Have you noticed how ubiquitous the terms “family-friendly” and “family values” have become lately? Growing up in the Evangelical Christian subculture as I did, it was everywhere; the radio stations, book stores, coffee shops, talk shows and public events my family gravitated towards were always riddled with “family-friendly” branding and “family values” discussions — and Jesus. Growing up, it was a pairing that just seemed implicit — but do they fit?
What connection does Jesus have to family-friendliness? What are family values anyways? When we say family-friendly: friendly to which families?
The multigenerational family living together under one roof with a non- “white suburban America” cultural background? The blended family with a somewhat complicated background? The family with non-heteronormative parents? Are these places, events, media outlets, and conversations friendly to the LGBTQ+ kids in the family?
These “family values” find their roots in a specific cultural setting. Each individual culture and micro-culture defines the family and creates values and expectations around it quite differently.
This is part of the diversity that makes life so beautiful, but when we begin to trumpet or fight for “family values,” what we are really doing is looking at our particular cultural background (for me and many others: white, suburban, evangelical Christian) and its particular tendencies or standards for a “normal” or “healthy” family (married hetero-normative parents, single family home: owned, 2.5 kids, politically conservative) and saying not only do we like our particular culture best (which is just fine), but its values are the right and correct values, and families or individuals that don’t fit into this familiar framework are not only wrong, but dangerous.
So what does all this have to do with Jesus? The single, nomadic, unemployed and houseless Palestinian Jew who was entirely dependent on the generosity of others, hung out with fishermen, prostitutes, individuals who aided a hostile foreign government and people from cultures and religious traditions not His own — was He for “family values”? This man who pointed to the unsavory riffraff around Him: the unsafe, unclean rejects of society, and called them His family, was He somehow for our cultural definition of family?
While thinking about writing this piece, I found myself talking to a friend, Liyah Babayan. She had been invited to speak at an event as part of her run for City Council. This event conflated “family values” with a particular stance on abortion, public action against drag queens performing at libraries and preaching the gospel/believing the Bible. She was a bit bewildered about how to approach the event. As a survivor of religious persecution, Liyah has learned both a deep appreciation for her own faith tradition and the danger of intolerance.
She witnessed divisions in Azerbaijan and words spoken against the Orthodox Christian community and their lifestyle grow into hatred and eventually a violence that led her family to flee their birth country and move here to Twin Falls.
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Liyah loves the Bible, and she loves the movement of Jesus in the world, but she could not see how they were connected to these other talking points. Why should we try to prevent children from seeing healthy, happy adult role models of all varieties? Would her friends who love Jesus and the Bible and also perform in drag or hold pro-choice views feel safe at this event?
And why is it that her love for Jesus or the Bible were being brought up in a City Council race at all? If she was of a different faith or no faith at all, would that make her any worse of a candidate? What did any of this have to do with “family values”?
The Bible is filled with stories of the un-favored brother, the eunuch (an ancient word for people of gender or sexual identities that differed from the “norm”), the widow, the foreigner, the diseased, the poor and the outcast being seen, loved, cared for and put center stage.
I admit I don’t have the only viewpoint on the Bible or Jesus, but it seems that if they were shaping our worldview, we would do the same. If Jesus were our example, we’d be hanging out with, learning from, and elevating people who were not just like us, people who are marginalized or outside the mainstream.
So what would Jesus’ “family values” be? Maybe Jesus’ family values would look like the Momma Dragons: parents who chose loving their children over their own comfort, social standing, or religious belonging.
Maybe Jesus’ family values would be less concerned with amassing political influence, and more concerned with developing personal relationships with societal outcasts. Maybe Jesus’ family values would be more concerned with caring and providing for the most vulnerable in our global community than with protecting a comfortable and familiar way of life. Maybe, just maybe, Jesus’ version of “family values” would look more like Jesus and less like the families we grew up in.
Editor's note: This column has been updated to correct the name of the country where City Council candidate Liyah Babayan's family experienced religious violence.