Troubling kinship and alternative kinning

ethics of everydayExcerpt from Banner, M. (2014) The Ethics of Everyday Life.  chapter 2 ‘Conceiving Conception: On IVF, Virgin Births, and the Troubling of Kinship’.

In staccato fashion, the Apostles’ Creed notices paradigmatically human moments in Christ’s life: he was conceived, born, suffered, died and buried. But these moments would very likely appear in any syllabus for a course in social anthropology – a point which brings to notice the fact that these events are not only paradigmatically human, in the sense of being of special interest and concern in any human life, but also sites of contention and controversy, where what it is to be human is discovered, constructed, and contested.

… How do the moments of Christ’s life (as they are evoked in the Creeds and as subjects of extended reflection in theology and sermons, in prayers and liturgy, in art and literature) represent human life? And how do these representations relate to present-day cultural norms and expectations and newly emerging modes of relationship, themselves shaping and framing human life? And, furthermore, how does the Christian imagination of human life which dwells on and draws from the life of Christ, not only articulate its own, but also come into conversation with and engage other, moral imaginaries of the human? (35)

Troubling kinship

According to Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s preaching, John’s call to repentance opened with a hyperbolic denunciation of any simple reliance on the claims of kinship: ‘Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’. This warning against complacent reliance on the salvific sufficiency of mere ancestry need not be taken to presage a total discounting of the claims and privileges of ancestry and kinship – it may warn only against complacency. Ancestry may remain necessary, even if not by itself sufficient. But, as it turns out, this proclamation that the fulfillment of God’s promises need not be constrained by lineage and inheritance opens a story the outworking of which will lead to the claim that the fulfillment of these promises not only need not be, but in actual fact is not so constrained: ‘I tell you this brethren, that flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God’, but ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved’. Kinship is then very thoroughly troubled by this story, but – and this is significant – Christians no more lived ‘after kinship’ than do … those who find themselves in the infertility clinic. Paul, after all, tells his brothers that flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom. We can imagine a community, perhaps, that dispenses with the categories of kinship altogether, but this particular community does not take its foundational stories to demand the erasure of kinship, but rather its reconfiguration – kinship is to be played out in a new key but still to be played out… Brothers aren’t banished from the New Testament, but reappear as brothers of all others within the community of believers: ‘The most prominent use of “brother” in the New Testament is as a metaphor, or fictive kinship term’. That is not, then, an unkinning, but a rekinning – even if the reappropriation establishes what should be regarded as, in the case of the community of discipleship, a ‘counter-cultural social structure'(41-43).

Alternative kinning

…we could look to Augustine to supply a critical theory of kin and kinning. But where might we look for exemplification of a critical practice? There are two lines of inquiry here which may contribute to a better description of the theory’s embodiment. First, although it is not unproblematic, we might look to practices of adoption as providing different models of making kin. Second, a demonstration of the possibility and nature of alternative kinning would be provided by an ethnography of a Christian community in which a countercultural form of non-biogenetic kinship is plainly and powerfully manifested – a community in which there are no biological ties, but in which the reality of being a mother and father, or brother and sister, or son or daughter, is richly experienced (58).

Ethnography of traditional communities of religious may provide such examples, but one of the most interesting and novel experiments in community life and in alternative ways of making kin is found in the L’Arche communities, in which those with learning difficulties are invited to live in a shared house with volunteers who contribute to their care…(58-59).

Whether or not it can commend it descriptively or merely prescriptively, however, Christian ethics looks towards a kinship that does not fall back on ‘classic’ ways of doing family, which privilege ties of blood. Instead it commends a kinship framed by our conceiving our conception in the light of the conception of Christ, to whom Joseph was truly a father. Christian rites intend to unkin us, only to rekin us with the new bonds that dispel childlessness as much as they eliminate orphanhood. And if kinship is a mode of ‘organizing alterity’, as Faubion puts it, a directing of the self to the other, kinship can hardly be erased but it can be sharply reconceived. The rites of baptism (which displace kin by blood), and of the eucharist (which makes us kin to Christ, and thus to one another by sharing in his blood), are such an enacted reconception – and are signs of the continuing purpose and power of a critical Christianity to fashion kinship amongst strangers (59).

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