The Marriage Hearse: Blake, Jesus, and the Critique of Marriage and Family Values

Why Mr Blake Cried: Monogamy, Matrimony and the Mind-Forg’d Manacles

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In his fascinating exploration of the ideological status and function of traditional marriage and the role of ‘family values’, Theodore W. Jennings shows how in the Bible Jesus actually radically subverts these institutions and ways of relating, seeking to replace them with more inclusive, equal, and genuinely socially integrative forms of living. It is interesting in this respect that one of the first things that spiritual communities do is to replace the atomising, inward-looking, emotionally toxic and politically hierarchical structure of the ‘family’ with more open and egalitarian forms of living. Though in contemporary society, as in Jesus’s day, ‘The Family’ is held up as integral to its power structure and affective organisation of stratified, socially isolated, inward-looking, and hierarchical power dynamics, which the institution of The Family both transmits and reflects, another way of living, and of being is possible. 

Breaking the ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that weld us to these old ways of thinking – and more importantly ways of feeling – was one of the central tasks of Jesus’s mission, and was both echoed and developed by the generation of radical poets and thinkers of Blake’s day, including Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rousseau, and of course Blake himself.  Before a more awakened and liberated form of society can emerge, Blake suggests, we have to transcend our existing shackles (it is no coincidence that Jennings for example calls one of his chapters ‘Marriage, Family, and Slavery’ – echoing Wollstonecraft’s earlier critique of this institution for the regressive and toxic situations and spaces it generates). And in order to do that, we first need to understand what the concept of The Family actually is. 

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Introduction: The Nature of Marriage and Family Values

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All families embody, and serve to reinforce, wider social and political structures of power and authority

The traditional “family” is the bulwark not only of patriarchy but also of heterosexism. We are increasingly aware of ways in which the family is a scene of violence and abuse, of the violation of persons and the distortion of person’s lives. The emergence of psychotherapy disclosed for many persons the coercive and distorting function of family life.  As trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk notes, “for every veteran who comes back messed up, there are at least 30 kids who get abused, molested, abandoned, and neglected at home. As a society, we mobilize against threats like ISIS, but most American kids are not the victims of foreign terrorists; they’re the victims of the social conditions in which they mature.” Growing sociological knowledge of child and spouse abuse also suggests that the family is dangerous to the well-being of vast numbers of human beings, old and young, male and female, gay and straight.

Inhibiting us from a radical critique of this institution, however, is the supposition that the family is somehow at the core of biblical ethics. Certainly churches in the modern period have universally portrayed themselves as the mainstay of marriage an family values.

In the following discussion, I want to demonstrate the ways in which the Jesus tradition, as we have it in the Gospels, transmits a fundamental critique of marriage and family values. I first address the way in which the Gospels represent Jesus as fundamentally opposed to the institution of the family. This opposition appears to stem from Jesus’s profound critique of all structures that mediate and enforce the social status quo, a social world that is passing away as the divine reign of justice, generosity, and joy takes shape in the world.  

That the Jesus tradition is fundamentally critical of marriage and family value places it in tension with other developments in early Christianity as represented by Paul and later letter writers of the New Testament. But Pauline acceptance and post-Pauline valorisation of some of the family values of antiquity should not be allowed to obscure for us the radicality of the narrative traditions about Jesus that consistently subvert these values. Noting the parallel between the valorisation of certain family values and acquiescence in the institution of slavery in later New Testament documents helps us to abdicate how the Gospel tradition’s critique of family structures may have wider relevance.

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The Critique of the Institution of the Family

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Free from the Family! at last! Liberation from the atomisation and spiritual death of human community through the compartmentalisation of affective life. (Image: The Resurrection, c. 1805).

We turn first to the critique of the institution of the family in the Jesus tradition. In all the Gospels, Jesus is represented as adamant in his critique of this institution and its values.  

In the Gospel of Mark, the theme of family is explicitly broached in the third chapter when Jesus’s family come to extract him from the crowds of ‘sinners’ and the needy who have gathered about him.

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:20-21)

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3: 31-35)

The reply of Jesus to his family’s summons does not seem calculated to allay the suspicion that he has “gone out of his mind”. But his reply does serve to establish a clear distinction between what we may call “family of origin” and the new “family” of those who are committed to the will of God, which is the establishment of the reign of justice and generosity and joy.

