Todays Gospel reading is a challenging reading. On the surface it is simple – be kind to kids because they are wise, smart and need to be listened to. With a little further digging we might discover just how disturbing this passage is.
We live in a world with a fetish with the young. In the midst of the AFL finals season we are amazed by the performance of young boys on the national stage. We honour youth, and it is always young people, killed unnecessarily in old peoples wars. We applaud child prodigies, or children who have the privilege to be special at art, dance, music or academia. We actually pay them obscene amounts of money for their, often, mediocrity.
Our churches are always focussed on getting children and their families into the pews as if somehow, the children will save the church.
This is the modern phenomenon – the young will save us. We therefore commit our time as parents and grandparents to indulge, privilege, moddy-coddle to ensure they have every opportunity to be a success or genius or prodigy in the hope that somehow this will save us personally and as a society from our failings and failures.
It is a peculiarly modern syndrome and can have disastrous results. We end up with young people who run the risk of not being able to sit still, be self-motivating and self-regulating, fearing failure and, even worse, fearing to even to try in case they are unable to succeed. We also end up with parents and grandparents whose lives are given up, put on hold, run ragged by this overwhelming need to make their child their saviours.
Children are not the saviours of the world, now or in the future. They are simply people who will need to find their own way through the maze we call life. This concept finds its source in the idea of the pure innocent whose blood is sufficient for the sins of the ordinary people, in this case parents and society. We use language around Jesus, for example, that highlights his innocence and youth and then, consciously or unconsciously appropriate and overlay it on our own young people, whether those in our own households or those who die in wars.
The impact can be devastating.
The author of The Catcher in the Rye, possibly still one of the best war novels ever written, JD Salinger went to war in his late teens. He was engaged in the brutal hand-to-hand combat in the forests of Germany where the stench of death was everywhere. He had an old typewriter and bashed away at this coming of age novel between battles. It was his war novel.
After the war and the success of his book, he became a recluse. He had several relationships, always with teenage girls whom he discarded when they matured and replaced them. His youth was interrupted because of the war and he remained forever the 16 year old Holden Caulfield committed to saving the young from falling off the cliff – in reality from growing up.
He is emblematic of many who returned from war and who emerged from events such as the Great Depression. My father went shearing as a 14 year old, travelling the shearing sheds of western NSW on his own and unguided. The artist Francis Bacon and the monk Thomas Merton, for example, left home to travel the world as young teenagers and it could be said their lives were marked by that experience. Merton’s history with women, often younger and less powerful than he, leaves us with some unanswered questions.
Jesus raises the importance of children at a time when children were in fact symbolic of the most vulnerable.
Children had no use until that time in which they were able to care and provide for their parents. They were symbolic of those who were marginalised by their powerlessness, be that because of age, gender, disability or race. Jesus may not have been saying what we so often think he says – that we are to value children above all others, that children are precious and we need to do everything to protect them.
The bringing forward of children would have been an anathema to the disciples just as it would have been for the scribes and Pharisees. It simply wasn’t done to recognise children as anything more than a useless piece of property, dismissible until they could be of use in the business of providing.
Jesus was saying how you treat those who have no value at this stage is important. Jesus was saying that children and those who look after them, women, are to be treated with appropriate respect and care. But Jesus was not raising the idea of the value of children to an iconic level where it becomes idolatry. They remained as powerless in society after he spoke as before.
It was this powerlessness Jesus recognised and sought to redress. They are to be treated as one would wish to be treated oneself, how one would treat someone with power, how one would treat someone on the same level as you. Not more so, but same as.
This raises questions about modern parenting and our fetish with privileging our children over and above all other children. Have we moved into idolatry, that is have we given our children the power to validate our existence based on their success or not, how many after school activities they do, what school we sacrifice to put them in and more?
Recently a 9 year old called Harper caused a stir when she sat through the National Anthem in her school assembly. I have to say there were students in my High School in the ‘70’s who did the same thing. It is not new. She was treated as a rebellious child by the school. Pauline Hanson threatened to commit physical violence on the child and other so-called adults responded similarly. What intrigued me about this was she exhibited all the capacities we say we want in our children – courage, independence, critical thinking and the capacity to articulate her point of view. Yet because she dared to be the child we say we want she was returned to the margins by society.
We can’t have it both ways.
And this is Jesus point. You can’t have children whom you hope to care for you and ignore them until they’re useful. At the same time you are not required to exalt them as the symbol of hope and salvation for self and the world. Respect the marginalised and do not treat them in such a way as to diminish their life or set them up to seek revenge on your privilege. This applies to all who are outside the patriarchal system present at the time.
This is something I am constantly amused about in the debate about FNP. We want them not to be the stereotype we have come to believe they are, but when they become educated, articulate and critical we are offended at their audacity to question our privilege. We also hold up false romantic views about them – they are gentle, spiritual and never get angry – and again we are offended when they get angry and express it.
One of the issues the church has had has been the recruiting of young people who are not mature enough to deal with the process of formation as clergy. Many came to these places without having matured emotionally and sexually and found themselves in places of power without the capacity to be adult in those places. Abuse, in all its forms, then becomes possible because they can become stuck in their childhood such as Salinger and others. It could be suggested we do not need more young people but we need more adult people of whatever age, to lead us.
Jesus is speaking into the immaturity of those who fail to see the importance of caring responsibly for children and the marginalised. He is saying clearly, as does James, that power is destructive if it is not governed by a mature and accountable understanding of relationships.
This passage does not elevate young people to the heights modern society has, but it does challenge the use of power in relationships. The question we are left with is: What would our society, church and lives look like if we took Jesus’ words seriously and lived them out in our everyday lives?