Jesus placed a child in their midst, not on the stage.
Reflections on the 4-14 window conference, Singapore, Sept 5-9
Child theology: a worked example
Academic and Theological Transformation Track
What can this actually mean – without betraying our important prior commitment to relinquishing a grasp on children as tools or weapons or appliances in our own causes?
It cannot mean that we simply exchange children for adults in positions of power within systems that are fundamentally antithetical to the kingdom paradigm. There are movements which seek to do this – elevating children as imitators of adult preachers, prophets, missioners. It may mean that adults disengage from such systems, and in that freedom, develop new ways of relating with children, which neither objectify (as a means to an end) nor subjectify (as substitute protagonists within power structures) children. It means that adults are required to adopt a new posture in relation to children – of listening, responding and alongsiding.
‘Response to Ruth Padilla-DeBorst’ Beth Barnett
Now & Next Theological Conference on Children, Nairobi, 2011
In this brief paper I wish to open some dialogue of reflection, re-evaluation, and perhaps repentance on the rhetorical architecture I observed in the 4-14 Window Global Summit. As theologians and academics we have a prophetic role of accountability to the ethics of the Word of God. Child theology is not something simply to be taught in seminaries, but to be applied critically to our praxis as we go, including our missions programs, our teaching and evangelism activities, our social projects, and our marketing, communication strategies and the design and narratives of our conferences.
Whilst participating in the Academic and Theological Transformation Track, we observed cultural practices and heard quasi-theological rhetoric in the plenary sessions which I venture to suggest requires some radical transformation.
A brief Biblical introduction
In Acts 16, an enslaved child follows Paul and Silas through the streets of Philippi. This child slave prophesies under a demonic power. The child is exploited by adults for capital as she exercises this evil spiritual gift.
This episode in Acts stands as a warning for us. When the young prophesy, it is not necessarily sourced in the Holy Spirit, just as there are many biblical accounts and warnings of adult false prophets. Here in this text we encounter familiar language and characters – a child, prophecy, money makers, public proclamation. Not all of these are cast positively. The public proclamation is rejected by the apostles as counterproductive, even though what the slave child declares is absolutely true. The prophecy of the child is not out of health and freedom but out of oppression and exploitation. The adults are highly motivated by the exchange of money, and this is the basis of their relationship with the child.
The character of this narrative stands as a caution to us as we have heard much in the ‘4-14’ Summit celebrating the child – specifically the child prophet. We have observed this discourse in a highly capitalised market place conference culture.
With this warning in place, let us examine the rhetorical architecture of our conference.
The rhetoric of elevating children
The core text of the child as prophet has led to the placing of children, reading adult scripts and mimicking adult gestures on stage among us. This was framed in the language of fulfilling the vision of Joel 2, quoted ubiquitously, but incompletely – on screen, in word, even on our stationery.
“Your sons and daughters will prophesy….your young men will see visions.”
Grasping after a fulfillment of Joel 2 by focusing on the young alone is a misreading of the text. The broad revelation and radicalism of the manifestation of the spirit is in its inclusivity of young and old, slave and free, male and female. The central vision is of a whole and restored community of the Spirit, not the singling out of any one demographic identity. One is left to wonder how the tribalism of Gen X,Y,Z fits in a theological analysis. These might coincide with current sociological categories, but they are not scriptural. The children of this generation may well be “walking onto the stage” (Luis Bush), but this is not co-equivalent with a move of the Spirit among children. If children are finding a place on the stage, it is because adults are facilitating, promoting, and possibly exploiting children in being there. Children will willingly take the stage, because we have modelled the elevation of the public speaker. Children were placed not among us in relationship, but put powerfully before us, both live and in digitalized images. They were ‘celebrified’ and romanticized in highly emotionally contrived ways. ‘Disneyfied’ narratives of children, and of the Bible, uncritically adopted, laid powerful claim to the corporate public space and agenda throughout the conference.
A kingdom-oriented child theology critiques this practice of putting the child on the platform and the screen. Jesus, rather, places the child in the midst, not on the podium. Jesus does not thrust a microphone into the child’s hand. In fact, the child in the presence of Jesus does not speak. The child’s life and being is the challenging witness that Jesus would have us humbly imitate. The action of promoting children is not the kingdom vision of Jesus. The demotion of adults from their places and practices of pride, power and arrogance is the action required. To hold on to our paradigms and positions of power and prominence, and to invite children into culturally conditioned anti-gospel structures, habits and cultures is the antithesis of Jesus’ call for us to step down and become as children, disregarded, unglorified, vulnerable and marginalised. Our methodologies, our processes and our cultures need redemption from all of the ideologies of power, success, domination, triumphalism, control, achievement, superlatives and fulfillment. Our relationships with children should lead us to be poor, meek, hungry, grieving, merciful, pure, peacemakers, persecuted-living in the spirit of the beatitudes. As we seek to adopt this kingdom choreography, we must carefully partner with our children in these steps, neither leaving them to the side, nor thrusting them onto a stage to perform for us.
The rhetoric of Power and Control
A dichotomous, at times conflictual juxtaposition of concerns and terminology undermines our authenticity and credibility. Many of the delegates of the 4-14 Window Global Summit work humbly and sacrificially with children who are enslaved in abuse, trafficking and coercive military action. They face the concrete realities of the brokenness of the world breaking children and their families’ lives. Ironically, but also tragically and shamefully, from the platform of the 4-14 Window conference, the rhetoric of ‘reaching’ children and ‘raising up, mobilizing an army’ of children persisted, couched in pseudo-spiritualized language.
