One of the great iconoclasts of our age, Simone Weil, was fond of pointing out that in the house of idolatry there are many rooms. “One can take as an idol,” she states, “not something made of metal or wood, but a race, a nation, an idea, a philosophy, a religion, something just as earthly. All of these can be essentially inseparable from idolatry.”
When Christ states that no one can be a true disciple of his unless he or she first hates father, mother, wife, husband, children, brothers, sisters and even his or her own life, the harshness of that statement must be understood precisely in the context of idolatry. Family can be idolatrous if it lets its demands get in the way of the higher dictates of charity and respect.
What does this mean? How can family, which is itself a sacred concept (and one which is under siege today and needs all the defense that the churches can give it) be idolatrous?
For all its sacredness and importance, natural family must always be subservient to higher family, the family of charity. Jesus, himself, clearly affirms this when he says, “Who are my mother, and brother and sisters? Those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
In Jesus’ view, only one kind of family does not, at a point, have to give way to something higher and more important than itself. The family that is constituted by “charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, longsuffering, faith, fidelity, mildness, and chastity” is the only normative family. Its bonding alone is nonrelative. All other families are subservient to it. To deny this is to break the first commandment and worship the golden calf.
We all belong to many families. Many kinds of things naturally bond us to certain people and separate us from others. Blood, ethnic origins, language, gender, country, city, religion, political affiliation, ideology, a shared cause, a shared enemy, a shared neighbourhood, a shared history, or even shared wounds divide us from some persons and form us into a certain natural family with others. Nature, temperament, and circumstance spontaneously form us into various cliques. One of these, our blood family, has a certain inherent sacredness and demands, just of itself, a primal loyalty and duty.
Moreover, all of these families are good, up to a point. It is not good to be alone, so the Creator says. We “need a helpmate” … stable primary relationships, neighbours, an ethnic, cultural, and linguistic family, political parties, and all kinds of groups to bond with for support. Natural families and other cliques are, in themselves, healthy both psychologically and sociologically. Thus, it can be good to be loyal and dutiful to our blood families, to fight for our language and culture, to be proud of our ethnic origins, to band together with others for political purposes, to work for our city and neighbourhood, to cheer fanatically for our local teams, and to meet as women in feminist circles even as men to go off together to beat drums and tell each other masculine stories.
Yes, all of this can be good … but only when it has a healthy in-built self iconoclasm, that is, only when it is prepared to step aside at each and every place where it finds itself blocking fundamental charity and respect and the needs of the larger community. All groups must ultimately be subservient to the family of humanity and to the non-negotiable demands of charity and respect. When membership in any group blocks that it becomes, at that moment, idolatrous.
This is, today, hard to admit in both liberal and conservative circles. In more pious circles, blood and religious family easily becomes idolatrous. (“My family, my country, my church – I am for them, right or wrong – love’em or leave’em!”) In more liberal circles, like-mindedness, shared cause, and shared gender easily become idolatrous. (“How can I respect or work with those who are so unenlightened?”)
In both circles, there is the tendency to rationalize lack of respect and charity by appealing to family, namely, to some group loyalty (party affiliation, ethnic or language group, gender, cause, or shared wound) which justifies a certain smallness of mind and heart. But that is idolatry. Family is sacred, but, unless it itself submits to the higher call to charity and respect, it becomes the golden calf.