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The Living Commandments by John Shelby Spong


John Shelby Spong was Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Among his bestselling books are Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, and Why Christianity Must Change or Die: A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. He retired in early 2,000 to become a lecturer at Harvard University. This book was published by Seabury Press, New York, in 1977.


Chapter 8: The Meaning of Parenthood


The fifth Commandment states "Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land the Lord your God gives you." This is the first commandment that specifically moves beyond our duty toward God and focuses on our duty toward our neighbor. Appropriately enough, that duty begins with the intimate relationship between children and their parents.

Note that this is the only one of the Commandments governing our duty toward our neighbor that is expressed in a positive way. All of the others place restraints and curbs upon our behavior. "You shall not kill." "You shall not commit adultery." "You shall not steal." This Commandment, however, calls us to act out a positive attitude.

I begin our consideration of this Commandment in what might be a startling place. I do not believe that it is easy nor do I even believe that it is natural to love one’s parents. I suspect that statement will surprise some of you because our culture works so hard to create a nostalgic, romantic idealization of both motherhood and fatherhood that will convince us that loving our parents is a virtue we all must exemplify. I suppose that there is nothing I desire more deeply in life than to know that I have the love and respect of my three daughters.

But consider the data. First look at the animal world. We human beings are biologically a part of the animal world, hence it should not surprise us to discover that some of the patterns of animal behavior appear in our behavior. In the animal world, the sole function of parents is to conceive, give birth, nurture, and wean. Once the animal is weaned, few species continue any relationship with parents, or even notice or know that there was ever anything special about the parental relationship. In the animal world there is no parent-child dependency in the full-grown animal. There is no parent-child relationship that survives the weaning experience.

So the human response to parents, mixed as it is with duty, guilt, and emotional dependency, appears not to arise out of any biological necessity. It appears to be an unnatural phenomenon in animal nature. There is nothing in the animal world resembling what we call the maternal instinct, for example, that survives weaning. Thus, the response of the adult human to his or her parent appears to be an acquired behavioral characteristic of civilization.

Second, when one turns to anthropological study of primitive cultures, one discovers a somewhat startling revelation; namely that the economic factor of life more than any other factor has dictated the ethical behavior norms, particularly those norms which relate to the various generations. The economic factors of life in many primitive cultures dictated that those members of the tribe who could not share the burden of the struggle for survival were not carried by the tribe, even as revered, elderly dependents of the society. If a person was strong enough to survive to an old age, which, in fact, was very rare in primitive societies, he or she was often treated shamefully with no qualms of conscience. The elderly in many cultures were banished from the tribe, left to starve, or even worse.

It did not seem in those societies of human beings that there was a reverence for age or even a devotion to those who were one’s physical parents. These characteristics appear to be learned rather than instinctual. Certainly they are not universal or normative responses in primitive life.

Add to this the insight of the psychological disciplines, which have confirmed many of the truths expressed in ancient mythology, the truths of rivalry and overt hostility that mark the parent-child relationship, particularly when the child reaches maturity. We begin to suspect that the romantic love and respect that we are told mark motherhood and fatherhood are in fact nothing more than a thin veneer of civilization that covers intense human emotions. For in the psychological maturation process, the role of the child is finally to replace the parent. That means they are rivals, which creates guilt in the child as he has to take over the responsibility and, in fact, destroy the power of the parent. From the parent’s point of view, the child is always the successor and no one likes having his successor around, for that carries with it what Paul Tillich called the threat of non-being. This means that the parent’s destiny is to lose power and status, and to sacrifice position. This creates fear and hostility in the parent. These raw emotions are a part of life but we do not like to discuss them. Yet we are all aware of the Oedipal conflicts and complexes, named after the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, the king who fell in love with his mother after killing his father. Freud has made us aware that every child goes through an Oedipal experience, once more laying bare emotions that most of us are uncomfortable with and many are not willing to face.

Yet we are aware that a significant number of the murders committed in this country are committed within family relationships. They do not grow out of motherly love.

