by Jon Kuhrt (orginally published in 2008 in Third Way magazine)
It is almost impossible to speak about the family without being accused of launching a moral crusade, blaming the victim, or hitting at the most vulnerable – as if what was at stake were the self esteem of the parents, instead of the concrete suffering of those who matter in this situation, namely the children. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
IT is hard to believe the way that children were treated in the Victorian Age. At the height of Britain’s economic and imperial power, our ancestors sent them mercilessly to work – in factories, down mines, up chimneys.
Most of us would like to think that if we lived in those days we would have been part of the progressive voice for reform. But child labour was deeply entrenched, backed up with sound economic arguments. Lord Shaftesbury was dismissed as an idealist who did not understand economic realities, and had to campaign for over 20 years before Parliament limited a child’s working day in a factory to 10 hours.
But what are the issues that future generations will condemn us for? I believe the answer lies closer to home – in the reckless way we have neglected and disregarded family life.
Politically, it is very hard to talk about the importance of family life because you are quickly labelled as judgemental, right wing or simply naïve and nostalgic. So let me be clear at the outset: the problem is not with unconventional families but dysfunctional ones. Jesus himself almost certainly grew up in economic and social hardship, with a question mark over his paternity. But even if Joseph was not his biological father, he was righteous and fiercely committed to his family.
In contrast, the modern ‘whatever is right for you’ approach to families, and particularly the absence of responsible fathers, is impacting the poorest communities hardest. I come to this conclusion not chiefly from a ‘moral’ perspective but from a practical one. We see it in the weekly horror of teenage gang violence across the country. And after spending most of my working life living on inner city estates and managing hostels for homeless people in centralLondon, I have become convinced that – passionate though I am about structural injustice and material poverty – the biggest change in the UK could come through a transformed approach to commitment and responsibility within the family.
LACK OF CHOICE?
Our culture finds it very hard to face the reality about family life. Birthed in a positive desire to promote freedom and choice, the liberal consensus has morphed and hardened into libertarian denial about how communities work. Personal freedom has become the Golden Calf our society worships. This puts marriage and traditional perspectives on families in the firing line because they are seen as restrictive social constructs underpinned by outdated religious convictions. The blanket reason for almost all social problems is wrongly identified as ‘a lack of choice’.
This perspective distorts our ability to effectively tackle the real issues facing our communities. Because youth crime, low self-esteem, anger and violence are not simply determined by material poverty, physical environments and a lack of choice. They are like destructive weeds which grow rapidly in the soil of dysfunctional family life.
I first encountered the antipathy to discussing the issue of families when I studied for a degree in Social Policy and Social Work in the early 1990s. While we discussed poverty, inequality and the inadequacies of capitalism, it was unacceptable to link poverty to family breakdown. If you turned the spotlight on families themselves, you were liable to being labelled ‘Thatcherite’, ‘reactionary’, or – even worse to a left wing student – ‘middle-class’.
It was similar across campus in the farcically politically-correct world of the Student Union where I was heavily involved. I remember when a student who stood in the Student elections had his nomination form officially removed following a formal complaint. What had he done wrong? He had written on his form that he believed in ‘family values’. This was deemed homophobic and oppressive to the minority groups on campus. Even later when I was elected Vice President for a year, I found the orthodoxy on such issues was extremely powerful and hard to stand against.
Following University I spent five years managing emergency hostels for young people in central London for the charity, Centrepoint. Day after day, homeless young people came to our hostel highly damaged by deprivation, drugs, self harm, prostitution, violence and low self-esteem. But underpinning all of these issues, one factor towered above all the others – family breakdown. Every day, we would hear the stories from the young people about their dysfunctional families – too often concerning violent, neglectful or completely absent fathers and mothers who just could not cope.
Despite this consistent story emerging from the front line, Centrepoint’s Policy and Campaigns department would never speak out about issues relating to family life. Impressive research and reports were produced every year urging the government to do more about benefit reform, housing rights and the lack of joined up services for the young. Ministers lined up to visit us all the time and Tony Blair even addressed our 30th Anniversary while I was there. But all this time no one really addressed the underpinning issue of family breakdown. Just as I had found when studying Social Work, it remained a taboo.
