To Whom Do Our Children Belong?

MSNBC Host Melissa Harris-Perry recently stirred an accidental (or, intentional, depending on your perspective) firestorm. Before I answer this post’s question from my own perspective, these are perhaps the most controversial of Ms. Harris-Perry’s words…

…we’ve always had a private notion of children, your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our children. So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.

belongAs I have read literally dozens of articles and comments about her statements, the vitriol seems to be focused on one word… belong. Having shared their vantage point for so long, I believe that I can credibly say that I know from whence the anger and outrage comes. It really is more than this, but I think it starts with a misunderstanding of definition.

The image on the right is a screenshot taken from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Clearly there are varying uses of the verb form of the word “belong”. My opinion is that the gross overreaction of some has come because of a deep belief that Ms. Harris-Perry was using definition 2a, when in fact, I believe she was using 2b.

For many Christians that lean right and would call themselves conservatives (though not the “moral majority” they once were), I believe this fundamental difference of opinion is fleshed out far beyond this case. There is a local church here in metro Atlanta that I will use as an example of what I’m talking about. They are big and, as such, an easy target; but I think they are reflective of a pervasive mindset that detrimentally exists at the core of many who call themselves Christian. I don’t really know exactly how many people call this church home… I would guess several thousand. They own a ginormous piece of land that is set back from a major thoroughfare. They have programs for every imaginable age-group and staff to facilitate such an approach. They are known for their beautiful buildings and landscaping and especially their almost-cinematic sign that is constantly scrolling all the news of the coming days in multi-colored splendor. At the bottom of one of those spectacular pages is a small sign that is easy to miss at 55 miles-an-hour. It simply reads, “public welcome”. These are the 2a (and maybe 2c) Christians.

communityThe 2b definition is not about ownership as much as it is about mutual responsibility. It is about community. You may not have liked Ms. Harris-Perry’s assessment about our individualized culture, but you can hardly (honestly and intelligently) deny it. Especially as Christians we have become masters of isolationism. We have created an entire sub-culture that has everything you need. From music to softball leagues. Dating sites to bookstores. You really need never set foot in a heathen establishment of any type again. But this is not the way of Jesus. He operated in stark contrast to the sanitized lives that we have scoured “clean” and then set up as the truest version of what it means to be Christian. Read Luke 13. These are all stories of Jesus’ interactions with procedures and peoples that were outside the scope of the “established religious thought”. My favorite is in verses 20-21…

He also asked, “What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”

You cannot effectively impact something you refuse to be known as a part of. Think you are already doing this well enough? How many people who are not just like you (especially spiritually) would call you their friend? A better question: what does any of this have to do with the original question… To whom do our children belong?” I will forego the urge to poke theological holes in arguments that they belong (in your 2a understanding) to parents. And I will even avoid the question itself because the answer to these misunderstandings of definition will answer it for you.

Especially as a follower of Jesus, I dare you to search the Scriptures, to hear the heart and observe the practices of Jesus and tell me that he preferred isolation to involvement. It is not possible. To borrow from one of my deceased heroes, Mike Yaconelli, Jesus practiced (and calls us to practice) messy spirituality. Get busy.

3 thoughts on “To Whom Do Our Children Belong?

  1. Nice post, and spot on. My only further comment is that when she said “your children”, it’s clear she did not mean how she views the children of those she was addressing, but rather how those she was addressing view the children in their communities.

  2. Rob,

    I would like to double like this. I was scared to read the post at first because I really didn’t want to have to disagree.

    When I first started reading the outrage over Ms. Harris-Perry’s promo, I immediately started investigating. Quite frankly, I dislike anyone thinking they should have more control over my daughter than her father and me (and God), but I also suspected what Ms. Perry had said was perhaps less in-your-face than what the talking heads were saying.

    Admittedly, direct quotations in print were a little unsettling but when I listened to the promo, I just couldn’t muster up any outrage. This is why it is so important when writing that we do a good job of conveying tone as well as content, but there was no reason for Ms. Perry to edit her speech to reflect how it might be described in print later by those with a very thin skin and an agenda.

    I am reminded of how people in my community vote down proposal after proposal to improve our elementary schools but will work for months rounding up donations of big screen TVs and Nintendo sets for an after prom party. These same people will work tirelessly to support the high school football team and the band. And then there are the ones who have long ago seen their kids graduate so they have no personal motivation to support the schools and don’t.

    This is the kind of belonging I understood the promo to mean; caring about kids because each one is important to society as a whole. They are the responsibility of the parents, yes, but each of us is also responsible to our neighbor whether it is to set a good example, teach the example, or to provide assistance including spiritual, civic and financial.

  3. Great post, Rob and a wonderful “dare”. I think it’s all too easy for people of privilege to take offense at this, because we do such a great job of being responsible (and it is such hard work, dang it!), that anger is directed towards others’ perceived irresponsibility; but again (it’s the gospel question to Jesus of who sinned to cause that man’s blindness, him or his parents?), perhaps this is precisely the context in which God’s glory might be shown, and thus witnessed. This is why I think you’re right to point out, that churches who do not claim and welcome collective ownership of their community cannot proclaim the gospel effectively, or at least not profoundly. But who am I kidding, I haven’t figured out how to do this well myself, I can barely take care of my own at this point. 🙂

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