“God entrusted Godself to human adults as a human child in the incarnation, and in some sense God continues to entrust Godself to us in every human child created in the image of God.”
~ Janet Pais, Suffer the Children[i]
In her 1991 book Suffer the Children: A Theology of Liberation by a Victim of Child Abuse, Janet Pais articulates the first (and as far as I am aware of, only) Christian system of child liberation theology. The book is both theological and psychological. While Pais is interested in subverting religious imagery such as God being a Wrathful Parent, she also devotes significant attention to how adults can get in touch with their inner child, a move she believes can lead adults to “become capable of empathy and true relationship with children.”[ii]
Much of her latter analysis involves responding to famous psychoanalyst Alice Miller. Pais argues that Miller is wrong to think Christianity is inherently abusive towards children. Pais seizes on the image of “God the Child incarnate”[iii] as a centering point to illuminate messages of child liberation latent in the Bible. These messages lead her to believe that the Church today must “live out the theology of the Child,” which means “a radical restructuring of relationships [between adults and children] giving new possibilities for dealing with unavoidable pain and conflict in ways that do not oppress others or increase pain and conflict.”[iv]
This paper will focus on Pais’s unique Christology. Christology is the study of both the nature and the person of Jesus as documented in the Christian Gospels. Pais has a unique Christology in that it so heavily emphasizes the Child aspect of Jesus. She puts the childness of Jesus in the front and center of her Christological exegesis and interprets biblical passages in light of that childness.
Identifying God as Child
“GOD IS CHILD.”[v]
With this bold declaration, Janet Pais begins unpacking the meaning of Jesus being “the Son of God.” While many theologians have interpreted “Son” to mean a divinely chosen king of an earthly kingdom, Pais interprets it literally: the male child and offspring of an adult.
For Pais, God’s decision to take the form of a child means that God chose to take on the full implications of childhood. By “full,” I mean not only the positive aspects of childhood but also the negative: “God took on all the powerlessness, weakness, and neediness of human childhood for our salvation.”[vi]
In addition to the negative aspects inherent to childhood, God also took on negative aspects surrounding childhood, such as the possibility of child abuse. “In Jesus,” Pais claims, “God identifies Godself with the child, born as an infant into this world and ultimately suffering its abuses.”[vii] God enters this comprehensive experience of human childhood because the childness of the Son of God is central to who Jesus is.
Pais also views the childness of Jesus as central to how we should understand the relationship between Jesus and Yahweh. As Jesus is the God Child and Yahweh is the God Parent, their relationship in terms of the Trinity is a parent-child relationship. Pais argues, “In the incarnation we can glimpse the inner divine relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity, Father and Child.”[viii]
An example that Pais uses for understanding the parent-child relationship of Jesus and Yahweh is how Jesus prays to Yahweh in the Garden of Gethsemane immediately prior to his trial and crucifixion. In Gethsemane, after expressing that his soul was “very sorrowful, even unto death,”[ix] Jesus addresses the God Parent as “Abba.”[x] Pais points out that “Abba” is the Aramaic word that Jesus uses in all of his prayers to address Yahweh, the first person of the Trinity. While translators usually translate “Abba” as “Father,” Pais notes that this rendering “misses the significance of the fact that Jesus used an infant’s ‘babbling’ sound, a ‘childish cry.’” In other words, Jesus is not only addressing the God Parent as his Parent; he is also establishing that he, the God Child, relates to the God Parent as an infant relates to its parent. Pais says, “The Father is ‘intimately close,’ and the Son incarnate relates to the Father as a child, an infant.”[xi]
It is poignant that Jesus so intimately prays to Yahweh as “Abba” on the eve of his trial and crucifixion when it was Jesus’s public declaration of being the Child of God that got him in trouble in the first place. In the Gospel of John, after Jesus justifies working on the Sabbath to his detractors by saying, “My Father is working until now, and I am working,” we are told that his identification as the Child of God is what enrages religious leaders: “This was why [they] were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”[xii]
Jesus is not the only one who cries to the God Parent as an infant cries “Abba!” Pais notes that the Apostle Paul twice claims that the Holy Spirit channels the God Child in each and every Christian, the Spirit crying “Abba” to Yahweh and interceding for us.[xiii] We as Christians relate to (or ought to relate to) the God Parent in the same way that Jesus does: as children. Pais writes, “To call on God as ‘Dada,’ as Jesus did, is to find…the young child in ourselves.”[xiv]
