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Christmas takes us beyond 'family first'


Christmas takes us beyond 'family first'At this time of the year, all roads lead to the family. Christmas is family time. It is also a time for politicians to practise their pitch in defence of decent Australian families, Australian working families, and family values. We even have a political party called Family First.

Family First says that it is not an explicitly Christian party. That is just as well, because the claim made in the name of the party could hardly be less Christian. In Mark’s Gospel the greatest single obstacle to faith is to put family first. In the other Gospels, including the Christmas stories, the family is equally ambiguous.

When Jesus begins to preach, his family try to take him away because they think he has gone mad. When the crowd draws Jesus’ attention to the presence of his mother and family, he says that his real family are those who hear God’s word. Later, he says that anyone who does not hate mother, father, brothers and sisters for his sake cannot be his disciple. Strong words.

Very few ordinary family people appear in the Gospel stories. Peter must have been married because he had a mother-in-law. But like other people of interest in the Gospels, he walks with Jesus around the countryside, supported by a band of women. Neither a man’s nor a woman’s place, it seems, was in the home. The people who embody faith were often previously lacking in sexual morality, and their lives were regarded as scandalous.

In the stories of Jesus’ infancy, the person who shows the most practical interest in guaranteeing the security of decent Palestinian families is Herod. He wants to remove the threat to their security posed by a baby king. And if we seek safe family norms, Joseph and Mary, who have to deal with an unexplained pregnancy, change residence overnight on the basis of dreams, deliver their baby in the fields, and leave Palestine as asylum seekers, are dangerous role models.

Dreams are the problem. Christian faith is about large dreams that expand your view of God and of your world, and lead you to follow Jesus' path of insecurity. By the time the Gospels were written, insecurity was no longer an abstraction. It could include rejection by family, exclusion by synagogue, and persecution by state. Putting family first would stop you following the wild dream born in Jesus.

Mark, of course, was not writing for our day. We know that if you are to follow wild dreams, you need the inner security that comes from being loved, cherished and taught to value generosity. That is normally found through families. They are therefore the focus of much Christian reflection. If politicians speak much about families, they reflect the public anxiety about pressures on family life. But these pressures come from the economic individualism, endorsed by the same politicians, that is so corrosive both of families and of family values.

Christmas takes us beyond family firstSo Christmas is a good time to celebrate as families. But for Christians, it is also a time to think robustly about families. Happy family life is a gift and a seedbed, but the plants which it nurtures are not security and prosperity, but dreams of a surprising God and of a world that claims us. The stories of Christmas take us out of the private world of family and friends into the public—it makes shepherds, unwanted kings, angels and innkeepers part of our domestic scene. The dream is of a God whose passion is the wholeness of the world, and not only of our private lives.

Many of today’s symbols of Christmas—hospital appeals, serving meals for the homeless, finding presents for poor children—hint at this wider dimension. Christmas is not family first.



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Existing comments

Interesting that Family First senator Steve Fielding was criticising economic individualism only last week. See http://www.stevefielding.com.au(declared interest - i work for Steve)

Jeremy Stuparich | 12 December 2006  

Andrew, your article should be compulsory reading for every member of the Church hierarchy! The
"hierarchs" seem to assume we are living a "Christian" family life so long as we conform to "traditional family values" but as your article so brilliantly shows, this is certainly not backed up by the Gospels.

However, I think we (as a Church) need to do more than just enlarge our embrace to include, not only our own families, but also the whole global family. In fact, I think we need to challenge, at least to some extent, the whole notion of private vs.public. Of course, family life is a very personal, intimate part of people's experience, and that should be respected. However, the fact remains that what happens in the family - especially when children are very young - will probably have more effect on the future of Church and society than practically anything else. We need to recognise that families, especially parents, are actively and significantly
contributing to the wider community in their so-called "private" roles. And they should be given not only recognition, but all the support and resources they need to do a good job.

The problem is, in both society and the Church we get a lot of lip service about the importance of the family, but the assumption still seems to be that the really important things - the things that matter to us as a Church or as a society, not just as individuals - only happen in the public realm.

Cathy Taggart | 12 December 2006  

Thank you for a GREAT article! I always read your articles with interest and thanks, but this is my first opportunity to say THANKS!
I also endorse Cathy's comments.

Thomas Curran | 13 December 2006  

Andrew usually manages to see different sides and be fairminded even when he has a strong line to push; I'm not sure he manages it here. In presenting Herod as the defender of family values and Joseph and Mary as violating family norms he strikes me as going overboard with sarcasm. The "family values" push in politics is centred on genuine values, and this has to be recognized even while pointing out that from a Christian and human perspective they are not the only or the overriding ones.

john fox | 13 December 2006  

A beautiful piece, as always, Fr Hamilton.

