, but her marketable skills are few.   She can be a waitress or a receptionist or a sales lady.  But by the time she pays a baby sitter (if she can find one) there is little money left for luxuries.  Her energy level is in even shorter supply.  She comes home to face the pressing needs of her kids, who irritate her.  It’s a rugged existence.”   Since he believes the role of women should be restricted to certain duties and obligations, then they are better off staying in the family structure as subordinates than venturing in the vast and wild (man’s) world beyond.  In contrast, the man who divorces “…often finds another lover who is younger and more attractive than his first wife.” [27]    In this way, Dobson actually presents the family as the “triumph” of women.  They should understand how good they have it, because when it is gone it is much worse for them than it is for the man. 

While he stresses that abuse is not acceptable, he fails to realize that empowering one group over another is inherently discriminatory and abusive, preventing individuals from fulfilling their fullest potential—since they are limited by roles they must accept as normative.  Moreover, when a woman’s desire to be liberated from this rigid structure runs counter to the man’s views, he has the authority, according to this image, to “put her in her place.”   The structure Dobson advocates for is inherently one of power and control and this is the foundation of relationship violence. 

Dobson believes that unhealthy relationships are causes of social turmoil, with which I am in full agreement, but in his view unhealthy relationships are any that do not fit a rigid cultural and traditional pattern that he attributes to God.   And when this is tampered with:

…men have no reason to harness their energies in support of the home, then drug use, alcoholism, sexual intrigue, job instability, and aggressive behavior can be expected to run unchecked throughout the culture.  That is precisely what has happened to many inner-city black families.  The government pays the bills.  Who needs the man?  He procreates and disappears.  His masculinity has been assaulted, and he takes out his hostilities on the culture which rejected him.  It all begins with an unhealthy relationship between the sexes that undermines the families and leaves broken lives in it’s wake.  We must not abandoned the biblical concept of masculinity and femininity at this delicate state of our national history.[28] 

Unhealthy relationships are indeed at the root of social ills confronting our world from drug abuse, to criminal activity, to delinquent behavior, and so forth.   When children are exposed to warfare in their home, the trauma that results is life-long.But Dobson’s argument ignores social and economic realities, issues of discrimination, and transforming political and cultural ideals.   Instead, he views the seeming disintegration of the family as the attack by the ungodly on believers.   And by pointing to the “inner city black families,” he provides a warning to the majority of “non-inner city whites” to heed the consequences of disobeying the divine standard. 

An alternative view might consider the failure of traditional rigid gender roles that limit human productivity and fulfillment, forcing the diverse possibility of life to conform to two narrowly defined norms.   The stress of adherence to these rigid and socially constructed gender roles increases chances for violence when men expect women to submit to their authority and to act only in particular ways as defined by their gender.   Such perceptions of gender roles are passed on to youth who reinforce them through sexism, discrimination, and relationship violence.    The family is the instrument through which this disease is passed.  Consequently, when women do not conform to particular (male) expectations they are blamed (as Adam did with Eve) and compelled to submit.   Far from being the salvation of the nation, this notion of family structure appears to be its bane.

Dobson’s view fails to consider the importance of having healthy relationships where individuals view each other with mutual equality.   True equality does not contain the inequality of compulsory roles of authority and submission.  Only if partners in a relationship have equality can there be liberty to make choices, to resolve conflicts, and to achieve fulfillment without the limitations of a system that disproportionately empowers one over another.  This is a system that perpetuates inequality and is, in its essence, abusive. 

This was the system from which Jesus liberated his followers.   His mission was not to tear down the relations between people, but only structures that grant power to some and deny it to others.   Thus, Jesus does not teach that we must disrespect anyone because they are a father, or mother, or any other familial role.   For example, Jesus reiterates the commandment to “honor your father and your mother.” [Mark 7:10]  Thus, we are taught to honor and respect all people, not because they hold a particular power or position of authority, but because they are in a particular relationship with us.   Jesus’ emphasis is on relationships between individuals, not structures of power. 

Lastly, we can consider the family in light of the general ethic of Jesus as the pursuit of the Golden Rule, i.e., to treat others as you would have them treat you.  Accordingly, Jesus would have us treat all people with equality, respect, and compassion; he would not discriminate by gender or by position in a structure of power.  For if there is truly no distinction in Christ [Galatians 5:26-29], then social categories must be created and enforced by humanity and do not arise from or originate in the divine.  

The challenge that Jesus puts for is for humanity to expand the horizons of our capacity to love beyond the limitations of our social categories and biases which we try to justify by claiming that they are divinely instituted.   But Jesus himself stated clearly that love was the ethic that leads us to salvation, not belief, not obedience to human social structures, not ceremony.  [Luke 10:25-28].And this is the ethic that is needed for the maintenance of healthy relationships and families.