As a counselor and pastor, I have seen people in my office gripping the chair until you could see the whites of their knuckles while they told me how much they loved their fathers. One begins to read body language far more than words. As a counselor I am intensely aware of hostile jealousy that flows between mother and daughter and is particularly intensified when the mother begins to reach the psychologically burdensome menopause years just as the daughter blooms into the fullness of her feminine form. A similar hostility marks the father-son relationship as the father’s physical power wanes and the son overtakes him. The first time the son beats the father in golf is a celebrated family event. Indeed, if you look deeply enough under the romantic, nostalgic sentimentality that surrounds the culture’s celebration of motherhood and fatherhood, you find something quite different from love and devotion. Examine the references to mother in profanity, for example. A "son of a what" do we call one another? A "mother what" do we call one another? See what our profanity says about our underlying, hidden emotions?

I am personally convinced that sentimentality is almost always a cover for unacceptable hostility that we are not willing to face. Nothing is more sentimental than our culture’s celebration of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. The great devotion to parents that is couched in poetry and song is to me nothing but an effort to cover a deep and abiding antipathy between the generations. For example, when a man "gives up his life to care for his mother" one may look for something more than love going on. There is an emotional dependency that breeds hostility. Possessive mothers produce dependent sons who dutifully care for their mothers while they deal inwardly and usually unconsciously with great amounts of hostility. No one finally loves the person upon whom he or she is dependent and some way, even if a socially acceptable way, will always be found to let that hostility out.

Listen to the emotional place accorded mother in country and western music. Mother is sung about with the same kind of deep, touching emotions that embrace God and Old Shep. But have you ever noticed that most country and western songs about mother are about the death of mother? I am suggesting that the relationship between the grown child and the parent is not a simple, romantic, nostalgic, sentimental relationship. It is a relationship of conflict and tension that needs to be resolved or, at the very least, faced. It is a relationship of love and hate, of dependency and rebellion, of displacement and identification. When you get underneath the sentimentality that surrounds the cultural image of motherhood and fatherhood, you have touched one of the deepest guilt-producing emotions of human life. The Hebrew people, in their incredible insight and genius in understanding human life, seemed to understand this, and so into their most sacred Ten Words from God they have enjoined us in the name of God to rise above the inner conflicts and give honor to those who have given us the gift of life.

Notice there is no Commandment requiring parents to love and care for their children. There is no children’s day celebrated on the calendar. Most species of animal life provide basic life-giving nurture to the offspring. The fifth Commandment assumes, accurately I believe, that the honoring of the parents is a calling to a higher way than the instinctual, natural behavior patterns would produce. Otherwise we would not work so hard to create the sentimentality to keep parents safe from the natural instincts of rejection and displacement.

Some people will reject this as nonsense. Some will get angry at the very idea because the revelation of this level of life is unpleasant. You may feel compelled to assert that your parents were close to gods or at least close to angels, but that is because most of us cannot face the unconscious levels of our own inner conflict and our own inner hostility. When I say these things in lectures I never fail to notice a nervous restlessness that marks the audience. These are feelings most of us would prefer to ignore yet it is obvious that they are not only real but deep in the very heart of our life. In a non-neurotic form, these emotions are expressed in adolescent rebellion that, I hope, we all went through. A teenager suddenly decides that his or her parents do not know anything about anything, that they are probably the two dumbest adults in the world; but by the time the teenager gets to be twenty-one or so, it is amazing how much his or her parents were able to learn in so short a time. This comes out of a natural conflict and that is healthy.

Not everyone, however, has a healthy adjustment to these emotions, and in a more neurotic person, the hostility can become strange and destructive. I hope you will pardon this reference but it is a natural quotation and it is rather revealing. I heard a psychiatrist once define psychoanalysis as a process which you undergo to enable you to say "son of a bitch" in front of your m-o-t-h-e-r. I have never heard a better definition. I have even known one wildly neurotic young adult who entered a hospital and had plastic surgery done on his navel so he could remove the last vestige of evidence that he ever had a relationship with his mother. These attitudes reveal that beneath the external level of the parent-child relationship, there are deep and volatile human emotions that govern that relationship. Loving or honoring one’s parents is not a simple matter. Once more the Ten Commandments sink beneath the obvious and probe the deepest inner recesses of human life. Once more the Commandments call us to live out a higher destiny, a higher humanity that befits the elected people of God, whose lives have been so touched by grace and love that they can overcome the conflicts present in their own inner lives and give honor to their fathers and mothers. The primary focus of this Commandment, contrary to what most people think, is on adult parental relationships, not parent-child relationships. The Commandment aims chiefly at the relationship between a grown adult and an elderly parent. It was never intended to be a club enabling parents to control their children by quoting this Commandment to them to modify the child’s behavior. This Commandment is not an injunction for children to obey. It does not force children to honor that which is not honorable. It does not bless parental brutality or child abuse. It does not require submission to or toleration of unacceptable behavior by parents toward children. Many peopie carry this kind of psychological burden, unable to express their negative feelings, unable to work them out, finding themselves under the burden of a law that says no matter what your real feelings are you are supposed to honor and love and obey your parents. That is not in this Commandment.

