19th February 2017
Violent Child Abuse
Genesis 2:9, 16-17; 3:1-7, 14-19
As a child, and like many children, I really enjoyed fairy tales. My favourite was Cinderella, but many others too, such as Hansel & Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood. But fairy tales are definitely not for children; they were never intended for children and have become very sanitised over time to match the cotton wool existence we want our children to have, devoid of any horribleness in life, anything remotely resembling evil; and that natural propensity to protect our children from every possible ill, but is that at the expense of teaching them about real life? That real life isn’t all fluffy; it involves tough stuff, and boundaries, choices and making judgements and necessarily discipline. Fairy stories are borne out of folklore and legends by the likes of Baroness d’Aulnoy, Giovanni Straparola, Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson, who were incidentally all Christians. And so the question arises as to what sort of parent would subject their children to any sort of harm or abuse, such as taking them into the woods and leaving them there to fend for themselves, or sending their innocent little girl through dangerous woods to take treats to grandma? They contain some really grim child abuse but are also full of hidden meanings and metaphor and morals; so for instance Red Riding Hood is about obedience, and also about predators of women and young girls, and a few other things depending on the variation and translation. Stories are how we communicate something, and fairy stories communicate something deeply spiritual. They take us to a place where something deep within connects with a world of suffering, toil and sorrow, and mingles with the ashes of the dead, as well as gloriously happy outcomes. They are a journey through the world with its trials and tribulations, they involve transformation, and they describe the purpose of life; they are a union between the soul and the divine, and combine the mortal with the immortal.
Which brings us to this alleged fairy tale about Adam and Eve. If only Adam had not taken a bite of that dreaded apple, nor Eve for that matter, human beings might still be wonderfully innocent and blissfully immortal, at least in theory anyway. This emphasised narrative of the human race in Genesis sets the scene for its failure, and the first discipline and punishment for wrongdoing and overstepping the boundaries which God had lovingly put in place out of his care for the humans he had created. Although not immediate, Adam was sentenced to inevitable death. To touch or eat from the tree of life is a paradox in itself because it meant certain death. The tree of good and evil by definition symbolises having a conscience, awareness and morals, and knowledge which necessarily involves developing some sort of moral compass. The freedom which Adam exercised sealed his future, or lack of it. Death by its very nature therefore is both our enemy and our destiny, the limits of sin and death being an integral part of our human existence. God gets exasperated with us humans, and with our human hearts, because evil subtly and insidiously slithers in, with a cunningness like the serpent.
But Jesus turns this around in his selfless act of complete obedience and devotion, not only to the Father, but to each person; to make atonement for us in other words. God reconciled the world to himself through Jesus. An example of violent child abuse? Let’s see.
At face value this evening’s subject seems like a contradiction in terms. The very notion of child abuse conjures up a scene which in itself is an obscene and abhorrent evil by any standard, reflecting the depths of depravity to which our human nature is capable of reaching; and that’s just it, our human nature. Abuse of any kind, by its very nature is violent. And yet the very term child abuse is very open to definitions of varying degrees. Take Dawkins for instance, who along with referring to God as an ‘intelligent knob-twiddler’ who randomly interferes with the rules he himself has put in place, has recently asserted that to teach or bring up a child in any faith is child abuse because it can cause more lasting damage than sexual abuse. This proclamation has its roots in the perversion of Biblical teaching; that misinterpretation of what scripture says and interpretation of what scripture doesn’t say. People have held all sorts of beliefs through the generations, knowingly or unknowingly contrary to scripture, and often been inculcated without proper understanding. They have then used this against people of other faiths, other denominations, other traditions. This is why there is such a huge responsibility on not just ministers and pastors, but all Christians to share the real truth of the Bible, the truth of God’s love which invites all people into both a personal and a corporate relationship with him through Jesus Christ.
But why would anyone want any sort of relationship with a God who is portrayed as both violent and non-violent; bipolar and schizophrenic even?
I, quite flippantly and maybe too often, talk about God forever changing His mind in the Old Testament; people do bad things and turn away from Him, and then He says ‘oh I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna do that, I’m gonna send this disease, and that plague, and the people say ‘oh sorry sorry sorry’ and turn back to Him, and He says ‘aww, ok then, its fine, we’re good’. So the God of the Old Testament is seen as wreaking vengeance and punishment, whereas the God of the New Testament is a God of mercy, forgiveness and redemption. That is, apart from the book of Revelation, which uses a great deal of metaphor to build a picture of an unprecedented cataclysmic eschatological cosmic violence at some point in the future, even greater than anything which has gone before. But actually God is not a violent psychopath; this concept comes from trying to understand God in our human terms and in doing so we try to humanise him.
So when we talk of divine child abuse, or cosmic child abuse, it is referring to God the Father sending his Son, Jesus, to the Cross. But why did God send his only son into the world, knowing what lay ahead, that he would endure rejection, suffering, torture and ultimately be killed in a horrific way? Some lines of thought say that God was just trying to appease himself, to make himself feel better. But why did he need to, he’s God? In sending his son, he was actually sending himself; when we accept that Jesus was God, the Word incarnate, being fully human and fully divine, then God sent himself to pay the penalty for our sins and reconcile the world to himself. Why? Because of his love for the whole human race. For God, this was the only way atonement could happen. Gregory of Nyssa said that ‘All that the Father is, we see revealed in the Son’. This is what is known as atonement. So God uses himself as the most superior scapegoat possible, as atonement, becoming ‘the lamb of God’, the third party.
Steve Chalke, a British Baptist Minister, coined the term ‘cosmic child abuse’ in describing what some see as God getting his ‘ounce of flesh’ through the blood sacrifice of his Son, whilst telling us to forgive and then not doing the same himself. In fact this is what Chalke said in his book The Lost Message of Jesus: “The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse – a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement ‘God is love’. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’ own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil.” (Steve Chalke and Alan Mann, The Lost Message of Jesus [Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2003] pp.182-183)
On the contrary, what God did in and through Jesus is the greatest act of self-sacrifice and mercy in the history of the whole world; the ultimate act of forgiveness.
A favourite Biblical quote of mine is one which I share with many people. There’s a wonderful piece of music about it called ‘God so loved the world’ from John Stainer’s Crucifixion. The piece is based on a verse from John’s Gospel; ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’ (Jn 3:16) And the story doesn’t end there. This amazing story of Jesus Christ includes his glorious resurrection, and the key part of what was actually happening in 1st century Israel and penetrates the whole of time, whatever we perceive time to be. This is the most profound demonstration that God is God and even Satan cannot and will not be the one who ultimately emerges victorious. Revelation tells us that his time is short; his fate at the end of time is to be annihilated himself. In the Eschaton, God will finally redeem the world and make it as it should have been in the first place. Revelation is full of metaphorical imagery which paints a picture and promise for the future of the world, and although also described in violent and abusive terms, actually reveals something more about the nature of evil rather than the goodness and love which is God. The Bible needs to be taken as a whole, and through standing back and seeing the bigger narrative, we understand more about God’s love for his creation and the ultimate sacrifice he was prepared to make for the love of each one of us.