Who is my mother? A contradiction in the Proclamation

I teach Sunday School in my ward, and when a lesson on the The Family: A Proclamation to the World came up in this year’s curriculum I asked someone else to take it.  I just couldn’t teach a lesson on something that to me feels more like a political statement than revelation from God.  Others have written about whether or not the Proc counts as part of the Church’s canon, so I won’t get into that except to say that if it’s in the Gospel Doctrine curriculum somebody in Church HQ thinks it’s doctrine, and probably most members do, too.  Perception is reality.

So let’s just say, for a moment, that it’s canonized as doctrine.  What would be interesting to me then, is that this would make it fodder for a fun mental game I like to play: finding paradoxes and contradictions in religion.  This is fun not because I get my jollies from poking holes in my faith, but because I sometimes find that paradoxes are windows into enlightenment.  Here are some apparently paradoxical things that I’ve wondered about:

Losing one’s life to find it in the service of God
Self-reliance and relying on God
Forgiveness and protecting myself from further harm
Faith and works
Obedience and spiritual discernment
Divine intervention and unanswered prayers
Service and not running faster than I have strength
Iced tea and caffeinated soda

I see a contradiction in the Proclamation [Ref 1], which is that it places family relationships in an a very privileged position, and this is something Jesus did not do.  When Jesus called his disciples, among the many things he said to them was this:

For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.

He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it. (Matthew 10:35-39)

Maybe that was just hyperbole to get them to understand that being his disciple wouldn’t be easy.  But then he also said this (recorded in Matthew 12 and Mark 3):

While he yet talked to the people, behold, his mother and his brethren stood without, desiring to speak with him.

Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee.

But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?

And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren!

For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother. (Matthew 12:46-50)

Kierkegaard commented on this in his writings on how Christ’s love is the fulfillment of the Law, the Law being the standard for salvation, something we can never hope to meet on our own.  He wrote, “Christ’s love made no differentiation, not the tenderest differentiation between his mother and other men, for he pointed to his disciples and said, “These are my mother.”  Nor did his love make the distinction of disciples, for his only wish was that every man would become his disciple, and this he desired for every individual’s own sake.” [Ref 2]

So if Jesus didn’t regard ancestry or marriage as being particularly important in fulfilling the Law, why are we, as his disciples, so obsessed with family? I guess you could say Jesus really did think family was super important, but the New Testament just didn’t record that part of his teachings.  But you have to at least acknowledge an absence of explicit veneration of family ties. What’s there instead, if only as rhetoric, is a debasement of them.

The people of the Old Testament were also super obsessed with family and lineage, though in a different way.  It mattered so much that they tied a red string around a baby’s wrist so they would be sure to get it right as to which twin was born first. [Ref 3]  Jesus challenged that.  He told the Pharisees that he was able to make stones into seed of Abraham, so they’d best get over themselves. [Ref 4]  He was there to tell them that being born “chosen” wasn’t the way, He was the way.

And this is what bugs me about the church’s fascination with The Family.  How can family relationships be privileged, eternally and ritually privileged, and be in harmony with Christ’s non-distinction between people?  Isn’t Christ saying in these New Testament passages that the highest relationship is the one between an individual and God?  Are we in the LDS Church taking family temple sealings and idolizing them the way the Pharisees idolized their own genealogy?  Are families the Way or is He the Way?

Obviously we can try to do both.  We can try to take up our cross and follow Jesus and try to love our families and make covenants along the way.  But I think it matters what we have our eyes set on at the horizon.  Is the family a means to true discipleship or is discipleship a means to true familyhood?  This matters not just as a theological abstraction but because it informs how we use our resources.  When Jesus said “feed my sheep” did he mean build temples and spend every weekend at you can doing vicarious ordinances for the dead, or did he mean build schools and spend your weekends tutoring poor children?  It also informs what we think is possible in God’s family.  When Jesus said “come unto me” did he mean absolutely everyone or did he ultimately mean married, cis-gendered straight couples? [Ref 5]

Points of tension are where a paradox is supposed to yield to a deeper truth.  What might that be?  Are families not as important as current church practice and rhetoric would indicate?  Or are they the whole point?  Said another way, do they matter not so that people form eternal pairs that will have endless progeny, but because the meaning of salvation is being sealed to Christ, and sealing to one another in this life is a faint image of all that might involve?  If it is an image, are we too preoccupied with it? Is there a contradiction here at all? I think there is, but it doesn’t seem like tension between the contemporary Church’s focus on the family and the content of Jesus’s teachings is perceived by the Church hierarchy, let alone examined.

 

 

Ref 1.  The Proclamation is a symbol for me of the deification of the family I see everywhere in the Church.  This deification was boiled down to a sound bite by Elder David A. Bednar when he said,  “The basic purpose of all we teach and all that we do in the church is to make available the priesthood authority and gospel ordinances and covenants that enable a man and woman and their children to be sealed together and happy at home. Period. Exclamation point. End of sentence. That’s it.”  Interestingly, the training video in which he said this has been removed from YouTube.  I should find another quote I can pull to make my point here, but I’m too lazy.  And this one is burned into my brain.  I wrote about it here. Rebecca J of BCC wrote about it here.

Ref 2. Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard, page 107.

Ref 3.  When Tamar gives birth to twins in Genesis 38, the midwife tied a scarlet thread around the hand of the one that put out the hand first, so they wouldn’t get the birth order wrong.  Genesis 38: 27-30.  This is just one of the more odd examples, there are plenty more cases where birth order matters a lot to the ancient Hebrews.

Ref. 4. Matthew 3:9  And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.

Ref. 5. By “ultimately” I mean in the afterlife.  There’s a rationalization for limiting marriage to straight people that goes something like this: Life is a three act play and we’re in Act 2.  Just because things look unfair in Act 2 doesn’t mean it ends that way.  In Act 3 God will heal everybody so they become cis-gendered and straight.  To be saved in the highest degree of heaven these things are required and God wouldn’t leave anyone out unfairly, so all these temporal aberrations will be wiped away.  I’ve heard this spoken without a trace of irony from high-ranking Church leaders.

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12 Responses

  1. Lily says:

    I absolutely think we have missed the mark on this. Christ is the center and always should be. I would also site the Book of Mormon. There is no emphasis on family there. Its all about the Savior.

  2. Alys's Wonderlandd says:

    Every Sunday I’m reminded that I actually belong to the Church of Heteronormative Families of 20th-Century White American Gender Roles. I need more Jesus!

  3. 0. says:

    This is brilliant and I have long believed it.

  4. Heather says:

    Emily I love your skills! First, you have so much insight and fresh perspectives on living the gospel. And second, you are actually able to translate said illuminations into accessible text. And third, you rock a footnote. This was a great piece that I need to chew on. Thank you!!!

  5. Kaylee says:

    Reading that bit from Matthew 12 just now reminded me of a note I wrote to a good friend, thanking her for mothering me on a hard day. It was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me and (along with a whole bunch of other life circumstances) helped me have a sliver of understanding of the atonement. It would be marvelous if we all mothered each other, regardless of family relationships.

  6. The quote from Elder Bednar seems to be a paraphrase of language that President Boyd K. Packer repeated on numerous occasions:

    “The ultimate purpose of every teaching, every activity in the Church is that parents and their children are happy at home, sealed in an eternal marriage, and linked to their generations.”

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1994/04/the-father-and-the-family?lang=eng

    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/04/the-plan-of-happiness?lang=eng

  7. Ziff says:

    Great point, Emily. It’s striking that the FamProc is not only saying things that Jesus didn’t say in the NT, but that it’s actively contradictory to what he said. I guess maybe if the FamProc’s contents were obvious from the NT, though, the GAs wouldn’t have felt the need to write it.

  8. kamschron says:

    In Matthew 3:9, John the Baptist was the person who told the Pharisees that God was able to make stones into seed of Abraham.

  9. bufordthelittle says:

    Thanks Emily. I enjoy a well explored paradox because in feeling the contradiction out, we can comprehend an underlying ideal binding the paradoxical poles together. It seems to be an essential tool for teaching truths not defined well with literal explanations alone. Your New Testament examples are also bound up with some paradoxical moments when Jesus did seem to place more importance on nuclear family ties. John 2 shows that even though his “hour is not yet come,” he would perform the miracle of turning water into wine since it was his mother’s request. Additionally at the depth of suffering on the cross, Jesus took time to make sure his mother was cared by a trusted disciple in his absence. The combination of these instances with the references you already made encourages me to treasure my family relationships deeply as well as deepen my understanding of family to have it include all people.

  10. emilyhbutler says:

    Emily, there is so much to unpack here–I really enjoyed reading this. So thoughtful. I once heard a talk by Elder Holland in which he reminded his listeners that we belong to the Church of Jesus Christ, *not* the Church of the Happy Family. It was something very close to that, but I can’t find it anywhere online, even though it was easy to find a few years ago. I should have taken notes.

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