THE ROLE OF THE FAMILY IN A CONTEMPORARY SOCIETY
(Lecture delivered in the Nigerian American Cultural Center Convention, in Cleveland – Beachwood, Ohio, 17 July 2009)
It is most fitting that this Nigerian American Cultural Center Convention has chosen as its topic for this event “The Role of the Family in a Contemporary Society”.
In response to the suggestion of your leaders, I happily accept to propose to this august assembly some reflections on this important subject. We shall begin by discussing briefly the gateway to the family, which is marriage. Then the features of the family will be identified. Family values deserve careful consideration also with reference to the Nigerian heritage. In the world of today the family faces challenges and these need to be listed. The family builds up the civil society and also orients towards religion. We shall close with a prayer for the family in the society of today.
1. Marriage is an admirable Covenant.
Marriage is a covenant by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life. By its nature, it is ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.
Cultures all along the centuries and across all religions and healthy cultures call this man and woman husband and wife. Their permanent association, covenant or institution, is the normal place for the generation of new human life and for the education of children. It is a wonderful thing that husband and wife know that both of them are involved in the procreation of these children and in promoting their various stages of development, first for nine months before birth, and then for years after birth. .
Thus husband and wife know, without having to delve into high philosophy, theology or psychology, that to be a man and to be a woman are rather serious matters. They are not casual. They are not meaningless. They are not a construct of cultural bias or religious orientation. They come from nature.
This is another way of discovering that marriage comes from God’s creating hands. It is not human beings who invented marriage. It is God himself who said: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). God not only created Adam but also created Eve and gave her to Adam to be his wife. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him;’ male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 1:27-28).
Marriage, therefore, has been established by God and endowed with its own proper laws. It is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it has undergone through the centuries in various cultures, social structures and spiritual attitudes, and because of human weakness and sin. Every culture that does not want to descend into decadence respects marriage and the family to which it gives rise. History is witness that neglect of this divinely established order leads to much suffering and heartbreaks in the lives of many people. The health of a culture can be tested from its attitude toward marriage and the family.
A healthy marriage is generally characterized by unity, fidelity and openness to new life, as requirements of conjugal love. Unity respects the divine arrangement of “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). By mutual self-giving the spouses grow as persons and in happiness together. This requirement of unity excludes the admission of a third person in the conjugal union, whether in the form of polygamy or of marital infidelity. It is also a permanent self-giving, in good days or in bad. It is not an arrangement until further notice. Reason shows why divorce is not a correct solution to marital problems. We do not solve a difficult algebra homework by burning the algebra book, nor do we resolve a headache by cutting off the head. A mathematician and a doctor will suggest more acceptable solutions.
Conjugal love is by its nature open to new life. The child thus becomes a blessing to the parents and, in a way, makes the family complete.
2. Marriage is a Sacrament for Christians.
The Christian faith takes marriage seriously. When Our Lord Jesus Christ was beginning his public life, he attended a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It was there that he performed his first recorded miracle at the request of his Virgin Mother Mary Immaculate (cf Jn 2:1-11). Jesus thus showed that marriage is an important and happy institution because he turned six pots of water into excellent wine.
Christians hold that the life of union between a baptized husband and wife is their road to happiness and holiness. It is a channel of God’s saving grace for
them, of his pardon, love and life. It is their meeting with Christ and a means of their being touched by the graces of the Holy Spirit. It is a sacrament. A sacrament is a sacred sign that effects inwardly what it signifies outwardly. Matrimony consecrates human love and makes it the way to grow in union with God for the spouses. It sanctifies them on their way to eternal life (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1661).
St Paul teaches that the love of husband and wife is meant to reflect the love between Christ and the Church (cf Eph 5:25, 28-32). Hence he urges husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church.
The love relationship between God and his chosen people in the Old Testament was known as a covenant. Many of the prophets used spousal language in speaking of this relationship. This is particularly true of the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Malachy (cf Hos 1-3; Isa 54; 62; Jer 2-3;31; Ezek 16; 23; Mal 2:13-17). Christian tradition has seen in the Song of Salomon a .unique expression of human love, insofar as it is a reflection of God’s love – a love “strong as death”, that “many waters cannot quench’,’ (Song 8:6-7; cf CCC, 1611).
The Sacrament of Matrimony sees human love elevated to the dignity of one of the seven sacraments, the principal means of grace or God’s favor.
Together with esteem for marriage, the Christian faith esteems even more
the consecrated state of virginity or celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. This is “a powerful sign of the supremacy of the bond with Christ and of the ardent expectation of his return, a sign which also recalls that marriage is a reality of this present age which is passing away” (CCC, 1619; cf Mk 12:25; 1
Cor 7:31 ).” not on the logic of self-centeredness, self-affirmation or mutual exploitation, but on that of love, solidarity and mutual acceptance.
The family is the cradle of life and love, the sanctuary of life. There the wonderful origins of new human life find their natural place. The child is the fruit of the. mutual love between husband and wife. The child is the crown of marriage and the glory of the family. The child is a proof that the parents consider life a good thing to hand on to a younger generation, no matter the sacrifices involved, especially for the mother. The child is also a gift of God to the parents and a sign that God entrusts the new born to the loving care of the parents.
