Welcoming Children: How Jesus Plans to Stop Violence in the World

A few week ago I was writing about cycles of victimhood and violence, how victims often create more victims.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in how abused children grow up into damaged adults who become perpetrators themselves. Abuse--emotional, sexual, and physical--tends to have a generational character. The sins of the father are tragically visited upon the children, generation after generation.

I was reading Ched Myers's commentary on the Gospel of Mark Binding the Strong Man the other day and came across a startling analysis of his.

In Mark 9.33 to 10.31 there is a teaching sequence of Jesus's that centers a great deal upon children. When the disciples ask "Who is the greatest?" Jesus answers this way:
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” 
Later, Jesus gives dire warnings about causing "little ones" to stumble. And at the the end of the sequence we see the disciples trying to shoo children away from Jesus. Jesus responds:
He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
Why this focus on children? Why is welcoming a child an instance of welcoming Christ? Why must we receive the kingdom of God like a little child?

Americans have a hard time understanding these passages. We live in a child-centric culture. Kids are the focus of all our time, attention, and affection. Youth is prized. Age is a curse.

But in Jesus's day children were at the absolute bottom of the patriarchal power structure. Consequently, in setting a child in the midst of the disciples Jesus is pulling a marginal person and placing them at the center. We often miss this movement as children are already at the center of our world. But what Jesus was doing--making "little ones" the gateway to the kingdom--was pretty startling, shocking and revolutionary. 

And maybe there is even more going on here. Think back to my opening comments about generational abuse. So much of the violence in the world is due to broken and violent power structures embedded within family systems. Damaged children end up damaging others when they grow up. And if that's true today it was even more so in Jesus's day.

And if that's the case, Myers argues, might Jesus's ethic of care for children be a protective intervention on his part? More, might that intervention--the care and protection of children--be an attempt to address the primary source of violence in our world, cutting it off at the root?

All of these teachings of Jesus--"welcome children," "do not cause a little one to stumble," and "recieve the kingdom like a child"--may be less about Precious Moments and more about addressing the generational darkness within families that produces so much of the violence in our world.

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15 thoughts on “Welcoming Children: How Jesus Plans to Stop Violence in the World”

  1. Violent behavior is contagious.  Violent ideology condones and encourages violent behavior.  We learn what we live -- very true.  The question becomes, if one has the will to do so, how to "flip the script" (that's Eminem's famous rap from the powerful movie 8 Mile, by the way.  Love it!)

    There are so many ways to be a bully -- individual acts of aggression of a physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual nature.  Systemic, institutionalized violence -- war and the military industrial complex, economically punitive measures against those least able to defend themselves and withstand it, inequalities in educational opportunities, and harsh, unmerciful religious dogma that plays into the glorification of violence from the cradle to the grave.  I'm remembering, with gratitude, the posting of the essay 'The Myth of Redemptive Violence' by Walter Wink.

    In my personal history, I have experienced the full range of "parenting styles."  I've had to pick and choose from the best of each, and reject the rest in figuring out how to be the best mother I can be.  I've had to forgive the offenses done to me, in order to make room for gentleness and grace.  I will tell you one of my strategies for flipping the script:  When I was still pregnant, I joined the most radically gentle and nurturing mother's group I could find:  My local La Leche League, Int'l.  Those hippie mamas were on a mission of extreme motherhood, and I loved them for it.  The influence of a faith community can be either helpful or do even more damage.  One of the most abusive parent figures I experienced believed that the church (and Bible) commanded him to be the jerk that he was.

    My mother's mental illness interfered with her ability to be an attentive, effective parent.  She was overly permissive and, at times, negligent.  But she was not mean or vindictive.  It was much easier to forgive her for her sins of omission, than to forgive the others who were so willing to do violence to me.  But I can say, "Father forgive them...they knew not what they did."  And learn by their example -- what *not* to do.

