Family Systems Theory and Multigenerational Curses

There are genuinely hideous creatures among the skeletons clattering in my own family's closets (often brazenly striding into the light of day).  I struggle to sort out how they are and are not part of me. When hopelessness creeps into my peripheral vision, this is what it looks like:  Fear that it is not possible to inherit peace and goodness from a system bulging with violence (and acceptance of violence).  Fear that nurture and love is missing from my genetic code.

In both church and broader culture, the family (biological, not the brothers-and-sisters-in-Christ kind) defines us.  My name itself reveals which family I belong to.  In my seminary experience, pastoral care instruction has been mostly about the Bowen Family Systems model.  Some Bowen experts claim that, even with a great deal of work, we can only become a step or two healthier (more differentiated) than the rest of our family of origin.  We either stand on our forefathers' shoulders, or they clutch at our ankles.

I'm puzzled by the theological choice to (almost exclusively) use family systems theory as the basis of pastoral care.  It has its place, but in a setting where we celebrate diverse theologies, can't we acknowledge diverse models of pastoral care, too?  We need grounding in current psycho-therapeutic concepts, but I can think of several situations where a strong correlation between emotional/spiritual potential and a person's family of origin sounds just like a multigenerational curse.  It's the sins of the fathers, visited on their sons for a thousand generations.

What does the family systems model say, from a spiritual perspective?  As ministers, our care always communicates ideas of who God is and how God engages with humanity, so we'd better pay attention to what we're communicating.  Can God move in this world?  Does God heal?  Can we be transformed in this world, or only in the next?  Can we become better through our own efforts?  How much better?  Where will my help come from?  How do I know what's important about who I am?

When I hear the skeletons knocking about, whispering about my desecrated foundations, I long for some sort of sign from God.  "Is this who You are?  Are You saving me from all this? Or did You sign off on it?"  

It is utterly unhelpful to have these questions answered for me, and I think these are some of the real questions of pastoral care.



"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."
-Saint Molly Ivins