From family values to religion, politics, and ecology

There are, then, two kinds of family values, the communist values of natural families, based on love and mutual caring; and the hierarchical values of traditional families, based on voices from the past. In Western culture these are mostly patriarchal values but in other cultures hierarchy can be related to such things as age, clan membership, or specific achievements.

These two sets of values are not opposites, they are both aspects of almost all families. Traditional families usually take care of their members, and natural families necessarily have some hierarchies and traditions. Differences between families are differences in emphasis – is the family primarily natural or primarily traditional?

Both family arrangements are represented in most religious traditions. The patriarchal family is a principal theme of the Bible; but the ideas of equality, mutual care, and brotherly love are there, too. We are enjoined both to honor our fathers and mothers and to care for one another as if we were brothers and sisters. The early church adopted both models, too: We are all children of God so we should care for those less fortunate, but the (mostly) male clergy are arranged in hierarchies.

The two sets of family values imply two kinds of personal values. Natural families emphasize individual responsibility, care, and compassion but also imply a sense of entitlement. Each member of the family is expected to do his/her share and to care for those in need, but each member can feel secure that others will be there to care when needed. Traditional families emphasize obedience and respect, both to the patriarch and to the other traditional values on which patriarchy is based. Family members who are obedient and fulfill their assigned roles expect others to do the same.

These two kinds of family values help us understand different kinds of dysfunctional families. Deviations from the communist principle can lead to child (or elder) neglect or exploitation. A complete lack of hierarchy can lead to unruly children and family chaos. Traditional values, if not tempered by love and caring, can lead to family violence, the oppression of women, and child abuse.

Family conflict can result from the violation of either set of values. A natural family may criticize or reject family members who takes more than needed or contribute less they are able. A traditional family may criticize or reject family members who fail to fulfill their role in the hierarchy, whether a disobedient child, woman, or weak patriarch.

We can see the interaction of these two threads in contemporary religion. The Dalai Lama, the hierarchic leader of his religion, shares an emphasis on compassion and kindness with non-hierarchic groups such as the Quakers. On the other hand, both the extremely hierarchic Catholic Church and the very communitarian Mormon Church share strong patriarchal and anti-feminist values.

We also see the same division in environmental values. Deep ecologists, pantheists, social ecologists, and many environmentalists see humans as members of a biological community (family) with an obligation to only take what we need, care for other creatures as for ourselves, and do no harm. Communist values are extended beyond the family to all of nature. Traditionalists see humans at the top of a natural hierarchy, with the natural world existing for our benefit. Tempered by communist values, this can lead to an ethic of stewardship, but just as in a strongly patriarchal family, without compassion it can lead to an ethic of resource exploitation and environmental destruction.

George Lakoff has suggested that political conservatives and fundamentalist Christians share “strict father morality” while progressives share “nurturant parent morality.” He sees these as (mostly) unconscious frames for political and religious debate. His distinction is similar to the one being drawn here, but sees nurture and hierarchy as opposites, creating an either-or view of politics. If communist and hierarchic values are more-or-less independence, as I am suggesting, perhaps less confrontational politics are possible. Can leaders be both strong and compassionate? Can they draw on both traditional and natural family values?

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