“God is telling me to tell you to forgive your parents.”

AS EMBARRASSING as it is to admit, those words came from my mouth at age 20. The girl I was dating at the time was desperate to move out of her house, away from her physically and emotionally abusive parents. We were in a breakout session at a church conference for college students. It was a highly emotive affair, with loud music and lights and the kind of exuberance that comes with 30,000 young adults tracking in the same direction. In this breakout session, we were praying for each other and sharing whether God had a message to people in our group (not a common Evangelical practice, but not totally unheard of). I pulled my girlfriend aside to tell her the above revelation privately. After a thoughtful moment, she laughed, patted me on the head with pity, and said, “No, if God knows what I went through, he won’t push that. I think that word is coming more from you than from God.”

She wasn’t wrong. My “word from God” was really a word about my discomfort with her family dynamic.

In last Friday’s WAPO, Harriet Brown suggests that my anxiety over my girlfriend’s family is actually pretty common. Brown writes about her self-chosen estrangement from her own mother, and how her confidence in that decision has made so many others uncomfortable:

Well-meaning family members called to warn that someday I’d regret cutting the tie. “You only get one mother,” they said. “What if she dies and you’re still estranged? How will you feel?” My mother died three years after our official estrangement, and my only regret is that I didn’t do it earlier. Much, much earlier.

The cultural narrative around estrangement is that it’s a problem that needs to be solved. We see and feel the supremacy of the genetically connected family in a thousand ways throughout childhood. By the time we’re adults it literally goes without saying. And so there are websites and books and articles meant to help families reconcile, with advice on everything from how to phrase an apology to how to take legal action. For some families, that helps.

But for the rest of us, that pressure to get back together makes everything worse. For us, estrangement isn’t a problem; it’s a solution to a problem, a response to an otherwise unsolvable dilemma. It’s a last resort when you’ve tried everything else over and over, when you no longer trust the relationship. When — as Ann Landers once wrote — you’re better off without the other person in your life.

It turns out it’s really hard for those of us who have positive family experiences to see familial estrangement as anything but a problem. Mbird’s writers have tackled the topic of estrangement before, but not from the standpoint of choice. What kind of good news is there for someone who has had to cut off his or her truly bad parent?

Given how much The Good Book has to say about families, its relative silence on this question of estrangement is peculiar. We get “honor your mother and father” in the Ten Commandments. There’s the rarely used permit from the Law of Moses that allows parents to turn over their awful adult children to be stoned. A couple of Israel’s kings sacrificed their infant children to pagan Gods (which God was definitely not OK with), so those are probably the Bible’s worst parents. St. Paul obliquely addresses the matter in Ephesians, telling fathers “do not provoke your children to anger”. More often than not, the Bible focuses on the need for parents to keep up the discipline so the kiddos don’t turn out to be bad adults and have awful lives.

That’s not to say that bad parents weren’t a problem in those days. It just wasn’t as prominent a problem as drought, famine, war, or pre-penicillin illness. When children were the ancient form of social security, the retirement plan for parents too old to work, discipline and raising functional children also become a matter of survival. Still, a contemporary reader might have appreciated more help with this issue. When Jesus asks rhetorically, “What father would give you a stone when you asked for bread?”, a modern disciple might have meekly raised his hand and said “Yeah, I know that guy. That’s pretty much how my dad operates.”

When we do encounter tales of a legitimately bad parent in the church, whether it’s an unreliable parent in the throws of addiction or a parent with a narcissistic personality disorder, the situation makes many of us uncomfortable. Especially in the Evangelical world, which puts such a premium on family values, that discomfort manifests itself in the form of platitudes. “You only get one mother.” “What if she dies and you’re still estranged? How will you feel?” “God is telling me to tell you to forgive your parents.” For a people who have “family” radio stations that focus on “positive and encouraging hits,” there seems to be little space for the very messy reality of estrangement. It’s little wonder that the famous subreddit “r/raisedbynarcissists” has 350,000 subscribers, all encouraging each other to “go nc” (no contact) with their nmoms (narcissist moms) or edads (enabling dads) as soon as possible.

At the most basic level, the greatest gift we can give those whose earthly parents have failed is an introduction to the adoption-friendly Heavenly Father. And so spouting off the sixth commandment while hugging our kiddos tighter is counterproductive, to say the least. It probably has more to do with our own fear of our kids hating us than it does biblical roots. As Brown mentioned above, “that pressure to get back together makes everything worse.” What I didn’t know at age 20 was that the command to “be reconciled” is incapable of achieving the reconciliation it commands. Lex semper accusat.

For all the church’s obsession with family, there’s an apocalyptic teaching of Jesus that might be relevant in an unexpected way. Before he sends his disciples off on their 2-by-2 mission, Jesus described his ministry as anti-family. He had come to “turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be members of his own household” (Matt 10:34-36 ESV). For those of us with good family histories, Jesus’s words seem out of character. Families are great, right? They’re part of the created order! They’re a gift! These words of Jesus are traditionally understood to be a judgment on those who would put family above the work of the Gospel. Jesus lived in a time and era when people’s names included the suffix “son of” or “daughter of” when they were introduced. Back then, family structure was significantly more patriarchal, rigid, and tribal than modern Evangelical practice. If anyone could be accused of thinking too highly of family, it would be Jesus’s audience in the ancient near east.

But maybe this word of divinely sanctioned estrangement could be a surprising word of grace for those whose families are destructive. The flip side to Jesus’s apocalyptic pronunciation, for those that have ears to hear, is that He will disrupt toxic family systems and heal generations of parent-child dysfunction. In that patriarchal culture, Jesus is announcing that the abused sons and daughters of terrible earthly parents could find a new family in the church, a family of spirit and not of blood. Such a pronouncement may seem deeply troubling to a community that values family at the expense of the person. For many, including Brown and my college girlfriend, this is certainly a future worth looking forward to.

HT: KPC via FB