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Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving

“As our families fragment, so do the deepest structures of our consciousness. When a certain kind of family breaks down, so do the values which once linked parents and children, and gave continuity and character to our inherited world.

Which is precisely why ideological radicals have focused on the family. Change it, and you change humanity. But let’s turn the argument around: if changing the family would change the world, protecting the family might be the best way of protecting our world.

Which is, I believe, what our religious tradition has been doing until now — because the Bible is above all a book about the family. It begins with one: Adam and Eve, and the command to bring the next generation into being. And from then on the book of Genesis never relaxed its grip on the subject. It endlessly turns to some new variation in the relationship between husbands and wives, parents and children. Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob, Rachel and Leah: these aren’t miracle workers or agents of salvation. The heroes and heroines of Genesis are simply people living out their lives in the presence of God and the context of their families.

And we can perhaps now see that this forms the foundation of the Bible’s larger moral and social themes. The family is the matrix of individuality. It’s that enclosed space in which we work out, in relation to stable sources of affection, a highly differentiated sense of who we are. It’s hard to imagine a culture which didn’t possess a close family structure arriving at the breathtaking idea that the human individual is cast in the image of God.

De Tocqueville once wrote that ‘as long as family feeling is kept alive, the opponent of oppression is never alone.’ By which he meant that the family is the great protection of the individual against the state. It’s no coincidence that totalitarian regimes have often attacked the family. Against this, it was the Bible that gave rise to the great prophets who dared to criticize kings. The family is the birthplace of liberty.

Not only that, it’s where we care for dependents — the very young and the very old, those to whom we gave birth and who gave birth to us. And it’s a short step from this to the biblical vision of society as an extended family, in which the poor and powerless make a claim on us, by virtue not of abstract principle but of feelings of kinship. It’s this that lies behind the prophetic identification with the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. They’re not merely people with theoretical rights. They’re part of the family.”

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Pulled from part three of Jonathan Sacks’s 1990 Reith Lecture for the BBC.

You can find this and the rest of Sack’s excellent, six-part lecture in his book The Persistence of Faith: Morality and Society in a Secular Age. As with anything from Sacks, however, try to enjoy it in audio form. His voice makes Morgan Freeman sound like Gilbert Gottfriend.

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Jonathan Sacks