I recall some twenty-three years ago when, as a young seminarian serving a congregation of tenant farm families in rural Virginia, one of my duties was to teach a class for high school students each Sunday morning. These children and teenagers were not well-educated or sophisticated. They were simple, earthy people. My subject was the Ten Commandments. When we got to this Commandment, "Honor your father and your mother," I became aware of the agitation of one lovely blond girl, about fourteen, who was in the first blush of adult feminine beauty. That beauty, however, was marred by an ugly scar across her forehead. I knew the source of that scar. Some years earlier her father had come home drunk and abusive one Saturday night and had kicked this child down the stairs, splitting her head open. The family did not seek medical attention. Perhaps they were too ignorant or too poor or too afraid of questions being asked. So the forehead was left to heal as best it could, with home remedies probably exaggerating the disfigurement.

Must the Christian Church in the name of morality lay upon this child the duty to accept that abuse and still honor her father? I think not. That is to focus this Commandment on the parent-child phase of life and to read it in terms of childlike respect and obedience. That is not its focus. This Commandment is a working principle designed to govern the obligation of adults to their elderly parents. It is not a command to obey or to tolerate abusive behavior. It is not directed to children. In the life of this little girl "father" was a word that conjured up feelings of fear and pain.

Please do not be simplistic or sentimental about this Commandment. We are to honor fatherhood and motherhood when those concepts are adequately expressed in human life, but beyond that there is no ethic of control in the fifth Commandment.

Consider another dimension of the parent-child relationship. Note that even in the paternalistic culture of ancient Israel, the Commandment includes both parents—both father and mother. We have lived in a male-dominated world for a very long time and that male dominance is expressed in the biblical literature. But despite these expressions of sexism, the Hebrews still knew enough about human life to be able to assert very specifically that humanity is not male or female. Humanity in its deepest, fullest form is only realized in the union of the two. I do not mean to say that the single adult— bachelor, maiden lady, divorced man or woman, widow or widower—is somehow less human. I do say that in creation the ideal for the fullness of human life is found in that union of the male and female toward which we are driven by our deep emotional need, driven by our intense physical desire, and driven by an inner sense of our incompleteness. These things mark all of life, and beyond that each of us needs to be the recipient of both feminine love and masculine love in order to achieve our full individual maturity and humanity. That is, not only is humanity best achieved in the union of a man and a woman, but also two parents, one male and one female, are essential to the full growth and development of every individual, healthy human life. When for reasons of human frailty or tragic sickness and premature death the love of one or the other of the parents is lost, there is in the life of the offspring a tremendous need for compensation.

My own father died when I was twelve, and though I did not know it at the time, I spent most of my teenage years looking for a father substitute. I found one and he happened to be a priest of the Church. He determined perhaps as much as anyone I could name the entire shape of my life.

It is very difficult in this age of new sensitivity to sexual discrimination to talk about the characteristics of feminine love and masculine love, for there is no assurance that you are accurately discerning a biological reality or a cultural role. But we can at least analyze the kinds of love that are needed by every child, and we can see the ways that the culture has organized to meet those needs, needs which, when driven deeply enough, necessitate the wisdom and the sanctity of a monogamous marriage and a faithful living together as far as possible so that the full work of parenting can be done.