Since God became Child in order to enter into relationship with us and into relationship with the God Parent, Pais believes that the purpose or end of the incarnational act is relationship itself. God did not become incarnate to cosmically erase Original Sin or to use the Crucifixion to guilt us. God became incarnate so that They could experience the full significance of human-human relationships as well as give humans the experience of the divine-human relationship. Pais argues, “God did not become incarnate in order to teach us a lesson, to mold us or punish us, or to show us who is boss, but to be in direct relationship with us. God’s experience of God’s own Childhood and of human childhood is a real experience of relationship, for God and for us. When God enters the human condition, walks again with us in the garden, the divine-human relationship is direct, revelatory and transforming.”[xv]
This idea that the Incarnation’s purpose was to enable true relationship between humans and God is itself not unique or significant. However, it is worth noting that specific form of relationship the Incarnation enabled was not the relationships seen in the Tanakh: relationships between human beings and a transcendent God. Instead, the Incarnation enabled a new form of divine-human relationship by revealing God specifically as Child and giving humans the opportunity to enter into relationship with that Child.
In the Incarnation, we move beyond the traditional understanding of God as Father, Dictator, Patriarch; we are enabled to see with new eyes, enabled to see God now as Child, Sibling, Peer: “The Childhood of God, not the Fatherhood, is of primary importance for God’s self-revelation to us.”[xvi] Through the Incarnation, the Child in the Trinity is lifted up as important; the Adult in the Trinity moves to the background. Pais says, “Adults are too often blinded by the belief that the father is all in importance, the child nothing. The divine Child always remains the Child; the first and second persons of the Trinity are not merged. We too easily lose sight of the good news of God the Child and turn the Son into another image of fatherhood.”[xvii]
While Pais believes that the Incarnation makes salient a new form of divine-human relationship through Jesus the God Child, she also clarifies that the Child person of the Trinity is still part of the Trinity. Jesus — as the Child of God — has always existed and will always exist, in the same way that Yahweh and the Holy Spirit have always existed and will always exist. Pais says, “The doctrine of the Trinity tells us that the Child aspect of God, the Son, was not created, but is eternally begotten of the Father.”[xviii]
All of this raises the question: why would God decide that Jesus would be “Son” and not “Father” or “Adult”? Pais has a number of answers to this question, two of which we have already examined. First, as stated previously, she believes that God chose to reveal Jesus as Child in order that God’s nature as relational would be revealed. By distinguishing between God the Parent and God the Child (and also God the Holy Spirit), God shows that relationship is an essential aspect of Their nature. Pais writes, “Revealing God as Child and revealing the Father in relationship with the Child, the incarnation reveals the the inner nature of God is relational.”[xix]
Second, as also stated previously, Pais believes God decided to reveal Jesus as Child because Jesus is Child. The childness of the second person of the Trinity is an inherent part of that person. One cannot separate childness from Jesus, because Jesus as Jesus is Child. Thus the incarnation is not God creating a new aspect of Themselves to reveal to humanity; instead, it is simply enabling humanity to be conscious of that aspect. Pais writes, “The incarnation is the becoming conscious of the Child aspect of God.”[xx]
Third, Pais suggests God revealed Jesus as Child in order to provide a corrective to our tendency to view power and worth as equivalent to adulthood. When we think of God being all-powerful and worthy of our worship, we are usually thinking about God as Adult. We are projecting onto God our own adult biases regarding power and worth. By revealing God as Child, God makes clear that power and worth should be found in childhood and children as much as adulthood and adults. Pais says, “The incarnation bridges the gap between the ‘God’ of our projections and the inner reality of God. God the Child is an aspect of the inner reality of God, in whose image Parent, Child, and Spirit human beings are created.”[xxi]
Fourth and finally, Pais says God decided to reveal Jesus as Child in order to subvert our understanding of God’s anger. When we read stories from the Tanakh that show God righteously angry at human abuse and oppression, we often think that God is showing the anger of a parent towards their children. However, Pais suggests we can view God’s anger in a different way.
