I am honored to be interviewing Rev. Benjamin Perry on my blog today. Rev. Perry is an author, minister, and media producer whose work focuses on the intersection of religion and politics. The editor of the Queer Faith photojournalism series, Rev. Perry’s brand new book Cry, Baby is out now through Broadleaf Books. I appreciate Rev. Perry taking the time to dialogue. ~R.L. Stollar
RS: Hi Benjamin. Thank you very much for being willing to talk to me today. You have a new book out, “Cry, Baby: Why Our Tears Matter.” You are also a Minister with Middle Church in New York, a Christian faith community affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America. Can you tell me a bit about your book and how it relates to your work as a Christian minister?
BP: Emotions, broadly, and crying in particular are an essential part of what it means to be human. Despite this almost self-evident truth, they have not been treated as a serious topic for religious inquiry—what queer theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid would call an “area of theological exclusion.” Too many people are told that emotions distract us from God’s will, that suppressing them is what it means to be faithful—so people feel shame for what should be a blessing. My contention is that our feelings, and weeping in particular, is an essential way that the Holy Spirit communicates with humanity. When we are attentive to what we are feeling, we are brought closer to God. In the book, I chronicle my own journey from being someone who didn’t cry for more than a decade, how I relearned to feel. I then explore the physiology of tears, all to question: if crying is healthy and fundamentally linked to transformation, why don’t we do it more? The middle third explores social forces that suppress our tears, and the last third dreams about a world shaped by more open weeping.
RS: You have degrees in both psychology and theology. Do you see a connection or continuity between those two subjects? In what ways are studying people’s feelings and thoughts and studying God similar?
BP: Part of the connection is simply my love for people. I think psychology and theology are both at their most honest and powerful when they offer unconditional, nonjudgmental regard for what people are experiencing. A more particular point of commonality, however, is how both fields affirm the power of vulnerability. At the center of the Christian story is God’s own subversion of what it means to be powerful—born as a baby, the literal manifestation of fragile yet life-changing love. Psychology, too, has explored deeply the ways that stoicism harms both individual people and the folks in their life. One theme I explore in my chapter “This Is Your Brain on Tears” is both how damaging emotional repression is, and how it misses a crucial opportunity to forge connection between ourselves and our neighbors. If theology is concerned with building social power to transform the world, understanding the untapped potential of crying and vulnerability is essential to this work.
RS: I am guessing you are asked this in every interview, but it seems like malpractice to not ask it: John 11:35 tells us “Jesus wept.” Such a short but profound sentence! Why is it so important to know that, when Jesus walked among fellow humans, he wept? What meaning do you see in a God or divine figure who expresses emotions?
BP: I love this story, and explore it at length in the book! But one thing I’ll share is how it beautifully captures the way we’re called to show up for other people in the middle of their grief. When Jesus arrives and Lazarus is dead, he doesn’t rush to “fix” the problem. Before the resurrection, before he does anything, he simply sits with Mary and Martha and cries. Too often, we try to soothe away someone else’s tears because of our own discomfort with the fact that they are crying! Jesus, on the other hand, shows up. In his tears, he communicates more powerfully than he ever could through words, “This pain you are suffering is devastating. It is real. But you are not alone.”
RS: Many members of my audience care deeply about children and fighting for political and social rights for children. Probably the most well-known articulation of children’s rights in the world currently is the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified treaty in world history. Every single member state of the United Nations has ratified the Convention except for one: the United States. This is largely due to lobbying by evangelical homeschooling organizations that believe the Convention would override the rights of American parents. I mention the Convention because Article 13 of the Convention states that children “have the right to freedom of expression.” And on their website, the United Nations provides the following “child-friendly” interpretation of what that right means: “Children have the right to share freely with others what they learn, think and feel, by talking, drawing, writing or in any other way unless it harms other people.” I love how that is phrased and I am curious: would you agree that children have a right to both feel and express how they feel to others? And if so, what is it about feeling and expressing emotions that’s so important to make them actual human rights?
