He called a child, whom he put among them,and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”—Matthew 18:2–3 NRSV
Somewhere in our history as modern Westerners, we conjured up the sentimental notion that children are our future, and we began to emphasize the moral act of investing in our children. Their inherent value, we decided, is in what they will become, so long as their becoming is molded according to the proper principles. All of our present work of education, parenting, formation, and discipline has become a means of training them for a future that collectively we have deemed significant.
That said, we—if there really is a we—have essentially agreed to disagree on the specifics of this utilitarian formation. The narrative structure of late modernity is a choose-your-own-adventure; authoritative narratives cannot stand in this day of unprecedented autonomy. It’s a world where all of time, history, and meaning literally sits in our pockets, a cultural inversion where who we are carries no weight in the face of what we each want to be. This is the dominant narration of the good life in America.
What this perspective gets right is its understanding of the inherent political nature of childhood. Children are embedded in a tapestry of communal relations, and those relations help give shape to a society. However, characterizing children as citizens in development reflects an implicit cultural bias that is best summed up using the medieval English proverb that “children must be seen and not heard.”1 It is a perspective that skews our understanding of both the nature of childhood and the role of citizens and communities in regard to the construction of a common life in this age of dynamic social and cultural pluralism.
Crucially, the church must wrestle with how to engage theologically with the notion that children are the future. Such questioning, which must push beyond mere political theory, is critical if the church is to remain intelligible in the world as a community constituted in the way of Jesus. My main concern here, then, is to consider the role that children play in forming a people and, specifically, the people of God. Beyond sentimentality, entertainment at holiday gatherings, and opportunities for ecclesial part-time job creation, what do children have to contribute to the church’s common life together and, consequently, to God’s mission in the world?
My wife, Bethany, and I are in the midst of an adventure: we are raising six children as part of a shared life among the Englewood Christian Church community on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Most practically, this means that we live in close proximity to other members of the community as we seek together to become formed in the way and character of Jesus.2 We like to talk about “being church” rather than “doing church,” and we see the church as a tangible expression of the people of God. We believe that means that we are to be committed to one another in this place and concerned with the real-world affairs of our neighbors. Many of these neighbors are fellow members of our ecclesial body, and others are people who are moving through this world with very different means and ends in mind. These convictions are what move us, sometimes literally, to buy houses and live together in the Englewood neighborhood. We belong to one another, and we hope our common life serves as a wafting fragrance of the future reign of God. This requires us to seek discernment and wisdom so that we may navigate the obstacles to forging a common life with those we relate to and, often more importantly, those we do not.
This, I believe, is evidence that we are striving to be a political community. As Luke Bretherton has said, riffing on Stanley Hauerwas, “the church does not have a political theology, it is a political theology,” and that is what I observe in our daily life at Englewood.3 For some, my use of the word political here may conjure imagery of patriotism, nationalism, partisan politics, politicking, power, or war. And many of us have been devastated by political statecraft or the bureaucracies of church politics. However, my personal hope is that the church can be the kind of people who dare to reimagine politics as a moral good. Namely, I pray that we can be a political community, one in which individuals possess the virtues and wisdom by which to nonviolently engage with other individuals about what it looks like to establish a common life together. This may sound secular or utopian, yet it is exactly how the church has historically understood its mission as the people of God in the world.
Take God’s words to the exiled people of Israel as a clear biblical example of this call to be a political community:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jer. 29:5–7 NRSV)
Jesus puts this much more succinctly, telling his disciples, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44). In short, we cannot talk practically and realistically about Jesus and the church without talking about the nature and the structure of the church’s life together in the midst of others. We cannot talk theologically without also talking politically. However, Jesus’s mandate subverts our tendencies as a political body to operate out of overtly politicized relations.
So what about children? What then is the nature of the child as a political subject in the church and in society? As parents raising children in a Christian community, my wife and I have thought through these questions at length, and we are concerned not merely with our church’s childcare, Sunday school, and choir performances. These details matter, yet if our normative engagement with children within the church is reduced to educational philosophies, religious platitudes, and spiritual techniques, it is very likely that we have not sufficiently reckoned with Jesus’s invitation to change and become like them. Instead, we must wrestle with the particulars of their character and social location that made Jesus identify children as model citizens in the life of God’s kingdom, for with his deceptively simple invitation, Jesus has refashioned the role of children in political community, blessing them to demonstrate the irregular shape of political agency in God’s inverted society.
