Toward a Theology of the Child

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Author Rev. Darcy Metcalfe Mudd
Author Rev. Darcy Metcalfe Mudd

“Children should be seen and not heard.”

I imagine most readers have heard the adage. I can remember hearing that phrase more than once as a child. As I came to understand it, children were some sort of interesting conversation piece – enjoyable to have around as long as they didn’t require much maintenance.

The unfortunate truth is that the sentiment expressed in this adage in some ways reflects the broader Church’s attitude toward children, in the worship space and in the Church in general. We nurture children and provide ministry programs for them in the understanding that they will eventually grow up to be adults, and as such contributing members of the Church. We don’t always have a lot to say about their inherent worth, right now, as children.

What I believe the Church is desperately lacking is a theology of the child.

There are many factors that have contributed to the Church’s historical neglect of a theology of the child. One factor that is particularly striking to me is the role that patriarchy has played in forming our theology. For much of Church history, our theology has been formed and written predominantly by men, who have not usually been the caretakers of children. For many of our theological forefathers, shaping a theology of the child was not a primary concern. We have countless variations on theologies and doctrines concerning issues such as original sin, just war theory, the trinity, sacraments, etc., but our historical theologies formed around the child are practically non-existent.

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As I came to understand it, children were some sort of interesting conversation piece – enjoyable to have around as long as they didn’t require much maintenance.
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What’s particularly perplexing about this void in our theological past is that it stands in fairly stark contrast to the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels. Far from neglecting them, Jesus gives special attention to children! He says things like, “Let the little children come to me,” and, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Christ Blessing the Children - Bernhard Plockhorst 1825-1907
“Christ Blessing the Children” by Bernhard Plockhorst (1825-1907)

Jesus recognizes children not only as the “least of these”, an especially vulnerable population in society, but simultaneously as beings with autonomy and bodily integrity, co-inheritors with adults of the Kingdom that Jesus brings. I would even go a step beyond this language of “co-inheritors” and say that Jesus appears to display preferential treatment towards children in the Gospels.

I believe that this is the Gospel reality in which we the Church must root ourselves as we address the socially paralyzing issues that affect our children today; issues such as poverty, hunger, and lack of access to quality education.

What is our theology of the child? Who and what has Christ called the Church to be in the life of a child? How is the Church called to stand with the most vulnerable in society? We must begin to wrestle with these basic theological questions, even as we recognize that many problems facing our children today are inseparable from issues of social injustice that manifest at intersections of poverty, gender, race, and class.

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What’s particularly perplexing about this void in our theological past is that it stands in fairly stark contrast to the words and actions of Jesus in the Gospels.
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For example, in 2012, approximately 21% of school-aged children in the United States came from families living poverty. The racial disparity is also telling: 35% of black children, 31% of Hispanic children, and 11% of white children are in families living in poverty. Food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, and non-existent or inadequate healthcare are other very real factors that further compound the problem.

Loving Our Neighbors 2010 PolicyHow can a child focus on education when they are tired and in pain from hunger? Or what about the child who is chronically ill, or worrying about where they will live if rent is not met?” When it comes down to it, securing survival takes precedence over education, not only for adults in the family but also for children.

The way that public education is currently funded (an approach based largely, but not solely, on property taxes and tax levies) further exacerbates race and class disparities in poor, urban, and rural school districts. In fact, some of the most impoverished areas of the U.S. report that there is approximately 1 book for every 300 children due to lack of resources to meet basic educational needs.

In 2010, the 219th General Assembly of the PC(USA) adopted the resolution “Loving Our Neighbors: Equity and Quality in Public Education.” This piece of social witness policy encourages the church to pursue equity and quality in public education through the lens of one of the basic theological imperatives of our faith (and one of Jesus’ two “greatest commandments”): loving our neighbor. In it, our Church declares that loving our neighbors means supporting quality public education for all children because education is “a basic human right essential to the human development because it enhances capacities, improves opportunities, and widens the range of choices.” This concurs with the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, Article 26, which begins, “Everyone has the right to education.” Like food, water, shelter, and healthcare, access to quality education should also be considered a basic human right.

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In our social witness policy, our Church declares that loving our neighbors means supporting quality public education for all children
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This imperative of our faith spreads both through our local and national communities, as well as into the broader context of education worldwide. Last summer (2014), the 221st General Assembly of the PC(USA) adopted the resolution “Educate a Child, Transform the World”, an initiative to provide quality education to 1 million children worldwide by the year 2020. As of this writing, approximately 230,000 children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are benefiting from work already underway. Other proposals are underway to educate girls in Bangladesh and refugee children in Syria.

Little Girl ResizedIn short, the Church is finally taking up the task of shaping a theology of the child. In doing so, we are taking seriously Jesus’ call to love and care for our neighbors – from the children in our own backyards to those on the other side of the world.

In Mark 9:37, Jesus says that whoever welcomes a child welcomes him – as well as the One who sent him. I would say that this raises the stakes considerably. This means that within every child is an embodied sanctity to be honored and to be loved. May this embodied divinity be the heart around which all of our future theologies and actions involving children are shaped.

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AUTHOR BIO:  Rev. Darcy Metcalfe Mudd is currently serving as Solo-Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Perrysburg, Ohio. Darcy’s passions include advocacy for women and children, as well as developing safe sanctuary/youth protection policies and resources. Darcy also currently serves on Leadership Team for the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns for the PC(USA).

Read more articles from this issue: Pedagogy for the Distressed!

Read more articles from this section, “Setting the Stage.”

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