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Magnanimity as a Christian Virtue

Magnanimity as a Christian Virtue

by Deirdre Good

My grandparents’ lives (what I know of them) were remarkably stable when it came to marriage and family. On my father’s side, my grandfather was ordained in the Church of Ireland, married in church, and he and my grandmother had children who grew up and repeated the pattern. The same was true on my mother’s side. My grandparents were all church-going Christians. There were no divorces and remarriages. People didn’t talk about cancer or mental illness and we had examples of both in the family.

Most of my parents’ generation were church-going Anglicans. Some were ordained and quite a few were missionaries. Several did get divorced and remarried. True, it was unusual but it was known amongst us. And we also knew that my uncle became a paranoid schizophrenic as an adult. He came to stay with us regularly. We also used the C word when people were diagnosed, and we knew who had died from what sort of cancer.

When family members in my parent’s generation divorced and remarried, tensions within the family arose that were sometimes compounded by religious opinions. Some family members like my parents attended second marriages of their relatives, embracing the new relatives as family. Others refused to attend such weddings because they disapproved of divorce and remarriage on religious grounds, or because they felt X should not be marrying “that person” and should simply stay divorced. These people effectively terminated ongoing relations with family members whose second (and perhaps third) weddings they shunned. Later on, however, they changed their minds about exclusion, and degrees of harmony were restored.

Through it all, my parents’ attitude was one of generosity: they attended remarriages of their relatives when others in the family didn’t, they welcomed new family members into the family, and maintained relationships with divorced spouses, inviting them to their own family celebrations. At their 50th Wedding Anniversary, for example, I sat next to the second ex-wife of my mother’s cousin at lunch whilst the cousin and his third wife sat nearby.

My parents’ reasoning was straightforward: they prayed about it, and they read Scripture. They didn’t publicize their attitudes but decided to give family members the benefit of the doubt over responsibility for divorce, and were equally forgiving regardless of who argued the other party was more wronged. They were sympathetic listeners but refused to judge, saying instead, “Who are we to apportion blame? Every situation has more than one side. And our lives are not those of stained-glass window saints.”

Since they were able to invite any and all to family celebrations regardless of their status as divorced, remarried or single, responsibility for attending fell on the invited guests. It was not my parents who disinvited the second wife on the grounds that his adult children disapproved of the marriage. Nor was it my parents who excluded the excluders. People made their own choices whether or not to attend since they knew that all were invited. On one family occasion, a member of the family turned back from entering the reception because he realized he’d have to meet people he had refused –for many years–to meet inside. His loss, and ours.

You might say that my parents practiced a magnanimous Christian charity. While I don’t know what Scripture they read or how they read it, I can say that that reading the New Testament not only bears out their assessment but that this assessment opens up a space in which old and new personal realities can unfold.

Take marriage and family relations. Paul’s letters, affected by notions of imminent apocalypse commend “staying as you are” whether single or married. Marriage is containment and second-best. To “brothers (and sisters)” in various communities, Paul commends humility, patient affection, and competition in honoring each person as the body of Christ. After Paul, the authors of the “household codes” in Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastoral Epistles of 1&2 Timothy and Titus counsel wives, children, and slaves to be obedient to their husbands, fathers and masters.

But Jesus, according to gospel writers, conveys different views. In heaven there will be no marriage, he stipulates. In Mark, when pressed, Jesus prohibits divorce, but in Matthew’s gospel Jesus allows divorce under a single circumstance – adultery. In Matthew, certain disciples make themselves “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom” in single-minded devotion to God. Married disciples in Matthew, Mark and Luke have left wives, families, professions and households to follow Jesus. Sometimes Jesus insists that followers repudiate family, wealth and property for the sake of the kingdom; on other occasions, Jesus commands individuals to return to family and community.

