Children-Where Religion Hits the Road: Why Society Needs Religious Views of Children

By Miller-McLemore, Bonnie | Conscience, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview
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Children-Where Religion Hits the Road: Why Society Needs Religious Views of Children

Miller-McLemore, Bonnie, Conscience

A reinvention of childhood is under way. Previous understandings inherited from Christianity and the Enlightenment--children as depraved or innocent, for example--no longer completely fit. New controlling images suggested by politics, popular psychology and the market--children as victims or children as consumers, products or burdens--are inadequate and sometimes outright destructive. Meanwhile, dramatic changes in families, gender, neighborhoods, community and employment raise new questions about how to care for children and how to involve them in society. How should we rightfully view children in this period of transition?

What better time for those in religious communities to speak up? Unstable views of children leave society in need of richer understandings often best nurtured within long-standing traditions. Unfortunately, when people hear religious attitudes toward children mentioned, they often automatically assume we're talking about the Christian Right and its adamancy about children's submission to adult authority. Others think, with justified cynicism, about child abuse within Catholic and Protestant churches and homes.

Truncating what religious traditions offer in these ways has greatly limited our outlook. There is much more to children in general, and much more wisdom about children in Christianity and beyond, than is conveyed in talk of the will to discipline them or of their mistreatment by those with power. A rich bounty lies in many religious traditions, largely untapped and unappreciated. Sometimes those within these traditions do not fully grasp their significance.

An astonishing story in the Talmud recounts that infants in the womb learn the entire Torah but that when an angel strikes them directly above the mouth during birth, exhaustive knowledge of the divine is lost. The philtrum, the indentation below the nose, remains as a mark of God's love.

From the beginning of life, in other words, children are participants at the center of Judaism, not bystanders. This is nowhere more evident, says rabbi and children's author Sandy Sasso, than in the core narrative of the Exodus and the rituals reenacting its message of liberation. Passover cannot begin or end without children. They ask the questions with which the celebration starts and their search for the hidden matzo, the afikoman, brings it to a close. In some families, it is also customary for a child to open the door for the prophet Elijah, announcing the coming of the Messiah. The child "opens the door to the promise of redemption," Sasso says. "Without the child, the community cannot discover what makes it whole."

It should be no surprise that Jesus, a Jew, welcomed children and proclaimed them bearers of the kingdom, worthy of emulation and needing our touch, as recounted in the Synoptic Gospels. Christians trivialize the radicalism of this view when they reduce his mandate to become like children to an aspiration to become simple, pure, spontaneous and without anxiety. Jesus did not have these romanticized ideas in mind at all. Rather, as recent biblical theologians stress, he recognized the economic and political marginality of the children of his time and lifted them up as emblematic of the most vulnerable among us, needing our care and exemplifying the site where God's grace enters the world. If people today realized that to call children gifts, in Christian terms, meant to bear full responsibility for their welfare, they might hesitate to do so as blithely. "Jesus did not just teach how to make an adult world kinder and more just for children," New Testament scholar Judith Gundry-Volf points out. "He taught the arrival of a social world in part defined by and organized around children." With children, as in other places, Jesus and his followers sought to turn the everyday world upside down.

These Jewish and Christian traditions contain ideas that depart strikingly from a common conservative view of discipline--that a child must learn to submit to the parent and to God the Father.

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