Original Innocence? Children, Race, and the Kingdom of God

One of the highlights of my summer and early fall  has been regular trips to the neighborhood park, with our two-year old daughter, Ella.

Just yesterday, she had a great time playing with her best friend at the park, Sharlene (Ella calls her “Sha-Lee”). Sharlene is a fun,

credit © 2012 Mike Baird , Flickr (Wylio)

African-American girl who lives a few blocks from us. A few years older than Ella, she can be found most days at the park, playing and making friends. She was the first friend that Ella made all by herself. Her other friends have been “introduced,” by us–children of our adult friends and colleagues. Yesterday, when we left the park, as Ella and Sharlene hugged and blew kisses, a few thoughts went through my mind.

In my Protestant, Baptist context, we hear a great deal about “original sin.” Childhood is often held up as the prime time for selfishness, anger, narcissism, thoughtlessness. I remember a seminary professor once suggesting that God was merciful to keep children small, because if they were large, they would destroy the earth and everything in it–crying all the while. A bit like “Planet of the Apes” gone mad. There are other more obvious (biological) reasons for children being small, but we can leave that for another day.

The ease with which Ella and Sharlene made fast friends and the lack of any sense of social awkwardness or hesitancy, even as they mingled across their families and their own sets of friends, struck me as a powerful counterpoint to the Protestant emphasis on original sin and “total depravity.” (Now don’t get me wrong–we see evidences of that too, on occasion). But it also struck me as an object lesson. Why does it seem so much more difficult for us adults? Why does it seem so hard to move beyond the racist, prejudice impulses that run so deep within us–if buried under a veneer of cordiality and niceties?

It then occurred to me that it won’t always be so easy. As they grow up and are socialized in their various segments of life, voices will chime in from all corners. Some will tell them that it shouldn’t be so easy. Whether at school, at play, or perhaps even at church, at some point they will be confronted with a message which tells them it’s better–simpler–and less troublesome to stick closest to those who look like them, talk like them, and dress like them. That’s a message they will hear. It won’t be nearly as explicit or as institutionalized as it once was. It will be subtle, but it will be there, nonetheless. It will be built into the system somewhere, at some point. And the message will attempt to socialize them in accordance with its values of separation and division in relation to difference, inequality and privilege.

Neither of them will be growing up in Eden. The world they are entering is post-Fall. Sin is pervasive. Satan is lurking. It chills me now even to write those words. But it’s true. It’s also very likely true that Ella will have an easier trek. Knowing just a little of Sharlene’s home life, it’s safe to say that more obstacles will stand in her way. More voices will tell her certain things can’t be done. That certain things can’t be accomplished. That certain opportunities aren’t available to her. It’s sad to write those words, but it feels too true to leave unsaid. These inequalities will compound the challenge of relationships–not just across “racial” bounds, but socio-economic ones as well.

In Genesis 3, what tradition calls the “Fall” story, Adam and Eve take of the fruit of the” tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” They want to be like God, knowing good from evil. I wonder if that’s something of an ironic phrase. What’s wrong with knowing good from evil? Aren’t we supposed to seek wisdom? To do what is right rather than what is wrong? Perhaps the “knowledge of good and evil,” at least that which Adam and Eve grabbed after, isn’t true knowledge at all–but pseudo-knowledge? The sense that we think we know good from evil, when we really don’t. We think we’ve carved up the world just right: into the pure and impure, the good and the bad, what’s possible and what’s not. And so we operate on the basis of that pseudo-knowledge, and on that basis we structure society, pass on culture, and shape our relational lives.

Perhaps the job of the church is, in large part, to spurn that pseudo-knowledge and instead, to “have the mind of Christ,” living on that basis, as “communities of obedience” (Walter Brueggemann) in the light of our advent hope.

Maybe for just a moment–or even for a season–we could mute the voices of our politicians, our intellectuals, our church leaders, and listen to our children.

And Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt 19:14)





About Kyle Roberts
  • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

    Perhaps it’s not innocence so much as it is the fact that children are outsiders to our culture. I used to go every year to a Summer camp for children with disabilities. I attended well into my teen years. The camp attracted people from all over southern California, so it was a mix of ethnic groups and cultures. I don’t remember even a hint of racism. This was not because we were innocent (I almost got kicked out of camp one year). I think it had more to do with being outsiders. Green, in his commentary on Luke, suggests that this is what Jesus might mean as he directs us to children. That makes a lot of sense.

    • Kyle Roberts

      Craig, thanks for your comment. Green’s point about being outsiders makes sense. But wouldn’t you say that’s a kind of innocence? That is, if you haven’t been socialized into the sinful structures of racism, because you are an outsider to them, then you–at least on that issue–possess a kind of innocence, do you not? I take it this is the sort of thing Bonhoeffer was saying about the “Fall” in his Ethics, by the way.

      • http://craigvick.wordpress.com Craig Vick

        Perhaps, especially in the case of children. The example from my own past, however, is one where I had been socialized into sinful structures. Sadly, I knew racism in my home environment but not at camp. It didn’t seem to matter at camp. We were all outsiders which perhaps gave us a different perspective on our differences.

        I wonder how Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on the “Fall” compare to Levinas’ thoughts on the third party.

  • Robert Hagedorn

    Yes, original innocence. Google First Scandal. When you get there, go to the top of the page and click on “Welcome University…” Please note: this website you reach will be deleted on November 1, 2012.

  • jerry lynch

    In 1976, I took my daughter to a privately owned husing project in the Bronx: I grew up there and it was an Eden for children at that time. Ah, but integration had happened since then. She came running back to me after making a new friend on the monkey bars; such a beautiful things to do for kids, a great gift. She was very excited and, I guess, proud of this feat, although pride, at her age, misses the mark of her feelings. It was just good.
    Four times I gave limiting descriptors of who her new friend might be until I was left with the only black child there. A detail she failed to note, even when pressed by me to be as specific as possible. I cried. “Father, let me have such eyes,” I begged.

    Is there a way to maintain such an Eden, without turning a blind eye or leveling mortal-commands?

    The pseudo-knowledge you describe is intrinsic to every soul. We see things as we are, not as they are. Recognizing this intrinsic brokenness only works for the humble; the rest will make as they see what you should see and give your heart

  • jerry lynch

    Pardon me. Many of the struggles of those brought up in various faiths (denominations and sects amd cults) give ground to the ultimate fact they are broken, without hope, recource, or future. In plain words, dead to the world. Few, and that is highly predictable to say, have even approxiamated Sha-Lin’s reign as PeaceMaker. Peace is good up to a point, and then choas needs encouragement.

  • jerry lynch

    I feel you are right to question the efficacy of “knowing good from evil.” It was a frobidden fruit back then, and now it is systemic.

    “Perhaps the “knowledge of good and evil,” at least that which Adam and Eve grabbed after, isn’t true knowledge at all–but pseudo-knowledge? The sense that we think we know good from evil, when we really don’t. We think we’ve carved up the world just right: into the pure and impure, the good and the bad, what’s possible and what’s not. And so we operate on the basis of that pseudo-knowledge, and on that basis we structure society, pass on culture, and shape our relational lives.”

    There has not been a human in all of our histroy that did not always act for good; it is impossible to do otherwise. The knowledge of good and evil, enticed by the Father of Lies to obtain, is a sincere delusion. We cannot personalize either truth or goodness. There is absolutely no need to think or believe that we act for good or justice. If we take it that our whole purpose (knowing that this is how we are judged) is to be of maximum service to “the least of these,” evil is doing less than that command. Any and all good we do is not within our ability to discern, strength to achieve, or intent to find merit. Love is meant to dominate Reason, action, and purpose. This love is totally unconcerned with morality, having as its only focus to serve.

    The one purpose of the New Testament and of all Bible Study is to find a sure a path to this love. God is love. Does he ponder right from wrong, good from evil? He is wholly good, choiceless. Love is the same.

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