Breaking the Bubble Wrap

“TAMARA” GREW UP in an affluent, middle-to-upper-class neighborhood. Her friends, including the ones she knew from church, were her cousins, neighbors, and other kids who were a lot like her. Her parents worked hard at building a “safe zone” to protect her from harm—but, as Tamara looks back on her childhood, she can see the lasting fear that it instilled in her.

After she got her driver’s license, she always double-checked that her car doors were locked as soon as she was in the vehicle, and she avoided her city’s small downtown area. To this day, she detests large cities and is constantly worried that someone will rob her. Tamara suffers from “mean world” syndrome: a hyper-vigilant state in which strangers are to be ignored and avoided, new experiences are to be feared, and other people’s problems are just that. It’s a survival mode based on scarcity, hoarding, looking out for number one. Too often, it involves shrinking back from active involvement in the biblical call to social justice.

Sadly, many parents put children in a kind of quarantine—not seeking justice, but fearing contamination. The view that children are pure and the world is corrupt has led well-intentioned adults to (over)protect children from poverty, disease, violence, and other “pollutants.” (Of course, this isn’t to say that all children grow up sheltered; many experience situations of poverty, violence, and oppression that sheltered families can’t even imagine.) Ironically, as children are quarantined from the harmful realities of the world, they’re often exposed to virtual violence through television, music, and video games. This is a recipe for creating kids who, like Tamara, are afraid of the unknown that exists beyond their bubble-wrapped microcosms.

Clearly, we need another perspective of childhood, one that acknowledges children’s full humanity and recognizes their capacity to do wrong and to do good, including seeking justice. While we want to keep kids safe, we also want them to follow the way of Jesus, which is sometimes downright dangerous. While we want our kids to be good, true goodness only develops through a struggle against what’s wrong—both inside them and around them. This perspective helps us affirm children’s inherent agency, their ability to make sense of the world around them and to express themselves.

CHRISTIAN PARENTS, grandparents, and educators today need to ask what we and our churches are showing emerging generations about what it means to be followers of Christ. Many of us, whether Catholic, Protestant, or from other backgrounds, live within traditional paradigms that increasingly don’t fit.

Our more pietistic religious paradigm, often found in evangelical churches, focuses on who goes to heaven and who goes to hell; it emphasizes personal relationship with Jesus, but struggles to integrate a radical concern for the poor, for the planet, and for peacemaking. This paradigm’s default assumptions have often (so far at least) kept these churches compliant to the Religious Right. If children don’t adopt conservative political and economic affinities, they often drop out of such churches.

Meanwhile, the more institutional paradigm, often dominant in mainline Protestant churches, focuses on being good people, good members of our denominations, good citizens—all good things. But often the more personal, experiential dimensions of faith remain marginal, while institutional dimensions remain primary. As a result, if kids aren’t natural joiners, they can drift away. Not only that, but they can be left unprepared for situations where Christian convictions call us to stand against the status quo.

In both pietistic and institutional paradigms, traditional churches have worked hard to teach children Bible stories and Christian virtues; many of us wouldn’t be the adults we are today if it weren’t for the great start we got in the churches of our childhood. But in today’s world we need to rethink what it means to, in Paul’s words, raise new generations “in the nurture and instruction of the Lord,” including the social, economic, and political dimensions of that instruction. How can we shape our kids’ characters to help them become Christ-followers who are both contemplative and activist? As we imagine what this might look like, a few questions come to mind.

What would happen if we get children talking about justice and injustice?

Instead of shielding children from the harsh realities of injustice, we need to orient them to our complex world of moral beauty, danger, and opportunity. Gradually, and in age-appropriate ways, we can make justice a matter of daily conversation.

This process often begins with the essential quality of gratitude. For example, the Matthews family, which used to recite a simple prayer before dinner, recently began to extend thanksgivings beyond the food by giving each person a moment to offer additional words of gratitude: “Tonight I am thankful that we feel safe.” “Today I’m thankful that I have a dog to love.” “I’m thankful that I have lots of friends, especially Martin and Chris.” Building on this foundation, the Matthews parents are talking with their children about other families who don’t enjoy those blessings and about the ways society subtly pressures people to seek pleasure or comfort for themselves rather than the common good of all. Now, bedtime prayers often include spontaneous intercession for others in need.

Many organizations produce materials to help families engage these subjects (see “On a Firm Foundation,” page 22). Daily life provides plenty of teachable moments as well: Adults can talk with young people about music videos that portray women as sex objects or reality shows that reinforce sexual and racial stereotypes. Movies, advertisements, and news headlines all provide parents and adolescents unlimited opportunity to uncover hidden messages and warped ideas about injustice and privilege. There are also positive examples that attempt to shatter unjust stereotypes: Parents can follow the lead of youth leaders who employ films such as Napoleon Dynamite, Miss Representation, Avatar, and Bully as springboards for discussions about welcoming the stranger, sexism, environmental concern, and other issues.

Most important, let’s not forget that, since young people learn through observation and participation, we adults need to talk about our experiences. During dinnertime conversation, a commute, or a walk, we can share our own struggles in seeking justice—on the job, during an election, among a circle of friends, even at church. We can ask kids for their advice and invite them to share their own struggles and breakthroughs. Simple queries such as, “Did you have a chance to serve somebody in some way today?” or “Did you see any examples of injustice today?” can make important conversations commonplace.

What would happen if we orient children to the Bible as a book about justice and compassion?

