Religion and the family in Jamaica

Open Bible on the dinner table
Open Bible on the dinner table (Photo credit: Vidal Balielo Jr.)

Religion or re-ligament from its Latin roots, like health, is a state of mind as well as a commitment to convert all life’s activities to the fear of God and the wisdom which flows from it. Acts of altruism for the sake of others, especially the poor and vulnerable, are exemplified by the image of the consummate wife described in the Book of Proverbs. 

The goal of the wife’s work as described in the Book of Proverbs in the Bible is focused on the health or wellness of the family, a group of people living together in one household. This book is a collection of ideals and practical advice from a religious perspective which are first learned at home and then applied in public. The writer grounds health or the good life in the fear of God and the wisdom which flows from it is reinforced by practices such as kindness and love. Practices of love for example are manifested in public health or the common good and are predicated on individual acts of goodness and depend on trust in God’s transcendence or otherness.  

This vision of a nation and society transformed by religion and the family is akin to a Jamaican society in which there is a dominance of female-headed households. Sociologist Edith Clarke’s bestselling book My Mother who Fathered Me is the product of a survey and analysis of three rural communities in Jamaica and tells the story of single women and their struggle for survival and triumph in the midst of adversities. Though these women are not wives, as described in the Book of Proverbs, they nonetheless embody the spirit of survival in the household and wider society.  

If Jamaica is to be a place to live, work, raise family and do business, as vision 2030 suggests then much work is needed in the present in order to achieve this lofty goal. This is despite the discourse around the image of the wife as being too domesticated a term for twenty-first century discourse. To this end it is argued that the traditional wife too easily reinforces the stereotype of the domesticated woman who is viewed like a doormat rather than valued as a person of worth and dignity. Nevertheless, since some women are choosing this option, following sixteenth century monk and mystic, Brother Lawrence, to intentionally engage the project of building a healthy community then they ought not to be too easily dismissed as they make things happen, manage effectively and take responsibility for their actions.  

A good wife makes things happen. Her good work is by no means confined to her family, inner circle of friends, close network and her sphere of influence. Instead, the writer of Proverbs says, “she opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hand to the needy” (30:20). In other words, she represents the selflessness we see in Jesus on the cross in promising paradise to the thief, forgiving those who conspired against him, including his close friends and colleagues and finally commending his soul to God’s loving hand are all signs of the selflessness of a person devoted to God and service to people. In making things happen the good wife epitomizes all women in leadership roles who are also effective managers their households. As Edith Clarke argues, these women, faced with tremendous odds make things happen not only for themselves but for all others, including strangers.   

A good wife also manages effectively. According to the writer of the Book of Proverbs 30:26 “she opens her mouth with wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. “In wisdom or right judgment and kindness grounded in religious charity the good wife cares deeply for others with wisdom such as was demonstrated by King Solomon in deciding which mother to give a baby following the dispute between two women. Indeed, especially in times of difficulties and stress, such as we are experiencing now in a global COVID-19 Pandemic, the good wife symbolizes those who live from hand to mouth and yet manage successfully.   

Finally, the good wife does not avoid responsibilities. To put it positively the good wife takes responsibility for her action especially since she knows she is accountable to God. Proverbs (30:30) says of the good wife that she is “a woman who fears the Lord [and] is to be praised.” From Proverbs chapter 1:7 we learn that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” This is not knowledge which puffs up and makes one filled with pride rather it increases understanding and appreciation of the bigger picture of family, community and nation.  

Responsibilities exercised by women in the Pentecostal Churches as identified by Australian sociologist Diane Austin Broos in her book Jamaica Genesis illustrate the paradigm of the good wife. In it Broos notes that as powerful as the bishops in the Pentecostal churches are in Jamaica, and they are all males, they dare not make major decisions without first consulting with their wives. She also points out that when a bishop is to be appointed it’s the women‘s caucus who first determine who is to be the next bishop and inform their husbands who they are to choose.  These women fear the Lord and therefore take their religious responsibilities for the mission and work of the church seriously. They lead by making things happen, managing effectively and taking responsibility in ways that keep the greater good at the forefront

Like the family, religion is, therefore, designed to bring people together and keep them united for the greater good. Though religions very often contravene these principles exemplars like the good wife, Jesus and Brother Lawrence provide models of living selflessly for the good of others.   

Garth Minott is Deputy President of the United Theological College of the West Indies.

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