Apparently our humanity requires two distinct emotional realities. [Much of the following discussion is based on Tbe Art of Loving by Dr. Erich Fromm (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).] First every one of us needs the security to be. We need love that is not discriminating, love that loves us just because we are, not because we do. We need a sense of belonging, a community, an identity that no one can take away from us. We tend to get these qualities in the kind of love that normally derives from the feminine figure, the mother image. A mother loves her baby in anticipation. Her love is graceful love that is based on the baby’s being, not on the baby’s doing. Her love is given without distinction, not given for achievements but simply because the baby is. It is indissoluble. Nothing can destroy the bond of love. In order to be human we must build upon this security of being, this sense of belonging, this grace of acceptance. This is the first layer, the bedrock of the human experience.

But security alone does not produce humanity. Love that loves us because we are, love which is unchallenged or unsupplemented results finally not in full life but in a twisted, sick dependency. For the fullness of humanity there must be a second principle, a counter principle which I tend to identify with the father figure in the psychological development of the human being. This second principle I call the "drive to become." The security to be must be coupled with the drive to become in order to achieve full humanity. The drive to become is received in the kind of love that sets standards. It is the challenge to accomplish, it is the discrimination of judgment, the reward for excellence. Love that creates the drive to become by definition is not love that is equally shared. It is given to the one who best deserves it. It is not based on being, but on doing. This kind of love alone is also inadequate. The drive to become without the security to be would finally create not humanity but a jungle where might makes right, where the capacity to rule is the reward bestowed upon the super-achiever, and unchallenged it would finally produce not humanity, but a sick tyranny. Full, true humanity is the perfect and absolute balance between the security to be, which I identify with mother love, and the drive to become, which I identify with father love. Both are essential to our humanity and the sources of our humanity.

These qualities have been understood in our concepts of God. In the history of Western civilization at least, God is masculine. He is referred to as "Father." He is pictured as a judge. He is seen as the dispenser of rewards and punishments that we call heaven and hell. He is portrayed as the distant giver of rules and commandments which set standards and drive us to become. But this Father God has never existed alone. He is always seen working through the Church which, interestingly, is called "Mother Church." To this divine mother we belong equally at our baptism, not based on our doing, but on our being, and in the bosom of this mother we are nurtured, fed, loved, "just as we are without one plea." Here we are forgiven, accepted, and made secure to be, all of which enables us to be challenged by the Father God’s will to become.

Parenthetically, I am convinced that the matter which really separates political conservatives and liberals is not an issue or a rational and well thought Out attitude—one’s political attitudes are hardly ever rational, that is why we get so emotional when we talk about them. One’s political attitudes, I am beginning to believe, are rooted finally not in the issues, or in what is right or wrong, but in whether or not one’s life is shaped primarily by the masculine drive to become or the feminine security to be.

The masculine drive to become is expressed politically by an attitude that says everyone gets what he or she deserves and nothing more. Those who are thus motivated are against welfare systems and governmental social security systems. They are much more individualistic, opposed to all forms of collectivization. These are the conservative principles. On the other band, the feminine security to be is expressed politically by an attitude that says everyone should be treated equally, that everyone should be cared for by the superparent, the government, from the cradle to the grave with all kinds of security programs from Aid to Dependent Children to Medicare. This attitude always drives toward a collectivization aimed at caring for all according to their needs alone. And these are liberal principles.

Lest you think this is too far-fetched, let me point out that when the drive to become is unchallenged it becomes in the political arena a right-wing fascism which is bound to have master race manifestations. This political point of view appeared in its most blatant form in Western civilization in a country known to its people as the "Fatherland." The security to be, when unchallenged, becomes in the political arena a left-wing communal state which in its purest form would take from each what they have to give and give to each according to their need. This political expression has appeared in its most blatant form in Western civilization in a country known to its people as "Mother Russia."

The maternal love, the security to be, and the paternal love, the drive to become, must, I believe, be kept together in perfect balance or humanity is destroyed. Every liberal needs a conservative to argue with and every conservative needs a liberal to challenge him. We are meant for each other and if the tension ever departs from life, our humanity is threatened.

Thus the fifth Commandment enjoins us to live as recipients of both the love of a mother and the love of a father. To preserve that pattern, this Commandment calls us to rise above our internal conflicts and emotions and to honor the meaning of fatherhood and the meaning of motherhood, that life may continue and that our days may be long in the land which the Lord our God has given us.

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