Many landmarks have been passed in 2001. Some are celebrated, others regretted. One that for many will fall into the latter category is a milestone in the changing shape of the family in western culture. In “The World in 2001”, the Economist reports that in the United States the ‘Illegitimacy Ratio’ – the measure of the number of children born outside marriage - has just passed the watershed 33.3%. One in three American children are now born illegitimate. More disturbingly this is an average figure, meaning that in some sections of the community the true rate is closer to 70%. There are inner-city neighbourhoods in America in which the clear majority of children are brought up without the involvement of their birth fathers.
The UK scene is behind, but not by much. An estimated one in four children in our own society is born outside the nuclear family framework. Among social commentators, these figures are taken as a measure of the huge changes taking place in family life across our culture. Whatever shape the family takes in the years ahead, it is now clear that the nuclear model will not dominate western society in the coming century to the extent that it did in the last.
The traditional Christian response to this has been twofold:on the one hand to mourn the loss of stable families as the building blocks of a civilised society, and on the other to promote the teaching of parenting skills.Both of these are valid and important responses,and it is instructive that the Government has recently put its weight so resolutely behind the parenting skills lobby. But lying behind these responses are three separate assumptions.
The first is that the nuclear model of family is the Biblical norm:the God-given blueprint. The second is that this model genuinely contributes to social stability and the successful nurture of children. And the third is that the root of social dysfunction in young people is predominantly attributable to inadequate parenting. There are several reasons to question the validity of all three of these assumptions. Wider changes in our culture are leading to the re-assessment of many of the values of the modern era, and a re-evaluation of some of the models and ideas we have held dear. Two themes of this post-modern re-evaluation touch on the three assumptions above. The first is the recognition that social dysfunction is very often present in situations in which many of the ‘nuclear family values’ are visibly in place. We are used to blaming youth delinquency on ‘broken homes ’, but when it is the children of ‘intact homes ’who ram-raid shops and gun down their school mates, we need the courage to look more widely for the cause.
Both social and anecdotal evidence suggests that in many cases the nuclear model – two parents living with their two or more children in a home of which they have exclusive occupancy and use – can as often be the cause of dysfunction as the cure. Many commentators have pointed out that it is the extreme individualism of modern society that has led to the meltdown of so many social and communal structures: and the nuclear family is individualism expressed in family terms. How many of our Christian teaching programmes on parenting fall into the trap of implying that two parents are enough: that all children need for their successful nurture and growth is a safe and secure home and the loving attention of one man and one woman. Virtually every culture the world has known outside of the modern west would decry this as a dysfunctional model in itself. They would do so because the basic building block of society in pre-modern culture was not family as we understand it, but tribe.
This is the second theme that is emerging as post-modern thinkers revisit their understanding of family and society. “Tribe ”, “Tribal ”and “Tribalism ”are words appearing with increasing frequency in contemporary commentary, and many people are looking again at models of social organisation which the modern era did everything it could to dismantle. As our century evolves, we may find that the abandonment of tribe – a project we have been committed to for over 200 years - has far more potential to undermine community and social cohesion than the meltdown in the ‘traditional’ nuclear family.. ‘Tribe ’is the social unit that is bigger than ‘family' but smaller than ‘nation’ or ‘state’: a body of people, related either by blood, location or choice, who surround individual parents to offer support and assistance in the successful raising of their children.
In Biblical times,as in other pre-modern cultures, it was to the tribe as much as to the family that children belonged. Even a cursory word-search through the Old and New Testaments reveals this predominance of tribal understanding. Where the word ‘family’ is used, it rarely carries the implication of a nuclear model, and is more often either a synonym for tribe or a term for the localised expression of a wider tribal identity – what we would call the extended family. This usage persists in many rural African cultures, where the expressions ‘he is my brother’ or ‘she is my cousin’ do not indicate the tight bloodlines we so carefully trace in the west, but refer rather to those from the same tribe and village. It is a lesson of the human journey that it has been tribe, not family, that has proved the best means of protecting, educating and nurturing the young.
A painful passage in recent Western history serves to illustrate the difference of these two models. In the 1950s, many children of indigenous tribes –native Indians in America; Aborigines in Australia and Moaris in New Zealand – were taken by force from their tribal homes to be adopted by white families. The thinking was that they would receive a ‘better’ upbringing in the nuclear setting. In many cases the abductions were supported by Social Services reports showing that the children in question were not receiving the support and nurture of their parents. This took the tribal leaders entirely by surprise. Their view was that even where parents were absent or dysfunctional, the tribe was caring for the children. It was the tribe, not the nuclear unit that would look out for them. When representatives of the white authorities came to visit, this was a reality that they didn ’t even see. Only parents could parent: absent or dysfunctional parents meant, by definition, lack of nurture.
From a tribal perspective, the reverse is true. Even with good parents, it is the absence of tribe that prevents nurture. It is the tribe that supplies alternative adult models outside the home, giving the young an understanding of adulthood that is not limited to their own parents’ experience. It is the tribe that maintains the wider value system into which the young are inducted. It is through tribe that a web of relationships is provided within which is found a safe place for peer-to-peer nurture: for the important aspects of life in which children are brought up not by their parents but by each other.
And it is in tribe that the individual young person is connected to a wider ‘family’ stretching back in memory and forward in potential.
Tribe provides the link between the immediate household and the wider culture. Social norms, relationships and laws are discovered, learned and developed in the ‘friendly environment’ of tribal relationships. These relationships function as an ante-room or decompression chamber between the inner household and the outer society. In our culture children face a huge gulf between the worlds inside their household and the world outside, whether represented by huge, impersonal schools, urban youth culture or the emerging Behemoth of globalised media. In this sea of information and influences, the nuclear family often stands as an isolated island, with no place of safety when storms come.
Where there is no tribe the pressure on parents is immense. Those ill-equipped for nurture must simply watch their children flounder. The only mediating structure left to repair the damage of dysfunctional relationships is the State: a huge, unwieldy conglomerate rarely able to provide the ‘nurture interface’ dysfunctional children need. In the absence of the tribal web the full responsibility for child rearing falls on the shoulders of just two people: and very few have the resources, skills, energy, resilience or relationship for the task. It can lead to isolated parents with no one to turn to for support and isolated children with nowhere to go but to mum and dad. In such circumstances, the smallest crisis and most ordinary misunderstanding can grow to become a source of deep unease, with destructive results on all sides.
Much as the recovery of stable family matters, it may be that the recovery of stable tribe matters more. An intriguing passage in the life of Jesus goes some way to hinting at this truth. In Matthew 12:46-50, a few weeks into the public ministry of Jesus, a delegation comes to tell him ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, and they want to speak to you.’ His reply is unexpected and almost dismissive. ‘Who is my mother?’ he asks, ‘Who are my brothers?’ Then he points to his disciples and says, ‘These are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!’ A tribal understanding is implicit in the whole conversation: the ‘brothers’ in question could be brothers as we would mean it or cousins.
Scholars are unsure whether Jesus had brothers in the nuclear sense, but there is no doubt that he had close tribal peers. But there is something else here even more radical. It is that Jesus is suggesting that his ministry represents the founding of a new tribe – a new community to belong to. Whatever ‘tribe ’and ‘family’ have been in Judaism, Jesus is suggesting that this new community will now be. He comes to announce a Kingdom that will not be a disembodied idea but an incarnate community, taking flesh in the new web of relationships in which each person will find identity, support, nurture and purpose.
What might it mean in our post-nuclear age for the church not only to campaign for stable families, but also to declare and live out this announcement of a new tribal reality? What might it mean for single parents and dysfunctional families if we were to go beyond pointing out their inadequacies and trying to make them better parents to offering them the support of a ‘new tribe’? Could we become for them the network of supporting relationships that take the pressure out of parenting and share with them the joys and terrors of child rearing? A culture dissolving into millions of isolated units cries out for a church that is not only family-friendly but also tribal. Good parenting alone will not produce good children. It really does take a village to raise a child.