    It takes good people around us to keep us grounded.  This is one reason that I appreciate this blog so much.  I do not like arguing or being attacked verbally.  Dr. Beck's principle, "I try not to be a jerk," or "Above all, be kind," has been an encouragement to me, like my old La Leche League mother's group.  We speak mostly of God as "Father" but some of us need a good nurturing Mother-God influence, too.

    Rock on, Dr. Beck!

  2. I think children are always at the bottom of the power structure. They're expected to comply with whatever structure in which they're placed. It's only the good parents who are giving their children voice and validation, giving them roots and wings, as it were. Those who use their children for narcissistic supply never do, ever. That kind of "parenting" involves a kind of brainwashing, conditioning the child to serve the parent's needs, never recognizing the child as a real person, and it takes a real awakening that the family structure isn't normal or healthy, often late in adulthood. So many ACoNs (adult children of narcissists) report having siblings who simply repeated the abusive pattern in their own families, and the ACoN who recognizes the facts of the dysfunction are the ones actively, conscientiously doing things differently with their own kids. You have to see before you can act on something, and too many times the wrongness is either justified (often religiously) or denied altogether ("You have a vivid imagination. That never happened." aka gaslighting). 

    Like Susan, I've seen a lot of jerk behaviors that were religiously justified. It's a big reason I'm gunshy of church, because I'm not sure if church simply attracts or actually creates these monstrous behaviors through endorsement. 

  3. So sad, Susan. Time will tell whether that boy will grow up to replicate his father's abuse, or call it what it is and choose differently. The power of abuse is seductive. If this boy is already becoming abusive to your son, I fear the former for him. That's the cycle of violence that I see Dr. Beck's post warning against. It starts at home, and goes out from there (school, church, community, etc.).

  4. I have a little one, 10 months old, and his is the center of my world. I was struck by this post becuase of the implications Dr. Beck discusses but also becuase of the wondrous life that my child has created. I believe God is in everything and I've tried to live my life in a way that helps others and attempts to create a better world. But before my son I was so easily lost in my day to day work that I often lost sight of God in all things. Now I am basically a stay at home mom, I work some on the side but I walk him a lot and we chat and I have literally stopped to smell the flowers so he can smell them too. It's wonderful and blessed and it helps me remember what it truly important. It brings me calm and happiness and it makes me appreciate life and all God has provided in a new light.

  5. Yes, I am sad for the boy.  He is trying to please his father by imitating him and living up to the toughness his father seems to so revere as "manly."  I see a sweet little boy who is hurting.  Some of the things he has said in the presence of my son, about how he views himself and his life, break my heart.  And then too, I know how hard it is to be a parent.  The world is a hard place.  My assessment of some of the rhetoric coming from the ultra-conservative religious types is that because they are so invested in the "myth of redemptive violence" that Walter Wink wrote about, there is a lot of fear.  Fear that if they don't toughen their children up to survive a violent world -- to eat or be eaten, then their children will be "victims."  Some of the meanest people I've ever met are those who hold to a doctrine of the wrathful, conquering god.  And, then, I know a lot of less religious Christians who are still bought into popular media (violent "music", movies, and video games), and blindly feed this to their kids so that their kids will "fit in" with the crowd.  I fight against this in my own parenting.  I hate those violent video games.  I kept them from my son for as long as I could, before my husband went and bought the games for him -- so that he wouldn't be the odd kid out with all his buddies.  My son campaigned with me for several years.  He's only 12 now!  Most of these games are rated M, 17 and up.  Other parents don't bat an eye at allowing their kids to have these games.  What's up with that?  My son kept defending against the bad language.  "Mom, there's no bad language in this or that game."  LOL  As if it were the language that worried me.  War is not a game.  Do you understand that, son?!

