People end up increasingly in many kinds of family arrangements. About this, I believe three things: I want the marriage rate overall to increase, I want gays to be able to form loving families through marriage, and I want all families, no matter what the form, to work well for their members, especially for their children.
Does the first stance about marriage make me a conservative? Many of my liberal friends seem to think so. But, would conservatives embrace me as one of them? No way; many of them would say that my position on gay marriage would disqualify me.
There are worse things than being hard to classify. I am not dying to be thought a good progressive by liberals, or a principled conservative by those dedicated to that cause. But, I am disenchanted with those on the left who think that any defense of traditional marriage is repressive. And, I am disappointed in conservatives who can’t defend anything other than that form.
The problem is this: structure matters to any institution, but structures can vary within the bounds of the institution's most important principles. In fact, no matter the institution – a church, a nonprofit, a baseball team – structure matters. Pastors are trained in part to build strong churches, and they do so with clear organizational designs in mind. A nonprofit leader knows that structure matters: boards must be filled with competent, committed members, and lines of communication and authority between the executive director and the board must be clear. A manager of a baseball team knows he or she has positions to fill, places in the batting lineup to match up with the right type of hitting skills, and must recruit team members who respect the manager’s authority and competence.
Organizational principles depend on good organizational structures being in place so that the principles can be applied.
Commitment, clear lines of authority, healthy patterns of communication, putting the right people in the right roles – these matter to family viability too. And a good marriage, research continues to show, makes it more likely that families with these traits will form.
Churches, nonprofits, and baseball are evolving as institutions. They are becoming more embracing of women’s equality, more welcoming of gays, and less likely to demand authoritarian, male leadership.
So, structure can continue to matter, even as institutions – including the family – evolve. Marriage, even as it evolves, is worth defending. It’s still worth advocating. It’s still worth modeling positively to children.
I would say this to liberals who criticize me for being too conservative: one can want to defend an institution with a particular form, even as one also wants that institution to evolve. I would say this to conservatives who might harangue me for being too soft: one can best love and defend an institution by helping it reshape itself with the growing capacities of the people in them.
I know what I believe about the family, but it can’t be boiled down into one, formulaic assertion. I’ll take that over fitting any particular, ideological label.
Now that we’ve sold our house and moved into a city apartment, I can experience first-hand how the design of a family’s space influences how productive it can be. I knew this before the move, but now I live with a challenging reality: relating family-generated community building to those who do not live in separate standing houses.
In our last habitat, I had ready for use a continuous, indoor-outdoor span of growing, harvesting, cooking, storing, and composting space in the easily linked kitchen, basement, yard, and garage. The layout enabled productive roles throughout the food cycle.
I could step out the back door through the mudroom, adjoined to the kitchen. I grew cucumbers and tomatoes in large planters on the deck. The garage provided the storage space for them during the winter. It was located on the other side of the three large, raised beds and a row of sacks for growing potatoes.
Kitchen-deck-yard-garage space served as one, urban, mini-farm. The composting waste from the beds broke down in bins in the back of the yard, just yards from the alley. Extra composting material was picked up by the municipality’s waste-hauling contractors.
But, we moved in order to downsize. And we wanted to try an urban neighborhood near the beautiful lakefront of Chicago. We’re happy to be here. But, it’s also an opportunity to assess the challenges and opportunities presented by living in a very different setting.
Our apartment totals 900 square feet, whereas the house and yard, front and back, took up 7,000 square feet. There are 70 units in our building. I’ll have to put off food growing for a time, until I find a garden in the city in which I can hopefully participate with other growers in a shared farming situation.
Apartment living frees me from the demands of lawn mowing, snow shoveling, home repair, painting, and many other household tasks. But, it also presents a challenge to me in finding ways to farm.
Were our cities and towns better designed for it, we’d have more multi-unit buildings and developments dedicating decks, other built platforms, and open spaces to all the activities of farming. Were they to build these spaces into these more densely populated places, would enough of the residents step into the farming roles made possible by such design efforts?
The homeownership rate in the U.S. stands currently at 64% of the population. So, many people have enough, and control enough, of their own space to be productive throughout the food cycle. But, most don’t grow any of their own food at this point. Many do prepare their own meals, at least part of the time. More than a third of all Americans cook at home daily, and half say they cook at least three days per week.
Design, life circumstances, and personal priorities combine to determine how productive one will be.
Nothing really progresses without love’s animating power.
I’ve long boxed this belief into areas of my life zoned by society as legitimately “spiritual”. In other words, I’ve believed it, but have resisted sharing it, other than in church, in particular kinds of family conversation, or in small groups organized to discuss spirituality. But now, my soul desires to move over and around those boundaries. More acutely aware of God’s presence than am I, my soul wants to be consciously active in all the dimensions of my outer, 64-year-old life, including work.
Until the present, I’ve prevented expressions of my spiritual knowledge from overtly threading through policy arguments: for the loving, productive family and the strong, democratic, and embracing, community. I’ve done so despite the fact that I wouldn’t have been called to work on these issues had it not been for the inward, dream-fed certainty that this is the work that God wanted me to do.
So here, I’ll say it: love is a living force pressing without pause to flow through us and guide our actions, thoughts, dreams, and development so that we make the most of who we are, and address the needs and problems of the world that we are best suited to impact. We are built by our evolutionary inheritance to live with this dynamic force – love - and to gratefully let it speak to us inwardly and out.
This living force springs from the One, the All, God, and in my faith tradition (the One reaches souls through many faith traditions), is revealed to us by Jesus and yes, his mother, Mary, through their lives, teachings, actions, Jesus’ death and resurrection, Mary’s assumption, as well as the suffering and salvation of those who’ve borne their crosses as they’ve lived with purpose.
