Happy Families

Michael Metzger

Tolstoy knew something about shalom that many churches don’t.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond cites the famous first sentence of Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Diamond goes on to write, “By that sentence, Tolstoy meant that, in order to be happy, a marriage must succeed in many different respects: sexual attraction, agreement about money, child discipline, religion, in-laws, and other vital issues. Failure in any one of those essential respects can doom a marriage even if it has all the other ingredients needed for happiness.”

In other words, lots of things all have to go right.

In the next paragraph of Guns, Diamond connects this reality to the fates of human societies and cultures: “This principle can be extended to understanding much else about life besides marriage. We tend to seek single-factor explanations about success. For most important things, though, success actually requires avoiding separate possible causes of failure.”1 In other words, lots of things all have to go right in changing the world. Disconnecting any one thing leads to failure. It works this way in all institutions, including marriage, the church, commerce, education, the arts, media—you name it.

That’s what’s so hard about shalom. It’s almost all or nothing. When you see shalom as systems, you remember that one missed block can blow up a football play. One missed pass wipes out a basketball assist. And in a book called The Logic of Life, British economist Tim Harford describes what happens in a world consisting of 20 men and 20 women—all of them heterosexual and in search of a mate—when one man is removed. In a scarcer market, women must “up their game” or face the prospect of spinsterhood. So they do, perhaps dressing more seductively or making an extra effort to be obliging. Somehow or other, she “steals” a man from one of her fellow women. That newly single woman then ups her game, too, to steal a man from someone else. A chain reaction ensues. Before long, every woman has to try harder, and every man can relax a little. The results are systemic and catastrophic.2

This is what’s happening in the African-American community. Between the ages of 20 and 29, one African-American man in nine is behind bars. One African-American man in three can expect to be locked up at some point. Removing so many men from the marriage market is why the proportion of U.S.-born married black women aged 30-44 plunged from 62 percent to 33 percent. Kerwin Kofi Charles of the University of Chicago and Ming Ching Luoh of National Taiwan University found that a one-percentage point increase in the male incarceration rate produced a 2.4-point reduction in the proportion of women who ever marry. And it gets worse.

This collapse of the traditional family has made African-Americans far poorer and lonelier than they would otherwise have been. In 2007 only 11 percent of U.S.-born African-American women aged 30-44 without a high school diploma had a working spouse, according to the Pew Research Centre. Their college-educated sisters fare better, but are still affected by the sex imbalance. Because 96 percent of married African-American women are married to African-American men—they are ultimately fishing in the same shrinking pool. This is why more women offer sex on the first date, making it harder to combine romance with commitment and increasing out-of-wedlock births with no father in sight. It’s systemic. The solutions are not simple.

But the starting point for faith communities is simple. To get back in the game, faith communities have to start in the game—not observing it or talking about “engaging culture.” If the church ever started to get lots of things to all go right and reduced out-of-wedlock birthrates in the black community, they would be taken seriously. The church would become a resource for the knowledge of reality in center institutions. To accomplish this kind of shalom however is almost all or nothing.

This is why shalom is not easy. “In any hard discipline,” writes Matthew Crawford, “whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways.”3 Working to renew, or innovate seemingly intractable patterns is the only way to gain knowledge of reality. It keeps churches away from abstractions. This kind of dirt-under-the-fingernails knowledge reminds us that shalom, like happy families, is having lots of things all going right.

Tolstoy’s wisdom also reminds us why many faith communities worldwide try to get lots of things all going right each week. They follow the same liturgy, read the same scriptures, and share the sacraments week in and week out. They are generally churches committed to making culture. They develop an appetite for disruption by taking and eating, the weekly Eucharist. They develop a habit of self-suspicion by weekly public confession. They share the Peace and receive a Benediction every week as a way of making a habit of shalom. These congregants become practitioners of the craft of shalom, not theorists. This kind of genuine renewal, or innovation, writes Lesslie Newbigin, “can only be responsibly accepted from those who are already masters of the tradition, skilled practitioners of whom it could be said both that the tradition dwells fully in them and that they dwell fully in the tradition.”4

Hard work, isn’t it? Tolstoy knew something about shalom that many churches don’t. Like happy families, lots of things all have to go right. That’s why the churches that are good at shalom are generally all alike.

1 Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York, NY: Norton, 1999), p. 157.
2 “Sex and the single black woman: How the mass incarceration of black men hurts black women,” The Economist, April 8, 2010, p. 36.
3 Matthew Crawford, Shop Class As Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 65.
4 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 35.


Morning Mike Check


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. Mike:

    I agree that a lot of things have to go right to have a good family. It’s also true that you can really mess things up and the family can still come out ok. If my boys (now in their 20’s) weren’t able to forgive some of my blunders as a dad, we wouldn’t have the strong relationships we have now.