Sidelining the role of family in social issues is a failure to understand the true nature of poverty – and especially the form of poverty that is most destructive in the UK today. Too often our understanding of poverty focuses entirely on the material and ignores poverty of relationships and identity.
Poverty is not just about low-incomes just as homelessness is not simply about houselessness. Families are where we grow up in relationships of vital importance – the first five years are the most significant as what we have received via nature in our personality and attributes are nurtured into expression within a community. The quality of our upbringing affects how we interrelate as an individual within the society we are a part. If we are not nurtured within loving and consistent relationships then it is no wonder that we in turn find relationships challenging.
A deeper facet of life in the UK is the poverty of identity which is shown in the rise in mental health problems and the feelings of meaningless among so many young people today. As the UNICEF report found last year: UK children are least happy in Europe. The reason is not simply material – but is due to the increasingly poor network of relationships that so many grow up within. It is this kind of poverty that undermines the secure identity that we seek as we are growing up – to be identified within a group in whom you feel loved, accepted and who has your best intentions at heart.
The combination of the poverties of relationships and identity mean the flow of young people ending up vulnerable on our streets will never be abated by building more hostels or developing more and more elaborate ‘strategies’. Trying to fight poverty without addressing the issue of family life is trying to fill a leaky bucket.
Away from the front line, too many liberal commentators are stuck in tired stereotypes when it comes to discussing families. Mary Riddell, writing in the Observer earlier this year, typified this approach in an article entitled Happiness is more than a good dad. In between scathing criticism of ‘traditionalists’ who are concerned about the state of families she wrote ‘the traditional family is an over-rated institution…many brutal crimes are common in family life and some, such as incest, are specific to it.’
Such blinkered, prejudiced perspectives are out of step with the reality of life. They are attempts of libertarian dogma to take a speck out of the eye of traditional views whilst ignoring the huge plank in its own.
The denial extends into politics. During the London Mayoral election campaign, Ken Livingstone responded to the revelations that emerged about his ‘private life’. He said ‘I have had 5 children from 3 different women but no one in this city cares what you do as long as it does not involve animals, children or vegetables.’
Despite the self-contradiction of what he said – quite how this lifestyle choice does not ‘involve children’ is a mystery – most of the media and the other candidates refused to criticise these views of the man who has runLondonfor the last eight years. The reaction was a defining moment: any remaining public consensus surrounding commitment, fidelity and family life seemed to be eroded like a sandcastle before a powerful tide. There was no scandal, surprise or even much of a moral debate. It was accepted as the way things are.
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks this denial about family life is a ‘fantasy created and sustained by an elite that has temporially lost its sense of responsibility’.
Whether fantasy or not, these views have a tight grip on the culture of social policy, politics and the media. While most will privately admit that it has been the love of our parents and the security of our upbringing is the most significant influence on our life chances, the importance of family life continues to be publicly undermined in a way unprecedented in history.
But the social and financial costs of dysfunctional families are spiralling constantly. Any agenda which promotes unfettered freedom of choice on all matters cannot last – the elephant in the room is causing too much damage for us to ignore it for much longer. We need prophetic voices who will speak out bravely and engage with our destructive culture.
Christians are people of hope for transformation, but this does not mean we are optimists about human nature. Unlike liberal humanists, we must avoid the naive belief that when external environments are changed then positive behaviour will inevitably follow. This leads to the moral dead-end which insists that when poverty or social issues persist that somehow it must always be the fault of ‘the system’ rather than the responsibility of the individual. This thinking has underpinned the dependency culture has done enormous damage in our society, where increasing numbers are concerned only for their ‘rights’ rather than their responsibilities.
In his recent book Black Mass leading philosopher John Gray gives a provocative critique of liberal optimism and the belief in progress. He writes that ‘the cardinal need is to change the prevailing view of human beings, which sees them as inherently good creatures unaccountably burdened with a history of violence and oppression… No theory of politics can be credible that assumes that human impulses are naturally benign, peaceable or reasonable’.