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“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Jesus presents a radical critique of, and alternative to, orthodox notions of human relationships and shared human communities.

As it turns out, this distinction has already been prefigured in the text by the call of the first disciples who, in order to follow Jesus, abandon the ties of work and family (Mark 1:16-20). Thus of James and John we are told that they “left their father Zebedee in the boat, with the hired men, and followed him” (1:20). The alternative – either the will of God or family of origin – is being established within the structure.

The only kinship tie that Jesus will acknowledge is that of shared mission in performing that which God wills or purposes. All other ties are abolished. Whoever stands with Jesus is his mother.  The one who does as Jesus is his sister. The one who does what God desires, and no other, is brother to Jesus.

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The figure of Jesus radically subverts and progresses the previous notion, or template, for ‘God’ (as an authority figure whom one must obey). The new covenant is one of mutual forgiveness and inter-involvement, which necessarily means the end of all privatised and authoritarian notions of  the human family. (Image: Christ Offers to Redeem Man, c. 1807-1808). Blake rarely depicts “God” as a Father – usually this sort of designation is applied to Urizen, the left hemisphere version of God – authoritarian, patriarchal, “above”, aloof – “Nobodaddy”, as Blake sometimes calls him. As Blake notes in Jerusalem, signalling the arrival or realisation of the new paradigmatic relationship, a radical shift from God as “father” to God as “friend”: “I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and friend”. Many fathers in our culture are, sadly, of the Urizenic sort – due to the structural demands of the system on them.

And what is God’s will? Nothing is claimed here of special religious duties. Instead Jesus has concretely demonstrated the divine will: that outcasts are befriended, that the maimed are healed, that the demon possessed return to sanity. And whoever does this is Jesus’ brother, mother, and sister.  

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Your mother. What prevents us from seeing this, from helping or identifying with the outcast, is precisely the ideology of “family of origin”, the mind-forged manacles that keep us separate and competitive, under the deceit of attachment and closeness. We see the cruelty and humbug of this cant all around us in our alienated, isolated, and unhappy world.

Blood ties are irrelevant. The woman who bore him and the siblings who shared the same womb have the same access to fellowship with Jesus as any other and on the same condition: join with those around him who are learning to do what God wants, which is making creation whole again. 

A second episode common to Mark and Matthew concerns Jesus’s return to his “hometown”:

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?”

And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

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What our societies do to prophets. In 1809, Blake mounted his only exhibition, of 13 works. The exhibition received few visitors and only one review, by Robert Hunt in The Examiner, who described the prophet in his own country as “an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement, and, consequently, of whom no public notice would have been taken”. We have learned nothing about recognising our prophets, because the underlying structures and ways of thinking, that Jesus was trying to call attention to, remain unchanged and unchallenged.

Jesus is known “at home” as an ordinary tradesman and as a member of a rather large family. Nothing extraordinary is to be expected of that which is familiar. Indeed from the standpoint of this settled community, Jesus may be a “dropout”, having left home, work, and family to live as a vagabond. His own family regards him as crazy (3:21), and he has in turn repudiated them in favour of his vagabond and dropout friends – a group that includes untouchables, certified lunatics, and assorted persons of ill repute. As one would expect of God-fearing hometown folk, “they were scandalised by him” (Mark 6:3).

The response of Jesus is an ironic commonplace that agrees well with experience in all ages. Characteristically Jesus claims for himself no other role than that of teacher and prophet. In this context, “prophet” only means one who speaks audaciously inverting hallowed traditions (like Amos or Hosea), and who performs deeds of power (like Elijah and Elisha). The vocation of Jesus is in these ways identical to that of his predecessors and is, moreover, fully shared with his followers (3:14-15).  

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“Mine”: The Family as Private Property

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Like all social prophets, Marx and Engels – like Blake and Jesus – saw the ideological (or “mind-forg’d”) processes and chains that keep the System in place. The institution of modern marriage, for example, grew out of earlier property law, the wife being considered in the same terms as cattle. It is remarkable how many people today accept the possessive, property-based, basis of the institution as both natural or normal. In his book, trying to counter the contemporary marriage hearse, Engels demonstrates that the oppression of women has not always existed, and is not the product of inherent traits. Neither has marriage, or “family values”, as Mary Wollstonecraft had earlier shown (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, 1792).

