~ Mark 9:30-37 ~
Like a continuing HBO or Netflix series, each episode of our story of Jesus builds on the episode from the week before. And with each episode we delve more deeply into the dramatic plot of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, along with his clueless band of disciples. In last week’s episode we were introduced to Jesus’ audacious agenda of going to Jerusalem to die. And with that agenda, Jesus’ discipleship of the cross in the ongoing work of confronting injustice in the world. Undergirding that agenda is the application of nonviolence as a basic tenant of following Jesus.
To such an idea we might shake our heads and say, “No way can that work.” Nonviolence is too impractical. You could get yourself killed. If it is hard for us to conceive of such an ethic, it would have been even more difficult for the first readers of Mark’s gospel. They were reading this story in the late 60’s of the first century right in the middle of a major war. They were literally facing death all around them. The Roman war machine was on the march throughout the land attempting to quash the Jewish Rebellion. A call was going out from Jerusalem to all the Jews of the land to take up arms against the imperialist Romans. War was a present reality. The choices readers of this gospel of Mark faced were literally life and death choices.
In this week’s episode we find Mark continuing to urge the early Christian community to resist the temptation to join the fray and heed the call to arms. Instead those first Christians are urged to continue to follow Jesus in the way of nonviolence.
Here we see Jesus reiterating the message from last week: He will be betrayed and killed. And of course as seems to be the case with each and every episode, the disciples do not understand. In emphasizing their lack of understanding, Mark is hoping that his readers will understand. Even as the disciples just don’t get it, Mark does want us to get it. And in the process learn to live out the ethic of nonviolence in our discipleship.
The weary band arrives in Capernaum, which has served as a home for Jesus. When they get to the house Jesus asks them a question: “What were you arguing about on the way?” It is ironic that as they walk along the way it is obvious that Jesus’ way is not the disciples’ way. The disciples are chagrined at Jesus’ question because they were arguing about who among them was the greatest. And so Jesus has them all sit down (whenever something important is about to be said Jesus has them sit down) and tries to explain again his agenda. In doing so he completely undermines their agenda of greatness and power. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” he says. To drive his point home Jesus picks up a little child (it seems that children were always present) and tells them: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Jesus tells his disciples that their agenda of being at the top with greatness and power really puts them at the bottom. In Jesus’ program, the small, defenseless child is really at the top. This child, he says, is the epitome of my kingdom agenda. In this dangerous, war-torn world children, who are most often the innocent recipients of violence, are what the kingdom of God is all about.
It seems that the world has always been a dangerous place for children. And certainly it was not well for children in first century Palestine. The picture is almost entirely negative. Children are ignored, exploited, abused, and killed. They get sick and die. In Mark’s world we see children mostly in harm’s way. Look how children are presented in the gospel. There is Jairus’ daughter sick to death; the Syrophoencian’s daughter with the unclean spirit; and the deaf and dumb son possessed by a demon. The world children lived in was very scary and dangerous.
The reason was quite simple. They were at the bottom. In a long list of hierarchical relationships based on power and domination, they were the last. Children were the most exploited of all groups. In Mark’s gospel we see the focus of Jesus’ concern — the impure, the poor, the gentiles, and women as representatives of those trampled on by societal powers. Well, children were trampled on the most.
And because of this, children become subjects of Jesus advocacy for his radical kingdom ideas. Because children are the last, they get special attention. In fact, this is a watershed event for understanding the nature of the kingdom of God.
I believe Jesus brings the children into the center of attention precisely because they are the least. For Jesus, the child is important, not because of some innate innocence or purity, but because they are the most vulnerable to the exploitation and violence they so often experience.
Unfortunately, the way this episode has been taught misses this point. Typically, the idea is that we adults need to come to Jesus as children, in innocence and purity. Then Jesus will accept us, we adults. But that is not what Jesus is saying here. He does not say to come to him “like” a child. He says welcome the child. Therein lays his kingdom.
So, Mark presents to us the core of Jesus kingdom values. Children are at the center of the kingdom; they embody what the kingdom is about. Why? Because they have no power, no dominion. Jesus’ radical non-violent kingdom, the way of the cross, is seen in the most exploited of society, the children.