The nurture of children and relationship partners requires the free gift of love offered as a willing individual choice, not something compelled by the rules of an unjust power structure.  Herein appears the dilemma, for the evidence seems overwhelming that the rhetoric of “family values” has a subscript of family violence. 

Family violence is not a phenomenon limited to Christian or western societies.   It is truly a world-wide problem that crosses all ethnic and religious lines.   My concern, in this essay, however, has been only to examine how undeterred adherence to patriarchy, to exclusionary definitions of family, and to discriminatory gender paradigms justified in the name of God and Scripture have been employed to sanctify a particular cultural image of the family and have caused undo damage to individuals, to children, and to society.As we have shown, the idea of family put forth by Jesus reveals a shift away from such traditional oppression and discrimination.  For him, what mattered was not the structure (political, theological, or social), but the quality of the relationships within them, or as Jesus put it:  “This is my command:   Love each other.”  [John 15:17] 

Bibliography

[1] J. Dobson (1995).  Straight Talk to Men.  Recovering the Biblical Meaning of Manhood.  Nashville:   Word Publishing; pp. 126-27.

[2] Ibid., p. 184.

[3] In contrast:  A. Ferguson.  (1977).  “Androgyny as an Ideal for Human Development.”  In Feminism and Philosophy, M. Vetterling-Braggin, F. Elliston, and J. English eds.   Totowa, N.J.:   Rowan and Littlefield.   Another alternative in the same book:  J. Trebilcot.  (1977).  “Two Forms of Androgyny” who argues that we need not eliminate gender categories but allow individuals to choose them.   Finally, for a discussion of gender in general being the problem, i.e., it is a human creation about power see:   M. Frye.  (1983).  “Sexism.” In The Politics of Reality:  Essays in Feminist Theory.  Freedom, CA:  Crossing Press.

[4] Ibid., p. 129.

[5] Ibid., p. 188.  For a more intellectual, scholarly, and balanced portrait of the wide-variety of feminist thought see footnote 3.  Also note the classic work of Simone de Beauvoir (1974).  The Second Sex.   New York:  Vintage Books.   Lastly, for a critical examination of the family:   Susan Moller Okin (1989).  Justice, Gender, and the Family.  New York:  Basic Books.

[6] Ibid., p. 188.

[7] Ibid., p. 120.

[8] Ibid., p. 129.

[9] Ibid., pp. 135-36.

[10] Ibid., pp. 136-37.

[11] Ibid., p. 120.

[12] Ibid., p. 120.

[13] Ibid., p. 51.

[14] A. Bandura. (1977).  Social Learning Theory.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall.

[15] Pauline Repard and Mark Arner (2002). “Man Arrested in Death of Wife.”  The San Diego Union – Tribune  (Jan 11, 2002):  pg. B.3.

[16] C. Clark Kroeger and N. Nason-Clark.  (2001).  No Place for Abuse.  Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity, pp. 13-37.

[17] Women’s Action Coalition (1993).  “Stats:  Facts About Women.”

[18] Patricia Tjaden and N. Thoennes.  (2000).  Extent, Nature, and Consequences of Intimate Partner Violence (Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey). Washington, DC:  US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice; p. iii.

[19] Ibid.,, p. v.

[20] Silverman, J. et al. (2001). Dating Violence Against Adolescent Girls and Associated Substance Use, Unhealthy Weight Control, Sexual Risk Behavior, Pregnancy and Suicidality.”  Journal of the American Medical Association, 286/5:  572-579.

[21] Straus, M.A. & Gelles, R.J. (1990). Physical violence in American families. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, p. 98.

[22] Jean Giles-Sims. (1998).  “The Aftermath of Partner Violence.”  In Partner Violence.  A Comprehensive Review of 20 years of Research. J. Jasinski and L. Williams, eds.  Thousand Oaks:  Sage; pp. 44-72.

[23] J. and P. Alsdurf.  (1988).  “Wife Abuse and Scripture.”  In Abuse and Religion:  When Praying Isn’t Enough, ed. A. Horton and J. Williamson,   pp. 221-28.   Lexington, MA:   Heath.

[24] National Center for Health Statistics (1999).  “10 Leading Causes of Deaths by Age Group-1999.”  Produced by:  Office of Statistics and Programming, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, CDC.

[25] US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.   Criminal Victimization in the United States, 1999 Statistical Tables, National Crime Victimization Survey, Table 3.

[26] Dobson, p. 130.

[27] Ibid., pp. 132-34.

[28] Ibid., pp. 32-33.

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