The family is the natural locus where parents communicate with their children. It is a haven of human growth for both parents and children in humanity, in giving and receiving, in learning to share, in being sensitive to the needs of others and in learning to sacrifice oneself so that another may grow up and be happy. When the food is not enough, a good mother or father prefers that the children be fed first.
The family is the home where each person is sure to be appreciated, loved and received, in good days and in bad, in sickness and in health, in wealth as in poverty and even in days of the prodigal son’s return to the father’s house. The old, the handicapped, and the sick know that in the family they are loved, respected and received as unrepeated individual persons, not as troublesome cases in a nameless crowd of the needy.
The family is the first natural society, the fundamental cell for all other societies or associations. It is a communion of generations. It is the natural school where education begins. If the family is sick, then all other bigger societies are in trouble. The health of a country can be tested from the temperature of its families.
4. Familv Values.
A healthy family is marked by such values as love,’ mutual acceptance, togetherness, compassion, mercy, serene living, peace, harmony and openness to other families and to the wider society.
In addition to these values which are worldwide, African families distinguish themselves by such values as community sharing, solidarity, respect for elders, the extended family system, hospitality and involvement of kindred families in the joys and sorrows of nuclear families in their clan.
African families celebrate together if it is a joyful occasion like the birth of a child, marriage, thanksgiving for promotion or for escape from an accident, or a priestly ordination. They celebrate together a sorrowful event such as the death of a dear one, and they have traditional ways of rallying together and helping those whose houses were burnt or who suffer from illness or other mishap. African families know that joy shared is joy multiplied, and sorrow shared is sorrow lessened. The pers6n who is rich is expected to share with relatives and other needy people of the clan. Africans do not esteem the individual who avoids association with others.
5. Nigerian Values for Nigerians in Diaspora.
These reflections bring us to reflect on Nigerian family values among those Nigerians who live outside their country. The parents know that language is an essential element of culture. Nigerians who live in the U.S.A. for example, see the importance of conversing in their home language in the family and of helping their children to master their mother tongue. When the children grow up, they
have also to be introduced into the understanding and eventually the use of proverbs.
We have Nigerian customs on how to receive visitors and offer the kola nut. Respect for elders, grand parents and various grades of people in authority is an element in our culture. So is the obligation to help relatives financially and to offer hospitality, even at considerable inconvenience. It will be fruitful for Nigerians in diaspora to exchange views on how best to relate with those people back home whose every letter is to ask for more and more money, and who seem to think that money grows on trees in the USA and that everyone over there is rich!
Associations of all kinds are part of our Nigerian culture. There are kindred family meetings, age grade groups, Church associations, town unions and special interest movements. Most of these demand attendance at meetings or at least payment of dues. To ignore them altogether is regarded as anti-social. What is to be done when some of these associations seem to demand too much?
It would be desirable if every village in Nigeria had steady electricity supply, running water, telephone connection, tarred roads and some minimum public transport. How do the Nigerian families in the diaspora acculturate their children to the realities back home? Where the funds are available, to bring the whole family back to the village for about two months each couple of years can help more than oral advice far away from home.
Religion is an essential dimension of family life. The Nigerian families resident in America or Europe cannot avoid asking themselves how they fit into the religious community both where they are now resident, and back home in their place of origin. The parents have a key role in helping their children in this matter. But chaplains duly appointed by the competent religious authority can also do much.
An exchange of gifts should also take place between Nigerian families and families in their present country of residence, with reference .to many of the values that have been mentioned in these reflections. No one people or culture has a monopoly of all the good qualities. All can grow and get enriched by sharing conducted with discretion, while one maintains one’s authentic identity.
6. Challenges Facing the Familv.
Many challenges face the family in the world of today. We can only touch on some of them here, namely, matters economical, the use of the mass media, attitude towards subversive elements, moral and religious relativism and the education of children. ‘
Economic considerations have their importance. A family needs a house which it can call its home. Work is an important dimension of human existence. And work for both spouses has to be harmonized with other exigencies of family life.
The press, the radio, the television, the computer, the internet and their derivatives are facts of life in the world of our times. Parents have first to attain wisdom and maturity in their use. Only then will they be in a position to orient their children in the wise use of these media, taking into account the age of the children. It is almost banal to say that these modem media can do much good, put that at the same time their power to do evil is very considerable indeed. They can literally bring corruption, dirt and death right into the family. They can sabotage much of the religious and moral education that the parents strive to impart to their children. They can get the children initiated into evil and addicted to it. Parents need to consult with other parents on the more effective ways to educate
their offspring to a disciplined and mature use of these instruments of communication.