Pais sees continuity from the anger of God in the Tanakh and the anger of Jesus in the Christian Gospels. Just as God grows angry in the Tanakh at human abuse and oppression, so, too, does Jesus shout “Brood of vipers!” at people in power in the Christian Gospels. As the anger of Jesus — the God Child — parallels the anger of Yahweh in the Tanakh, Pais suggests that God’s anger could (and should) be seen as the righteous anger of a child. “Many adults misunderstand God’s anger as being like fathers’ anger at their children,” Pais writes. This is a problem because when adults feel God’s anger towards human abuse and oppression justifies their own anger towards their children, it can lead to child abuse. Pais says this false sense of justification can cause adults to “believe that God’s anger is a model for human parents. Having projected their misunderstood and displaced anger onto ‘God,’ many parents, often unconsciously, claim what they have projected as justification for behaving like wrathful gods toward their children.”[xxii]
In contrast to such adults, Pais argues that God’s anger cannot be reduced to or compared to parental anger. God’s anger also includes the anger of children. Pais reminds us that, “God is not only Father; God is also Child!” And as a Triune God who — as both Parent and Child — rages against human abuse and oppression, God rages most against those who have the power to abuse and oppress. This would be imply that God identifies more with the powerless children than with the powerful adults. Pais argues, “In God’s wrath, God identifies not with the powerful fathers but with the powerless children. As the other liberation theologies assert, God is the God of the powerless. God is on the side of the oppressed.” This leads Pais to a wholesale rejection of the image of God as Angry Patriarch: “The wrathful ‘Father’ model is an idol.”[xxiii]
Identifying the Child as Judge
Pais is not content with subverting our view of God’s anger and suggesting through Christology that we should view the anger of God as the anger of the God Child. She goes a step further, arguing that it is God as Child — and not God as Parent — who will judge humanity at the end of times. Jesus, the Divine Infant who cries “Abba,” will “bring the sword.”[xxiv]
In one of her most provocative critiques of Alice Miller, Pais illuminates that while Miller rightly says the Bible lacks a commandment saying, “Honor your children,” Jesus himself as the God Child subverts the commandment we do have (“Honor your parents”). Pais says, “In John’s gospel, Jesus does say, ‘He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him’ (Jn 5:23)” (emphasis added).[xxv]
Subverting the patriarchy inherent to his sociopolitical context, Jesus creates this moment of apocalypse for child liberation in the Gospel of John: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him” (emphasis added).[xxvi]Jesus makes salient that if you do not honor the God Child, you do not honor the God Parent. Pais extends this to all human children, taking her cue from Jesus’s declaration in the Gospel of Mark that, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.”[xxvii] If you do not honor human children, you do not honor God.
Pais thus shows how Jesus subverts a commandment commonly used to justify parental power and child abuse and transforms it into a divine warning against that power and abuse. Those who tower over children or abuse them are dishonoring God. Pais pulls out the full implications of this idea in the following manner: “Among human beings Jesus honors those who do God’s will. A parent who plays God, who tries to recreate a child in the parent’s image of goodness, who has contempt for a child’s smallness and weakness, who uses or abuses a child, who causes a child to reject the child-self with its feelings and perceptions of reality, is not one who does the will of God.”[xxviii]
Pais also finds an additional level of meaning from the aforementioned passage from the Gospel of Jesus: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son” (emphasis added).[xxix] Pais takes this first sentence to mean that, during the end times, it is not God the Parent who will judge humanity but instead God the Child. Our adult sins, our adult abuses and oppressions against children , will be scrutinized by a Child, the God Child who become human and experienced all the sins, abuses, and oppressions inherent to human childhood. Pais says, “Ultimately, we are judged from the viewpoint of the child: the Child will return to judge us all.”[xxx]
Implications of Child-Centric Christology
What are the contemporary implications of Janet Pais’s child-centric Christology for the American Church? Pais draws three conclusions:
First, we must honor children as the form chosen by God to be the vessel for Their incarnation.