    I think forgiveness and grace–making a lot of space for mistakes–allows that shalom. So you don’t have to be perfect–or even really good–a lot of the times.

    And I believe your point to be very true, too. Any one stressor–financial, relational, housekeeping, faith–can hugely disrupt a healthy community–family, church, or business.

    When your are doing a lot of things right, miracles can occur. They can occur anytime under any circumstances, of course, but they do seem to favor those communities that regularly bring about a sense of peace, love, forgiveness, and healing. And that is hard, intentional work. And the blessings make it worth it.

  2. Mike –
    I love your focus on Shalom… and I think that the research cited today misses the real point. I don’t believe that the incarceration rate among young African-American males is responsible for the low marriage rates. I actually believe that they are both symptoms of the same problem. There was an editorial in the Washington Post a couple of summers ago entitled, “Marriage is for White People.” The quote was from a third-grade boy in the DC schools. I have been mentoring a young African-American guy for the past four years. He is now 17. Other than me (and the other mentors in our program), he doesn’t know anyone who is married. The reason young, inner-city African-Americans don’t get married is that they don’t grow up imagine themselves as married. It isn’t on their radar screens. The challenge isn’t to work on incarceration rates, but to reform and reshape their imaginations through relationships (and other means). the inception of this problem goes back decades when Federal welfare payments were available only if a husband/male was not present in the home. In essence, the government paid families to break down. Now, decades later, kids (like the one I mentor), don’t know anyone who is married. They live with moms who, by and large, sacrifice greatly for them. They also live with the deep pain from their fathers being absent (even when they are not incarcerated). Sadly, the incarceration rate is a symptom of this same problem. The number one predictor for incarceration in the US is a father being absent from the home. The challenge is not to focus on the incarceration rate, but on the imagination. Can we work together to reform and reshape the imaginations of young, lower income kids? Increasingly, white kids are following the same statistics, as it has more to do with class than race. Without the full effort of the church — even society — on this challenge, it will be uphill sledding. For kids to experience Shalom, they can’t grow up in neighborhoods where no fathers are present. The efforts and love of single moms are heroic, but they can’t do it alone.

  3. I have seen other studies that take more than a man’s ‘availability’ into account when determining marriage figures. It might be good also to consider the women’s point of view – many of whom are apparently not marrying on purpose, and not because they can’t ‘secure’ a man, any man. This is not all bad, because it shows the orientation toward a higher ideal even if it’s in the negative – namely the rejection of a sham marriages to those who have no aspirations of being the head of a healthy household.

    That said, perhaps I have just illustrated your point that things go wrong for many different reasons – things go right, when all those ‘different reasons’ are going well. There are many uniquely different reasons why marriage is in trouble. . . . both from the male perspective as well as the female’s. So I guess we’re reminded again that we shouldn’t try and pin it down to a single reason.

    On another subject altogether, it doesn’t bother you that a new reader would probably have no idea what you mean in your first sentence about churches knowing something about “shalom”? I am not a new reader, but I am still not sure what you mean – it starts to feel like ‘insider’ jargon.

  4. Danny:

    Good points – and I agree with your remarks about symptoms. My point was not to fix the symptoms but to see these symptoms as part of a system – a complex system we rarely address or attempt to fix, since it requires a lot of things all going right. The systems are largely the result of institutional structures. While your remarks about relationships and the imagination are important, I have rarely seen how faith communities work to change the imagination beyond relationships. In other words, to quote James Hunter (p. 35): “While individuals are not powerless by any stretch of the imagination, institutions have much greater power.”

    On to my friend Marble: I assume people the power of Google can assist anyone who is scratching their head on shalom. In a nutshell, it is seeking the wellbeing of others. Not wanting and wishing – doing. Since it is an ancient word found in scripture, Judaism, and the Early Chruch (and obviously not coined here in this column), I assume it’s not ‘insider’ jargon – but her point is well taken.

  5. The all-or-nothing mindset scares me – I’m prone to OCD tendencies.

    If I know that it _all_ has to be right, I might not even take the first step to innovate one area.

    How does grace play into making all things right?

  6. The first step is distinguishing between reasons and excuses. Your OCD might be the reason you are scared, but it’s an excuse for failing to align with reality. We’re all bent. Wise people recognize this reality yet align with reality, such as the reality that shalom is almost all or nothing. Second, I’d recommend you recalibrate your take on grace. Grace is only opposed to earning, not effort. Grace means you don’t have to get it all right – but you do have to get most things right. Put another way, try repeatedly blowing it with your spouse and then repeatedly asking her for grace. Somewhere along the way she’ll suggest you stop excusing your behavior. Beware of what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *