Twice in Mark’s composition, Jesus puts forth a child as a teaching illustration. The Composer uses multiple stories around similar themes to highlight the importance of each of those themes. The second time we run into a small child in Mark’s composition will be in a few weeks in Mark 10:13-16. In our current text, the focus is on embracing the child as an image of discipleship. In the next chapter, it is the child who embraces (receives) the Reign of God.
As I noted previously, neither of these images has to do with innocence, openness, or any supposed characteristics of the Child. There is nothing in the Child that demands Jesus’ embrace on its own merits. That’s the point, as I noted in the previous post. Jesus loves the Child “for nothing.”
In his 1995 article, Jim Bailey gives us a summary of Ched Meyer’s assessment of the social status of the child in first-century Mediterranean culture. It’s a helpful summary of a fairly complete assessment. According to Bailey, Meyers lists six features of this social status:
- Jesus does not have an idealistic notion of children in either text.
- The Child typifies a category of the marginalized and dominated, like women, the poor, and the unclean.
- The Child is “least” in both family and social structures in that culture.
- Children were easily dominated and exploited since they were vulnerable and dependent.
- Jesus invites his disciples to imagine the “least” as the model for discipleship.
- Disciples, therefore, are called to “take up the powerlessness and vulnerability of the child.” (page 59).
In my experience, that reminder to listeners will still come as a shock and receive romantic resistance from those who continue to idolize the Child in White American culture. On the one hand, we who have power, privilege, position, and property don’t want our children to resemble those first-century Mediterranean children in any sense. We expect our children to be protected and powerful, able to receive and to maintain the power, privilege, position, and property we will bequeath to them.
I need look no further than myself in this regard. Regardless of my theological, moral, and political stances and pronouncements, I was committed to keeping my children firmly in the White middle class and elevating that privileged position, regardless of the cost (my estate will likely pay the last of the student loan debt unless something changes in the interim). I have succeeded in that project, and they are solidly on their way to carrying that effort into another generation.
Thirty years ago, the meaning of that effort played dimly around the edges of my consciousness. When it invaded my waking moments, I certainly found ways to push that awareness back into the shadows. We talked about having our kids in a more diverse educational setting. We did not, however, find an acceptable home in that school district. We didn’t take the effort or energy to enroll outside of our geography, although we could have done so. Those choices – paths of least resistance and White defaults – continued through college, with predictable outcomes.
None of this made my kids “bad” people. I’m not very objective, but I think they’re pretty good folks, despite their connections to me. But our clan has embedded itself firmly in the system of White power, privilege, position, and property. In two generations, Hennigs folk have gone from being tenant farmers without indoor plumbing to triple garages and swimming pools in Midwest suburbia.
It didn’t occur to me that this was all part of a system to sustain the White power of children of privilege until I thought back on the house we bought in Lincoln, Nebraska. We had an excellent realtor who listened closely both to what we said and what we didn’t say. The realtor sized us up and created a list of potential homes. They were all in neighborhood bastions of White power and middle class “propriety.” We didn’t ask for that. The realtor didn’t ask about it. We just all assumed this was unthinkingly “normal.”
We put the Child in the midst of our imagination, our priorities, and our communities. But the Child was White, middle-class, Christian, and English-speaking. Any suggestion that we might have needed to adjust our imagination, our priorities, and our vision for community would have been (and was) met with stiff resistance.
Continued reflection tells me that my efforts were, as should not be surprising, far more about me than about my kids. I love my kids and want “the best” for them (as if I actually knew then or know now what that might be). But I also did not want to “fail” as a White, middle-class parent. I was unconsciously anxious about the risk that my children might fall out of the White middle-class because of something I did or did not do.
If that happened, I would have regarded myself as a miserable excuse for a parent. So, I spared no expense, approved every sport and activity, and signed every loan document. I didn’t really begin to think hard about this until it was far too late for me. I read Scott Bader-Saye’s excellent book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. It’s one of those books that will be on my shelf after I die and to which I return often for challenge and clarity.
