Loyalty and Rebellion

Having just read Marilynne Robinson's essay "Family," part of a collection of essays in the excellent The Death of Adam, I had a thought in relation to this assertion:

"I think the biological family is especially compelling to us because it is, in fact, very arbitrary in its composition. I would never suggest so rude an experiment as calculating the percentage of one's relatives one would actually choose as friends, the percentage of one's relatives who would choose one as their friend. And that is the charm and the genius of the institution. It implies that help and kindness and loyalty are owed where they are perhaps by no means merited."

Our society places the awful burden of merit on the heads of individuals and institutions. If someone doesn't live up to the expectations we have of them, or strays outside of our vision for them for even a moment, we deem them meritless and write them off. They are useless to us in our striving to achieve the ends we have marked as lending meaning to our lives.

I am as guilty of this as anyone -- perhaps more so.


Just this week, the United Methodist Church declared that it would no longer guarantee clergy appointments. Brad Laurvick, a local UMC pastor here in Denver, and a friend, tweeted coinciding with the vote: "As of this vote- clergy, like the rest of the working world, has no guarantee to their job #gc2012." Clergy are now fully under the hegemony of our merit based society. It remains to be seen whether the change will form a church that more fully conforms to gospel. The argument goes that the guaranteed appointment tradition is, these days, protecting "ineffective clergy" more than anyone else. Perhaps that is true. I don't know that effectiveness is a theological term, but as my friend Whitney says, "you can spiritualize anything."


Young people, that is, people of my generation and younger seem particularly apt to rebel against their families. But perhaps this is simply a phenomenon of age and biology. A generation ago youth were rebelling against their families; so were the generation before that; the generation before that generation there was no time to rebel because everyone was fighting Hitler; but the generation before that flappers were also rebelling. Rebellion against the family is, it seems, a young person's game. Loyalty is something that comes with experience. Perhaps because it is harder.

If it is true, as Robinson says, that the family is arbitrary in its composition, that almost no one would voluntarily chose their family as friends, then rebelling against the family is the easiest thing in the world.


Of course, Robinson is also writing about the church. She doesn't say so explicitly, but she does say this:

One's family are those toward whom one feels loyalty and obligation, and/or from whom one derives identity, and/or to whom one gives identity, and/or with whom one shares habits, tastes, stories, customs, memories. This definition allows for families of circumstance and affinity as well as kinship, and it allows also for the existence of people who are incapable of family, though they may have parents and siblings and spouses and children."

She also asks us to imagine "that someone failed and disgraced came back to his family, and they grieved with him, and took his sadness upon themselves, and sat down together to ponder the deep mysteries of human life." Here, for anyone who has ears to hear it, Robinson clearly references the parable of the prodigal son. I have experienced this particular kind of grace from four sources: my chosen friends, my family, the family into which I married, and the church. When my actions had not merited their mercy, they freely gave it. I am ashamed to say that I have not given mercy so easily, to my friends, to my family, to the church.

An institution from which one derives one's identity, to which one gives identity, with which one shares stories, customs, and memories -- this seems to me to be one definition of the church, as well as the family. And the church, like the family, is a particularly easy institution to rebel against. It is full of people with whom one would otherwise not choose to associate oneself. They're just there already. They have unpopular and often offensive political opinions. They harken from a different, older generation, and hold different, alien values. They let their children run up and down the aisle during the sermon. They have earned no merit. Indeed, they are incapable of earning it.

The Church itself, made up of of all of these people, has also failed to earn our merit, and if anything has merited rebellion against it. We do not owe it our loyalty. Indeed, our representation in the church, in the Methodist case, has decided that the church ought to return the sentiment -- for clergy no longer have the loyalty of the church, like everyone, everywhere else, they must earn their merit.

But in a society dominated by merit even at the level of the family, faithful loyalty is rebellion, be it loyalty to friends, family, or religion. One need not like one's institution, but perhaps hard-nosed loyalty, practiced in the family and brought into public in the church, is one world transforming virtue we need.


I realize that elsewhere on this site I have tentatively advocated the abolition of the family. Can I post this piece along with that piece on the same weblog and expect readers to take me seriously? Perhaps not. Or, perhaps in our loyalty to the family (whether we find it in biological kinship, in the church, or with our friends) we can more freely dismantle the institution defined and defended by patriarchy, and rebuild a family based on equality, grace, and mercy.