Author note: this is the first article in a multi-part series I am writing in 2022 and 2023 providing an overview of child liberation theology. The next installment, “Why Your Faith Community Needs Child Liberation Theology,” explains how child liberation theology can help make faith communities safer for—and more empowering to—children. You can read it here.
Liberation theology finds Jesus on the underside of history: among those abused and cast aside by the powers-that-be. Black liberation theology declares God is Black. Mujerista theology says God is a Latina woman. Queer theology identifies God as queer. In similar fashion, child liberation theology makes clear: God is child, too!
This is both literal and figurative. When God became human, God became a human child. God went through every stage of child development that other children do. But as child liberation theologian Janet Pais argues, Jesus is forever the Child of God as well, making childness an inherent part of the Trinity.
Seeing God as Child means we not only understand that children are made in the image of God. It means children also bear the exact same worth and value that adults do. In fact, Jesus himself says that, when we lift up children, we are worshipping and loving Godself. In today’s world that sees children as having no rights themselves, but rather sees parents as almighty rulers over their property, Jesus’s point stands out. By lifting up children, Jesus really is making the last first. He is making clear that children deserve the same rights, and bear the same value, as adults.
This is radical stuff from Jesus. It is also the stuff that makes up child liberation theology. Like Jesus putting the child in his disciples’ midst, child liberation theology asks us to put children in the center of what we do and think. It demands, as child liberation theologian Rebecca Stevens-Walter says, that we “see the oppression of children as an important distinction to make in the discussion of liberation.” It challenges us to ask if we’re doing enough to love, protect, and empower the children in our faith and other communities.
Loving, protecting, and empowering children are not inspirational words. They are real things that adults owe to children. In this way, and many other ways, child liberation theology is always and intentionally practical. It is always and intentionally focused on how we can make our right-here and right-now a better place for children.
But child liberation theology cannot be something that only adults do or think for children. Liberation theology says that, in order to truly free a group of people, that group must be equipped and empowered to do theology with their own words and in their own way. Thus child liberation theology must be something that children themselves do. It must not only involve children, it must also let children take the lead. Only then will child liberation theology actually begin. Everything else is preparing the way.
“Everything else” is what we adults can do in the meantime: making our faith and other communities not only safe and nurturing for children, but also accessible and empowering. In the United States, this will require significant rethinking about how we involve children in decision-making processes and other forms of leadership—especially in churches and Christian families. (Other countries are also beginning to do child liberation theology, such as South Africa.)
In too many American churches and Christian families, children are excluded from too much. In an article for the theological journal Currents about child liberation theology, Dr. Craig L. Nessan notes that, “The distinctive perspective of children has been notably underrepresented.” They have little say over how they are raised, how they are loved, how they are taught, how they worship, and even how they relate to God. This reduces children to puppets, acting out a spirituality scripted and informed entirely by adult questions and concerns.
Child liberation theology says this is wrong. There is another, and better, way: following Jesus when he centers children and their agency. The Kingdom of God belongs to children. It is children who recognize Jesus in the temple. It is children who deserve the protection of millstones. It is a child that Jesus places in his disciples’ midst. As child liberation theologian Samantha Field writes, “For [Jesus], children are not just progeny, or economic assistants, or heirs, or tools. They are people and deserve the same liberation from oppression as anyone else.”
Children are not mere creatures of parents. They are not projects or weapons. They are inheritors of God’s Kingdom, images of that God, and they are capable of prophecy, leadership, teaching, and theology—if we would only give them the space and tools they need. Unfortunately, our anti-child world says children are inadequate to these deeply human tasks.
Following Jesus means that we see and we fight against our anti-child world, especially when our churches and Christian families have fallen under the spell of anti-childness. When they argue children must obey adults without question, it is antichrist. When they urge parents to beat their children and break their wills, it is antichrist. When they do not report child sexual abuse to the authorities, it is antichrist.
We must constantly fight against these and other antichrist attitudes and practices in our faith and other communities—attitudes and practices that reduce children from images of God into parental property or weapons for their parents’ culture wars. Indeed, one of the reasons why child liberation theology is so important is because so much of the anti-childness in our world has roots in American Christianity, especially white evangelicalism. Child liberation theology is a prophetic cry against this unholy union between Christianity and devaluing children.
Liberation theology finds Jesus on the underside of history: among those abused and cast aside by the powers-that-be. Child liberation theology says God is child because children are among those abused and cast aside by the powers-that-be. As we live today in an anti-child world, it is so important that we begin to fully understand the implications of Jesus’s advocacy for children. We must break that advocacy free from its Precious Moments sentimentality and see how revolutionary it really was—and continues to be.