Matt tells me that PayPal is trending on Twitter, but I’ve muted so many people that all I see are cute animal videos and I wouldn’t even begin to know who to search to find out more about it. Apparently, the West isn’t quite ready for a social credit system, not quite yet. But maybe we’re ready for another “novel” idea that I read about yesterday—the abolition of the family. There’s a new book about how to solve all our problems:
If we begin by abolishing our kitchens, what else might we get a taste for destroying, and for creating? A bit of self-governance here, some collectively organised childcare there: begin with the kitchen, and we might end up with a whole new society. This is the premise of the revolutionary politics of family abolition. The US-based writer and academic Sophie Lewis is our most eloquent, furious and funny critic of how the family is a terrible way to satisfy all of our desires for love, care, nourishment. Her new book, Abolish the Family, offers a powerful introduction to the world beyond the nuclear family. Lewis is the author, too, of the incendiary Full Surrogacy Now (2019), which explored the abuses of the surrogacy industry as a lens into radically expanded concepts of kinship.
Goodness, I wonder if “funny” means the same thing for the author of this review as for me. The idea of equating having to cook a lot of meals for your family (the article says something like 1,095 in a year by some calculation or other) with actual slavery sure does sound like a joke, but I don’t know who is really laughing. Probably not people who do suffer under modern-day oppression. Anyway, the problem, according to the author of this new shocking oeuvre, is that having to care for your actual family is literally the worst, whereas “getting” to participate in the care of a big group of people, a proletariat collective or something, is not abusive at all, nor exploitative, and will only turn out well:
The family, Lewis and other abolitionists and feminists argue, privatises care. The legal and economic structure of the nuclear household warps love and intimacy into abuse, ownership, scarcity. Children are private property, legally owned and fully economically dependent on their parents. The hard work of care – looking after children, cooking and cleaning – is hidden away and devalued, performed for free by women or for scandalously low pay by domestic workers. Even the happiest families, in the words of the writer Ursula Le Guin, are built upon a “whole substructure of sacrifices, repressions, suppressions, choices made or forgone, chances taken or lost, balancings of greater or lesser evils”. If we abolish the family, we abolish the most fundamental unit of privatisation and scarcity in our society. More care, more love, for all.
Ah yes, Moar Love for all. That’s always what happens when you become someone like Mrs. Jellyby, or Glennon Doyle, and decide that All the Children of the World are yours, a moral posture that conveniently lets you out of the drudgery of caring for your own. Though the children themselves may feel the pinch, the emancipated woman never does, at least not until it’s too late. The article goes on at length, in the vaguest possible terms, about how this would all work and why it would be so wonderful. It ends with this riveting if extremely morbid insight:
Lewis acknowledges, too, that there is something psychically challenging about family abolition. As with all abolitionist politics, family abolition calls into question some of our most deeply held notions of ourselves: about kinship, belonging, identity; about what we consider natural, about what can be lived differently. But I wonder if Lewis overestimates just how terrifying her audience will find the idea that the family is a “scarcity-based trauma-machine”; that is, a way of organising society that encloses care within the household, and shuts all kinds of abuse, neglect and lovelessness behind a locked door. Burned out from pandemic parenting, facing immense childcare shortages and costs, women are leaving the workforce in record numbers, and in the US, forced birth and baby formula shortages are making crisis-parenting the rule, not the exception. The call for a revolutionary way of reconfiguring how we care for each other is more essential than ever, and Lewis’s manifesto is an irrepressible spark to our very tired imaginations.
“Something psychically challenging” is rather a mild way of describing trying to get rid of one of the more essentially lovable experiences of being human. Humanity has so many awful predilections, but parents taking care of their children isn’t one of them. Sure, when you say yes to your children, you are saying no to so many things, very often yourself, but it is a small price to pay for the gift of seeing someone else toddle along, and then walk, and then play the piano, and then, dear Heavenly Savior, drive (insert string of hysterical emojis here). I don’t want to be a jerk or anything, but if I had to teach all the children of the world to drive, I would be transformed into a really bad person.
All joking aside, I do agree that something more is required. The family, wrecked by a century of stupid ideology, is in a sorry state, and it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend otherwise. I wonder where we could turn to find some kind of help. Perhaps Ms. Lewis really is our answer. Maybe, as she insists, we just haven’t tried hard enough to bring about that utopian dream.
Or, one dares to wonder if there might be some other even more ancient text that could be consulted to find out not only what to do about the ailing family, but what it all means, what it is for, and why it persists in working the way it does, against all “rational” deconstructions. Felicitously, this very morning, we have two sets of demoralized and weary people who have come right to the end of themselves. On the one hand, there are the ten lepers healed by Jesus. All but one let the sheer weight, as well as the implications, of Jesus’ loving care slip past their attention as they went happily back to their previous lives. That one caught a glimpse of some new way of being and came running back to Jesus, his heart in his throat. But let’s go farther back to those three desolate women, standing in that field. It is a well-worn text, by no means revolutionary:
In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years,and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
It takes only one meager, spare paragraph to recount the abolishment of the family, not because someone with too much “education” and not enough real familial affection had the dismal idea of getting rid of it, but because of that yet more devastating foe—death. Give it time and every family comes to nothing. All your bright, best dreams of a home, of a husband, of your own children to pull up into your lap to console vanish away if death comes to be your guest. And so Naomi is left alone with no husband and no sons, only two childless young women whose kinship with her is in the grave. What is she to do? Rejoice because the revolution came and she doesn’t have to cook anymore? What an emancipation! She should have been happy.
But that’s the trouble with these revolutionary schemes. When commanded to dance and “be free,” too many people persist in wanting the obtuse pleasure of having only their own families to cook for and love. In this case, though, there isn’t any food either, so therefore
she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
What makes Ruth cling to Naomi? What made the one leper turn back? What made you get out of bed and go to church?
Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.
It is contrary to all “sense” that particular people are called out of the world and find themselves bound, in ways that take them their whole lives to try to understand, to people who they wouldn’t have chosen for friends, or are not related to by marriage or blood. We do have another kinship, another kind of family. It is one that the world groans to understand, one that everyone is trying to manufacture, to copy, to reinvent in various ways, sometimes by blowing it up, other times by recasting it in grotesque shapes and sizes.
The trouble with this other family is that God is the person who orders it. If you want in, you have to have him as he is. Whatever he says, you not only accept, but do. Whatever kind of love he offers, that becomes the ground of your being. In all the particulars, he makes himself known. He arranges the table, he provides the food—himself—and sets the tone and the conversation. When you come to eat, as his child, you don’t get to decide who will sit next to you, or how comfortable your chair will be. You grasp onto him–his body and blood–which means letting everything else fall away, most especially the little control you thought you had.
It feels like death, sometimes, but death already had his say and has been ushered out into the gloom outside. Your lodging, your people, your God—nothing can ever separate you from his loving care. Neither heights nor depths, nor angels, nor demons, nor any attempts to make this kind of family in human terms. Because it isn’t yours, you can’t destroy it. All you can do is grasp the people next to you in the pew, however strange and alien they may be. Sometimes those people are your own family whom God has providentially delivered into your care, other times they are people who become your family as the days slip by. No matter who they are, you walk together toward him and his great and perfect feast.
What did Ms. Lewis call it? A “scarcity-based trauma-machine?” Try rather the foretaste of an eternity with a generous and loving kinsman redeemer who laid aside his own glory to heal, deliver, feed, and restore you.