Parenting is rarely straightforward–at least not for my wife and me.
Talking to my 10-year-old (twin) daughters about the Charleston shooting was no exception. I myself continue to reel from it all. I myself don’t begin to begin to understand it all.
But parental honesty–including saying, “That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer to that”–is (surprisingly?) most always well received.
What follows is an amalgamation of conversations that my wife and I have had with my kids over the past three days. They are a starting point (even as I re-read it, I’m realizing I have more I need to say–specifically, to confess). They are no more than the prayer-filled, feeble attempts of a white father and minister of a white, privileged Presbyterian church. As a father, I need help parenting my children in many ways, and I’ll take any help I can get.
I began by explaining to them the basics of what happened. I showed them them some pictures of the historic Charleston church (talking about the history a bit), the victims (with their names and families), and, yes, the suspect, who has now confessed. Sarah and I wanted the girls to see human faces. We showed them the moving video from the bail hearing of the family expressing words of mercy and forgiveness to Roof.
Amazingly enough, in our family devotions we have been going through the Ten Commandments, and on Wednesday night we had come to–yes–the 6th commandment:
“You shall not murder.”
So I leveraged that discussion:
“Let’s say that one of you did something mean to the other person,” I said, “and in response to that, the person who was hurt said, ‘Go to your room!’ Do you think that person would go to their room?”
They smiled, looked at each other, and said, “No way!”
“But what if your mom or I told you to go to your room, would you do it?”
“Yes. We would have to.”
“Why? What’s the difference?”
“Well, you and mom are, like, our parents; you totally have the right to make us do that.”
“Really?” I asked. “What right do your mom and I have to tell you to go to your room, or discipline you? That is, who gives us permission to do that?”
“That’s right. In fact, God gives parents permission; the big word for that is ‘authority.’ He gives this permission to parents, to governments (presidents, kings, judges and the like), and also to church leaders.
“Ok, so let’s say that I’m going to the store. And I park in a spot where you have a pay for parking, but I decide I’m not going to pay.”
“Dad! That’s not wise!”
“Oh I know! Then, while walking down the street, a person suddenly jumps out and says, “Give me all your money!” So, being really afraid and hoping they will leave, I give the person the $25 in my wallet, and they run off. I get back to my car, only to see a $25 parking ticket waiting for me. Now I’m scared and unhappy. So I decide to go to court and tell the judge what happened, the judge says, ‘Sorry, you still have to pay the parking ticket.’
“Imagine I said to the person who jumped me: ‘Who do you think you are, demanding that I give you $25?!’
“But now imagine I said the same thing to the judge: ‘Who do you think you are…?'”
The girls got it, and one of them said, “Dad!! The judge has the right to take your $25, because, you know, he’s the judge, and you broke the law; that’s the punishment–no offense! But the other person didn’t have the right to take your money at all.”
Then I said, “So only a judge (or jury) has the right to punish, because s/he has authority. A judge is someone who has permission to punish. Now tell me: what is the worst punishment you can imagine? What would be the most costly thing to lose?”
Lydia said, “Your life.”
“Right (more or less). And that’s what murder is: murder is when a person pretends that to have permission to judge another; it’s when we make ourselves judge and we punish another person with the worst punishment possible–death.
“Now why might someone do this? Or why would someone pretend to be the judge of someone else? Actually, we all do this at times, don’t we? We tend to judge people when we think we’re better than they are: we are up here, and they are down here.
“And, sadly, sometimes, when we see differences between us and them, we assume we’re better; it’s sort of like being on a team at recess: we always think that we are the ‘good guys,’ right?
“So we need to think about two really important (related) questions:
(1) Am I better than anyone else? Or, or “we” any better than “them”?
(2) If someone else is different from me (or “us”), is that bad?
“When we answer ‘Yes’ to those questions, we are judging. We are giving ourselves permission to judge and then to punish, if we see fit. We don’t know exactly why this young white man murdered the nine black persons. But we do know that he thought that they were different–because they were black–and that their difference was bad, very bad, and it seems he believed he thought he was better than they were.
“But here’s something really important that I want you to hear. Imagine I see someone who is somehow different from me (maybe their skin is a different color), and I very wrongly think, “Because that person is different, I must be better.” So I very deliberately choose to judge them and to see myself as better than they are, and I treat them that way. And then I have kids, and those kids grow up, and all they ever know is their father thinking he is better persons of a different color. And so they do the same, but they’re not really deliberately trying to do it; it’s just all they have ever known. Is what they’re doing still wrong?”
Rosemary said, “Yeah, of course.”
“Really? So we can be wrong, even if we don’t really feel like we meant to do anything wrong?”
Interestingly, the girls paused. Lydia said, “Well, what the children are doing is wrong, but it makes it harder when they’re just used to it, so they’re not really, you know, trying to do it.”
