Family Isn’t Fake

Family Isn’t Fake by John Stonestreet and Maria Baer via Christian Headlines

In Act 2, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young couple mourns that their respective families are sworn enemies. Juliet doesn’t think it’s fair. “What’s in a name?” she asks. “That which we call a rose, by any other word would smell as sweet.” In other words, Romeo’s surname, “Montague” is only a word. No matter what we call it, the long-stemmed flower with the thorns and petals will still be itself.

Shakespeare’s analogy only works because roses are a real flower that grow in the real world. It’s the thing itself—not the words we use to describe it—that makes it what it is. Playing with language, however, can be a tricky game. Sometimes we confuse even ourselves.

Our culture is in the midst of a decades-long experiment with language, especially the word family. The news on almost any day of the week offers plenty of examples. Recently, a New York trial court judge ruled that three adult men in a “polyamorous relationship” should be entitled to the same family benefits as married couples, at least when it comes to eviction law. “The definition of family has morphed considerably since 1989,” wrote the judge in her decision, referencing the year a New York state court recognized a same-sex relationship for the first time.

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But can the definition of family “morph”? The question isn’t whether we’d like to change it, but whether family is like the rose—a real thing that exists as one thing and not other things—or whether the word family is a mere placeholder for any relational arrangement.

Family is not merely a “name.” G.K. Chesterton called the family a “triangle of truisms,” with the three sides of father, mother, and child. “The love of man and woman is not an institution that can be abolished, or a contract that can be terminated,” he wrote. “It is something older than all institutions or contracts, and something that is certain to outlast them all.”

It always requires one man and one woman to make a child, and civilizations always require the birth of new children to survive. While we can use whatever words we like to describe this triangle, we can’t take some other shape and call it a triangle. That would be like calling a daisy a rose and then expecting it to grow thorns.

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