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Christianity and Children

By Dr. Marlene Winell ~

Christianity as a whole takes a dim view of children.  This is not unusual for the Abrahamic religions but Christianity takes it further.   We can benefit from understanding this because 1) our own Christian training can unconsciously impact the way we treat children, 2) our indoctrination can affect the way we view and treat ourselves in the most basic ways, and 3) many people in our culture are impacted by Biblical views of children. 

You may object if you have images of Jesus with children in his lap, protecting them and teaching them.  But that was a Sunday School picture, and not exactly in the Bible.  Jesus words were to allow the children to come to him, for of such were the kingdom of heaven (humble, compliant).  

Children in the Bible are most often objects to be owned, controlled, used, and discarded when a problem.  They are important for lineage, not for themselves.  They are often not mentioned at all and sometimes slaughtered wholesale.  Human sacrifice in the Bible happens multiple times, and always with a child.

One of the most horrific stories of the Bible is the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice Isaac.  He complies (God intervenes), and the story reports no controversy or anguish whatever.  God is pleased with Abraham’s obedience.  In church we were also taught to be impressed with this obedience – not concerned about Isaac’s therapy bill or how Sarah felt.

In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot offers his daughters to the visitors to rape – again objects to simply use.  God still considers Lot righteous and saves him and his family. 

Jephthah was a military man who promised God that if he was victorious in battle, he would return home and sacrifice to the Lord the first person who greeted him.  It was his daughter, and did he change his mind?  No, she was the thing to sacrifice – just part of a deal.

Many people consider the Ten Commandments to be a superior moral guide.  Yet there is no mention of children at all.  There is no prohibition for child abuse (or for rape).  But parents get full billing with the fourth commandment, “Honor thy father and mother, that thy days may be long on the earth.”  Not only are you to respect your parents but you get a special reward for doing so (the only commandment with an extra inducement).   This commandment is a central tenet of Christian parenting that can lead to authoritarian methods and abuse.

The God of the Bible, Jehovah, uses authoritarian and sometimes arbitrary methods to deal with people, including children.   In the flood of Noah’s time, there was no effort to spare innocent children.  In Egypt, God “hardened” Pharoah’s heart so he could show his power, and this culminated in slaughtering many thousands of Egyptian babies.    The genocides in Canaan included every man, woman, and child, sometimes explicitly  (See I Samual 15:3 about the Amalakites).  Referring to Israel’s enemies, the psalmist gloated, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” (Psalm 137:9).

These are not the directives of the Geneva Convention or the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.    They are a far cry from humanistic ideals for parenting or treatment of children.    A humanistic view of children is one of innocence.  In contrast, a biblical view is one of original sin, even teaching children that they are bad.   A goal in humanistic parenting is personal growth and creativity. The primary goal for Christian parents is obedience, illustrated by the verse,  “Children obey your parents in the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1), a verse that goes on to tell slaves to obey their masters.    Guidance for humanistic parents involves a variety of nonviolent methods while a biblical approach is still “spare the rod and spoil the child.”   A humanist sees a child as a full and unique human being, not an empty vessel, blank slate, or animal to be trained.  Unfortunately the devout parent takes to heart the verse, “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). A humanist parent respects knowledge of child development while a religious approach is limited to the Bible.

Christianity as a whole takes a dim view of children.
In the Christian view, God is a father to be revered and obeyed.   (The worship of Mary has been a way of bringing a feminine element into the religion however).  He has unquestioned authority and humans can be treated as He sees fit, as in the case of the biblical Job.  “He is the potter, we are the clay.”  As such, His people are childish forever.  They do not take care of themselves but depend on him. 

Believers live in awe of the ultimate example of child sacrifice – that of God sacrificing his own son.  Somehow, to be acceptable, they must admit guilt, accept atonement, and be grateful.  Then, because a perfect life is impossible, a cycle of guilt and repentance follows indefinitely.   This video illustrates the many Christian slogans that reveal a child-like stance and degraded self-worth.  

As the holiday season nears, another image comes up – that of the nativity family.  But why would a benevolent god require the innocent virgin Mary, a child herself,  to travel while heavily pregnant and then give birth in a shed?  How about the welfare of the baby?  Or was he also just a tool?  There are many questions that could be asked.  Because the stories of the Bible are so familiar we often don't notice how inhuman they are.  Even Jesus was quoted to say on the cross, like a hurt abandoned child, “Why has thou forsaken me?”  

Looking inward, we can ask about our own dynamics.  Has our own development stopped or slowed because of our indoctrination?   Are we still childlike in our guilt and looking for outward guidance?  Or have we developed a healthy inner adult that takes care of a happy healthy inner child?  These are viable constructs that describe aspects of personality.  The “adult” is the wise, caring part of self that can negotiate with the world and be rational in negotiating needs.  The “child” is the innocent, emotional spontaneous part of self that is most in touch with basic needs.  Ideally they relate and communicate with each other, much like a real relationship, and this can be learned.  The adult self can "reparent" the child self with ongoing nurturance.

The brain understands because the human brain works well with symbols, images, and metaphor better than words.    As a person learns to self-care this way, the hurts of the past can actually heal, and new ways of functioning can develop. Even neuroscience supports these ideas.  Self-love is not wrong or out of reach.  In real life, one can honor the child within and children all around.   The cruel legacy of religion does not have to dominate.  We can reclaim our natural, instinctual way of relating – with love, generosity, and compassion.


*Marlene Winell, Ph.D., psychologist, is the director at Journey Free, a place for recovering from religious harm

**More information and exercises on the subject of healing and personal growth after religion will be covered at the upcoming RETREAT in Berkeley, CA, January 15-18, 2016; Information: journeyfree.org.


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