I’ve been trying to catch up on my Sons of Anarchy viewing. Since I gave up cable a few years ago, I’ve lost the thread and am a couple of seasons behind. It’s a violent show, and I’m not prone to violent fare. So, why try to catch up? Because the themes of violence and family run through the show in interesting ways. And that feeds my soapbox about churches that present themselves principally as a family.
OK, so Sons of Anarchy is a drama about a motorcycle “club” in the little California village of Charming. They run guns and party hard and protect their turf from rival motorcycle clubs. They live violent lives.
But we root for them because of the inner life of the club. They have a very thick and loyal inner life. They often express openly their love for one another. They hug each other more than I’m comfortable hugging other men. And they often refer to each other as family. It’s really tough to get into the circle, but once you’re in, you’re in.
The circle of trust that allows them to function as a tight knit family requires that they trust no one else. No outsiders allowed. You don’t talk about the club with anyone else, especially not the police. The group is maintained by high and strict boundaries.
And these boundaries are maintained by violence. Outside threats are dealt with through violence. Inner violations to the sanctity of the group are dealt with through violence. Now part of this is because they live as outlaws. But I’m convinced that all groups that have high boundaries and high inner conformity and loyalty resort to some measure of violence to keep their world intact, whether that’s through physical harm or some form of emotional coercion.
I also think that the symbiosis between violence and “family” runs the other way as well. Their violence is made endurable because they have brothers in arms. As an aside, I’ve always been fascinated by the way football players greet each other after games. They’ve tried to kill each other for 60 minutes, but when the final whistle blows, they embrace each other, seek each other out, smile and laugh together. Baseball players don’t do this. Neither do basketball players, at least at the NBA level. They go their separate ways. But football players (and I think hockey players) honor their opponents after the game. And I’ve wondered if the violence of the game has something to do with this. That violence creates a certain kind of fraternity.
OK, let me say this real quickly, family is not bad. In fact, there’s nothing better than good family. But family also carries with it this propensity toward maintaining itself through vigilant boundary maintenance, and that sometimes requires violence, whether coercion, exclusion, shame or physical harm.
My suspicion of congregations that refer to themselves primarily as family is that their life is fairly tough to break into. When I do interviews with these congregations, two responses are fairly common: they are the friendliest bunch of people they’ve ever been a part of, and the church is hard to join or become a part of. Boundary maintenance trumps patterns of welcome. This is how they protect the intimacy they share as a family.
I don’t know exactly how to reverse this. I certainly don’t want to throw out the image of the church as a family. I do want, however, other images to emerge and even lead in terms of a congregation’s self-awareness: like people of God, or body of Christ. But when I watch Sons of Anarchy, I often think of Jesus’ words after his followers tell him his family is looking for him. “Who are my mother and brothers?” Pointing to his disciples he said, “here are my mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my mother and brother and sisters.”