We already know and affirm that everyone is made in the image of God and thus has eternal worth and value. But Pais believes that Christ’s incarnation implies that children need to be radically prioritized for their eternal worth and value. Since Christ took the incarnational form of a human child, that makes children a specific image of God that is special. We must treat children in the same way we would treat Jesus when he was a child. Pais writes, “If we are to take seriously Jesus’ words and receive each child in his name as Christ, then we must not have any attitude toward any child that would cause us to relate to that child differently from the way we would relate to the Christ child.”[xxxi]
For Pais, this idea — treat children in the same way we would treat Jesus when he was a child — should be a litmus test for any and all adult interactions with children. She says, “If you are in doubt about the way you are treating [a child] in any situation, ask yourself if you would behave the same way toward the Child Jesus.”[xxxii]
Second, to abuse a child is to abuse God.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus declares, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”[xxxiii]Pais believes the contemporary meaning of this is that every child we encounter should be viewed as the Child of God. She says, “Jesus taught us to see in every child received in his name the new creation, Christ himself, God the Child incarnate.”[xxxiv] The reverse implication of this is that abusing a child is abusing God. Sin against children is sin against our Creator. Pais claims, “This is the theology of God the Child. When we abuse a child, we abuse God’s creation; we abuse Godself.”[xxxv]
Third, to get in touch with your inner child is to get in touch with God.
Pais believes that realizing the full implication of Jesus as Child means realizing that Christ lives in us as Child. This gives a new layer of meaning to the idea of one’s “inner child.” While many believe “getting in touch with your inner child” is simply an act of self-help, Pais views this activity as an act of worship. Since one’s inner child is actually the childness of God within us, getting in touch with that person is getting in touch with God. Pais explains that, “If Christ lives in us, the divine Child lives in us. We are required to attend to the child within, approach it as the divine Child.” By getting in touch with the inner God Child, we can bring healing to our selves: “The key to restoring ourselves to creation in the image of God is true relationship with the inner child-self, the image of God the Child.”[xxxvi]
Pais also believes that our inner child, the aforementioned childness of God within us, is what Jesus refers to in the Gospel of Matthew when he declares, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Pais claims, “It is our inner child-selves that we must become like if we are to ever enter the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God.”
This becomes a circular, self-affirming idea for Pais: To become like a child is to become like Jesus, and to become like Jesus is to become like a child. Ultimately, this inner state of childhood is determined by Pais to be an unmitigated good: “The child-self, the child still alive within the adult, is the part of the creation that God has called ‘good.’…”[xxxvii](I should note that this leads Pais to reject the traditional versions of Original Sin and Total Depravity, which posit children are universally born as pre-broken images of their Creator. In contrast, Pais says children enter this life as “the unbroken image of God”[xxxviii] and that, “We cannot know the nature of ‘the child’ in the abstract. We can only live in relationship with a particular child’s unfolding being as he or she exists in the world.”[xxxix] While rejecting traditional versions of Original Sin and Total Depravity, Pais nonetheless continues to accept a modified, psychologized version of Original Sin: “This is the fall—a fall from the wholeness of creation into splitness, into brokenness, as human beings reject or conditionally accept elements of creation…Adults follow the example of Adam and Eve when they fail to accept the whole child as created and use children for their own purposes.”[xl])
Christology and Liberation Theology
For Pais, the assertion that God is Child is important not only to expressing a child-centric Christology. It is also important for establishing a connection between Christology and child liberation theology. For just as the image of God as Child is central to Pais’s Christology, so, too, is that image central to her child liberation theology. In fact, the former extends naturally into the latter.
Christology is a fundamental aspect of liberation theology. Liberation theology seeks to find a contemporary event or symbol onto which one can overlap the image of Christ on the cross. The image of Christ on the cross is an image of God being present with human suffering. And so to find a contemporary image of suffering enables the liberation theologian to extract meaning from comparing the two images.