One mom had the chance to make a simple Bible story come alive when, on a trip to the grocery store, she and her young kids encountered a disoriented elderly woman in the store parking lot. The mom reminded her children about the Bible story they had read recently about God hearing the children of Israel’s cries when they were enslaved in Egypt. “We learned that God cares about people who are in trouble,” she said. “So what do you think God wants us to do for this woman?” “We have to try to help her, Mom!” one of the children responded. They helped the lady find her way home, and in the process experienced the truth that Bible stories are to be lived, not just learned.

It’s not always so straightforward, though. Few adults realize how morally complex the Bible can be for children. Abraham has multiple wives; Moses and Joshua command religious violence; David throws stones and kills people. We hold these leaders up as examples in some ways, but forbid our kids to follow them in other ways. In response to this problem, many people are exploring a new teaching paradigm where, rather than presenting single Bible stories, we link them together to show God’s ongoing pedagogy of the human race. We can point out to children, for example, how David’s violence disqualified him from building God’s temple, and how Jesus—our ultimate nonviolent example—created a new kind of temple made from reconciled human lives. This approach takes us beyond both absolutism (where each isolated story is supposed to present a timeless moral lesson) and relativism (where each story is ambiguous and conflicted). It renders the Bible a library that portrays humanity on a journey toward justice, compassion, and peace.

This approach helped Rick guide his son, Jake, when Jake wanted to treat a neighborhood bully to a taste of his own violent medicine. Rick recalled the story of David, praising his courage in standing up to Goliath, but then talking about the negative consequences for David of a life of violence. Rick helped Jake imagine what might happen if Jake successfully beat up the bully: The bully would want revenge, and so would his friends. After imagining what it would be like to get caught up in a cycle of violence, Jake eventually decided to look for an alternative that involved both courage and nonviolence, and Rick helped him work that process through.

What would happen if children got to know people in different circumstances?

Getting to know people living amid poverty, violence, racism, and other injustices is often an important part of social justice education. Over the last few years, for example, Shelly and Tom have taken their teenage kids on three mission trips to a Guatemalan village, where they have become friends with some children and teenagers. Poverty never again will be an abstraction for them (and Spanish won’t just be a subject to study, but will be a vital necessity as they prepare for their next trip).

Now Shelly and Tom are wondering how they can forge relationships across economic, racial, and social lines in their own city. Sometimes, they’ve learned, it’s easier to go across an ocean than it is to go across town. But despite the difficulty, it’s valuable to seek out “friendship greenhouses” where young people can get to know those who don’t look like them, who practice different religions or no religion, who live in different parts of our towns and cities, and who know what privilege is because they lack it.

What would happen if we followed our children’s lead?

Children often ignite sparks in us for “seeking first the kingdom of God” in the world. With their honesty, curiosity, concern for fairness, and fresh eyes, children help us see problems that are so commonplace that we have become blind to them.

We need young people to point out the homeless woman begging for money. We need them to point out our hypocrisy when, in the heat of an argument, we make a rash statement. In moments like these when children are bearers of inconvenient truths, will we tell them to be quiet, or will we, like Jesus, say “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children”?

What would happen if our children helped determine our families’ and churches’ justice agendas?

Respecting children goes beyond educating them about justice: It also means letting them get down to business chipping away at injustice.

Many families have some sort of practice or agenda for justice-seeking, like sponsoring a child, volunteering at an assisted-living center, or writing letters to political leaders. These are all great practices for cultivating a spirit of Christ-centered justice-seeking. But what if we gave children opportunities to choose how our families and churches might work for justice? Instead of telling children how to seek justice, we can apprentice them into Jesus’ band of justice-seekers by letting them decide how—as a family or church—we can do our part to stamp out poverty, end domestic violence, or improve conditions for migrant farm workers.

More than once a child’s idea has sparked social change. To name just a few high-profile examples, Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy who escaped from debt bondage, became an anti-slavery advocate; reading his story in the newspaper inspired Craig Kielburger, a 12-year-old in Ontario, Canada, to start Free the Children, an international education and development nonprofit. Seeing a homeless man looking for food in a trash can motivated another Canadian child, Hannah Taylor, to start the Ladybug Foundation, which raises awareness and support for homeless shelters and food banks.

What would happen if we helped our children speak up for children?

For countless kids around the world, learning about injustice isn’t an option—it’s a fact of life they have to endure every day, while lacking the legal rights reserved for adults. If we help our children feel solidarity with fellow children, as Craig did with Iqbal, they stand a good chance of catching an incurable, chronic, and healing passion for justice.

Jesus said that whenever we welcome a little child in his name, we welcome him. When we speak out against injustices that harm children, we speak out for Jesus. And when we take the hand of the little child who has no other hand to grasp, we are taking Jesus’ hand.

In her song “Paradigm,” Ani DiFranco remembers how, when she was a child, her parents demonstrated their understanding that citizenship brings responsibilities beyond voting. She describes holding her mother’s hand as they went campaigning door to door, being “in a room full of women licking stamps and laughing”—and also seeing that “there’s a paradox in every paradigm.”

Let’s make sure that when the children in our families, churches, and communities grow up and look back on their younger days, they can join DiFranco in saying, “I remember the feeling of community brewing / Of democracy happening.” As we resign from our role as bubble-wrappers and take up the task of being character-formers, we can open up creative new possibilities for exploring the biblical call to social justice.

David M. Csinos, author of Children’s Ministry That Fits, is a doctoral student in practical theology at the University of Toronto.  Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, and activist based in southwest Florida. His next book, Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Walk into a Bar: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World, will be published in September 2012.

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