BP: I think children’s right to feel and express that feeling is both a fundamental right and essential to healthy human development. When children are told to suppress what they feel—if they’re shamed for crying—the underlying message is that their wellbeing matters less than the silence they are breaking. Part of the reason why evangelical homeschooling organizations oppose ratifying this right into law is their disrespect for children’s autonomy. It’s a worldview that treats children as something less than full people, property of their parents. Crucially, silencing children’s ability to express their feelings also enables abuse: children scared to talk are more easily harmed and controlled. Enshrining children’s right to speak about what they are experiencing is essential to protecting their wellbeing, and a threat to people who wish abuse to remain hidden.
RS: In your beautiful and powerful chapter “Become Like Children” that touches on child liberation theologian Rebecca Stevens-Walter and her work, you discuss why it is shocking that Jesus centers children in his answers to his disciples’ questions about hierarchy in heaven. You point out, on pages 179 and 180, that, “It’s a shocking answer, in part because in ancient Judea, children were considered little more than property. In that agrarian culture, children were assets: an extra pair of hands for labor, but not truly seen as full people.” So, when Jesus prioritizes children—these lowly pieces of property—it is “a radical, subversive statement about the way that divine will inverts earthly power.” Obviously, we live in a different world today than ancient Judea. However, even today, there’s a rapidly growing movement around the idea of “parental rights”—a movement that views children as parental property just like in ancient Judea. In other words, some of those ideas never went away and still need to be resisted. My question to you is this: when we view children as full people, as images of God, how should that change how we think about and interact with children’s emotions?
BP: You’re absolutely right, we’re seeing a robust attempt to define children as the property of their parents. That’s what’s at the core of censorship campaigns, bans on gender affirming healthcare, and the ongoing refusal to treat corporal punishment for what it is: assault. If we treat children as full people, as image-bearers of the holy one, it demands we uphold their autonomy. And that’s scary! It’s frightening for parents to relinquish control over who their children are becoming. But there’s an incredible promise waiting for us, when and if we make this change. A culture that upholds and centers children’s emotions will be more just for all people. While we struggle to make these larger, legislative changes, one of the most radical things we can do is uphold the emotions of the young people in our lives. Listen deeply. Affirm what you hear. Make those feelings the bedrock for self-determination.
RS: An important concept that originated from the fields of antiracism and psychology is microaggressions. Scientific American describes these as “everyday slights, insults, put-downs, invalidations, and offensive behaviors that people of marginalized groups experience in daily interactions with generally well-intentioned people who may be unaware of their impact.” Thinking along those lines, what are some common or frequent ways that parents and other caretakers of children communicate disrespect for children’s emotions?
BP: One common microaggression towards children’s emotions is the way that many adults subordinate them beneath their own desire to avoid social awkwardness and disruption. And I’m not saying it’s easy! It’s not convenient when a child has a tantrum or begins to cry at an inopportune social moment. But telling them not to cry, or shaming them for disrupting what is happening, communicates that their emotions are less important than maintaining calm. Similarly, when parents force children to give hugs to relatives or friends, it not only undermines their bodily autonomy, it overrides the emotions they are feeling—not wanting to give someone a hug. It teaches them that other people’s desires are more important than their own emotions.
RS: I really appreciate that you acknowledge in the book that “kids are still some of the most marginalized and oppressed people.” One example of this is, as you point out, that, “We carve special legal exemptions for assault when children are the victims (try to spank your boss the next time you disagree and see how well it goes for you).” And it’s not just spanking: 34 states (plus DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico) have legal exemptions from child abuse statutes when parents have conflicting religious beliefs. (At least 6 states also have similar exemptions to child manslaughter laws.) This might be a difficult question to answer, but I am curious if you have any thoughts here: in a world where children are still so marginalized and oppressed, where parental assault of children is still legal, what can children do with their emotions that would be healthy if they do not feel they can express their emotions safely at home?
BP: My deep hope is for children who cannot safely express emotions at home to have other adults in their lives who offer that freedom. That’s why it’s so crucial for teachers, doctors, clergy, and other care providers to make explicitly clear that you are a safe person with whom to talk about emotions. You never know which child is growing up in a home where that right is being violated; you can become part of that child’s healing.