“And here’s what’s important to understand: just because they aren’t really trying to do it, that doesn’t make it any less hurtful to persons whose skin color is different. We all know that we can do wrong things with friends (like agreeing to cheat on a test), but the Bible says we can do wrong things not only with our friends but also with our fathers. Sort of like how money can be passed down from down from generation to generation, so there’s a sense in which if my parents did something wrong and I do nothing about it, I’m basically saying, ‘What my parents did was right.’ I can’t just say, ‘Well, I didn’t do that.’
“So we’ve talked about how people can often see differences in others and wrongly think that they themselves are better; they make themselves the judge of those who are different from them. But, girls, this is the very opposite of what God calls us to be.
“In fact, very early in the Old Testament, God makes it very clear to his people that probably the biggest reason He wants to help them is so that they might help people ‘different’ from them:
– in Genesis 12 God promises Abraham (well, his name was Abram then) that he will bless him, so that through him all other peoples of the earth might be helped; it is clear from the story that Abraham is no better than anybody else;
– in Exodus and Deuteronomy, God commands the Israelites to act with justice and mercy toward those who are ‘different’: the foreigners, fatherless, and widows who lived among them. Exodus 22.21 is a good example: ‘Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner among you, for you were foreigners in Egypt.’
“Girls, just how different were these foreigners from the Israelites?”
Rosemary piped up, “Well, not really at all. I mean, at some point, they were both foreigners.”
“Right. And why weren’t the Israelites still foreigners any more?”
Lydia said, “Only because of what God did for them.”
“That’s exactly right. That’s really, really, really important. In the New Testament Paul twice says that actually before God, between Jews and Gentiles–in fact, between any group of people–there really is no difference. Whatever diversity God has made–for example, distinctions in physical appearance–are good!!
“God actually loves diversity in his world in all kinds of ways. God in his goodness made diversity. But humans, in their sin, made ‘difference.’
“Okay, so one more story: Imagine you’re at recess, and you’re walking along the playground with three of your classmates. The four of you see a bully trip another kid. Your three classmates respond in three different ways:
(1) the first says, ‘Wow, that kid is such a bully; I would never do something like that’;
(2) the second says, ‘Who cares? It’s not my problem. Come on, let’s go do something else…’;
(3) the third says, ‘That was wrong, and I need to go help the kid who was tripped’;
Rosemary interjected, “The first is being judgmental; they think they’re like totally different.”
“Okay,” I said, “but what about the other two?”
Lydia said, “Well, saying, ‘I don’t care’ leaves the kid who was tripped all alone and hurting. So the third is best.”
“Okay, but isn’t the third being judgmental? Isn’t s/he also being judgmental or ‘intolerant’?”
Lydia answered, “Well, no, because the third person doesn’t see themselves as being any better than the bully–I think.”
“That’s exactly right. Now let’s say that none of the teachers saw this bully trip the kid. So the bully walks away, thinking, ‘Ha! I got away with that!!’ Did he really?”
Rosemary said, “Well, God saw it.”
“That’s right. And this is important: if God isn’t real, the bully really did get away with it. And the best you and your classmates can do is tell him your opinion. And the best the tripped kid can do is seek revenge. But if God is real, he sees and he remembers–everything. It’s like he writes it somewhere with permanent marker.
“In fact, the Bible says that God is never like the classmate who says, ‘Who cares?!’ He cares deeply, and he will remember; in fact, he must remember, because he is just and he is the Judge of all. Is that encouraging or discouraging?”
Rosemary said, “Well, it depends, I guess. If you’re the kid who was tripped, it’s really encouraging, but if you’re the bully, well, that can’t be good.”
“Right. But, of course, that’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus knows what it’s like to be tripped. In fact, Jesus knows even what it’s like to be murdered, just like the nine black persons were murdered (in fact, they are a lot like him: both were praying to God when they were murdered). Jesus was wronged in just about every way. But Jesus wasn’t only murdered. On the cross he died in the place of sinners, people who wrongly give themselves permission to judge others, to bully them and even to murder them.
“And the blood of Jesus does something unbelievable: it causes God to no longer remember; in fact, the Bible actually says that, because of Jesus’ death, if we confess our sin, God ‘will remember our sins and lawless acts no more.’ Isn’t that incredible? Jesus’ blood can actually erase what God wrote with a permanent marker.
“And once it’s erased, it’s gone forever. Pretty cool, huh? But remember: God helps His people–all who confess their sins and look to Jesus–so that they might help others, especially those who are supposedly ‘different’ from them. Girls, we’re no better than anyone else. We celebrate the diversity God has made; but we believe that before God there really is no difference.”
“I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” – Jeremiah 31.34 (see Heb. 10.17).
“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile– the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'” – Romans 10.12-13