At a global gathering for the sake of all children, including the many oppressed in such situations, we surely need to use the most biblical and most responsible language and images possible. ‘Raising up an army’ and ‘reaching’ children makes grown up missioners sound effective and competent. It increases our status, but this should be a clue that such language that is far from the kingdom. Our Christian missional history is plagued by terrible departures from the vulnerable, weak, servant model of the crucified Christ. African, Latin American, Asian and other indigenous and post-colonial people groups have graciously called the Western missionary movements to account. There can no longer be a plea of ignorance. Biblical scholarship, missiology, anthropology, sociology, linguistics and politics all bear unified witness against hegemony, condescension and domination.
While we abhor the predatorial exploitation of children in situations of sexual abuse, we speak of ‘reaching’ children. We are a hair’s breadth away from highly inappropriate inferences. When we have ‘reached’ children, what will we have done? Grasped? Grabbed? Will we then ‘have them’? A survivor of sexual abuse will readily recognise the disrespectful damage this evokes.
All of this language reveals the objectification of children. This is unacceptable ethically, and theologically. Our terms and narratives must be expressed in ways that are coherent with the gospel ethic itself. The gospel is revealed in kenosis, losing our lives, living for the other, taking the lowest place.
This biblical vision of the gospel is obscured. We speak of whether children have accepted Jesus into their hearts, or received the gospel, or become Christians, or come to Christ. None of these formulations find resonance in Biblical articulations of the mission of Jesus, or the early apostolic witnesses. To be Biblically faithful in mission, is to take our place in the ‘mission dei’ – that is to recognize and consistently articulate that the whole salvation project is God’s initiative, God’s action. We are not the ones who make ourselves Christians, or who contain Jesus in the confines of our lives. The gospels and epistles speak of the call to follow Jesus, the call to receive the Kingdom, the call to serve the world.
Further consideration needs to be given to what actually we think we are ‘doing’ in ‘evangelism’. There are many significant theological resources for this work, which does not to be duplicated here. The pressing issue from the experience of the 4-14 window phenomenon, is to acknowledge the inappropriate application of non biblical terms, and to call for reformation in speaking and incarnating respectfully, biblically, ethically within the revealed but not yet fulfilled kingdom of God.
To become a disciple of Jesus is to embrace a life of suffering, humility and death to self. Are we prepared to invite children into this life? And for those willing to submit to re-evaluation of the cruciform Christ, can we honestly articulate this invitation to children, beyond the formulations of ‘becoming a friend of Jesus’.
Similarly, we are rightly scandalized by the coercion of children into military action. Therefore we ought to resist imperial, colonial and military images of might and subjugation. Where military imagery occurs in the biblical narrative, it is done in a highly ironic and subversive manner, against the imperial cults and claims of dominion that oppressed the ancient people of God, and the new community of faith formed by the witness to the resurrection of Jesus. In both these testimonies, victory, triumph and conquest was the claim of the oppressor, against which the faithful proclaimed and sought to live a radically alternate paradigm in which love for enemy and reconciliation replaced attack and defence strategies.
The Bible is rich with imagery of community, collaboration, service, covenant, planting, tending, trusting, second-chances, mercy, brokenness, weakness, waiting, welcoming. Apprehension of our biblical materials dissipates the hegemony of empire. We are offered a confounding assemblage of images of the kingdom, a diversity by which we honour and serve our various contextualities. The action of Jesus placing the child in our midst, just as the action of the Father placing the incarnate infant Son in our midst, invites us to this contextuality. The biblical narrative, with its own shadows of violence and political aggression, disallows militarisation of children in either concrete or metaphorical terms.
The Rhetoric of Division
The ‘4-14 Window’ movement by very definition is grounded in a divisive theology. Sequestering an arbitrary decade for special attention and distinct strategies apart from a holistic and whole-body-of-Christ ecclesiology divides generations and communities, compromises our missiological integrity and distorts the content of the gospel of reconciliation. Generations are to be seen in reconciled relationship with one another. The 4-14 designation makes for effective sloganeering, which sounds like a positive promotion of children. However, the arbitrary exclusion of the early years of infancy betrays the bare instrumentalisation of children in the 4-14 movement rhetoric in which children are championed as prophets, but only in adult imitation.
The incarnation of the infant Jesus, in fact the very conception of Jesus, demonstrates the way a child can point to the saving acts of God, and the realities of the kingdom, without instrumentalising the child. The ontological personhood of Jesus as a child is upheld in the biblical witness; the relational connectedness is affirmed.
Further, when we isolate a demographic group, even for the purposes of highlighting, we create a disconnection from the biblical call to wholeness. The holistic gospel is no mere individual wholeness, but the wholeness of reconciliation to one another and creation as well as to God, to wholeness as the integrated and functional body of Christ exercising collaborative gifts that serve one another.
Placing the child in the midst is a reconciling act of Jesus in the context of competing and divided disciples. The child in our midst then must be with the discipleship community, not over and against or in distinction from others. This requires acceptance, affirmation, accountability and along-siding, from and for all ages.
A more careful nomenclature which embraces, includes and integrates children in mutual and reciprocal ministry, service, discipleship and love may be sought beyond the clumsy slogan of the ‘4-14 window’.
In the final session of the conference, we witnessed the fruit of these rhetorical agendas. Young people followed the cues that we had given and the example of opportunism and manipulative aggrandisement that had been set before them. Turning all of our emotional tricks back upon us, the instrumentalised exercised their power and echoed the language of status and control. Having had their place as children stripped from them, they stepped onto the stage and into the mannerisms and rhetoric of the posturing, power hungry disciples, competing for recognition as the greatest in the kingdom.
The enslaved child prophesies under the power of an evil spirit.