The link between the family and the familiar – between the family of origin and the resistance of the status quo to radical transformation – is becoming clear. Yet this radical transformation is precisely what the mission and message of Jesus is enacting and announcing.

The contrast between the mission of Jesus and the kinship ties of this age has been played out first in the contrast between Jesus’s own family of origin and the new family he is gathering about him, and then in the impotence of his mission within the familiar structure of the hometown where is he seen in terms of his family of origin. Now is the time to make evident the same contrast for the understudies or disciples of Jesus.

Then Peter spoke up, “We have left everything to follow you!” “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”

Those people who are with Jesus are exclusively those who have left everything, who have divested themselves or both possessions and family ties. Note that family ties here are “sandwiched” between material goods: “House” introduces the series and “fields” ends the series. The intervening list of family terms – brothers or sisters or mothers or fathers or children – is thus set squarely within the economic sphere of possession, of security within the world. The question here is not of abolishing ties of affection but of abolishing the family as an economic and social reality that secures one’s life in the world.

The promise of Jesus is made to those who have renounced ties to possessions and family. The promise is that those people who have renounced these possessions will receive “a hundredfold”. That is, those who have left brothers and sisters will receive hundreds of brothers and sisters. Those who have left mothers and children will receive hundreds of mothers and children.  

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The Woman Taken in Adultery, by Blake (c. 1805). Jesus radically challenges not only contemporary Law (adultery was a legal offence to the property-based social relations), but also the narrowness and rigidity of heart that underlay and underwrote it.

We may note that while the disciples are said to leave fathers, they are not said to receive fathers, still less “a hundredfold”. The only parents they get are mothers, which is consistent with the tendency of the Jesus tradition to abolish the structures of patriarchy. The rights and claims of “paternity” that are the basis of patriarchy are abolished. Jesus’s program for his disciples clearly entails the abolition of distinctions among them and thus the abolition of hierarchical relationships (Matt 23:8-12).

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The Domestication of Life

The Gospel of Mark similarly sets out a very clear line of opposition between the Jesus movement and the claims of family of origin. This opposition appears first as the leaving of home to follow Jesus. It then becomes the theme of explicit teaching when Jesus not only renounces the claims of his own family of origin but points to the establishment of a new family constituted by all who identify themselves with the coming of the divine reign.

This old family that “domesticates” life is represented as making impossible the enactment of the transformation of reality indicated by the coming of the divine reign. 

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have 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 the members of his own household.” (Mark 10:34-36).

The saying makes clear in no uncertain terms that Jesus does not intend to promote domestic harmony, nor to improve family relations. Rather his deliberate intention (“I have come”) is to provoke discord in this domestic sphere.

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“This old family that ‘domesticates’ life is represented as making impossible the enactment of the transformation of reality indicated by the coming of the divine reign.” (Images: from Martha Rosler’s remarkable House Beautiful artworks, revealing the dreadful gulf between the private and public at the time of the Vietnam War, and how the one enabled and was complicit in the other).

What really seems at stake here is the way in which families and family members define their own interests. It is against this interest that the follower turns. In this sense, the follower hates the family and is opposed to what seems to be in the best interest of the family as family – just as persons may be said to hate themselves in the sense of turning against their own self-interest, their own desire for self-preservation. Precisely this concern for self-preservation must be opposed if one is to take up the dangerous business of following one who deliberately courts the outrage of the authorities, to the extent of daring them to crucify him.

The hating of mother and father then – to take this position as the starting point – is not an animus toward them as human beings, but precisely as mother and father; in their role as family members with special rights and expectations and demands. This special position of the family is radically and fundamentally opposed, and the same holds true for brothers and sisters. As family members, they claim a special loyalty that must be resolutely and ruthlessly opposed. Clearly Jesus places a high value on children as children, but what is opposed here is the special relationship to “my child” as opposed to any child whatever. The special claim of this one as opposed to all the others is to be opposed. 

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“My child” being given “my presents” under “my tree” in “my house beautiful”.

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Not mine. No relation.