There are currents, elements and even organized groups which damage the family. Some of them ridicule the family as genuinely understood as a permanent communion of love and life between husband and wife. Some banalize and commercialize sexuality and cut it off from all reference to God the Creator and to the procreation of children. Some tend to snatch the children from their parents as if the children were eggs or new-hatched chicks in a poultry farm. Families need to get together to see how best to identify such subversive groups and how effectively to answer them, no matter under what apparently harmless names such currents may be masquerading. Religious and moral relativism is a force to be reckoned with and is a challenge to the family that takes religion and morality seriously. Such relativism denies the objective truth or falsity of religion or of the law of right and wrong. In matters of religion, it holds that each person’s religion is true for that person; that one religion is as good as another; that all religions are equally true and also equally false; and that it does not matter to what religion a person belongs, as long as the person is sincere. The answer is that although sincerity is an important virtue, there are also other important virtues such as agreement with reality, ability to help one to eternal salvation, teaching of objectively true doctrines, respect for the rights of other people, etc.
Moral relativism holds that there are no objective norms of right and wrong in human conduct, but that it all depends on people’s situations, intentions, cultures and the consequences of an action. So an action could be right for me and wrong for another. We must not be judgmental of others and tolerance is the one virtue to be extolled. The answer is that such a theory is full of half-truths and big errors. The divine will, written into human nature, and discoverable by right conscience when it is not hijacked by human weakness or ideologies, is the objective norm of right and wrong. Some actions are objectively wrong and nothing can make them right. Examples are the direct killing of an innocent person, abortion, telling a lie, sexual relations outside marriage and terrorism. Human weakness, or ignorance, or passion can reduce culpability but they do not render the action good, even if public opinion, or the newspapers, or famous actresses say or do otherwise.
In this world of today, one can see what a great challenge it can be, for parents to give the proper religious and moral education to their children. Parents should begin with self conviction because one cannot give what one does ‘not have, and because example is more powerful than precepts. Parents should choose for their children a school which is in harmony with their family in matters concerning religious and moral education. Teachers or companions who attack the Bible, or the Catechism, or the Church, or the ministers of the Church, or who mock at the mysteries of faith, are part of the problem, not part of the solution. So are those who sponsor unacceptable views on the exercise of sexuality, on dating, on marriage and on the family. And there are schools where children get introduced into bad company, drugs, the joining of esoteric sects or cults, violence, irresponsible use of money and hiding things from their parents. Parents cannot afford to be indifferent to such challenges or to presume that the teachers know best. They should not become afraid just because they are called judgmental, or homophobic, or conservative, or politically incorrect. They should be courageous enough and clear enough to call a spade a spade and not a well known instrument of husbandry!
7. The Family at the Service of the Civil Society
The family does not live closed in upon itself. It relates to the wider civil society. And there are reciprocal rights and duties.
From the civil society the family should receive encouragement, respect for its right to religious freedom and reasonable privacy, security from violence, opportunity for work and recreation, and freedom to do what the family is able to do for itself. .
From the family, civil society has rights and expectations too. The family should offer to society citizens who are honest in speech and action, efficient and productive in work, and open to collaboration with people of differing religions, ethnic groups or social backgrounds. Citizens should learn to conquer violence and hatred, not with more violence and hatred, but with love, reconciliation and forgiveness. This is no sign of weakness, but rather of moral strength. If the family does not form the growing generation in such values, who will do it? We see signs of irregularity in marriage and family life such as street children, single mothers, invisible fathers and divorced couples. As one of the lasting answers, we need families with the healthy stand on marriage and the family, and where the family members sincerely strive to live what they believe. The family should also prepare its members for due participation in the political, economic and cultural life of their country.
8. The Family orients People towards Religion.
Religion has much to do with the relations of the individual human being with God the Creator and with other human beings. Towards God, the fundamental human attitudes are adoration, praise, thanksgiving, asking pardon for sin and requesting what we need for body and soul. Towards one’s neighbor, one needs respect for other people’s rights, honesty, and respect, readiness for cooperation, forgiveness and reconciliation.
These spiritual attitudes are best learned in the family. Religion is better caught than taught, although the teaching of religion has its importance too.
It follows that it is best for the family when the spouses have the same religion. This enables them to pray together, to examine challenges from the same religious perspective, to consult the same religious leaders and especially to be united in the religious beliefs and practices that they hand on to their children. This remark is not made in order to undervalue the contribution which some spouses of differing religious convictions have de facto made to society, or even to their religious communities. But there is no denying that better results are obtained, and tensions are less, where all members of the family share the same religious beliefs and practices.
The family orients people towards religion. The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) calls the family “the Church of the home” (Lumen .gentium, 11). It is in the family that religion begins. It is from there that the children are introduced into a religious community. Children who have been deprived from the religious point of view in their family formation, have a greater difficulty in adapting into a religious community and taking a mature share in its life and activity .
9. A Prayer for the Family.
As We come to the end of these reflections, we offer a prayer for the ~~ ‘
We pray that all our families may have the minimum of means economic, material and human, which they need for worthy human life.
We pray that all families may be equipped with an acceptable philosophy of life which will steer them across the seas of life and serious religion, which is necessary to orient a person towards God and neighbor.
We pray that our families not be overcome by selfishness, materialism which is really practical atheism, and moral relativism which sabotages the right foundations for the correct moral choices. .
May all children who are born into our families find a better tomorrow in front of them, through their families, that give them a good foundation today.
May God bless all our families, beginning with the families of this Nigerian American Cultural Association.
+ Francis Card. Arinze