Thomas D | 15 December 2006  

A thought provoking article - excellent! The problem I see with politicians and the family is that they are pretty good at the rhetoric but are only paying lipservice to the real needs of people who are doing their best to live a truly family centred life and at the same time have to cope with the unreasonable demands of employers, the government and society in general.

M. Kerby | 16 December 2006  

What a great example of true Christianity. The Christian life is so much more than a happy family with the man as cheif breadwinner, regular attendance at Mass, regular prayer and very, very devoted efforts to convert unbelieving friends. It is a dedication to doing what is right, with or without a family. Perhaps that's why Priests, Nuns and religious Brothers are celibate?

James Boggs | 21 December 2006  

What a refreshing take on families and the political agenda of Australia today. I have been thinking along the same lines as Andrew for quite some time now. Thank you Andrew for taking the time to write on this issue. Yes, I agree with Andrew that the Gospel messages are certainly nor conducive to patting families on the back as the strength of the nation. Jesus did not say too much about families and what he said was not all that flattering, as Andrew well points out. My problem also with the Family First party is that to put your family first can lead to terrible consequences. I am not against family and belong to a lovely and supportive one. But my problem is the phrase "family first". On many levels this presents problems. For a start one normally leaves ones family to find a partner from another family. Which one do you now put first. Then there are the consequences of putting family first. Does this mean my family is better than yours? Can putting family first lead to tribalism and even nationalism as many nations have found to their pain. No, thanks Andrew at this time of Christmas of reminding us of the understanding of Jesus and his followers of this issue. Family first can simply be a friendly name for all forms of intollerance.

Tom Kingston | 22 December 2006  

Isn't it just possible that God is among the family as they gather for Christmas? The traditional family is still the rock on which society is built and it is important for them to gather for special occasions. Let's not forget that Jesus said "Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them" - and isn't a family get together on Christmas Day a gathering to homour his birth? However, I have found God in other 'family' gatherings such as a group of veterans who remember their mates who did not return and who thank God for the fact that they themselves came home.

Pat | 22 December 2006  

As my wife, son and I prepare to welcome parents and siblings from interstate, this article by Andrew Hamilton crossed my lap-top. He certainly provides a unique perspective and one that challenges many of our commonly held views about the importance of "family". But if the dream truly is "of a God whose passion is the wholeness of the world", then perhaps the popularity of family-focused politicians can be explained by what is increasingly absent in many families - dads without jobs, mothers without access to a loving partner, children without caring parents - rather than a simple preoccupation with our own "private lives".

David McGovern | 22 December 2006  

Your very quirky view of Christmas goes the route of parabels, ie you turn the logic of the world on its head. More power to your pen!

Dr Jenny Close | 22 December 2006  

Fr Andy, I'm very disappointed with your article. Especially your narrow minded view of Family First's efforts to bring decent values back into politics. Obviously you had little, or no, relationship with any Family First candidates and decided to lump them into a stereotype of politicians touting loosely the word "Family" and who never actually doing anything that help them. I'm sorry you feel that way. Perhaps you might like to get to know who we are in future before knocking us.

Glenn Colla | 22 December 2006  

I find Andrew's article very thought provoking. I agree, that when conservative political parties extoll families, they are really putting forward a conservative political agenda. Mark's Gospel reminds us of the tension that exists at times in all families. Mark's Gospel reminds us that the love which we nurture in our families can't be limited to our families.

Peter Burger

Peter Burger | 23 December 2006  

I agree that the wider community should be the key focus of Christmas. I am truly blessed with a beautiful loving family and whilst my family is my priority in life, I also see my other priority as a Catholic is to give something to society that demands more of me and takes me out of my comfort zone. (responding to this definitely takes me out of my comfort zone) Hopefully, this is also a demonstration to my family of my faith in action. Compassion and love for all our community is what is needed - and unfortunately not everyone is blessed with a wonderful family. We really should be remembering these people who no doubt feel very alone and alientated at this time of year.
Wishing eveyone peace, love and joy

carolyn | 23 December 2006  

I found Fr Andrew Hamillton's article refreshing in its challenge to Christians to see Christmas differently to the concept of it as a celebration of family. Having lived without an immediate family for quite some time now and, as an adult, having often participated as a helper in special lunches on the 25th December for the homeless, drug addicts and other social "outcasts" I find Christmas a time of exclusion and counter to all that the Gospel message proclaims. I have been told frequently in countries as widely apart as Australia and Mexico that Christmas Day especially is a time for family only; not for friends and certainly not for strangers. Particularly in Australia, underlying this familial xenephobia, is, I believe, a psychological fear of displaying before friends and strangers, overt examples of the tension which so often marks family get-togethers on Christmas Day with each family member endeavouring to be on their "best behaviour". Consequently, Christmas Day is so often marked by an implicit potential violence. Moreover, Boxing Day has now become the de facto day for friends. And, sadly, there is no more place for strangers and outsiders on Jesus' putative birthday than there was when Matthew and Luke wrote their Christmas narratives.