The supposition that a child is “my child” is fundamentally the source of a great deal of destructiveness in the family. First, such an outlook allows a person to ignore the needs of all other children in the name of acting for one’s own. The notion that a certain child is mine also leads me to make unreasonable demands upon the child. That this person is a child is not enough. The child must also be made an instrument of my ambition as a mother or a father. The child must bear the burden of being my future, an extension of me. For that reason, families are so often the most dangerous places on earth for children.  

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The perversity of the orthodox: “The child must be made an instrument of my ambition as a mother or a father.”

The stability of familial institutions is directly linked to the stability of religious and social institutions. Indeed we may say that the family is the base, and religion the superstructure and ideology of the basic social structures of life: cultural, social, political, and economic.  The family is the place where these values are inculcated, and religion is the manner of validating and sanctioning them. Jesus’s enactment of a new social order of open friendship, of solidarity and generosity, shatters the social world that both family and religion serve and protect. From the standpoint of both, Jesus is impious; Jesus is crazy”.  

The relation between Jesus and his mother in the Gospel of John corresponds with what we find elsewhere. Mary is present for and instigates Jesus’ first “sign” at Cana. This fact is sometimes cited as indicating a special relationship between Jesus and his mother, but a closer inspection of the text quickly dispels such an impression.  When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” (John 2: 3-4).

The saying of Jesus to Mary is more abrupt than the translation indicates. The phrase is one of pure dismissal, closer to “what are you to me?” But equally telling is the fact that Jesus does not refer to her as his mother but rather as “woman” – the same form of address as the one he uses to the Samaritan woman and to the woman taken in adultery. Mary is here treated by Jesus precisely as any woman whatever. She has no special claim on him by virtue of being his mother.

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The Oedipal Family: The Reality of the Family 

Our review of Gospel texts concerning the family shows that the subversion of this institution is a consistent characteristic of the Jesus tradition. This institution is rejected because it is the basic unit of society as presently constituted, the basic form of the old world. As such, the family is characterised by division (between “my own” relatives and the others) and by the domination that follows from possession.

This attitude toward the institution of the family is not like the one generated in ascetic traditions. The Jesus tradition is consistent in its celebrative rather than ascetic attitude toward life, a perspective that is well represented in the episode concerning the wine at Cana. Nothing here smacks of a suspicion directed against enjoying life. Rather, we find a critique of that which limits this enjoyment to this who “belong” to one’s own family group.

The repudiation of “family values” characteristic of the Jesus tradition may be heard as good news by those who are regularly denigrated because their very existence is regarded as a threat to these values. Gay and lesbian Christians may have particular reason to be glad of the attitude taken toward this system of exclusion and “compulsory heterosexuality” on the part of the Jesus tradition.

But this word also speaks to others as well who find themselves the victims of the institution of the family. We are increasingly aware that sentimental portraits of family life all too often disguise the way in which the family is the scene of violence and violation. By way of its “Babylonian captivity” to the institution of the family, the church has too often been silent about, and complicates in, the violence against women and children that this institution perpetuates.

The Oedipal Family: The Reality of the Family. Freud did much to expose the pathology underlying the modern family structure, and his work has been continued and developed by such later figures as Wilhelm Reich, R. D. Laing, and Herbert Marcuse. As Adam Curtis notes in The Trap (see video above), “Laing argued that the modern family, far from being a caring, nurturing institution, was in reality a dark arena where people played continuous selfish games with each other.” As Laing himself remarked, “The so-called ’normal’ families that I studied in the course of this work –  it was like walking into carbon monoxide gas chambers. People induced their children to adjust to life by poisoning themselves to a level of subsistence existence that they called ’life’.”

He believed that the struggle for power and control that he had uncovered in the family was inextricably linked with the struggle for power and control in the world. “In a violent and corrupt society, the family had become a machine for controlling people.” Laing was surely right to see a connection between these inner and outer worlds, and between the domestic and the political; the one constantly shaping and being shaped by the other. Not only was the orthodox family toxic for the individuals within it, as Freud, Laing and Jesus suggest, but it was also toxic for wider society, as the Jesus movement recognised. To make the one more liberating, equal, inter-dependent and social necessarily makes the other so.

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This is an excerpt from The Man Jesus Loved, by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. To find out more about the book, please click here.

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Happy Families: A Family Album

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Screen Shot 2021-07-03 at 19.07.57Over-Idealisation

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