Author note: this is the fourth article in a multi-part series I am writing in 2022 and 2023 providing an overview of child liberation theology. You can read the previous installment, “Your Family and Child Liberation Theology,” here. The next installment, “Why Child Liberation Theology Must Be Intersectional,” will look at the idea and history of intersectionality and explain why intersectionality must be weaved throughout any and all efforts to protect and empower children.
What is child liberation theology, technically speaking? As explained in Part One of this series, child liberation theology is a theology of self-determination. It aims to give children the ability and space to learn and speak about God on their own terms. But what does that really mean? What makes it theology, what makes it liberation theology, and what makes it child liberation theology?
It is theology because it is the study of God. It is liberation theology because it is the type of studying God that aims to lead to more just and equitable world. Finally, it is child liberation theology because the more just and equitable world we are fighting for will center and prioritize the most oppressed people group in the world: children. And how do we go about doing this? How do center and prioritize children in our studying of God, our theological work? The answer is we must engage in four different topics of study: the study of the Bible, or “hermeneutics”; the study of Jesus, or “Christology”; the study of the future, or “eschatology”; and the study of how to act, or “orthopraxis.”
These four elements—hermeneutics, Christology, eschatology, and orthopraxis—are the nuts and bolts of child liberation theology. So let us look at each in turn.
Hermeneutics is the fancy word for “Bible study.” Not “Bible study” in the sense of your morning devotionals, but the actual act of reading and interpreting what the Bible says. There are many ways we can read and interpret the Bible; when we think about those different ways of reading and interpreting, that is hermeneutics.
Liberation theology argues that the people who are the objects of liberation—in other words, the people we aim to liberate—should become the lens through which we read and interpret the Bible. In our case, that means children should be our lens. Children should become the guiding light of our hermeneutics.
To ensure we read and interpret the Bible through the lens of children requires several steps. First and foremost, we need to notice the presence of children in the biblical texts we read, and we need to center those children as we interpret the texts. Pay attention to children’s agency and actions in the stories in which they appear. Additionally, read and interpret the Bible with actual children. By this I do not mean reading children bedtime stories from the Bible. Rather, we must read and interpret the Bible with children as learning partners and co-explorers of God’s truths. Have faith that children can teach adults as much as adults can teach children—and that children can study God, or do theological work, just as much as adults.
To learn more about child-centered Bible reading and interpretation, see Julie Faith Parker’s journal article “Children in the Hebrew Bible and Childist Interpretation.” An online version can be viewed here.
Christology is the study of the life and person of Jesus. More specifically, it is the study of the meaning and significance of Jesus as Immanuel, God-with-us, the God incarnate as a human infant. In liberation theology, Christology often focuses on seeing the suffering of Jesus at the hands of Roman authorities reflected in the suffering of one’s neighbors—and thus working to undo the sources of our neighbors’ suffering becomes a way that we express our love for and worship of God.
The Christology of child liberation theology is unique and important. Child liberation theology argues that Jesus is not merely the second member of the Trinity—neither parental like Yahweh nor ambiguous like the Holy Spirit. Rather, Jesus is the child aspect of God become manifest. Jesus is the God-Child and the God-Child is the one who will ultimately assume power in the Kingdom of God. The God-Child, not the God-Parent, will rule. (For more information about this idea, see Janet Pais’s book Suffer The Children: A Theology Of Liberation By A Victim Of Child Abuse, especially Chapter 7, “Father and Child: Image of Relationship.”)
This inversion of power holds great meaning. If judgment for our adult sins will ultimately come from the heart of a child, adults need to start making big changes regarding how they think about and care for children. It also implies there is a Christological basis for the idea that parenting should be, in the words of feminist theologian Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, “a gradual transfer of power” from adults to children, not a process of adults “shaping children into socially acceptable adults” (Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood From a Christian Perspective, p. 143).
Eschatology is the study of the future. In more traditional theologies, this field considers end-of-times theories—ideas about how the world will end and a new one will begin. In liberation theology, however, eschatology is interested less in scenarios about eternity and more interested in how we can help bring the Kingdom of God to our present moment. Liberative eschatology is the study of how we make a brighter future a vibrant reality right now.
This means that child liberation theology’s eschatology must be focused on how we can transform our current power structures from ones that abuse and control children into ones that protect and empower them. As Gustavo Gutiérrez argues in A Theology of Liberation, the promises that the coming Kingdom of God bring—peace, justice, love, and freedom—are not just ideas. They are embodied realities. “Peace, justice, love, and freedom are not private realities,” Gutiérrez declares. “They are not only internal attitudes. They are social realities, implying a historical liberation. A poorly understood spiritualization has often made us forget the human consequences of the eschatological promises and the power to transform unjust social structures which they imply. The elimination of misery and exploitation is a sign of the coming of the Kingdom” (p. 97).
What this means for child liberation theology is that we cannot let hope for a better future for children be something designated “For Later.” That work begins right here and right now. When Christians argue that the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the Kingdom of God parallels Jesus’s vision, there is a distinct form that vision takes: one where children literally lead the way (Isaiah 11:6) and children do not experience abuse at the hands of other people (Isaiah 11:9). If we truly believe that to be a heavenly vision, should we not begin that work right here and right now? If we truly believe that to be a vision of a good and just society, why would we continue to ignore the many ways that our current society treats children in evil and unjust ways, by denying them agency and social and political rights?
Orthopraxis, also written as orthopraxy, was introduced into popular conversations about theology in the 1900s by liberation theologians. “Praxis” refers to action or behavior, and “ortho” means “right.” The term is intended to capture the idea of what proper Christian actions or behaviors are in a world full of suffering and injustice. Liberation theologians introduced the idea of orthopraxis as a counterbalance to the more commonly known idea of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is about having the “right” thoughts or beliefs. Most Christian creeds are about establishing what thoughts and beliefs are orthodox according to the so-called experts at that time, but the creeds tend to neglect questions of praxis. Liberation theologians created orthopraxis to fix this.
In child liberation theology, orthopraxis—like eschatology—needs to be focused on the dual tasks of protecting and empowering children in concrete ways. On the one hand, adults need to protect children’s political and social rights. On the other hand, adults need to empower children to seize their rights for themselves. These are right, proper, and Christlike actions in an anti-child world. Proactively affirming children’s inherent human rights is a holy task.
And yes, children have human rights just like adults do. And yes, they deserve to have those rights protected by both their caretakers and their government. A great place to start for better understanding children’s rights and how to affirm them in your community is Amnesty International’s book Know Your Rights And Claim Them: A Guide For Youth. To introduce children to children’s rights, see the United Nations’ children’s book, A Child’s Right to Rights.
Child liberation theology is focused on practical steps adults can take to make a better world for children. It is about real, tangible changes to our world. At the same time, it also involves some theory and philosophy. In this piece, I have explored the contours of child liberation theology’s underlying theory and philosophy—how it approaches the Bible and the world in a unique way.
By centering and prioritizing children in how we study the Bible, by thinking about the meaning of the image of Jesus as the God-Child, by considering how we bring the Kingdom of God to our present moment to protect and empower children, and by affirming children’s rights to protection and empowerment in our faith communities, we can make liberation theology something that even children can access, find meaningful and powerful, and apply to their lives in a way that is freeing.