    Anyway, I'm doing the best I can, with the influence I have as a mother.  Time will tell, indeed.  Blessings to you, Patricia.  Thanks for the conversation.  I'm shutting up now (finally).  Off to prepare for the nursing home, actually.  ~Peace~

  6. While this reading of the text can be very helpful in addressing questions of childhood abuse, as the comments so well demonstate, I think there is another, perhaps even more meaningful reading. Jesus' focus on children is in response to a question from the disciples about greatness. In particular, it is a rivalrous question because they want to know which of them is the great-est of all. The obvious answer, of course, is none of them. Jesus is the greatest and also the humblest, since he doesn't answer their question. Instead he uses an object lesson, he puts a child in their midst and tells them that the Kingdom of God belongs to them and warns them against hindering their access to him. How could they do that? By infecting them with their desires to be the greatest. You see, children are not ashamed of their lack of greatness. They make excellent disciples because they are natural followers! Jesus focus on children is intended as a model for the disciples. He wants them to be as humble and unashamed of their need for him as these little children are, as all children are. Jesus teaching does not depend on the contrast between the social status of children then and now. It is about the diffce between pride and humility, a timeless lesson about the requirements of true discipleship. When we become open and eager followers of Christ, the Kingdom of God will be ours as well.

  7. I guess I'm one of those who doesn't worry about the video games. But I know my kids well enough for that not to worry me. To me, it's the unseen violence in the real world that does the more injury, rather than the pretend. Did see the movie or read the book The Help? What I - and a number of others I know of - found rather "triggery" was the portrayal of the character of Elizabeth Leefolt. She's the picture of respectability, the model wife and suburban mom. Appropriately condescending and racist to fit in with her times, her circle, and her church. But the movie allows us to go behind the scenes, and we see what kind of mother she really is, the kind who is an emotional void when it comes to her daughter, Mae Mobley. She's dismissive and abandoning, and can't be asked to care about her child's needs or feelings. Then a Golden Child (a boy) is born into the family, and he, by contrast, is showered with motherly affection and attention. In the movie's early scene where the girl is crying, and Aibileen takes her in her arms and soothes her, telling her, "You is good, you is kind, you is important." It's the picture of a loving hero to that child. And we understand, when Elizabeth fires Aibileen at the end that Mae Mobley loses it hysterically, because she's losing the only real love she's ever known. In reality, there are a lot of Mae Mobleys out there, without a hero of any kind. And we do, indeed, grow up, get married and have children of our own. Whether we repeat the pattern or break it is a matter of recognizing, acknowledging, and repenting of the family evil. But churches and communities tend to house and protect their abusers who are respectable and powerful. Just look at what has come out about Paterno's role in the Sandusky cover up. And children are routinely discredited with, "She a troubled child" or "He was always difficult." Abusers always make it the victim's fault, play the martyr, gaslight with convenient amnesia, and people are anxious to believe them.

  8.  Dr. Beck,  This post has caused me to ponder a question.  How did we go from 2 Kings 2  23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. 25 And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
       To Mark 10  13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.    
          From Genocide, to Don't be angry...From collecting phillistine forskins for sport, to love your neighbor...From having bears maul children to Welcome them in my name.  Perhaps some commentary would shed some light.

  9. "You is good, you is kind, you is important."

    That is my favorite part of the story.  You know it!  Have you seen me quote it here, in encouragement of someone?

    I was pretty fond of Celia Foote, also.  ;-)

    Oh Patricia...  Elizabeth Leefolt must be the poster child for a narcissistic mother.

    My paternal grandmother was one of those heroes in my life, who spoke blessings over me and was a steady presence.  In my late twenties, my stepmother had a "talk" with me in which she proceeded to explain that Grandma had told her the reason she had always been extra kind to me:  Because she had felt sorry for me.  And then dear ol' stepmom watched me intently, with a gleam in her eye, waiting to see if she'd hurt me.  That woman was (probably still is, don't know of her status) sadistic.  I decided to consider the source and ignore it, but damn it if that woman didn't put the shadow of a doubt in my mind about all the good things my grandma had ever said to me.  (Maybe she didn't mean it, and was only being "nice" out of pity for me.  So...  Maybe all the good things she said weren't even true.)  I can't imagine living with a person like that for my entire childhood and formative years.  I understand that you would feel very strongly about this subject.