This is where the Christians doctrine of sin comes in. Contrary to the common view, a robust doctrine of sin is needed not in order to judge others but in order to understand the world we live in. Both history and scripture are clear about the persistency of human failing and the need for structural correctives to these tendencies in order for a healthy society to exist. We cannot simply wish that the problems facing our communities will sort themselves out – because they will not. As uncomfortable as it sounds, we need, in Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, to ’relate the religious ideal of love to the political necessity of coercion’.
Marriage and commitment within families is important because humans in their frailty need structures around them which protect their deepest longings from their own weaknesses. This is what marriage does – rather than being ‘romantic’, it is actually a very realistic. It acknowledges the need for a public, legally binding act of commitment as a framework in which the most important of all jobs can be done: the raising of children. This is the cornerstone of strengthening families.
The rapidly changing face of our family life in theUKmeans that we face a situation unprecedented in history. It is as significant as the swift urbanisation in the nineteenth century during the industrial revolution. As then, it will be the poorest who will be hit hardest by a failure of moral leadership. Just as Lord Shaftesbury fought against the prevailing orthodoxy regarding child labour in mines and factories, we must stand against the injustices caused by family breakdown, parental absence and neglect.
While many can agree with talking about the importance of families when you start talking about specific policies it becomes more difficult. Many will say ‘you can’t legislate for morality’.
But just consider how effective legislation has been around the banning of smoking in public places. If someone had suggested 10 years ago that in 2008 pubs would be smoke free then most of us would never have believed them, but legislation has transformed pubs. Culture has changed as the result of the government being prepared to take a moral lead based on the evidence before it.
Just as passive smoking had to be proved to be dangerous, there needs to be an acceptance that family breakdown is disastrous for communities. Last year however, Gordon Brown said his family policy would not be shaped by “ideological judgments” about the value of marriage. But it is in the refusal to acknowledge the effectiveness of marriage that modern politicians display their true ideological judgmentalism, because they simply fall back onto the promotion of choice at all costs. This is the ideology of our libertarian age.
Of this perspective, Janet Daley has written ‘The great national scandal of our time is not just the deterioration of life in our communities but the fact that everybody knows what is at the heart of it and no one in power – even those who talk most about poverty and know that family breakdown is the chief cause of it – will do what must be done. This has been the most shameful failure of political and moral courage among the governing classes in living memory.’
HOW TO HELP
So what must be done? From the government there should be an unequivocal policy shift to invest long term resources into maintaining relationships. A key aim should be to increase the amount of children who are brought up by both their parents. Agencies which run parenting and relationship programmes should be heavily invested in. The tax system should be shaped to reward long term commitment – for example restoring the married couple’s transferable tax allowance would mean that a couple can benefit from a double personal allowance if one chooses to stay at home with children. Also, the benefit system should ensure that a lone mother is not penalised for living with, or marrying, the father of her child.
However, the state of family life will not be transformed by policy changes alone. The real change will come from grassroots activists concerned about the crisis facing their neighbourhoods. Churches could focus their mission on strengthening relationships – the running of marriage preparation courses, parenting courses, reconciliation services and youth and children’s work. These are the kind of things which healthy congregations do well – reaching out with love and grace to those who are short on both.
On a more individual level we could all support our friends who are struggling in their relationships with practical offers of babysitting to give them time together to rediscover why they are together in the first place. We also need to de-bunk the myth that you can be a good father without being a good husband or partner to their mother. The best gift a father can ever give to his children is to love their mother. Those who have children and are sexually unfaithful are not just cheating on their partners but on their children.
A QUESTION OF JUSTICE
Strengthening family life should be the nation’s number one priority to reverse the spiral of entrenched poverty, anger and violence in our communities. A Christian commitment to families should not hark back to some mythical golden age because of nostalgia or sentimentality, but because we care about social justice. Commitment, fidelity and strong families are not anachronisms from a previous age they are pivotal to our nation’s health. They are more important than our economic strength.
The issue of families epitomises the need for a synthesis of personal and public responsibility. It is in this synthesis that we will again re-discover the critical ‘third way’ and avoid veering off course into a liberal cul-de-sac. The future of community life depends on both a ‘moral’ commitment to family life and a ‘political’ commitment to social justice. Most of all we need to be honest and brave and speak up about what is really happening in our communities.