Mr. Rogers and Child Liberation Theology

I recently had the pleasure of appearing on the Veterans of Culture Wars Podcast. You can listen to the full episode here. The podcast hosts, Zach Malm and Dave Lester, had excellent questions about child liberation theology, my upcoming book The Kingdom of Children, evangelical parenting, and homeschooling. One question in particular that stood out to me was this: “Did Fred Rogers have a personal theology of child liberation?” As I explained to Zach and Dave, I do think so, because I think child liberation theology is not about abstract ideas but rather the simple yet radical act of treating children humanly and justly—something Rogers took seriously. You can listen to my full answer to the question below:

A few questions we planned to discuss ended up not making it on the episode due to time constraints. But I thought the questions were provocative and so I wanted to answer them here with Zach and Dave’s blessing and permission. So here are those questions and answers:

VCW: You mention the work of Janet Pais, whose 1991 book Suffer the Children: A Theology of Liberation by a Victim of Child Abuse is the only book prior to yours dedicated to child liberation theology. When did you discover her work and what has it meant to you?

RLS: I first discovered Janet Pais while I was studying for my master’s degree in child protection. The more I learned about child development and childrearing, and what best practices are in those fields, the more I realized: evangelicals are teaching the exact opposite of the best practices. So that got me thinking: there has to be a way to read the Bible such that we’re empowering children through our reading rather than just abusing or controlling them. And when I thought about empowerment, of course my first thought was liberation theology, because liberation theology is all about empowering marginalized groups to self-determine their relationships with God and the Bible. So I thought, “I wonder if there’s a liberation theology for children.” I googled it and discovered Janet Pais’s book.

What Pais’s book means to me… at the beginning of her book, she has this quotation from a Jewish rabbi, Irving Greenberg. It’s an intense quotation about the Holocaust, so advance trigger warning here. But the quotation is, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”

For me, that really gets to the heart of the matter and that is what drives me. So, Pais’s book is this constant reminder that child liberation theology can never become academic. It must always remain something that improves the lives of children experiencing the worst of our world. Otherwise it is a waste of my time and your time.

VCW: You write that most commentary on the passage of Elisha summoning bears to kill 42 children for mocking his baldness is from evangelicals, and frequently reveals their racism. How so, and why do you think evangelicals are more inclined to write about this passage?

RLS: The story of Elisha summoning bears to maul 42 children for making fun of his baldness is one of the wildest Bible stories ever. As I mention in the book, I primarily see two groups of people most interested in discussing the story: atheists and evangelicals. For atheists, this story is essentially confirmation that God and people who follow God are child abusers. Elisha is God’s prophet, Elisha’s power theoretically comes from God, so if Elisha curses 42 children to death-by-bear, God must endorse Elisha’s actions or God wouldn’t have allowed the curse to have power.

Evangelicals approach the story differently, but interestingly, they share the atheist assumption that Elisha is operating with God’s blessing. And the reason for this is that evangelicals are often biblical literalists. This means that they believe nuanced exegesis of the Bible is heresy; instead, the “plain reading of the text” should take priority. But a plain reading—according to most evangelicals—is assuming Elisha was in the right and the children were in the wrong, so we’re back at Square One with the atheists. What evangelicals do, then, and I discuss this in my book, is that they all argue that the word for “children” in the story of Elisha and the bears doesn’t mean “little children” but rather “older children like teenagers or young adults”—the implication being that a group of youths surrounding an old prophet is threatening, rather than just making fun of his baldness. So Elisha’s summoning of the bears is basically self-defense.

But then it gets weird. This is because many evangelicals introduce racial language and tropes to justify Elisha allegedly acting in self-defense. So, not only was Elisha surrounded by a group of teenagers or young adults threatening him, but those young people are described by evangelicals as “hoodlums” or “from the ghetto” and other descriptions that are intended to make us think about Black people. In other words, evangelicals try to justify Elisha’s actions by saying something like, “Imagine if you were surrounded by Black teenagers or young adults in the ‘bad part of town.’ Wouldn’t you be justified in acting in self-defense as well?”