RS: I absolutely adore these sentences on page 181: “The gentleness we can muster for ourselves is yoked to what we’re able to offer the world. When we let the childlike part of us just bawl, it reorients our disposition to our neighbor.” Why is it that healing the wounds from our childhoods—or showing compassion to our “inner child”—orients us towards better care of our neighbor?
BP: Elsewhere in the book I quote bell hooks, that “the first act of violence patriarchy demands of men is not violence against women, but to kill off the emotional parts of the self.” I think, similarly, the first way all of us are trained toward disrespect and violence is a disregard for what we, ourselves, are feeling. Many of us received those messages implicitly and/or explicitly as children. In order to become people who are more gentle towards other people in our lives, we must relearn how to be gentle toward ourselves.
RS: On page 181, you write that “one of the best ways we can push against” the “refusal to see and treat kids as full people” is “to encourage kids to revel in their humanity, to own their emotions and rejoice in the ways their feelings help them communicate their needs and yearnings.” Why do you think that people who do not see children as full people, people who oppress and marginalize children, are so invested in forcing children to shut down or swallow their emotions? What makes acknowledging emotions so liberating and thus so threatening to the powers-that-be?
BP: People who enact violence don’t want to see or hear about the consequences of that violence. In all but the most calloused and hardened people, it creates incredible cognitive dissonance to know that you’ve harmed someone else! Silencing children’s feelings alleviates the burden of knowing how you’ve harmed them. And, in cases of more grievous abuse, it’s an essential part of avoiding accountability for that harm. But one of the broader dynamics, too, is that expressing feeling is also a core part of building solidarity and power. When people have the freedom to communicate honestly, it seeds the potential for revolutionary change.
RS: Can you give me two practical examples of how parents and other caretakers of children can encourage children to “revel in their humanity,” “own their emotions,” and “rejoice in the ways their feelings help them communicate”? Like, what would that look like in everyday life either at home or at church or somewhere else?
BP: Absolutely! One thing is creating intentional moments for children to express joy! If something good is happening, ask them the way they’d best like to celebrate. Give them agency over what that rejoicing looks like. And model your own abundant joy! Similarly, modeling your own crying—not just through tears but through words is crucial. If you’re crying, don’t hide those tears in front of your children, and tell them how important it is to let those feelings out. When you see your child crying, don’t tell them not to cry. If appropriate, simply place a hand on their shoulder or back and sit with them. Help them know they are not alone in that grief. Again, it’s that ministry of presence Jesus embodied by sitting with Mary and Martha in their pain: a willingness to move through one’s own discomfort with seeing someone else’s anguish, knowing that the best gift you can offer is loving, nonjudgmental care that allows people to heal on their own timelines.
RS: One final question. On pages 184 and 185, you write: “What is society if not ‘other people’s children’? … If I see a child as simply ‘someone else’s kid,’ then what does it matter if they’re weeping?” This is so well put. It also reminds me of a passage from a bell hooks book about “revolutionary parenting” and how everyone in a society—childfree people included—need to be advocating for and respecting children. For folks reading who do not have children, but maybe are uncles or aunts or godparents or just members of their local church that has children, how can they start being more empathetic towards and respectful of children’s emotions and children’s voices?
BP: This is a very personal question as I don’t have children myself! I think one way is by trying to be present in the lives of friends or family members’ children. Don’t treat them as extensions of their parents, but people with their own rich, emotional lives. Ask them genuine questions, and listen deeply. Play with them in ways that gives them autonomy to lead. And all people can be advocates for children’s rights. Get involved in your church’s youth programs or your local school board, be invested in children’s thriving. It is your thriving, too.
About Benjamin Perry: Rev. Benjamin Perry is a minister at Middle Church and the author of Cry, Baby: Why Our Tears Matter. An award-winning writer, his work has been featured in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, Religion News Service, Bustle, and more. Visit Rev. Perry’s website at www.benjaminjperry.com and follow them on Twitter at @FaithfullyBP.