Family life is unruly. And I’m not just talking about the teenager’s bedroom, I’m referring to the reality that shit happens, from the inconveniences of delayed flights on family vacations to life-altering blows of divorce, depression, or death.
There is within us a human impulse to try to contain the chaos, to explain and control events of our life in a way that makes sense and brings comfort. Fundamentalist families provide this by prescribing life into a system of hierarchy:
God over parents,
Husband over wife,
Parents over children.
The truth is this kind of Christian family structure is not very Christian at all, because the way of Christ is to subvert authorities and not establish power over the vulnerable.
But my goal here is not to provide a theological critique against Christian parenting dogma, but to look deeper into the underlying anxieties of Christian parents. I believe, with the exception of extreme and fringe people, most parents love our children with the most beautiful, selfless kind of love. So when Christian parents arrange their family life according to the fundamentalist hierarchy, they are not only responding to church teaching, but more poignantly, they are trying to love their children the best they know how: keep them safe under the protection of God’s divine laws.
Here’s the terribly hard news, even if we do our best to raise our children with the most godly love, we cannot prevent suffering and pain. There exists this most unspeakable tragedy of pediatric cancer. And car accidents. And addiction. And broken hearts. And lost dreams.
Fundamentalism delivers a false promise, that if we only live according to some moral guidance and prescribed lifestyle, we will be fine and our children will be fine. But they will not and we will not. Life will never fit neatly into the categories of hierarchy and blessing, just rewards and fair consequences, if A then B. If Christian parents insist upon confining their children’s rich human experience into carefully crafted categorical boxes, they deny their children the capacity to live beyond those borders.
We aren’t designed to live according to script. To be sure, in cultures all over the world, children are raised to conform to community expectations of family, school, and religion. But we also have within us a spirit of adventure and interrogation—the capacity to look from beyond those expectations and exceed them. This is why cultural rules shift and evolve over time, because we are resilient beings who constantly push against status quo. Religion turns into bad religion when it is used to maintain status quo, and an abuse against children who are kept from bucking against the rules.It is scary to admit to ourselves the truth that we know, that as parents we cannot keep our children from suffering, that they will not be fine. But here’s the thing, ‘fine’ is such a low bar for our children. We don’t want our children to be fine, we want them to grow, to thrive, to go wide into the adventures the world has to offer and deep into the human experience.
As the wise Glennon Doyle says,
“We try to protect our children from the one thing that will make them the people we want them to be. We want to protect them from pain. We become experts in avoiding the fire, but we ought to raise citizens who run into the fire.”
Christian parents, shit happens sooner or later to our kids. Don’t try to prevent it or to control it. Because in doing so, you run the risk of heaping shame on your children for thinking they strayed beyond the rules and is to be blamed for their pain. In over-explaining life’s hardships, we limit the vocabulary with which our children can learn to express their authentic experiences. Give them the dignity of surviving hard times with grit, resilience, and beauty. Each experience of suffering has the potential to give them the courage to run towards the fire. And no, this is not to toughen them up or to make them fire-proof, but to shape them into people who has felt the flick of the flames, and know they must stop at nothing to rescue those who are still burning.
Bad religion sets up hierarchies, good religion equalizes the family structure.
Bad religion controls, good religion rescues.
Bad religion pretends our children are fine, good religion embraces the reality of pain.
Bad religion explains life’s complexities, good religion lives into life’s unpredictabilities.
When the storm of life comes upon our family lives, will we send our children below the decks into their safe compartments and theologize over why the winds are howling and when the waves will calm? Or will we raise children who know storms are part of life and be above board to confront the terrible beauty of the world and do their best to ensure everyone finds a lifeboat?
We are stronger when we struggle together as equal, participating members of a family. We are more alive when we face the inevitable realities of life’s pain.
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