    When I told my stepmother to step off, in my early thirties, she responded with self-righteous indignation about being accused -- a devout Christian woman such as herself.  Ha!  I told her that if she was an example of a Christian, then I didn't want anything to do with any of them.  Case closed.  I had to be, to my way of thinking, cold and unkind toward her to get her to back off and to protect my sanity.  It was too much for me to reconcile with her.  Very unChristian of me, I'm sure...

    Take care, Patricia.  ~Peace~

  10. Hi Jayme,
    No great answers. I sit with the same questions you do.

    For me, I read the Old Testament developmentally and as incomplete necessitating the Incarnation for the full, final and authoritative revelation of God in Jesus. More, the final revelation of Jesus's teaching about little ones allows us to go back to those earlier texts and make those moral criticisms. The bible here is leveling a critique of its own narrative in light of Jesus. So feel free to do so. The bible extends that invitation, even demands it.

  11. Actually, it's not unChristian at all. If you've lived with the crazy-making your whole life, and that's been your "normal" in term of family, there comes a point where you realize you must protect yourself and your own family. Some realize it sooner than others.

  12. You are right, Patricia.  I was being a bit too facetious; I'm sorry if that came across as judgmental in any way.  I did what I had to do, for myself and to protect my children from my so very "Christian" stepmother.  I'm not the least bit worried over who might not approve of my decision.

    At the same time, I am not as angry or tough-minded as the blogger in your link.  I do still hope that change is possible, even in someone who is deeply disturbed -- case in point: stepmother dearest.  The key, for me, was in having recognized my own limitations.  I'm not strong enough to suck up her -- as you have said -- "crazy-making," and stay sane and whole in the process.

    I liked what Dr. Beck posted recently about a talk he gave at the prison.  Extend a gesture of peace, and if the response is peaceful, then you have witnessed the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.  If a peaceful response is not returned, then move on.  You can't force another person to love and embrace peace.  And I'm not talking about keeping the peace at any cost.  I'm talking about true peace -- the well-being and wholeness of both/all.  I do what I can, and if someone is bound and determined to make war with me, I spend my love and energy on others who will receive it.

    I haven't seen or spoken to my father in over a decade.  Not that we ever had a close relationship...but, I don't feel any satisfaction in the probability that he is suffering the loss of his oldest child, too.  Yes, yes, he made his own bed, so to speak, with wife #2.  But I mostly feel sadness for all involved, including myself.  It's a grief.  I wish I could take comfort in Bible verses which seem to justify my decision.  But I don't.  I'm just sad about the way it has all played out.  That's how I have processed the "junk" of my FOO.  No doubt I am miles behind you in getting my head cleared for thinking straight.

    Well, this has been an exhausting conversation for me, I don't know about you.  I am going to console myself existentially by thinking on something lovely for today, and spending time with my children.  :-)  Have a good day.  ~Peace~

  13. Dear Patricia, I have felt your absence keenly, since this dialogue between us took place.  I really hope you are just on vacation or some other happy occasion accounts for your being away...

    If a single word of my response hurt you in any way, I am sincerely sorry and ask your forgiveness.  I am grateful, always, for your willingness to share from your own experiences, even those which are painful to recall, in order to bless others.  Your presence brings a warmth and light to the blog commentary here; when you are not here, it is felt as a loss.  I miss your "voice" and I am sure that others do as well.  I listen to every word you contribute; but I will strive to be a better listener still yet.

    A few folks here, yourself among them, have become very dear to me.  To claim "friendship" may be too silly and presumptuous of me; but at least I can say, from my end of things, that I am grateful for the deep spiritual bond, or connection, that really has been such a blessing to me.  I hope you can forgive me for being less than at my best, and for any careless word that did anything other than build you up and encourage you.  Peace and blessings, friend.

  14. Hi Susan, We were out of town for a few days. Been catching up on laundry, and my son had to be at work this morning at 6 a.m. (You'd have to work a lot harder at it if you wanted to offend me. :-) )

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