In the first chapter, called “Fear for Profit,” he has a section labeled “Fearful Parenting.” I read that in 2007 and had a brief, but profound, thought.
Bader-Saye points to the shift from a “good parenting” model to a “safe parenting” model. Ordinary life for children is now seen as this massive minefield of existential threats, and we parents have to hover over every step lest disaster strike. And there is someone else hovering in the background – the vendor always ready to sell us parental peace of mind. “When ‘good parenting’ is replaced by ‘safe parenting,’” Bader-Saye writes, “child rearing is easily captured by consumption – we may not be able to buy goodness, but we can buy safety” (page 13).
Safe parenting becomes an exercise in preventive living. We focus on dangers we must avoid rather than experiences we might embrace. We focus on control rather than creativity. We emphasize avoidance and aversion rather than adventure. We value familiarity rather than novelty. We raise children who know everything and learn nothing, who judge everyone and engage no one. “We want our children to grow into adults who are expansive and generous rather than fearful and constricted,” Bader-Saye writes, “yet the culture of fear routinely squelches such an extravagant embrace of life” (page 14).
I feel guilt and shame over that story and that history. I need to sit with those emotions and experiences, to marinate in them, and not expect anyone to make me feel better. But that’s not enough. We have sought to live in a somewhat different neighborhood these days, although it’s not exactly a stellar effort on our part. We support school funding that is not dependent on property tax revenues and zip codes. But that’s not going anywhere right now. We encourage our grandchildren to have a diverse set of friends, but we’ve already put in place many dynamics to work against that.
This text challenges me to do better.
The focus on the White Child in the center of our culture has another dimension. “If only we could all have the faith of a little child,” the resistance will insist, “then we wouldn’t have all these problems and divisions in our churches.” This perspective presumes that Jesus embraces us because of something in us rather than as an act of grace. And the image of the “innocent” and “trusting” Child is, in White American culture, always White and “pure.”
One of the unspoken and collateral dangers of clinging to this iconography of childhood innocence is that it will quickly morph into what it really is – the mythology of White Innocence and Purity. Remember our thought experiment about displacing the “white” baby Jesus in the congregational creche with a Brown baby Jesus? That experiment assumes rightly that the doll we are most likely to find there will be White.
If the child in the center of our imagination is White, Innocent, and Pure, then we White people see children (and adults) of other colors as guilty and impure. I have to confess that the first time I wrote that sentence, I wrote it in the passive voice with a thus unidentified subject. But that’s a symptom of the problem. If I write about children of other colors as “seen,” then I don’t have to take responsibility for the fact that I as a White person am doing the seeing.
In fact, that’s precisely what is happening. The myth of White Innocence and Purity is encapsulated in our imaginations as we center the White Child, the beginning of that Innocence and Purity. Once we have done that, it’s fairly easy to imagine children other than White as culpable and dirty. When we embrace that imagination, it’s even easier to see children other than White as dangerous, unworthy, and less than human.
The reverse image of the Pure, Innocent, White Child is the Dangerous Black Man. The power of that toxic image flows easily on to the bodies of Black boys who suffer fatal consequences. Studies too numerous to cite demonstrate that Black boys are perceived by White people as far older than they actually are. The Goff et. al. study shows that Black children do not have the same presumption of innocence as White children; that Black boys are seen as more culpable for their actions than White boys; that Black boys are misperceived as older than their peers in other races; and that these misperceptions result in violence based on dehumanization (especially violence in law enforcement and corrections situations).
We can say the names of a few of those Black children who have been killed by the Myth of the Pure, Innocent, White Child: Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, Tyre King, Cameron Tillman…and those little Black boys in my own neighborhood who are already at risk for just being boys…and Black.
How does this conversation impact our preaching about putting a Child in our midst?
References and Resources
Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.
Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.
Bailey, James L. “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16.” Word and World, Number 1, Winter 1995, pages 58-67.
Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.
Goff, et. al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526–545. DOI: 10.1037/a0035663.
Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.