Judith Woodward | 30 December 2006  

Dear Fr Hamilton,

I stumbled across your article only today while looking for something else entirely. Upon reading it several times with increasing incredulity, however, I have some observations I feel obliged to make.

Why on Earth would you seek to attack a political party which has only one representative in the Commonwealth parliament (no, I am not am not a member, an affiliate or a voter), and none so far as I am aware of in any other jurisdiction? Where is the threat? Have you made similar critiques of other political parties, many of which exhibit an overt or covert anti-Catholic bias?

As the Church endlessly repeats each Christmas, the family is the cradle of the faith. Would you have been a Catholic, let alone a priest, without the influence of your family? I think not. Could Jesus have survived with the love and dedication of St Joseph and Mary?

Selectively quoting one verse of one Gospel "anyone who does not hate mother, father, brothers and sisters for his sake cannot be his disciple" is intellectually dishonest, as you well know. Even any indifferent Catholic could respond with many other verses, which would be equally meaningless in isolation (eg. "Call no one father...").

"Very few ordinary family people appear in the Gospel stories". Really? How about a carpenter's son to begin with? Presumably, according to your formula, fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, shepherds, farmers, Samaritans and centurions were all without families. Were they all living marginalised in the equivalent of St Kilda terrace houses, totally out of touch with the community?

"In the stories of Jesus’ infancy, the person who shows the most practical interest in guaranteeing the security of decent Palestinian families is Herod. He wants to remove the threat to their security posed by a baby king." Very droll. Do you remember the Feast of the Holy Family? Perhaps the Feast of the Holy Innocents, which commemorates Herod slaughtering infant children? Perhaps that challenge might relate better to a priest rather than a political critic-at-large. Citing Herod the Great as a good family policy man is also witty, considering it would appear your readership is unaware that he murdered most of his own family as well. Was it Augustus who said: "I would rather be Herod's pig than Herod's son"? What surprises me Father, is what you choose to leave out of your discourse, rather than what you insert.

Dredging up the asylum seeker myth/anachronism is another droll tactic. In legal terms, fleeing from a Roman protectorate (Judea) to a Roman province (Egypt) would hardly qualify.

I could go on, but I suspect my comments are too long as it is. Can anyone speak for St Ignatius? Clearly not the Jesuits.

God bless

Dennis Ryan

Dennis Ryan | 02 January 2007  

The main pressure on modern day families is not economic individualism. It is the permissive society and the many issues that society now deems as normal that would be unheard of fifty years ago. The Howard Governments economic agenda has lead to a state of continued economic growth that has allowed family life to flourish more than ever. Families are no a much stronger force in society than they were during the elitist era of Paul Keating.

Stephen Jury | 07 February 2007  

Thanks for this, Andrew.
I once participated in a role-playing game called 'Dungeons and Dragons', in which we all imagined avatars for ourselves. Among our chosen abilities with swords and daggers, bows and arrows, use of magic &c, were our moral characteristics: "lawful good", "chaotic good", "chaotic evil", or "lawful evil".
I recall a US drama that had a short run on TV a couple of years ago. I can't recall its name, but the story followed a police sheriff in a small US community, who was a Satanist, or some such thing. He did his job well; he maintained a clean, tidy, orderly community, yet had malign intent, was evil. His victimisation of innocence, when enacted, had community approval, because those he persecuted were somehow outsiders.
The programme was soon taken off the air. Somehow, audiences did not want to engage with this moral puzzle.

David Arthur | 25 April 2007  

An interesting article, with much to commend it. However, I would like to point out that Andrew Hamilton's interpretation of the way Mark and the other gospel writers understand family is a little misguided.

He supposes that they simply saw the family as a rather ambiguous aspect to faith in Jesus, prone to preventing people living radical lives of discipleship. It is true that the gospel writers had an ambiguous view of family, but Mr. Hamilton does not take stock of the cultural context in which they wrote.

When Jesus spoke about families, he was doing so to an audience that saw family as a prime means of delineating their cultural and religious identity. In other words, Jesus was not simply offering abstract advice regarding the potential conflict between faith and family, or attempting to undermine the importance of family per se. Rather, he was trying to undermine the way in which family - like land, Torah and Temple - had been used by Jewish leaders to mark themselves off from the world. In doing so, they were abandoning they're vocation to function as the means by which God would reveal himself to the world, since they were more interested in preserving cultural identity than in establishing God's Kingdom.

One must have these things in mind when reading Jesus' statements on family. He was speaking out against various manifestations of an ethno-religious identity that was obscuring the work of God. Thus, he was subverting the way in which the idea of family was used as a cultural marker, and not family itself.

Scott Buchanan | 22 February 2009  

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