The right answer, of course, is, “No, you would not be justified in killing young Black people just because you feel threatened by them.” But that’s not the answer evangelicals give. They think Elisha’s pre-emptive strike against a potential threat was justified.

VCW: Can you talk about how the God incarnate as child story shows up in other faiths? How is it different in Christianity?

RLS: Incarnation—a god or divine savior becoming an embodied being in our physical world—is not unique to Christianity. In fact, incarnation is one of the most common acts of deities in just about every religion. Less common is child incarnation, where a god or divine savior becomes a human child. Even still, though, child incarnation happens in the myths and stories of most major world religions. In my book, I look at child incarnation in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and, of course, Christianity. The only major world religion today that does not feature a god or divine savior as a child is Judaism, as Jewish people still await their messiah.

What makes Jesus’s incarnation as a child different and unique from these other stories is that Christians tend to believe that Jesus was both fully divine as well as fully human. This tension between divinity and humanity is not seen in other religions. For example, when the Hindu god Vishnu incarnates as the human child Krishna, Vishnu’s human body is merely an avatar—meaning, it’s basically an illusion. Vishnu can take his humanity on and off like a cloak. It is not essential to his being. Jesus, in contrast, is fully human. This means Jesus must abide by normal stages of child development and must “grow in wisdom,” as we read in the Christian Gospels. Vishnu-as-Krishna, however, has full power, knowledge, and wisdom from the beginning.

Buddhism and Islam, in contrast to Christianity and Hinduism, do not claim that their saviors are gods. Instead, their saviors are humans with an anointed, divine nature or mind. More than prophets but not quite gods, the Buddha and Muhammad both have childhood stories with fascinating parallels to the childhood stories of Jesus. But at the same time, those stories are not stories of gods coming to know the world in new ways. And that, to me, is the most interesting aspect about the Christian incarnation: we’re seeing God learn. Through Jesus, God comes to know the world in a more profound and beautiful way. Also through Jesus, the world comes to know God in a more profound and beautiful way by revealing God isn’t just an angry old man with a long beard. God is also a child!

VCW: You write, “In the conservative Christian homeschooling world, there is a popular idea that children are little murderers-in-the-making, or vipers. A child is a ‘viper in a diaper’—that is a direct quotation from a well-known leader in evangelical homeschooling.” When I was at Mars Hill, and pardon the dehumanizing language here, but Mark would refer to misbehaving children as “midget demons”. How does this thinking play out in families and what does it say about their theology?

RLS: When people describe children as vipers or demons or whatever other negative description they can imagine, usually they defend themselves when you call them out by saying it’s “just a joke.” And sure, maybe it is just a joke for that one person. But you take that one person’s joke, and you add it to everyone else who is making that joke, and you see that the joke repeats itself so often because it does reflect something about how these adults view children. I’ve read so many parenting books from evangelicals and let me tell you: the way they describe children is consistently like these jokes. Children are described not merely as animals that need control and discipline, but specifically as dangerous or poisonous animals. Or as demons, as you said.

Here’s the problem: when you encourage this language—whether it’s a joke or it’s serious—what you’re doing is encouraging adults and parents to associate children with negative things. And scientific studies have shown that, when adults and parents view children negatively, they are much more likely to harm their children. This is especially the case when you view children as sinful or evil. When you view children as sinful or evil, you are more likely to misinterpret developmentally appropriate behavior as sinful or evil—and thus more likely to punish them for just being children.

Ultimately, I think what this language says about evangelical theology is that they do not value children as people. They see children as mission fields, as objects to convert rather than as people to be in relationship with. And in my mind, such thinking (and the theology underlying it) is antichrist. By that, I mean that it directly contradicts what Jesus said about children.

Listen to the whole podcast episode here!