Centering Children: The Hermeneutics of Child Liberation Theology

Like all liberation theologies, child liberation theology places the subjects of liberation—children—at the center of the hermeneutical process. Child liberation theologians must read biblical narratives with an eye towards children: (1) towards childrens’ roles in any given narrative, (2) towards their marginalization from narratives, (3) towards what childless narratives contribute to the general theme of children, and (4) what implications any given narrative has for our praxis here and now with regards to child liberation.  I will look at each of these four categories individually.

I also include the idea of child protection in each of these categories, as I believe child protection is both a fundamental aspect of, as well as a key mechanism for achieving, child liberation. As suggested by Brazilian liberation theologian Hugo Assmann, the social context of marginalized individuals should be a point of departure for exegesis. “The text is our situation,” Assmann writes in Theology for a Nomad Church. This idea is also found in mujerista theology. Cuban-American theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz writes in Mujerista Theology how, “Experience and our struggle for survival, not the Bible, are the source of our theology and the starting point for how we should interpret, appropriate, and use the Bible.” As a survivor of child abuse, child protection is my personal starting point and point of departure.

This does not mean, of course, that child liberation theology—or any other liberation theology—is not interested in objectivity. It is simply a reminder that all theologies proceed from personal experience. As feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether argues in Sexism and God-Talk, “There has been a tendency to treat this principle of ‘experience’ as unique to feminist theology (or, perhaps to liberation theologies) and to see it as distant from ‘objective’ sources of truth of classical theologies. This seems to be an misunderstanding of the experimental base of all theological reflection. What have been called the objective sources of theology, Scripture and tradition, are themselves codified collective human experience.”

Children’s Narrative Roles

Children play many roles within biblical narratives. They are responsible for much good in the Bible: for example, the prophetic critique of Miriam, the bravery of Samuel, and the faith of Naaman’s slave girl. Children are also responsible for much evil: consider the sibling abuse perpetuated by Cain against his brother Abel, the money-lust of the servant boy Gehazi, and the spoiled children of Eli.

Often times these stories about children are relegated to “children’s bibles” and flannel graph, theological sources considered beneath adults. But these stories are just as much a part of the Bible as stories featuring adults. The starting point for child liberation theology, then, is to seek out, study, and value every story about children within the Bible, no matter how small. Just as there are abundant resources for scholars wanting to study every mention of women in the Bible, we should have abundant resources concerning every mention of children in the Bible. Child liberation theologians must work to bring such conversations to the table at every possible occasion.

Children’s Marginalization from Narratives

While children play many roles within biblical narratives, these roles are often anonymous or peripheral. Take the example of Naaman’s slave girl, whose prophetic witness to Naaman regarding the prophet Elisha sets in motion all of the events of 2 Kings 5—the end result of which impacts international politics. The child appears only once, in the beginning of the story. Then she immediately vanishes and the adult men take over as per usual. She also remains nameless, faceless. Despite being the most important figure in the narrative, she is marginalized from it.

A key responsibility of child liberation theology is to liberate children from the margins of biblical narratives. Instead of glossing over a child’s role in a given passage, child liberation theology demands that the child be brought to the forefront of the story. This parallels Jesuit liberation theologian Juan Luis Segundo’s hermeneutics of suspicion, in which traditional interpretations of the Bible are challenged in order to lift up people from the margins of those interpretations.

Child liberation theology also employs a hermeneutics of suspicion. Child liberation theologian Janet Pais writes in Suffer the Children that the theology “assert[s] the right…to question basic assumptions of traditional interpretation that may result from and perpetuate oppressive systems. In relation to children, such assumptions might be called ‘adultist.'”

Additionally, just as feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests a hermeneutics of suspicion ought to be applied not only to the text but also to the social conditions from which the text arose, child liberation theology demands that we give full consideration to both the child’s role in each narrative as well as the social conditions surrounding that child. We must make that child the priority in how we exegete the passage in every way possible.

The Theme of Children

There are many biblical narratives that do not involve children yet have significant implications for how Christians should consider the theme of children. In fact, the heart of child liberation theology suggests that all biblical messages have implications for how Christians should consider the theme of children. Our ideas about free will, about the nature of sin, about how justification and salvation work—if ideas like these are not relevant to children, if they are not discussed in a way that includes children and their perspectives, then they are insufficient, exclusionary, and adultist. This parallels the sentiment of Black liberation theologian James H. Cone in Black Power and Black Theology, where he writes that, “Black Theology is not prepared to discuss the doctrine of God, man, Christ, Church, Holy Spirit—the whole spectrum of Christian theology—without making each doctrine an analysis of the emancipation of black people.”

In similar fashion, we need to weave the theme of children in and out of all of our theological ideas. And we need to consider every biblical narrative, whether it involves specific children or not, with a view towards children and their perspectives.

Child Liberative Praxis

Child liberation theology, like any other liberation theology, is not authentic if it only considers the subjects of liberation in the abstract. Any theology—even a liberation theology—that remains abstract is irrelevant to our contemporary situation. Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez declares in his conclusion to A Theology of Liberation, “All the political theologies, the theologies of hope, of revolution, and liberation, are not worth one act of genuine solidarity with exploited social classes. They are not worth one act of faith, love, and hope, committed—in one way or another—in active participation to liberate humankind from everything that dehumanizes it.”

Liberation theology necessitates that theology is grounded, embodied, concerned with the transformation of our world into the Kingdom of God. For the Kingdom of God is at hand, just as Jesus decreed.

Child liberation theology, therefore, must be wholly concerned with—must be entirely oriented towards—the transformation of our adultist world into a world that loves and respects children. Into a world that, like Jesus did, places children in the center of our conversations and says, “Let the little children come to me and forbid them not.” If our theologizing does not lead to the liberation and protection of children, then we are “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead” (Matthew 23:27). In Matthew 18:6, Jesus said, “These little ones believe in me. It would be best for the person who causes one of them to lose faith to be drowned in the sea with a millstone hung around his neck.”

Rational or impressive as our adult theologies may be, if they are hurting children, Jesus cares little for them. He would rather such theologies sink to the bottom of the ocean. Instead, we need theologies that liberate, that bring faith, that breathe life into our world, most especially our children. Theologies that lift up children and value them and fight on their behalf, empowering children to unfold into their own beautiful selves.

Through the centering of children’s narrative roles, children’s marginalization from narratives, the biblical themes regarding children, and a view towards praxis, child liberation theology can move forward in a grounded way.

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