To choose the kingdom of God is to choose the way of nonviolence, the abstention of power. Of course this is not easy and it calls for application in every area of life, small or big. As Gandhi put it, “If one does not practice nonviolence in one’s personal relations with others and hopes to use it in bigger affairs, one is vastly mistaken.” This means we must go to the very basic of societal units to weed out the structures of violence and exploitation. We must start with the family.
It is, unfortunately, in families that most children experience violence and exploitation. For ten years I was a child protection social worker in Denver. My job it was to investigate child abuse and neglect in families. I saw first hand the extensiveness to which children are subject to violence and exploitation in their own families. I heard lots of excuses for violence done to children.
There was the dad who said, “Hey, I was smacked around by my parents and I turned out OK.” This while being investigated for leaving numerous deep belt marks on the back of his six-year-old boy.
There was the 20-year-old single mom whose 2-year-old child was severely malnourished. Mom spent most of her time looking for crack cocaine and thus did not have the time or energy to care for her child.
There was the four-month-old baby with severe brain damage from being violently shaken by a parent because he would not stop crying.
There was the strict religious father who quoted the Bible in defense of beating his 12-year-old son because in his words, “Discipline is honoring to the Lord.”
One of the most compelling things I discovered was how trauma and violence affects the development of children. In 1993 I met Dr. Bruce Perry, an expert in brain development and children in crisis. He has pioneered the study of how trauma to children affects their brain development. He has found that at birth the human brain is undeveloped. Not all of the brain’s areas are organized and fully functional. It is during early childhood that the brain matures and the whole set of brain-related capabilities develop in sequential fashion. We crawl before we walk, we babble before we talk. The process of development of the brain is guided by experience; it modifies itself in response to experience. Neurons and synapses change in an activity-dependent fashion. This use-dependent brain activity is the key to understanding the impact of neglect and trauma on children. There are some areas of the brain that require certain experiences at critical times for healthy, normal brain development.
Dr. Perry learned that when a young child experiences significant or sustained trauma and/or significant neglect the likelihood of permanent brain damage is high. During a traumatic experience a child’s brain is in a state of fear-related activity. This brain activity leads to adaptive changes in emotional, behavioral, and cognitive functioning. These are called defense mechanisms. These defense mechanisms cause hyper vigilance, anxiety, and impulsivity. At the time of the trauma these mechanisms promote survival but become maladaptive after the trauma is over.
Dr. Perry had the unique experience of assisting the Texas social services department during the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Early in the siege 21 children were released and placed in the care of social services. For several weeks Dr. Perry was able to observe these children who had been so recently traumatized. He put remote heart and pulse monitors on the children. As Dr. Perry describes it, one day three of the children were watching TV in the living room. The doctor walked into the room and activated the remote monitors. Without any visible outward sign, the heart rates and pulses of all three children jumped dramatically, just because an adult had walked into the room. He later found that the children had a permanently higher than normal pulse rates and that the pulse would jump higher and faster than normal with any perceived threat. This is hyper vigilance. Since then, he has found an alarming pattern of fear-based brain activity in many abused and neglected children. Trauma to children is not just psychological. Often it causes permanent brain damage. This results in significant behavioral problems later in life.
In significant ways our society, as have all societies for centuries, practices violence because it is what we know best. It is what we learned as children. As the Wordsworth poem says, “The child is the father of the man.” Who I was as a child, with whatever dysfunctions I received from my parents and society, I live out today in my relationships with my own children. I don’t believe I am alone. It seems to be a universal phenomenon.
Jesus’ call to follow him in the way of the cross, in the way of nonviolence, is a call to arrest those tendencies in our own lives. It is a call to live out nonviolence with those who are closest to us, our families. If we can truly regard our children as persons worthy of respect and honor as we would respect and honor Jesus we will be far along on the way to living out Jesus’ agenda. If we can resist the temptation to think of children as the least, as not important, easily dismissed, then maybe we will not be tempted to treat them with violence and neglect. Maybe if we can look deep inside of ourselves we will realize that much of how we mistreat others, including our children, comes out of fear and violence learned many years ago when we were children.
And so I return to an oft-repeated theme. The key to addressing these issues is forgiveness. Forgiveness is God’s primary instrument for affecting the change his kingdom values call for. Forgiveness for the past in healing the hurts done by adults in our childhoods. Forgiveness for the present in dealing with our own children out of our own dysfunction. Forgiveness for the future for the hope of radical, new ways of relationship. Out of the forgiveness Christ brings us, we can truly welcome the child as Christ himself. Amen.