Winners and Losers: The Rights of the Family
Imelda Diouf is a South African educator and Katarzyna Lewucha is a Polish social worker. This is the third in a twelve-part series in which they will unpack the theme of family relations, using multicultural and multidisciplinary perspectives.
In war there are no winners, only losers. And while the different sides are quick to point out their own wins and losses of the opposing side, there remains no winners, only losers.
This oft-quoted statement in various forms by politicians, sociologists and writers is a useful reflection on the outcome of war. The loss, of mainly men on the battlefield and of mainly women and children when civilians are attacked, causes untold misery. The loss of lives and homes and the subsequent impact on families is devastating. The loss of freedom. The loss of human dignity.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 remains as relevant today as at the end of World War 2. This declaration articulates the rights and freedoms to which every human being is equally and inherently entitled. It provides the building blocks for a just and decent future for all people. It is the most powerful global tool in the fight against oppression, inequalities and assault on human dignity.
Freedom and human dignity is an act of God’s creation. God’s divinity, rooted in human dignity. Psalm 95 is a reminder to “proclaim God’s marvellous deeds to all the nations”. Dignity is one such deed to be given to everyone, unconditionally.
In the years that followed the Declaration of Human Rights, pressure groups, advocates and more recently digital influencers have lobbied for the rights of different groups: women and children, the elderly, persons with disability, the LGBT+ groups, the unborn child, youth, the unemployed, the poor, and so on. But what about the family? Amid all the individual rights, how do we balance the rights of whole groups, including the family.
Article 16 of the Declaration deals with the right of consenting adults to marry and to found a family, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion. These adults are entitled to equal rights during marriage and at its dissolution. The declaration also states that the family is a natural and fundamental unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
Yet the concept of family has changed over time. The modern family is relatively new. The nuclear family: father, mother and children, is a phenomenon of the 20th century. Prior to that, families were structured along ancestry, power and land.
Now, contemporary families are to be found in many different forms; including extended, polygamous, sibling, single-parent, granny-headed and, sadly, child-headed. The wider society relies on the accountability of individuals, and the functionality of families; think back to the weeks and months of the Covid pandemic, when families were expected to function optimally under extremely difficult circumstances.
So how do we protect these rights? Romans 12:2 guides us to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. How do we think anew? The nature and functioning of a family has changed over time and will continue to change. The responsibilities of women and men are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated. The role of the extended family is scrutinised for the positives and negatives that it brings. The rights of the parent-child relationship are debated, especially around issues of discipline, morality, sexual behaviour and social media trends.
So, what is the role of the church in understanding and supporting the rights of the modern family?
Not only are rights outside of the family confusing, but also the rights of individuals within the family. How can we define the proportion and disproportion regarding the rights of each family member within one family unit? We need to be considerably focused (the sine qua non —without one the other would not be possible) when exercising our rights, to not deprive another individual of human dignity.
Family is always a collective, a collective of individuals with different needs, aspirations, failures and talents. While it is necessary to distinguish between individuals and the group, Pierpoalo Donati (2016) writes about each individual being part of the group — there is a we-relation. The individual is a subject, but the family is a collective subject. A relational subject. He adds that families have powers through their internal and external social relations.
Pope John Paul II highlighted the meaning of the heritage of the human race that we all share; the unquestionable importance of fulfilling our own missions, knowing that all our activities influence the wider society, and universal solidarity.
The highest expression of human beings is the greatest art of shaping the culture of every nation, and the principles of a single family. But the values of each are universal.
If family members think of themselves only as “me”, there will be losers. The winning formula must be based on the collective, the we-relation.