You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.
December 29 was the Feast of the Holy Family. The family is a place of life, fidelity, love, and warm intimacy. The family is a place of death, infidelity, hatred, and cold alienation. At least that’s how Scripture describes it. How astounding it is that our God of the Impossible has chosen the messy and marvelous family as ground zero of his rescue plan for the human race.
The late Francis Cardinal George often spoke of the immense social and redemptive significance of relationships that cannot be “unchosen,” like marriage and family, or those relationships we find ourselves in by virtue of where we live, where we work, what our religion, race, or ethnicity is—or even what parish family we happen to belong to.
George strongly criticized those aspects of American choice-culture that emphasize the primacy of voluntary associations that can be unchosen at will, to the detriment of those unchosen relationships that form the very bedrock of what Catholics would call a civilization of love. This voluntary culture of unfettered liberty, he argued, encourages us to believe it is our right to renounce any and all relationships (including those in the womb) that don’t meet our personal goals and comforts, placing the power of self-determination and personal fulfillment at the center of existence.
Yet, George says, for Catholics it is above all in those relationships we find ourselves thrust into—relationships that resist the shifting sands of whim or preference—that we learn what it means to be truly human. He argued it is among the people we are “stuck to” that we become capable of grasping the deep meaning hidden in the divine command, “You shall love your neighbor as your self.” For when we are confronted by the unsought face of a neah bur—one “near by”—love encounters its highest calling.
Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable is about a man who finds himself confronted by a victim of violence who, simply by virtue of his proximity, imposes the severe demands of mercy on the Samaritan passerby. Unlike the priest and Levite, the Samaritan traveler refuses to unchoose this victim by passing on the other side of the road. Rather, he draws nigh, stooping low and pouring out compassion on a stranger’s wounds he claimed as his own.
The moral of the story is made even more stark by Jesus’ insertion of the dark Jewish-Samaritan history of ethnic, cultural, and religious hatred. Such ancient and powerful rationales for unchoosing others simply dissolve under the force of this parable’s inexorable logic, making clear to all hearers there is no room in the kingdom of God for those who choose to exclude anyone from laying claim on their own freely offered love.
G.K. Chesterton brilliantly expresses this harsh logic in an editorial he penned in 1910 for the Illustrated London News: “The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.”
The word “religion”—from the Latin religare, meaning “to bind fast”—among other things communicates religion’s binding force that links us to a people—many or even most of whom we would not otherwise freely choose to identify ourselves or associate with. But for Christians this is the heartbeat of religion, a uniting all humanity together as one family, in love, under one common Father. Heaven would be hell for any who wish it otherwise.
This is all bloody hard, which makes it very tempting to opt for becoming “spiritual, not religious.” Religion binds us to the whole sordid lot of humanity, heroes and hypocrites, and then demands that we journey back to God together. Fixed to the cross by his neighbors, Jesus exposes the redemptive cost of religion’s binding force, as he obeyed love’s logic to the very end. “This is my Body, which is for you” subverts the idolatrous logic of a culture which exalts the autonomous self that seeks its fulfillment in the construction of god and neighbor in its own image and likeness.
I said to someone the other day, we Catholics never parish hop, shopping like consumers for a charismatic leader or a gated faith community to our liking. Rather, we fiercely believe as a rule (§518) that the parish we belong to—are “bound fast to”—is the one in whose physical boundaries we happen to live. Why? Because our landlocked parish is our holy land; is God’s beautiful, difficult, kind, unpleasant, wonderfully diverse community of saints and sinners; is that rabble of our unchosen near-bys with whom God’s scheming providence has arranged for us to learn to love. And if we stay in place, and abide in the Vine, the very things we like least in our neighbors may become the very things that help us love the most.
May the grace of the Holy Family help us to embrace the call to love our unchosen near-bys, beginning with those nearest us at home.