Family Systems in the Beloved Community

Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! 3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? 4 But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. 5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; 6 my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. 8 It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.

Mark 3:20-35

20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters[a] are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

There was a newspaper cartoon on the bulletin board of a church office where I was working. It showed a large auditorium with hundreds of seats. Only three people were seated in the room. There was a banner strung overhead. It said, Annual Reunion of Fully-Functional Families.

When I went looking for it online, I found another cartoon. It showed a family of elephants seated in overstuffed chairs in a living room. One elephant said to the others, “Let’s not talk about it.”

Humor can point out some harsh truths. Families are not perfect, even when we wish they were. Families are where we are birthed and raised and stuff happens there, real important stuff, some stuff that haunts us our entire lives. Many of us grew up watching TV sitcoms like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet” which portrayed idyllic white families in middle class America with few real problems, and never any real conflict.

Getting to the truth of our families, our place in them, our relationship to other members, and how we deal with what took place and is still taking place – all this, may take a lifetime, may require therapy, may even result in hard choices – choices to confront family members about abuse, choices to forgive, and even choices to leave and sever those relationships.

Today’s scripture from Mark talks about family. The family of Jesus shows up at one of his preaching/teaching/healing events. Their arrival and presence is peripheral. They are never center stage, but off camera. We hear
about them and we hear Jesus refer to them, but they are not the main focus of the action. The main focus is how the religious authorities, the scribes, are reacting to what Jesus is doing. Jesus is healing people. Jesus is casting out demons.

But family is not only flesh and blood, is it? There is a familial connection between Jesus and the scribes, because they all live within the context, the family, of Judaism. There is that same family connection with the crowd and, maybe, most poignantly, between Jesus and those whom he is healing. We do not know much about what it meant for those men and women to have a demon, but we can guess. We have our own demons and we know others who do, as well. Some of those demons are quiet, merely waking us up at night or giving us a low sense of dis-ease, and other demons are screaming, like the ones we sometimes see and hear from people on our city streets. But either way, our demons do not give us peace. And I imagine it was the same for those who were brought, by family members or friends, to this itinerant healer. And, in order to relieve those dear ones from their anxiety, their pain and their torment, Jesus heals them. And the scribes go bat crazy. They accuse Jesus of being in bed with the devil, of using the source of evil to control the symptoms of evil in human beings. And Jesus responds with some strong language of his own, including that verse 29 which is hard to hear. Sometimes family members do this. They react strongly, they act out powerfully, especially when they see other family members saying or doing something they feel is bad or dangerous or wrong.

There is a therapeutic model called family systems therapy. It was developed by the American psychologist Murray Bowen. It was further developed for religious congregations by Rabbi Edwin Friedman and publicized in his book, Generation to Generation. This theory looks at families, even congregational families, as systems rather than as a collection of individuals. In a system, each component is connected and relates to every other component. What happens to one affects all. We are interconnected. No person is an island. Whether I know it or not, what I do affects others. What others do affects me. The challenge in family systems, the goal of this therapeutic model, is to develop a combination of awareness, honesty, and non-anxious attention to the behaviors of the system, including one’s own. The more a family member is able to self-differentiate, to identify what is going on emotionally, to stay present and stay non-anxious, the healthier that person will be and the healthier the system will be.

Jesus confronts the fear of the scribes with honesty, clarity and singleness of purpose. The healing of those unnamed people, the peace they were given, that is from God. To attribute that peace to an evil intent is not only wrong but faithless. If one lives in a state of fear and anxiety, like the scribes were exhibiting, then, by their own actions, they are not open to forgiveness, they refuse forgiveness, and they cannot even perceive forgiveness. That is about as close to a definition of an eternal sin as one can give. Not that there is no chance of forgiveness, but that the persistent actions of one who cannot see God in the healing of their siblings, places that one in a perpetual state of separation from what God offers so freely and so lovingly.

Jesus does not condemn the scribes. Rather, he speaks his truth, clearly, and, I believe, with love. To speak truth to power is an act of courage and maturity. In family systems, one is counseled to stay with the anxiety of the system and respond non-anxiously rather than to react anxiously. This modeling can help to heal a system, a family or a congregation. I am reminded of words from the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew’s gospel: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11-12, NRSV). Responding to fear and anxiety, to persecution and reviling, with calm, with a non-anxious presence, takes great courage and, while it is not always possible, when it is possible, it can lead to healing and forgiveness.

In the gospel of Mark we often have material sandwiched between other material. This is true here. The birth family of Jesus comes to help him out of a jam and then, after the encounter with the scribes, we are told the family is waiting at the edge of the crowd. Upon hearing of their presence, Jesus says those interesting lines:

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

This response of Jesus cuts both ways. On the one hand, great. Even though I am no blood relation to Jesus, I can still claim that family relationship. All I have to do is the will of God. Easy, right? On the other hand, wait a minute! Jesus’ mother and siblings are out there wanting to help him from making a fool of himself, and he is naming these other people as family. This is unheard of in a society where family ties are paramount, defining everything from property ownership to who gets the inheritance. Besides, they are his real family. Doesn’t that count for anything?

Family systems is a helpful model to use in looking at how we relate to one another, not only in our family of origin, but in our multi-generational relationships, and in other familial systems, like church. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about the Beloved Community, a term he borrowed from the American Philosopher, Josiah Royce. This is a system, albeit a visionary one. How might family systems theory guide us in living in the Beloved Community? I think this is a tough nut to crack. It is a bigger picture than a nuclear family. After all, remember those challenging words Jesus spoke from the gospel of Luke? “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Luke 24:14 (The Message). Hyperbole, for sure, but challenging language nonetheless.

Years ago, when my kids were young, I was reading a book to one of my daughters. It was a collection of Bible readings, called Words of Life. The book was given to my daughter as a birthday present by a parishioner. This passage about letting go of family was in it and I read it without thinking. She was terribly upset. She took it literally, as meaning that God would have more claim on us than our family. I will never forget it. That experience taught me that this larger picture Jesus paints for us is not an easy concept to grasp and requires bigger eyes to see and bigger hearts to accept.

The Beloved Community is a term describing the kind of society where all are welcome, cared for, and accepted. It has common language and meaning to the Kin-dom or Realm of God, from Scripture. Both refer to a hope, a dream, a vision into which we are called to walk. Many of us profess a belief that God is at work in the world, working through us to create that realm, that beloved community. This work of God is infused with and inseparable from our relationships. How we understand family, both that family into which we were born and those families we find along the way, will determine if we are part of that ongoing work of God.

Let me close with a story I learned from someone in my family.

Once upon a time there were two students in a rabbinical school debating the question of when night becomes day. One said, night becomes day when you can distinguish an olive tree from a fig tree. The other student said, no, it is when you can tell the difference between a deer and a wolf. They decided to ask their teacher.

The rabbi smiled patiently at his young charges.

“Let me tell you when I believe night turns into day,” he said. “Night turns into day, my students, when enough light shows on the face of the stranger standing before you that you may see in him or her or them the faces of your brothers, your sisters, or your siblings. That’s when night turns into day.”


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