An example here will be helpful. Black liberation theologian James H. Cone identifies the suffering of Jesus on the cross with the suffering of the Black person hung on a lynching tree. To Cone, the lynching tree is a powerful representation of the suffering Jesus today. It is a contemporary image that can make poignant and applicable the content of the historical image of the suffering Jesus and how God is present with and witness to that suffering. The contemporary image of the lynching tree can — and ought to — jar white Christians and awaken them to the immediacy of the image of Jesus and his suffering as exemplified by the murdered Black person. In turn, Cone believes, the historical image of Jesus and his suffering can bring hope to Black people when they see “God [is] with them, even in suffering on lynching trees just as God was present with Jesus in suffering on the cross.”[xli]
Pais finds a contemporary image of God as suffering in abused children today. As Black liberation theology sees God through the suffering of Black people, or womanist theology sees God through the suffering of women of color, or LGBTQIA liberation theology sees God through the suffering of queer people, Pais’s child liberation theology asks us to see God through the suffering of children. This is the context for Pais’s declaration with which we began this paper, the declaration in all caps: “GOD IS CHILD.” Pais writes, “Just as in biblical times, the power of God will move with those who are disadvantaged and cry out for God’s help in their struggles for liberation in the world today. Each group has a unique way, or set of ways, of expressing the movement of God’s power on its behalf. For example, a black theologian may assert that God is black; a feminist theologian may assert that God is woman. Following their example, this theology for the liberation of children asserts: GOD IS CHILD.”[xlii]
“GOD IS CHILD” begins and ends Pais’s belief system. It underlies her unique Christology and flows naturally into her child liberation theology that lifts up and radically prioritizes children. It is also more than an abstract idea to help us create a new orthodoxy; it is a practical, concrete reminder for our praxis: a reminder that we should receive and welcome all children as we would receive and welcome Jesus, the Child of God. “How we receive children,” Pais says, “teaches them more about faith than any number of lessons.”[xliii] And we who receive children must “remember that the child, every child, is Christ for you.”[xliv]
[i] Janet Pais, Suffer the Children: A Theology of Liberation by a Victim of Child Abuse, Paulist Press, 1991, p. 72.
[ii] Ibid, p. 3.
[iii] Ibid, p. 2.
[iv] Ibid, . 146.
[v] Ibid, p. 15.
[vii] Ibid, p. 61.
[viii] Ibid, p. 58.
[ix] Mark 14:34.
[x] Mark 14:36.
[xi] Pais, p. 59.
[xii] John 5:16-18.
[xiii] The first occurrence is Romans 8:15: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’” The second occurrence is Galatians 4:6: “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “’Abba, Father.’”
[xiv] Pais, p. 59.
[xv] Ibid, p. 60.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 85.
[xvii] Ibid, p. 60-61.
[xviii] Ibid, p. 74.
[xix] Ibid, p. 85.
[xx] Ibid, p. 87.
[xxi] Ibid, p. 83-4.
[xxii] Ibid, p. 74.
[xxiii] Ibid, p. 74.
[xxiv] Matthew 10:34.
[xxv] Pais, p. 107.
[xxvi] John 5:22-23.
[xxvii] Mark 3:35.
[xxviii] Pais, p. 108.
[xxix] John 5:22-23.
[xxx] Pais, p. 108.
[xxxi] Ibid, p. 24.
[xxxii] Ibid, p. 124.
[xxxiii] Mark 9:37.
[xxxiv] Pais, p. 2.
[xxxv] Ibid, p. 1.
[xxxvi] Ibid, p. 88.
[xxxvii] Ibid, p. 88.
[xxxviii] Ibid, p. 27.
[xxxix] Ibid, p. 30.
[xl] Ibid, p. 34.
[xli] James H. Cone, The Cross and The Lynching Tree, Orbis Books, 2011, p 22.
[xlii] Pais, p. 15.
[xliii] Ibid, p. 147.
[xliv] Ibid, p. 149.