“Do you love yourself?”
That was the question posed to me by my three year old nephew, Leo, who was standing on a small chair in a small kitchen in a small town in the American south. It was early in the morning and he was still wearing pajamas and bedhead. There was no one else around and no one listening from a distance. It was just us. The question came after he declared his own love for me, for Wren, for Uncle Zachary, for mommy, for daddy, for brother Oscar and sister Fern; and then seemingly out of nowhere this question, “do you love yourself.” In the moment, I found myself taken aback and yet he was unfazed. He was expectant. I mustered up my best, “Of course I love myself!” and then quickly deflected, “and I love you too!” What is it that gives a white three year old the unabashed will to consider ones love for oneself? What is it that makes a white adult do an emotional double-take at the notion of self-love? Where in our upbringing does self-love get stamped out? I can remember several times throughout my childhood when someone told me not to love myself. I was told that Jesus wanted us to love each other, but was never told that Jesus cared if I loved myself. It wasn’t until well into adulthood that I heard Jesus telling us that children are the point of entry for our consideration of the cycle of oppression in our society and that the liberation of children is the very conception of how we can even begin to think about liberation on an adult level.
During my time in seminary I have studied biblical history, church history, theological discourse, and practices of ritualistic tradition. In these studies I have felt a hole in my learning and it leads me to ask the question, where are the children in all of this? In reading James Cone’s “God of the Oppressed” and “The Spirituals and the Blues,” I see the oppression of children as an important distinction to make in the discussion of liberation. It is my experience that children, who are constantly asked to squelch and edit their open-ended interactions with the world, are the most oppressed population group in our society and are in need of a liberation extended from their racial or economic liberation which categorizes them over-assumptively alongside adults in those respective groups. It is through this lens that I engage liberation and it is where I focus my life’s work and energy.
Cone’s “God of the Oppressed” is a story about story. “Story is the history of individuals coming together in the struggle to shape life according to commonly held values.” (93) This statement brings to mind the stories of black children who have been murdered at the hands of police officers and gun-toting, trigger-bragging private citizens. When I read the news and hear of these events, I am always struck that it is not more clear that these people were children. Michael Brown was a child, Trayvon Martin was a child, Tamir Rice was a child. What can we hear in the stories of these children? What is the point of entry for the struggle of a black child and the story that brings us together to shape life? These children are the utmost example of the idea that black children can expect their lives to matter the least to our greater society. It is through the theology of liberation that we can understand the stories of these children’s murders are the stories of abuse and oppression and ultimately, in our Christian context: sin.
The Jesus story that we are told clarifies that children are the beginning of our journey with Christ. This is due to the simple fact that Jesus’ life began as a child. Our invitation to a relationship with Christ is a story that begins with a humble human birth, a refugee at the mercy of the bravery of his parents, a mischievous prophet, pulling away from his parents, and ultimately a young adult murdered by a system that couldn’t handle the unpredictability of a wandering miracle-worker. This is also our hangup with children. When white authority figures see black children, they see something unpredictable, wild, and ultimately dangerous. That is why it was so conceivable for cops to see an assault rifle in the hands of Tamir Rice instead of a plastic toy. That is why we beat children into behavioral submission. Children are mysterious and unsettling, just like Jesus.
Jesus is a black child.
This is an addendum to Cone’s assertion that “Jesus is black.” (122) If Jesus is a black child, then the liberation of children is difficult and different from Cone’s black theology as it has to come from adults but be led by a theology that children determine. This is a difficult notion given the requirement that a theology must come out of one’s current and past experience, according to Cone. This is bad news for adults. Cone makes it clear that the liberation of the oppressed is bad news for the oppressor. Adults have made it very easy in our society to keep children out of liberation because it would mean that we would have to contend with our own self-hate and the stories of our own abuse in order to reconcile the abuse that we impose on children in our current context. Additionally, it is our need for order that drives white adults to suppress the free expression of children. The liberation of children is bad news because it means we will need to adhere our lives to the real needs of children – not just to feed and to clothe, but to engage emotionally, educate profoundly, and listen silently. I have a memory of my third grade teacher, upon hearing a black child talking loudly in the hallway, complaining to my entire class of twenty seven white and three black third graders, “That is the loudest child in this school.” That is oppression not only of the child in the hallway, but of the children who hear that announcement and are thus taught, don’t be a loud child, don’t be a black child, but above all, don’t be loud and black child.
Have you ever heard a child sing the song, “This Little Light of Mine?” I was once told not to ask children to sing this song in church (that’s a white church) because it had “too much emotion tied up in it.” Meaning that adults would not be able to handle the emotion in the permission to be free and uninhibited to let my light shine. But hearing children sing this line is a window into how children engage spirituals and the blues. This song is a declaration of something that we want to believe but that children are told is true without question. We give it to children as a tool for understanding Jesus and I also believe it is a tool for understanding ourselves as Jesus wanted to us understand ourselves. Jesus is the Light – Jesus, the black child’s light is the black child. The black child’s light is Jesus. Cone describes the black church as a place where black people go to be without the bounds of white society. It is a place of freedom and reverence that can’t be replicated or taught. (22) Cone says in “The Spirituals and the Blues” that, “Everything they did was a valiant attempt to define the structure and meaning of blackness – so that their children and their children’s children would be a little ‘freer’ than they were.” (2) This is where a distinction of children’s oppression must be addressed. It is in the white church that I understand white children to experience a unique form of oppression. My experience growing up in a white protestant church was that children were to be quiet, cute, and attentive. Restricted. The white protestant church is where I learned that God didn’t like wriggling, gum smacking, or questions. It was where I learned that God would love me if I told the truth and sang sweetly. It was where I was first told there was a condition to being loved. It was where I forgot to love myself. This, in my experience, is one of the sources of the oppression that white people pose on everyone else. Our own silencing as children in the presence of and for the approval from the Holy Spirit compels us to retaliate and silence everyone else. The song, “Jesus Loves Me” is a direct departure from that oppression as is “This Little Light of Mine.” Dr. Cone has told us of a moment when he “took off his mask” and revealed his true self as a black person. My mask-shedding moment happened when I was standing with a group of children whom I would later lead in singing a sweet song in front of the congregation during morning worship. We were waiting to be seated and the children were lively and energized. In that moment, I ignored the request of my boss and told the children to sing “This Little Light of Mine” as loud as they wanted. It was one of the biggest scandals of my short time at FPCNYC and remains one of my proudest moments.
In “God of the Oppressed,” James Cone speaks of liberation as a truth which is not to be, “discovered in a theology or philosophy textbook.” (223) When I stood there and listened to my nephew recite his love for others and ask about my love for myself, I heard a truth. Non-academic, unstudied, uncriticized, truth. I saw who Jesus was, is, and shall be. The freedom and liberation of a child is a struggle with the mysterious but familiar, the past and the future. We were all children but childhood is but a memory, thus a mystery wrapped in something we are supposed to understand because we experienced it. This is Jesus and this is what makes the liberation of children a complicated notion. Children are the oppressed of the oppressed, the first therefore the last therefore the first, the crucified with pearl-clutching callousness, the protesters, the truth-seekers, the Divine who shouts expectantly, “Do you love yourself?”
Cone, James H. God of the oppressed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis , 2000. Print.
Cone, James H. The spirituals and the blues: an interpretation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis , 2000. Print.
Artist credit - Qi He, Jesus in the Temple