If the New Testament portrays a variety of ways in which the early believers became followers of Jesus in the differing circumstances of single, married, and community life, who are we to commend one practice over another? Is it not the whole text that has authority, taken together, rather than any few isolated words? Paul’s celebration of diversity in the body of Christ warrants recognition of various communities and individual patterns. Similarly, the authority of the Gospel is self-limiting and self-defining through the very fact that the church has canonized four distinct, different, and equally authoritative Gospel witnesses.

In practice this might be a congregation of different worshippers around the table of the Last Supper sharing salvation through Jesus Christ. Side by side at the altar with someone whose construction of family looks radically different from mine, we kneel as an attempt to open up a physical space for encountering a different person and as a witness to a God whose generosity and creativity cannot be limited by our tiny hearts and minds.

We may be wrong. But we are consoled by the parable in which weeds and wheat are to be left side by side until the end. So when it comes to families, let us recognize our limited and provisional judgments and err boldly on the side of generosity and magnanimity, counting on God’s forgiveness both in this life and the next.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. An American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and keeps the blog On Not Being a Sausage.

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Robin Margolis

Dear Ann Fontaine:

I am pleased that you found my response supportive.

I have had too many friends and social acquaintances who can't go home for Christmas or Easter, because the family has chosen to embrace unrepentant abusers and people who refuse medical treatment for addiction or mental illness.

I don't think that is what the Gospels meant by magnanimity or forgiveness.

I am aware that Professor Good has a valuable point -- some families are estranged over straightforward divorces and property quarrels where a little forgiveness and tolerance would go a long way.

But the opposite side of the coin also needs to be considered.

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Ann Fontaine

Robin, thanks for this. as one who had to suffer going to dinner as a pre-teen where "Uncle" Wayne leered and groped - I appreciate your response.

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Robin Margolis

I would respectfully offer an alternative viewpoint.

I appreciate the author's intentions that people should not be excluded from family functions for simple human failings, but she should be aware that all too often there is more to the story than disapproval of divorce.

Sometimes, it is not a good ideas to invite relatives who have had quarrels, divorces and conflicts to the same family functions on the theory that religion commands us all to get along.

In some instances, people have been savagely abused by relatives and ex-spouses and victimized by the continuing consequences of incest, domestic violence, and refusal to get treatment for alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness.

It is not kind to victims of abusers to invite them to share social space with the unrepentant and/or untreated abusers or dangerously unstable family members.

Many abusers are adept at presenting themselves to other relatives and family members as charming individuals who claim to have been unjustly maligned or talk about how "there are two sides to every story" or demand unearned forgiveness.

They then proceed to abuse several generations of the same family.

I'm aware of too many people who can't go to family functions because they can't sit through another dinner with Aunt Sally's cruel remarks after a few drinks or be near cousin Ed, who molested them as a child, or talk to their ex-husband Larry, who beat them and their kids, or sit near cousin Alice, who refuses to acknowledge her mental illness and will not take her medication.

Many people from dysfunctional families find that their extended families refuse to believe them when they tell them the truth and that their relatives insist on retaining a relationship with an abuser or someone is dangerously unstable.

Many of the relatives engaging in negating the victims' stories have versions of this magnanimity theory.

Magnanimity is a virtue, but it should be kept in mind that the New Testament does specifically command us to avoid the company of unrepentant evil doers and people who are not taking measures to give up problems such as alcohol addiction.

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deirdregood

Thank you for your comments.

As far as magnanimity is concerned, others have indicated that the practice of megalopsychia e.g. in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics can be viewed as acting rightly towards and for the benefit of other people (even without concern for honor) whereas a "small-souled" person is self-absorbed. Might we find an echo of this in Paul who constructs virtue lists in his letters as care for others and vice lists as self-centered? Bill Carroll rightly reminds us that Aquinas takes us much further down this path.

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Maria L. Evans

Thanks for this wonderful piece, Deirdre. As someone who grew up in the opposite environment--practically all my relatives were married and divorced, including my grandmother, when such a thing was quite scandalous--walking the tightrope of magnimanity was always such a difficult path. When I look back, I wish I could have done it better, but I'm grateful I was able do do what I could manage to do, with God's help.

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