Borders, identity, tribalism, othering, power dynamics—these are part and parcel of what it means to be an adult citizen of the broad political community in the world. Although we may sometimes see these tendencies in children (as either reflections of moral malformation in their authority figures or as a sign of a lack in nurturing and care), a kingdom characterized by the citizenship of children looks much different. Children, by nature and nurture, are subject to the authoritative rule of parents and other adults. They are dependent upon others for learning, shelter, nourishment, and love, and because of this dependency, they are more vulnerable to abuses by those in authority. From a theological perspective, it’s this very powerlessness and social marginalization that aligns children with the posture of a pilgrim-citizen of the kingdom of God. Biblical characters like Joseph, Daniel, Esther, and ultimately Jesus are paradigmatic of the political posture of the people of God: a diasporic dependence on a dominant host culture.4
Children therefore suggest a healthy, albeit interdependent and immature, democratic politics. Their flourishing is contingent on the flourishing of the community that surrounds them. Adolescents and young adults, as well as all those who find themselves in social locations of vulnerability, frailty, mutuality, and dependence—persons with intellectual disabilities, returning citizens, immigrants, or refugees—must learn to acquire the practical wisdom, discernment, and maturity to navigate a life shared in common with dominant strangers and enemies. Such people typically do not possess the political agency to create a flourishing society for themselves. Their inherent marginalization requires that they must put their lives in the hands of others, which uniquely positions them to demonstrate a somewhat passive (if not passed-over) contribution to the established political order, one that requires virtues of obedience, submission, critical thinking, and moral maturation and judgment if their growth is to be nurtured as citizens of a healthy society.
However, our contemporary adult political economies eschew a politics of dependence or disability. There is no place for the pilgrim-citizen in the halls of power, so we separate the private (oikos) from the public (polis), relegating and reducing children merely to membership in nuclear families and home life (i.e., the oikos). We mask their moral character and remove their voices from the polis, stripping them of their political agency. In contrast, a political theology of the childlike kingdom locates its king within these very margins of society. In the gospel narratives, it’s these societal margins where we find Jesus, healing a leper (Matt. 8:1–4), engaging the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11), and being touched by the “ceremonially unclean” woman (Luke 8:43–48). Indeed, for the kingdom of God, the personal is political—and vice versa!
Children unveil for us the truest liberality of being human. They show us that our mutual dependency and our vulnerabilities are not an aberration in the journey of autonomous self-actualization but a part of the authentic meeting, engagement, and dialogue that is necessary for the constructive flourishing of a public life shared in common. The vulnerability of children in public that makes parents so fearful (e.g., stranger danger) is actually the demonstration of an asset-based relational mode of conduct that assumes the best in others, carrying within it a mysterious capacity to disarm. If only we could imagine a world that is truly characterized by such trust, openness, and sincerity and the ways in which these virtues could engender political stability.
Thankfully, children do not find themselves in a set-apart piece of land, like what’s depicted in Lord of the Flies, for instance. If they did, perhaps they would suffer the same fate as the characters in that novel—power struggle, murder, and environmental destruction. Likewise, by way of God’s apocalyptic wisdom, the socially marginalized children of the heavenly Father find themselves exiled among societies, cultures, and political communities that are not their own. Nevertheless, it is inherent in our Christian citizenship to be at once set apart, though not in a manner that is tribal or territorial but in a way that seeks the welfare and flourishing of the various morally contrasting communities in which we find ourselves. As it turns out, loving our enemies is not simply a situational ethic; it’s a core marker of citizenship in the kingdom of God, and one that we learn as children. This king provides for all, citizen and stranger, in equal measure, and each engages the other in a mutually beneficial way. Who is the citizen, and who is the stranger? Where and when? I’ve never met a child who could sustain a relationship of pure enmity.
