The Myth of Innocence

4 Oct

The innocence of children has become an accepted
mantra of modern society, an idea challenged by recent incidents such as the
shooting of a man in Sydney by a 15 year old boy. We believe children are
incapable of doing or thinking evil in our culture that promotes the idea all
children are innocent.

Yet the case of James Bulger showed just how
optimistic such an idea is. James was
murdered on 12 February 1993, at the age of two. He was abducted from a shopping centre and murdered by two ten-year-old boys. In some ways it woke society
out of its slumber but not entirely so. As we often do with gross tragedies
society demonises the perpetrators, using words such as monsters, mentally ill,
evil, rarely is children, child or other terms used to describe an ordinary
person who committed and extraordinary crime.
As a result we see those responsible for such
acts as aberrations and continue to highlight the innocence of children as the
norm. Anyone who has spent a few weeks in a school playground can assure you this
is not so. Bullying, name-calling, interpersonal violence, isolation and other
demeaning activities are on show for all to see. And, yes, your children and
grandchildren are no more innocent than anybody else’s. They all have the
tendency to do evil.
Children are often cute but rarely innocent.
Which brings us to Mark10:14-16 from the Living
Bible:
14 But when Jesus saw what was
happening he was very much displeased with his disciples and said to them, “Let
the children come to me, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as they. Don’t
send them away! 15 I tell you as seriously as I
know how that anyone who refuses to come to God as a little child will never be
allowed into his Kingdom.”
16 Then he took the children into
his arms and placed his hands on their heads and he blessed them.
A danger in reading the Bible is to translate
the stories directly into our culture. These are stories written to address
situations pertinent to a particular place and time. Jesus is not addressing a
situation occurring in downtown Ashburton or Glen iris, but in relation to the
way young people were treated in his time.
Children were seen neither as innocent or
deserving of special treatment. They were not hovered over by mothers and
fathers who worked to ensure that their child received the best, became the
best and was not discriminated against by others. This story is not about my
child being special, more special than anything else.
In Jesus’ time, children were completely
dependent upon their relationship with their father for their life and place in
the family. The father decided whether the
child would even be accepted into the family. Children belonged to their father
and remained subject to his authority even as adults. The saying “to
receive the kingdom like a child,” which most scholars treat as originally
independent of the scene about accepting children, must, therefore, refer to
the radical dependence of the child on the father for any status, inheritance,
or, in families where children might be abandoned, for life itself. It warns
the disciples that they are radically dependent upon God’s grace — they cannot
set the conditions for entering the kingdom.
Now
isn’t that interesting? Jesus takes a practice or a circumstance, common to his
age but out of sync with our own, to introduce the concept of grace. Children
had no special right to their place in the family. There was nothing they could
do to ensure that they received a place or had first place. Birthplace in the
family hierarchy, gender or ability did not guarantee them a place. They were
simply to be children.
Old Testament
stories of the battle for supremacy in families, Cain and Abel, Joseph, Esau
and more reinforce graphically the scheming and conniving that went on to gain
the father’s favour and to get your hands on the coveted position of power. The
Father held the upper hand and unless you were chosen you missed out, and
perhaps, were left out of the family all together. You relied completely on the
father’s generosity.
Jesus
seems to take this patriarchal system and remind us we are dependent on God’s grace
for all the good things that come our way, particularly our acceptance into
heaven. We cannot connive or scheme our way into heaven. We simply have to be
obedient to what we understand is the will of God and to leave the rest up to
God. Like the children Jesus referred to who had to trust their father, we are
to trust God.
Is
this fair or is Jesus out of line by making such a connection? Isn’t this idea
disempowering? Why can’t children be whatever they want to be, do what ever
they want to do and be entitled to be treated as innocent and precious, someone
whose every wish is pampered to?
Is
it fair Jesus asks to give up our own wilful decision making processes to rely
completely on the grace of God? Shouldn’t we have some say in what we do and
how we go about securing our eternal future? Perhaps Jesus response would be: “Well,
we did give you free will; so how did that turn out for you?”
Grace
is a gift and a decision. It is God’s
gift of unconditional empowerment freely given to those who decide to be open
to the possibility of unlimited empowerment.
Grace
cannot be bestowed if we are looking the other way. If we are committed to
doing things our way (thanks Frank), dictating the terms of the relationship
(if you do…then I will…), designing what it looks like (God, let me win X
Factor or Lotto, or the grand-final), then we block the presence of God’s grace
in our lives.
The children
Jesus was referring to had to make a decision to trust the Father. The Father
was not exempt of responsibility. Jesus was challenging Fathers to give good
things to their children. They were not to be tyrants, dictators, and
manipulators of the children. This was a relationship of mutual giving and
decision-making. The fathers were to be gracious in their treatment of their
children. Neither were to abuse the relationship. Both were to respect each
other and to allow what would be to be. What happens when they don’t? See the
Prodigal son for more details.
What
a challenge for us as we reflect on our personal relationships, and particularly
our relationship with God; to give ourselves completely to God, open to the
unlimited empowerment available to us and deciding to let go of our impulse to
control and to manage the outcomes according to our will. This applies to our
relationship with partners; children and those we work with as well as the
ultimate relationship on which all else is developed.
Are
we, as a church able to give up our concerns and our fears, our preferred
outcomes and dreams for our parish; and to give ourselves entirely to the grace
of God? The children Jesus was referring to trusted the outcome to the
generosity of empowerment; are we able to do so here?
It
does not mean we are exempt of responsibility of hard work, effort, prayer and
obedience. On the contrary that is what is expected of us. We are to work as if everything relies upon our efforts, while at the
same time knowing we are completely dependent upon God’s grace.
This
is not a story of childish innocence. It is a realistic story of the facts of
life. To welcome children and to be welcomed as children is about the gift of
mutual respect and responsibility. We are empowered to the doing of great deeds
by the fact the outcome doesn’t rely on us. God has got us covered.

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