Real Families: Meditations on family life
My family of origin and the community that shaped it taught me a false lesson and a true one. As a threat to burn Qurans draws intervention even from U.S. military leaders in the paradoxical position of leading the killing of many Muslims, as the discontent of many Americans with groups and views other than their own seems to rise by the day, what I learned from my family, both false and true, seems vital. And I’m reminded again that what we teach in families, that primal shaper of what we consider right and wrong, is crucial.
The false lesson was that only people like us were right. So I am not shocked that some people believe they are so right they should burn Qurans. Or others believe they are so right they should kill people who burn Qurans.
Seared in memory is the day I found in my dad’s study the book purveying horrors supposedly perpetrated by the Roman Catholic Church. Then I did grasp why our family and community saw Catholics as doomed unless missionary efforts pulled them back from the brink.
I don’t mean to be cruel to those who taught me these things. Many came to hold more generous understandings. Neither do I mean to ignore that even as seeing only people like us as right is wrong, alternatives are complicated. Because my family thought we were right, they taught me our way. Thus my we-are-right family is a primal source of the very passions that drive this column—the passions for Jesus, justice, doing unto others as I would have them do unto me, forgiving 70 times seven, loving enemies, seeing the log in my own eye, judging not.
I also have yet fully to solve the riddle of how any of us commit to values we hold dear without then judging others as beyond the pale of our rightness. I have needed, in personal and professional roles, to set boundaries. And a boundary typically distinguishes right from wrong.
But precisely because every effort to enact a boundary rushes us back toward only-we-are-right terrain, I also cherish what I see as the true lesson my family taught me: Sometimes to live out what we consider right is to sacrifice ourselves or convictions in trust that the power of Jesus, crucified then risen, likewise transforms our apparent defeat into a victory in God’s kingdom. For me that teaching is encapsulated in what my missionary dad did when arrested and put in jail in Mexico for hitting a drunk, at-fault pedestrian. After long days a justice system that didn’t presume innocence nevertheless concluded my dad was in the right. My dad should have thought lawsuit or at least nursed anger.
Instead he did two things. First, while he was in jail he befriended the other inmates. This was to convert them to Jesus. Although as an adolescent trending agnostic I wondered if true friends seek a relationship with another primarily to change them, I was moved by my dad’s decision to treat prison not as curse but opportunity to love.
Second, he reached out to the man, left wounded but alive. They, too, became friends. My dad even helped pay some of his bills. My dad believed this was what Jesus wanted him to do.
I also want to do what Jesus tells me; that is my version of being right. But complicating things is my growing sense that how Jesus handles being right is different from how we do. Jesus’ model and teachings, as in my dad’s example, seem to tell me to spend my sense of rightness even for the sake of those I consider wrong. So I can’t burn your Quran; I need to understand why you see it as blazing your trail. I follow Jesus less by showing how he and I are right and you wrong and more by loving you even when I think you’re wrong—then praying you’ll do the same for me, because what if only you are wrong when you are likewise so sure only I’m wrong? At the least, it would be nice if you loved me even amid your certainty that I’m wrong, if you did good to me whom you consider to be persecuting you.
I hope in my own family something like this is what my daughters have learned. I also hope they’ll discern false and true lessons they’ve learned from me. And I hope that whatever our respective views of right and wrong, we’ll trust that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 1:18), that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love”(Galatians 5:6) and that being right, as Jesus puts it, boils down to loving the Lord our God with all our minds and souls and hearts and our neighbors—not least, I suspect, those who are wrong—as ourselves (Luke 10:27).
Michael A. King, Telford, Pa., and Harrisonburg, Va., is dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary and publisher of Cascadia Publishing House, LLC.
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