Family and Justice in Dialogue

Blog Family Justice

Dear JustFaith Community,

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about family. All of our daughters and their families and significant others will be with us for the holidays. This is the first Christmas that our only grandchild will spend with us. Christmas, for many of us, really is a celebration of family.

I’ve been reflecting on how the art and craft of being a family, when we’re at our best, can inform the way we seek to do justice, and how the art and craft of being a people committed to justice, when we’re at our best, can inform how we craft families and/or raise children.

When we consider the art of family, the best of family, we think of warmth, affection, celebration, commitment, forgiveness, and togetherness as critical values. We think of taking care of each other, especially when one of the children or one of the grandparents is sick. How might we do the work of justice with those values of family in mind?

I am thinking, for example, of how Pope Francis uses the language of “tenderness” to describe our concern for those who have been impoverished. Tenderness. Tenderness is usually the language of mothers and newborns, tenderness is the language of lovers, tenderness is how we think about our grandmothers. Tenderness. And when we apply tenderness to the work of justice, it’s different than, say, the “preferential option for the poor,” which for all its power is pretty unpoetic.

Tenderness and the similar values of family speak of a WAY of doing our work beyond the work itself. It’s not just serving meals at a soup kitchen, it’s how we are present, how we understand the relationships, and we are in those relationships. Tenderness and the best of family might give us a compass by which to have the difficult conversations within our community about volatile issues – how to be tender to each other when we disagree.

Tenderness, warmth, affection and forgiveness—the best of family—can give us touchstones by which to steer our engagement with our political adversaries. We might think of our protests more as “family interventions,” when people who love their wayward kin intervene, out of love, to confront, and to hold accountable, and to be available, and to make things better. In other words, we protest not out of anger or as militants, but out of warmth and care.

Hospitality and celebration—good family values–can nuance the way we think about addressing the human pain around us by emphasizing not just programs or theories about the social order, as important as they might be, but the realities and possibilities of relationship, kinship, partnership, friendship. What the world needs is more people who don’t party together to party together. Rich and poor, black and white, left and right, one side of the border and the other side of the border. The world needs more feasts in which everyone is invited.

In other words, family values can inform our work for justice so that it is invitational, human, patient, AND enticing. I have developed an affection for popes that smile, and activists that smile. Enough of crabby popes and crabby social justice people. Remember, it’s supposed to be GOOD news.

So, now let’s look at this in the other direction: when we think of a people committed to justice, we think of advocating for those who are oppressed and ignored. We think of nonviolence and equity, we think of access to the things that make human life dignified. We think of sustainability, simplicity, inclusivity, to name a few.

What the art of doing justice has to contribute to the work of family—and when I say family, I mean the network of the closest relationships that make up our lives—is a vision in which all human relationships, not just the family, can thrive. The best way to raise and form children is with the understanding that they are to treat their blood sisters and brothers with respect, with care. And since everyone that we know has blood—and we are all, therefore, brothers and sisters—treat everyone with care. Being raised this way makes for happy children who do not spend their lives obsessing about who is worthy, who is on my side, who is in the “in crowd.” “Red or yellow, black of white, we are precious in God’s sight”—a great song to raise children by.

The art of justice observes that focusing all our attention only on each other with same last name or same citizenship or same skin color only leaves someone out. The art of justice and peace speaks to family that violence is not a way to raise children or for couples or friends to resolve problems. Get rid of the hitting, the guns, the videos and movies about guns, the sports that glamourize violence. The art of justice gives a compass to family meals: invite to dinner the aunts, the uncles and third cousins as well as the rascals, the rejected and the reclusive. The art of justice suggests that it is more important to raise children who are compassionate than it is to raise children who excel and succeed in competitions. I’d like that to be part of the baptismal promises that parents make during the baptism of their babies.

Allow me, a moment, to be autobiographical. Maggie and I have been married almost 36 years. We spent most of our time during our courtship and early married years in a Catholic Worker community trying to support and be present to women and men who were homeless. It was, I believe, a great way to start a marriage—We spent our time together helping to run a soup kitchen, living simply, protesting war, and reading Dorothy Day. So, no, this does not sound like Modern Bride magazine, but too bad!

Maggie and I, like so many of you, have tried to craft a life together with an eye toward those who have been exploited or abandoned, so the stuff of life—everyday life—has a vision in it, a rudder. And, yes, we get distracted, we have failed regularly, and we have much more to learn, but I give thanks for a marriage that was informed by a common commitment to love the world, and not just each other. That would have been a lesser life, a lesser marriage.

And what I’ve said about being married to Maggie is true for friendship too. Friends that love large, friends like I have in the JustFaith network, for example, makes life richer. Without friends like you, it would be a lesser life, it would be lesser work.

The best of family can inform the work of justice. The best of justice can inform the work of family. You see, it turns out that the “holy family” is the family connected to the whole human family, which, as we know, is God’s family.