I’ve also embraced Teilhard de Chardin’s view of evolution as “Christogenesis”: God’s love moving the universe inexorably in evolutionary time – a drive toward progressive states of complexity and consciousness. Evolution becomes conscious of itself through collective human awareness. Bonded with creation, the One feeds, teaches, admonishes, and comforts as consciousness grows.
Complexity and consciousness proceed at the personal level as well. As one matures, more of one’s inner self, hidden in the psyche’s shadows and deeper pools of soul, come to light. When the ego strikes a healthy balance between management and openness, the soul is more able to teach him or her the nature of God’s call.
At another level of human activity, family-generated community building represents an important vector of that evolutionary change. It occurs at a sustainable scale of place, earthen habitat, and community. Deliberation among its members makes a community more conscious of itself. The organizing it entails recognizes its intricacy, and seeks to make it work in the community’s, and society’s, interests. The loving, productive family cultivates thick, developmental roles that further individual growth, beginning with children. Through parents and others, the One readies youth for more community, more vibrant democracy, and responsible care of the earth.
We desperately need a vision for policy that is respectful of our diversity, realistic about our differences, and yet grounded in deep-seated common interests. How about family-generated community building?
Family-generated community building sees strong families of a variety of forms able to do much for themselves, while working as co-producers of goods and services with businesses, schools, park districts, libraries, and other formal, non-familial institutions. This form of community building stresses the underlying dynamic of co-production, but takes on different nuances in city neighborhoods, in assorted suburbs, and in rural areas.
Family-generated community building advocates co-production in many forms. Some families, as many still do, will farm and work in partnership with cooperatives. Many will grow some of their own food in their own and shared gardens. Many will co-teach their children with schools. Many will operate their own enterprises: home-based and outside the home. Across the country, families will be so engaged as co-producers and partners that it will be natural to participate civilly in local, state, and national politics. Those who belong to churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques will celebrate their family faiths, their experiences of community, and the service to others that will flow from their inspired relationships.
A policy agenda that furthers such a vision of community building would impact local planning strategies, regional development plans, state policies, and federal policy change across education, economic development, agriculture, child welfare, income support, health, land use, and public safety. It’s a broad template through which to envision this one thing: a country in its many, diverse areas teeming with many kinds of loving, productive families. It’s a diverse matrix through which to design many initiatives and reforms that would enliven communities and democratic, political life through the empowerment and renewal of family life.
Just about everyone comes from a family, but people no longer living in families would benefit from, and partner with, productive family institutions. Non-familial businesses would benefit from having the motivated workers and disciplined employees who are raised in thriving families. Government agencies such as police and homeland security would find more active partners in the prevention of crime and terror.
Family-generated community building is an agenda that is not about “family policy” only in the narrow sense of marriage laws and custody rules. It’s about the kinds of communities we want and the kinds of policies across many arenas that can aid in making them real.
We will continue to argue about government scale, corruption, corporate power, and race. But, we need an encompassing vision to bind us, even as we fight. Given how diverse a country we are, we must grow forward with many faces, in many colors, and with respect for the stunning array of different peoples who have arrived over the centuries in our one place - our United States. Underneath our unique diversity, we need families taking care of their own and co-producing with others: many small boats moving purposefully in this one sea entrusted to us.
Some roles are thick; others are thin. How so? And, so what?
Take the thin role of buying a hamburger at a drive-through restaurant. You sit in the car, place an order from pre-selected options, drive to the next window, and someone with whom you barely interact hands you the bag containing your food. That’s it. That’s the consumer role structured by the fast food experience.
On the other hand, I cooked hamburgers the other night in my own kitchen. The burger was certainly thicker than the one I would have picked up at McDonalds, but so was the role of preparing, cooking, plating, sharing, and eating it. I had purchased the ground beef at Mariano’s after walking there from my home. I formed the patties, blending in the seasonings and onions from my cabinet. I paid careful attention to all the stages of stovetop grilling, while also making a salad and baking hand-cut potatoes. I plated the food with an attention to its layout and visual appeal. Maureen and I then held a leisurely conversation for the next forty minutes or so as we ate. Later, she cleaned up the stove, the dishes, and the table while we talked further.
The creative expectations of a role like preparing and sharing a meal bring together more skills, angles for interaction, and depth for bonding with another than does the role one takes when eating out. That’s true even in a dining experience at a restaurant where one is served multiple courses, is not hurried by the waiter, and has time to talk with those at the table. In the latter experience, others like the chef and the restaurant hosts take the productive roles; consumers choose what to purchase from among the options on the menu prepared well before they had booked their table. It’s not your space, and you’re more guarded in how you behave in it.
Shift now to parenthood. Kids need to be engaged by parents in roles that are thick enough to create the right amount of time and depth for learning and relationship building. In the thick role of cook, the mom, dad or grandparent can control the quality, quantity, and pacing of the food served at the table. With a baby, there is even the experience of direct feeding, wiping a messy chin, dabbing away spills from the table and floor, and sharing in the fun with others while watching the little one dribble all over his or her chin.
Shift one more step to the community where agencies tend to favor client and consumer roles, rather than co-producer roles, for citizens. Community development needs to be very attentive to building the thick, productive roles that enable citizens to be fully engaged and parents to be able to bring their talents and skills to the public table. It's got to get beyond being given food, seeing a counselor, obtaining a check-up, and getting help with government paperwork. Such services are necessary, but don't build community. Production is more empowering than consumption and provides more opportunity for bonding. Where those thicker skills need to be strengthened, the agencies must be ready to provide the training.