Do Families Have Rights?
Everyone knows the chicken and egg story. Which came first? The answer, of course, is: “Who knows? It depends.”
Compare this to the question of rights and responsibilities, or rights and respect. Rights and responsibilities balance one another out, but when it comes to rights and respect, which comes first? Do rights flow from respect, or do rights lead to respect, or both?
With the concept of ubuntu in mind, I would suggest that respect is ideally at the heart of human interaction. Described as “I am because we are”, ubuntu recognises that our common humanity should result in an attitude of respect for all. But does it?
Where Did Respect Go?
Respect is no longer a basic life view, as is clear in society today with the high incidence of abuse, violence, exploitation, neglect and many other ills. We are more focused on rights which tend to demand a standard of behaviour almost by force. “I have a right, therefore you have to…” This applies across the board to every relationship from the workplace to the home.
This rights attitude is necessary to maintain a degree of order. This is seen in the Constitution which, while having at its heart the concept of ubuntu and respect, implements the Bill of Rights through laws, courts and policing. A consequence of this can be seen in the fact that we can too easily pass the buck and blame others when things are not as they should be.
The right to life is built on respect for life and on the dignity of every human being or life form. Let’s apply this to family life.
Society today is highly individualistic, and the Bill of Rights tends to concentrate on the rights of the individual. And yet African as well as Christian thinking is more communal: “I am because we are”, rather than “I am because you are”.
The family as the smallest communal unit, with its particularly intimate and close bonds, should be recognised as having rights as a unit. This is in addition to the right to life and nurturance of its individual members at all stages of that life within the family as an interactive system of relationships.
Pope Paull II and the Family Rights Charter
After Pope John Paul II established the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1983, one of the first documents it issued was the Charter of Family Rights. This charter promotes the right to life, to marry and to choose freely to marry a partner of choice, to have children, work, shelter and basic conditions for security, health, education and more.
In Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis refers to the responsibility of the state to provide for families and to meet their basic needs.
The Church could be seen as a watchdog to ensure those practical needs are met in conjunction with its evangelising role. However, it cannot be left only to the state and the hierarchical Church to pass laws and protect our rights and welfare. We as citizens and Church members are expected to pursue our rights and live out our responsibilities, too.
This is no easy task and demands commitment from everyone. Possibly the most important — and very difficult — task today is to go beyond this and promote the aspect of respect, of ubuntu, which is Jesus’ way of love, mercy and compassion for others.
Family is More than a Legal and Economic Unit
Clearly a family is much more than a legal, social and economic unit. It is also a community of love and solidarity.
As the Charter of Family Rights put it: “It is uniquely suited to teach and transmit cultural, ethical, social, spiritual and religious values, essential for the development and wellbeing of its own members and of society.”
Marfam’s March theme, “Family Rights do Matter”, is a Lenten invitation to promote life, family life and wellbeing within and beyond one’s own family. Various publications and the weekly e-newsletter provide suggestions in articles such as “Babies Do Matter” and “Which Jesus can you Love?”
Promoting family prayer at this Lenten time is especially meaningful. (For information and Marfam resources visit www.marfam.org.za)
Let me end with a Family Ubuntu Prayer:
Come Holy Spirit, Spirit of Ubuntu, of humanity and care. Fill our minds with understanding, our hearts with love and our hands with mercy and compassion for the needs of those we love and for all those in need. As we learn and live, we offer our thoughts, words and actions of this day for the glory of God in Jesus’ name. Amen.