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Winter Books

Living the gospel in families

By Lisa Sowle Cahill
Augsburg Fortress Press, 176 pages, $17


I may well be the only reviewer of Family: A Christian Social Perspective by Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology at Boston College, to be able to say that it made me cry.

I suppose my tears were prompted because I read in these pages my own yearning to be faithful to gospel values as a parent, loving partner and citizen, even as I experience the pull of wider culture where -- “compassionate conservatism” aside -- greed is good and self-interest reigns supreme. Gospel values dictate that we fight those impulses both personally and collectively. And, as Cahill acknowledges, it’s hard work: “All of us who aim to be Christian families ... realize that the Christian life is truly the way of the cross as well as a journey to redemption.”

A central question posed by the author is whether “considering the family as church transforms society or undermines the church.” Cahill examines the historical evolution of the concept of family as domestic church from the three distinct faith perspectives of St. John Chrysostom, Martin Luther and the Puritans. Each interpretation of the “household codes” found in early Christian writing and thought emphasizes variations on expectations of family morality, roles and responsibility, and civic duty. It seems clear that Americans are the spiritual heirs of the Puritanical family values, which viewed faith as an agent influencing civic society and culture. Puritans interpreted material privilege as God’s favor and disenfranchisement as a sign of moral turpitude and enforced a hierarchy both within and outside the family. (The author does point out, however, that rhetoric and practice on this last matter often diverged.)

She also looks for answers to her question in contemporary communities of faith: Indeed, Cahill postulates that our most salient contemporary model of Christian family values is the African-American extended family circle.

Theologically and ethically, the black family, whether amid success or fierce struggle, provides a paradigm of Christian family identity that incorporates kingdom values of mutual sacrifice, inclusion, patience, endurance, and hope and trust in God.

In a chapter called “Lessons from African-American Families,” Cahill cites a number of black scholars’ work on the history of the black family in the United States. Despite being in large measure historically excluded from mainstream economic and social opportunities, and left to bear the brunt of poor institutional policies contributing to ghettoization and urban poverty, African-Americans have cared for not only their own nuclear families but also for extended family, the community’s children and neighbors in need. She also cites a 1984 pastoral letter, “What We Have Seen and Heard,” written by the 10 black Catholic bishops, which invoked the pope’s exhortation to “share the gift of our blackness with the church in the United States,” especially the African-American experience of family as expansive, inclusive and non-judgmental.

The pitfalls of current ideas about welfare reform and the injustices inherent in our global economy also meet a worthy critique here. Cahill contends that public social structures and institutions -- government, charitable agencies, the education system, for example -- must not only respond to the needs of families, especially families without privilege of wealth and social status, but these institutions must share information and empower the communities they serve. Families in communities -- through churches, community organizations and the like -- must, in turn, search for ways to create solutions and link with other like-minded counterparts.

And Catholic cultural institutions must lead the way. To have an effective future role, combating poverty and supporting family life will be contingent on the grassroots interest and commitment of Catholics as well as the willingness and ability of Catholic agencies to foster broader public accountability for the poor.

Finally, Cahill hammers home two criteria for a truly gospel-oriented paradigm of family as domestic church, both of which she says are evolving as played out in lived family experience and as noted in the color commentary of official ecclesiastical documents such as papal encyclicals and bishops’ pastoral letters: Gender equity must continue to become more balanced in family life. And all families must contribute not only to their own self-sufficiency and well-being, but to the common good.

So, let the phrase “Christian family values” shed its vernacular connotation as code for white, heterosexual, two-parent and privileged. This work offers both affirmation and challenge to me as I continue to negotiate the delicate path between faith and culture. It is also a fresh and insightful contribution to public discourse about how we raise our children, and how we thereby raise up our common good.

Kris Berggren is a regular columnist for NCR. She can be reached by e-mail at bergolk@earthlink.net

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000