Children make sense of this world through stories. And it’s no wonder: Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and others have taught that moral and political communities are inherently shaped by narrative.5 Coherent social bodies are storied entities; the reason for their being together is for a particular end or goal, and their common convictions and practices move them together toward that end. The common purpose of a community constitutes its very being. Hence, if the church is a real political community, then kingdom citizenship is inherently a particular kind of embodied narrative. The theological word for this reality is incarnational, and in this manner, children can operate as a sign for us. Their presence is simple, immediate, and tactile—“Keep your hands to yourself!” and “Look with your eyes, not your hands!” are the standard refrains of frazzled parents.
Without proper rooting in a story, children’s lives drift into meaninglessness. To illustrate this, MacIntyre writes the following:
It is through hearing stories about wicked stepmothers, lost children, good but misguided kings, wolves that suckle twin boys, youngest sons who receive no inheritance but must make their own way in the world and eldest sons who waste their inheritance on riotous living and go into exile to live with the swine, that children learn or mislearn both what a child and a parent is, what the cast of characters may be in the drama into which they have been born and what the ways of the world are. Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words. Hence there is no way to give us an understanding of any society, including our own, except through the stock of stories which constitute its initial dramatic resources.6
Likewise, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, the story of citizenship in God’s kingdom is not made of ideals and “wish dreams” but real people in real places with real presence.7 In other words, incarnational stories shape the social and moral nature of children. So if you want your children’s attention, tell them a story. If you want them to experience love and belonging, live into a story they can relate to.
Storytelling as a means of preserving communal and institutional memory is a political gesture that roots communities in their collective identity and orients a people among others with whom they may share a common life. This can take the form of historical narrative, as in the recounting of stories of resistance among marginalized people groups, or in the form of allegory, parable, and myth making, where people construct collective meaning and shared language through the use of narrative. These stories reflect the cultural settings that they originate from (e.g., agricultural traditions, polytheistic cultures, or nomadic journeys). This form of political storytelling includes fables, folktales, epics, and wisdom tales. Sometimes stories have elements of both forms, but just because stories may or may not be factual does not mean that they aren’t true—that is, they may play a very real role in constructing cultural, moral, and aesthetic meaning among political communities. Throughout history, all of these forms of storytelling have been used to constitute people groups, and the more people lose the ability to tell their stories, the more they will lose their actual identities. Again, the practice of the child in telling and receiving stories is key to the sustainability of societal health.
In conclusion, with regard to a political theory of children, the social location, societal posture, and humbled approach are everything. Theologically speaking, if becoming a child is synonymous with citizenship in the kingdom of God, if membership in what we call church is an inherently political identity, and if we do not have theological language to describe our faith in terms that aren’t political, then it is necessary for us to deeply reckon with what is meant by becoming a child and what the nature of such a citizenship is. Dependence, vulnerable trust, a tactile directness, and comprehension through stories are all exemplary markers of the ways in which children functionally contribute to the development of virtuous political community.
When Jesus took a child in the midst of his disciples and told them that unless they change and become like children they could not enter the kingdom of heaven, he was not sentimentalizing over a universal notion of childhood, nor was he imagining a politics of inherent innocence. Rather, he was making a statement about the nature of his kingdom and the particular way that children contribute to the formation of a shared life within it. Jesus correlates the character of children with humility, and the political outgrowth of this disposition presents us with a community that does life in stark contrast to the competing political ideologies, affinities, and power dynamics typically at work in our pluralistic society.
- This turn of phrase, perhaps even more horrifically, was initially aimed at young women, who were instructed not to speak in the presence of adult men. Its scope was, over time, expanded to include all children.
- For the most comprehensive reading of our life together, see the three volumes authored by my close friend, neighbor, and coworker, Chris Smith: Smith and John Pattison, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012); Smith, Reading for the Common Good: How Books Help our Churches and Neighborhoods Flourish (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016); and Smith, How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2019).
- Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019), 401. Also, see Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2004), 99.
- For an excellent overview of how diasporic Judaism serves as a very helpful corrective to the dominant supersessionist theology of N. T. Wright, see Douglas Harink, Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2013). His treatment aligns with and undergirds the political ecclesiology I outline here.
- My absolute favorite essay by Hauerwas is “A Story-Formed Community: Reflections on Watership Down,” in A Community of Character (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 9–35, which analyzes the narrative structure of political communities.
- MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame Press, 2015), 216.
- See Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, trans. John W. Doberstein (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1954).