One of the unfortunate genres of opinion writing that has cropped up in this past year, from the left-liberal magazine The Nation to the editorial pages of the centre-right Washington Post, is that the coronavirus has exposed the fundamental faults and flaws of the family unit. The feminist radical Sophie Lewis writes: ‘the unfolding of Covid-19 in the United States makes more palpable, among other things… that the family—as the property logic and mode of social reproduction central to capitalism—is killing us.’1 A month and a half before this, the capitalist Harvard professor Ian Marcus Corbin (echoed by David Brooks in the New York Times) writes: ‘It is clear enough that long before lockdown, our economic and cultural arrangements were putting tremendous pressure on every part of the nuclear family. Something has to give.’2 And it becomes rather clear as one reads on that in his view, the ‘something’ is not the economic and cultural arrangements!
We can see from both of these pronouncements, in fact, an intriguing contradiction in premises at play. For the leftist author, the nuclear family forms intolerable constraints on individual, particularly sexual, self-expression, being a framework that is intrinsically ‘anti-queer’ and ‘rife with power asymmetries and violence’, which must be smashed in order to liberate the oppressed individuals within and equalize them with those without. For the conservative author, the nuclear family is remarkably inefficient, a ‘tragic waste of human potential’, preventing able-bodied parents from working outside the home and thus maximising their potential contributions to the private sector and the national economy because of all those pesky little concerns about their children’s health. Both authors, intriguingly, make the contradictory points that the family is both stifling to the individual and atomizing; both too individualist and too collectivist for the demands of modern life, however that ‘modern’ is defined. Also, and equally intriguingly, both authors suggest older notions of the family than the nuclear and put them forward as positive examples. Corbin cites the pre-modern multigenerational household as an ideal which would better meet his standards for economic efficiency. And Lewis points to the networks of extended kin groups which black communities historically formed during and in the wake of their enslavement as mechanisms for fending off complete domination by a white-supremacist legal system dedicated to seeing them as property.
The temptation for many Orthodox Christians would be to ‘circle the wagons’ and write off this whole discourse as another iteration of a culture war being waged upon the faithful by the forces of darkness without. Coronavirus, in this view, is seen as just a pretext for a sustained attack on the institution of marriage that would have happened and is happening anyway. In some ways, this is a healthy defensive posture – and there is much in it that is true and correct. However, there are better ways to engage this new attack on marriage which comes from both the left and the right. The Church herself has resources readily available to us, which we can use to critique the critique. And the most prominent one among them, the foremost Patristic champion of marriage (including marital intimacy), is John Chrysostom.
Though a celibate himself, a monk and later a bishop, this most practical of Greco-Syrian hierarchs speaks in glowing terms about marriage. He also insists on holding married couples to high standards, as demanded by the purposes of marriage: which are chastity and the procreation of children. Saint John misses no opportunity of comparing, using Saint Paul’s letters as his basis, the relationship of husband and wife to the relationship of Christ to His Church3; and also misses no opportunity of enjoining to the married people among his lay audience, as well as to those seeking marriages for their children4, the real practice of ascēsis that is demanded of married couples. Marriage is not the grounds for speculation, but instead an occasion to practise that law of God that has already been revealed in its fullness. And he actually addresses directly – and indeed makes it a centrepiece of his homilies – this dual attitude toward marriage that it is both ‘too individualist’ and ‘too collectivist’ a demand on the person.
The unitive aspect of marriage is the most obvious and concrete, the easiest for his lay audience to grasp in terms of import. Accordingly, it is from here that Saint John begins and builds his teaching on marriage. Even though Saint John bases his homilies on the Epistles of Saint Paul, we can tell that his understanding of the Epistles is rooted in Old Testament logic. We see from Scripture that the human being is made for union. This is evident even in the names of the first human beings in Scripture: ’Adam [that is to say, אדם ‘red (earth)’] and Ḥavvah [that is to say, חוה ‘life’]. The human being, whether male or female, cannot be complete either without the breath of life, or without this physical stuff, this red earth, that is to be enlivened. The Scriptural command in Genesis along with the ‘great mystery’ of Paul, are what drive all of Saint John’s commentary here. 5
From the beginning God in His providence has planned this union of man and woman, and has spoken of the two as one: ‘male and female He created them’ and ‘there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’. There is no relationship between human beings so close as that of husband and wife, if they are united as they ought to be.6
And again, a fortiori:
A man should love his spouse as much as he loves himself, not merely because they share the same nature; no, the obligation is far greater, because there are no longer two bodies, but one: he is the head, she the body. Paul says elsewhere: ‘The head of Christ is God,’ and I say that husband and wife are one body in the same way as Christ and the Father are one.7
And still again, here:
They come to be made into one body. See the mystery of love! If the two do not become one, they cannot increase; they can increase only by decreasing! How great is the strength of unity! God’s ingenuity in the beginning divided one flesh into two; but He wanted to show that it remained one even after its division, so He made it impossible for either half to procreate without the other. Now do you see how great a mystery marriage is? 8
The emphasis on this unitive quality of marriage – such that any bodily distinction dissolves – undergirds, and is necessary for, all of Chrysostom’s commentary which follows. The husband is supposed to divest himself of all selfish notions and give himself fully to his wife; and the wife, in return, to her husband. To use modern parlance, marriage is a commune – it is a cellular socialist, even a communist society – in which the word ‘mine’ no longer has any real meaning, except to say that ‘I am yours’. ‘Above all, remove from her soul this notion of “mine” and “yours”,’ says Saint John.9 To say nothing of money (though that, too!), even my body – the ’adam from which I am made and the ḥavvah which I breathe – is no longer ‘mine’, it belongs to my spouse.10 And in this obligation, both husband and wife are equals. This is a theme to which Saint John explicitly returns time and again.
