The Liberating Ways of God
Christians throughout history have done violence and then poured salt into the wound to make the scar permanent. Christians have stood and watched this happen. Christians have followed Christ the Healer and stepped in after to attempt to heal the wound. Christians have followed Christ the King and gone into sacrificial battle against those carrying the knife. Some Christians have discovered that they themselves held a knife in one hand and a bandage in the other. Even if we look only in America, we find Christians and their churches with their hands in both sides of the struggle against evil.
Christian children can be drawn into any side of this battle at an early age. We, the adults around them, help shape which sides of the battle they see, what they imagine is possible, what seems noble or appropriate, and what they have words for.
In a thousand small ways, churches teach children to go with the flow, not make a fuss, and obey the rules. If we say we want them to speak out against evil, but then express shock when they raise even a minor complaint in our church, our words are empty.
So how can we draw children into a healing way of life, a way full of delights—the healing, fighting, liberating way of God? I have a few small thoughts from my small experience. I will focus on the evil of racism, and speak specifically about white well-off children, with majority-white Episcopal churches here in the Northeast in mind. And I write these suggestions for white pastors, priests, and lay staff. (The concepts may apply for others, but the work of applying them will come with different burdens that I won’t address here.)
1. Instead of teaching children never to cause a fuss, respond positively to their disagreements and challenges.
In a thousand small ways, churches teach children to go with the flow, not make a fuss, and obey the rules. If we say we want them to speak out against evil, but then express shock or turn authoritarian when they raise even a minor complaint in our church, our words are empty.
Once, in a Berkeley Morning Prayer sermon, Dean Andrew McGowan said, “The Kingdom of Heaven will not be comfortable, and it will not be in good taste.” When we avoid open disagreement or subjects that are “divisive” or “inappropriate,” our children learn that the most important thing is to be in good taste—smiling and bland.
Make church a place where children never meet a whiff of “Because I said so.” Respond warmly to almost every question a child or teenager asks, even when the inquiries are more aggressive or personal than what you’d like. When young people complain about the way things are done, take this complaint seriously and have a conversation, then follow up and truly consider if changes would be possible.
2. Instead of assuming that it is always easy for adults to talk with children, train the leaders so that they are better prepared and more at ease when the subject of race arises.
Many adults are uncomfortable speaking about serious topics with young children. Many white well-off adults are deeply uncomfortable speaking about anything related to race. Even if they believe it’s important, they don’t know which words to use, or they blush and stumble over the words they know. This combination suggests that we need to invest some time and energy in the adults who teach and care for Christian children.
To involve Sunday school teachers and youth group leaders in this work will probably require a lot of patience as you work to get consensus about its importance. If my small experience is anything to go by, this may meet with resistance both direct (“this doesn’t belong in church”) and indirect (“but what about Advent?”). The priest, pastor, or director should make time for this work, and then make time to support their adults in learning opportunities and conversations where they can grow and practice these skills.
3. Instead of presenting only the positive sides of Christian history, speak openly about our tradition’s sins and explain why you are still part of the Church.
Teenagers already know more about evil and harm than you think they do. And if they are white and well-off, they probably attend a school where they’ve learned much of our tradition’s sins in their history class. Then there you are, in confirmation class, telling them the church has wisdom and treasures and virtues. Instead of asking them to just trust you, name and teach our sins of colonialism and racism when you teach our history. Explain why, even in light of this evil, you are still a Christian.
4. Instead of occasionally making a big deal about people who are not white or Anglo, make our existence a normal and low-key part of everything all the time.
This approach has had effective application around gender and sexuality, and it is relevant too to racism. If you save this topic for just one conversation, one special storybook, or just one image in your classrooms, you teach that the existence of ethnic and racial diversity is too strange, too scary, or too peripheral to be part of normal, casual, everyday life. Help your teachers expand their adjectives, yes, and then check your children’s library and invest money in expanding it, check also what’s on the walls and spend time and money expanding your de facto gallery. There are now many picture books and images of biblical characters and saints which accurately show them as something other than white and European.
5. Finally, instead of making Sunday school a place where we pretend there is no suffering in the world, make it a place where adults turn towards suffering and give children the resources and practices to bear it.
In a classroom of white well-off children, some will have known material suffering in their immediate families serious illnesses, abuse, addiction, mental health crises, and death. But even those who have been spared these challenges will know about fear, loneliness, and sadness. Their households will give them ways of naming and handling these—or not. The church should teach children basic human skills (acknowledging emotions, asking for help) as well as our specific gifts (the communion of saints, redemptive suffering, union with Christ’s passion, intercession, the promise of justice). When we are given the tools to handle our own pain, we are better equipped to witness and carry the pain of others.
Our Christian struggle against the evil of racism brings us close to suffering. Those who experience racism suffer; in them we can see the face of Christ crucified, and this should be the center of our attention. Those who participate in racism (knowingly or unknowingly) suffer in their distance from God, even if they are unaware of it. And once they are aware of it, perhaps they suffer like Peter, who sees in a moment that he has disowned God and is ashamed.
If we are hoping white well-off children will join us in this work which involves so much suffering, we need to be ready to start helping them with their particular, child-size suffering. Children’s suffering is real, and deeply felt. Their pain at what they see in their friends’ lives (including racism), at what they hear about in whispers (shootings, the climate crisis)—this is real too. Have we carefully listened to it? Have we done our best to teach how God is present to them in it? Have we given them stories and practices to help them in it? And if we have not—what exactly have we been doing?
The Rev. Emily J. García ’17 M.Div. (Berkeley Divinity School at Yale) is Assistant Rector of Church of Our Redeemer (Episcopal) in Lexington, MA.