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On Chosen Family in East Village Vaguely Soviet Speakeasies

January 30th, 2020 | 5 min read

By Susannah Black Roberts

Last night, we launched Issue 23 of Plough Quarterly, at the Red Room at KGB Bar on East 4th Street. I went there first when I was probably sixteen or so, for a book launch of my father’s, and I’ve found myself there quite a bit, lately, what with absinthe tastings and the Dead Ladies Society and (at the adjacent Kraine Theater) the Odd Salon.

I was the Immoderator (which is similar to but in crucial though unspecified ways different from being a Moderator), Jon Baskin of The Point was our co-host, and our speakers were three people who had had pieces in the issue: Tara Isabella Burton, who wrote on flanerie and dandyism and walking in the city and how not to distance yourself from “the crowd” and, implicitly, from your own life; Brandon McGinley, who wrote on his bootleg Traditional Latin Mass commune of seven families in Pittsburgh, and James Macklin, who had given an interview on his own journey from prosperity to homelessness to thirty years of service in the Bowery Mission, where he is now the Outreach Director.

During the Q & A period, our friend Jimmy asked what I think was meant to be a slightly trollish question: so many of us there question political and philosophical liberalism on the basis of its elevation of personal choice at the expense of givenness. But (Jimmy pointed out) so many of even the Christian communities to which we actually belong do have an element of choice, of self-selection. Certainly TLM Catholics have this, but uh also *cough* Anglicanism *cough.* And the Bruderhof, of course, the anabaptist community who publish Plough, are par excellence a community which one chooses. 

And in a way, yeah, this is in tension with the ideal of parish worship: the perfect tradlyfe where you go to mass with with the people in your neighborhood, your village, and you don’t whine about it or shop around for a different parish.

But Jimmy’s question brought something to the surface that I’ve been thinking about recently.

Not all choice is bad– that’s not the point of the critique of liberalism. Choice that is merely measured by our own will, and not by the good, is what we criticize; and the notion that ethical rules only bind us to the degree that we assent to them; and the idea that people (including ourselves) only have value if we choose to confer that value on them. That’s what’s not true; and that, and the concomitant tendency to treat people and communities as though they are commodities which we can buy and thus control, are what we need to ditch in order to be human well.

But the phenomenon of chosen family is not a bad one. For one thing, all marriages require assent; and so all new families begun in marriage begin in some sense in choice. And all vowed religious life, too, begins in choice: that is the nature of a vow.

But the same is in some sense true in friendship as well. There was only one person there last night who was blood kin to me rather than kith, and that was my mom: mothers and fathers are par excellence those we don’t choose. But many, many other forms of social bond, we do choose, in a way, on the basis of affinity, and that is fine: some “self-selection” is just friendship.

Here’s how to understand yourself, though, as a postliberal friend: we can’t invent our friends, and we don’t invent the terms on which friendship is carried forward. I would have no way to will into being those people who were there last night: I’m not creative enough to think all of you weirdos up. God did that, and he made you, and then he put us in each others’ lives. And what it means to be friends, and to love, is not up to us: it is something more like discovery, as we find out how to trust each other, to be committed, to bear with each others’ flaws and draw each other towards our common telos: even when that telos is just a late night afterparty of Broadway karaoke at Marie’s Crisis; still more when that telos is the New Jerusalem.

We can’t force God to put people we will come to love in our lives, and when he does, I don’t think it’s bad to willingly delight in that friendship and love, to choose it, to prioritize it. That isn’t shopping for community or for friends: it’s being willing to receive, and steward, a gift. Everything is under His providence, and if what we are actually doing is seeking to follow him, doing that by choosing –as Brandon does when he and Katie go to the TLM with their seven families, as Kevin does when he makes brunch, as Red Zimmerman does when he commits himself to going where the community will send him, and finds himself in Pater Edmund’s neck of the woods, as Pater Edmund does by keeping his own vows– is good.

We are fundamentally responsive, and we respond to the people God puts in our lives, and one way we respond to them is by choosing to care for and cultivate communities of affinity and friendship that are not just geographical, that are not woodenly dictated by location or inheritance- by (one might say, just to pick a phrase at random) blood and soil. That’s not a corruption, that’s not liberalism: that’s human and good.

Once you start thinking more carefully about this, and once you take seriously the idea of providence, the whole dichotomy between the chosen and the unchosen starts to get a bit shaky, actually. Did Pater Edmund enter the monastery, did my parents get married, because they chose those things, or because they were called?

If we are, as humans, fundamentally receptive beings, who do not give ourselves being and who are in fact, whether we will or no, whether we are Christians already or not, called to follow him in love and own him as our King– then the liberal version of choice isn’t just a bad idea; its also imaginary. We don’t choose our own end, which is happiness– beatitude in seeing God face to face and loving each other. We didn’t choose to be born. What we choose is to respond well, to be good and creative stewards of this reality we are in, to care well for and to enjoy the friends and family that God has put in our lives.

The right response is not to reject all chosen family or chosen community, but to delight in it, and be grateful for it– because we didn’t invent it, we couldn’t deserve it, and we can’t by ourselves preserve it. That’s the job of the Holy Spirit, Whose breath I think we were all breathing, at least a little bit, last night.

Susannah Black Roberts

Susannah Black Roberts is senior editor at Plough. She is a native Manhattanite. She and her husband, the theologian Alastair Roberts, split their time between Manhattan and the West Midlands of the UK.