This unitive understanding of marriage is couched even in political terms by the great homilist. In one sense, marriage is a microcosm of society, and a support to the state:
The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together… when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order; neighbours, friends and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both for families and states, are thus produced.11
But in another sense, the marriage fashions a miniature nation, a little polis, in a sense independent from all previous political allegiances and bonds of obligation. The terms of this polis are not democratic12, instead – in keeping with Chrysostom’s theme of mutual servitude and obligation to the point of self-denial – they are much more radically meant to reflect the communistic political norms of the early Church in the Book of Acts.13 But at the same time, it is clear that every time that a son departs from his parents’ house and enters into a new household with his bride, a new political entity is formed, one which is the basis for a new nation, a new tribe of people. The Old Testament scripture which he uses here serves to punctuate this point effectively: the marriage of Abraham and Sarah, to whom it was promised by God that he would become the father of many nations.14 Chrysostom illustrates that this political promise would not have been possible if not for the harmony of mind and will of Abraham and Sarah as well as their bodily union.
So what does all this commentary mean for an Orthodox Christian who is faced with questions and critiques like those set out at the beginning of this piece? For one thing, whether or not we embrace the idea of a multigenerational household or a community organised from several families living together – as Orthodox societies have done in the past and as some continue to do now – we should certainly embrace the idea of marriage as union between a man and a woman. We should indeed decry, as John Chrysostom decried, the abuses and the idolatries which accompanied the pagan idea of marriage as a form of patrician ownership, enforcing duties upon the husband but not upon the wife. Orthodoxy stresses the unitive component of marriage, specifically over-against this kind of domination.
- Sophie Lewis, ‘Covid-19 is straining the concept of the family. Let’s break it.’ The Nation, 3 June 2020. Available online at: https://tinyurl.com/y84syt3f.
- Ian Marcus Corbin, ‘The coronavirus might break the nuclear family. That wouldn’t be a bad thing.’ The Washington Post, 17 April 2020. Available online at: https://tinyurl.com/yb9ok9wk.
- Saint John Chrysostom, ‘Homily 20 on Ephesians 5:22-23’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, pp. 44-5. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1986.
- Ibid., pp. 57-60.
- Saint John Chrysostom, ‘How to Choose a Wife’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, p. 95. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1986. Chrysostom is here reliant on Paul’s phrasing in Ephesians 5:32. He dwells at length on how the institution of marriage actually goes against the more selfish instincts of human beings in terms familiar to his audience, considering dowries and sons leaving the house.
- Chrysostom, ‘Homily 20’, p. 43.
- Ibid., p. 52.
- Saint John Chrysostom, ‘Homily 12 on Colossians 4:18’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, p. 75. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1986.
- Chrysostom, ‘Homily 20’, p. 62.
- Saint John Chrysostom, ‘Homily 19 on 1 Corinthians 7’, in On Marriage and Family Life, trans. Catharine P Roth and David Anderson, p. 27. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir Seminary Press, 1986. ‘So if neither husband nor wife has power over their own bodies, they have even less control over money. Listen carefully, all married men and women: if you cannot call your body your own, then you certainly cannot call your money your own.’
- Chrysostom, ‘Homily 20’, p. 44.
- Ibid., p. 53. ‘A household cannot be a democracy, ruled by everyone, but the authority must necessarily rest in one person.’
- Ibid., pp. 53-54. ‘The same is true for the Church: when men are led by the Spirit of Christ, then there is peace. There were five thousand men in the Jerusalem church, and they were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they were subject to one another.’
- Ibid., p. 57.