Editor’s Note: This guest blog piece by Matthijs Kronemeijer was written before the recent horrific anti-trans legislation was passed in Texas. This legislation accuses healthy loving parents and caregivers of trans children of child abuse for affirming trans children’s identities and trying to protect them from the disturbingly high suicide rates among trans folx. I hate the fact that I even have to write a note about how much it is NOT ABUSE to affirm children who don’t fit pre-existing gender norms, but here we are. At any rate, these legislative actions are the actual abuse. I hope you’ll keep that in mind as you read this insightful analysis of how the Gospel of Mark can be read as against abuse by church clergy—both child abuse and against all of our inner children.
Guest blog by Matthijs Kronemeijer
God’s family on earth often seems pretty broken and dysfunctional. It probably depends on your political perspective which examples come to mind first, but the abuse of children by members of the clergy should be very high on anyone’s list. Each church community, each so-called Christian country, has its own sad account to give of its failings. What Christian spirituality is robust enough to handle the shame and trauma that come from taking in the loss, grief and hurt afflicted on the innocent and defenseless by men who should have protected, educated, and stood up for them? In this piece I hope to point in that direction.
Millstones for Abusers?
As someone who studies the gospel of Mark regularly and attentively (I am an independent biblical scholar who leads a weekly Bible study), it was not hard for me to think of the sexual abuse crisis when I got to chapters 9 and 10. There we find Jesus’ description of what awaits those who cause his little ones – the children – to stumble and sin.
“It would be better for them if a large millstone was hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea” (9:42), Jesus said, more specifically.
Considering the Source…
We might just wonder: what did Mark already understand about the pitfalls of church life back when he wrote in the 1st century CE? Do we find in him an ally, a kindred spirit perhaps, or is that too much to ask? My view is yes, absolutely, but not in the way one might expect.
A Word of Caution
Before we explore this line of interpretation, taking a moment of caution seems wise. Speaking historically, we cannot know what exactly Mark had in mind when he wrote his gospel, and the community context can at best be a matter of careful reconstruction.
Letting the Words Speak Assertively
On the spiritual level, by contrast, we do not really need history. All that is needed for a spiritual reading is to allow these stories to speak to us directly. If we did, that would mean simply taking Jesus’ strong words at face value and letting them – letting him – speak to us. I find that direct reading pretty attractive, to be honest, but not everyone may be ready for it.
For Those Who Might Not Be Ready, or Who Want to Dig Deeper…
But perhaps there is more that can be said at the historical level. Whatever we may think of the Bible, or however much the New Testament has been misused in our pasts and in that of our communities, at one point in time Mark’s text was really new and fresh, even audacious and – in my reading – often funny.
Reading Back to the Original, as Much as Possible
And even if Mark set out to write the word of God for all time (which I highly doubt), his contemporaries Matthew and Luke and John all disagreed: they thought they could do better. Grander speeches and longer, more pithy anecdotes, more comical misunderstandings, more factual accuracy and better Greek.
If we read historically, we might find our way back to that initial energy, that founding moment in the Christian tradition, and find it – comforting, perhaps. So, here goes. What follows next will be best appreciated with an open Bible, if I may so invite the reader.
Let’s Definitely Not Blame the Abuse Victims!
Reading clergy sexual abuse – our 21st century reality – in Mark is by no means straightforward. The text of Mark 9:42 warns against causing harm to children, yes, but it specifically warns those who lead children “to stumble and sin”. The children who were abused by clergy did not sin themselves; they were innocent victims. The thought that they sinned, or were somehow responsible for their own sin, is abhorrent, whatever else may need to be said.
This Section of Mark as Written to Religious Leaders
Still, there are some arguments for reading this text against the light of clergy sex abuse. To begin with, this particular section of Mark’s gospel – it is often called the “road” section, 8:22–10:52 – is specifically addressed to church leadership. (Just to be fair, my studies indicate that Mark presents the Christian church as founded by Jesus himself and its leadership as instituted by Jesus, but many Bible scholars would probably disagree with this).
A Different Tone and Type of Content
In this section, the tone of the Gospel story has changed; the wonder and delight of the early stories in Mark – the many miraculous healings – is almost absent. This is where Jesus predicts his death on the cross, three times in fact, and his disciples are going to be the ones who have to take over from him. So they wonder about things like, who is in and who is out, how to handle difficult cases, and inevitably, who among us is the most important.
Well, there you have it.
Children as Highly Valuable in the Gospel
Mark 9 shows us that Jesus’s disciples look at things in a fundamentally wrong way. It’s really the child who is the most important. For it is in this section that we find two stories of Jesus welcoming and embracing children, 9:33–37 and 10:13–16.
Jesus Warning Against Messing with Children
These two stories are separated by a series of warnings, first of all the one I began with, and then it gets even more explicit. Since these warnings are sandwiched in between those stories of children, a connection, explicit or not, is more than likely. A deeper look at the literary features of Mark’s story will bear this out.
Looking Carefully at the Motifs in the Passages
Careful readers of Mark notice that some themes and motifs appear every so often. The fishing boat is one; the misunderstandings by Jesus’s disciples are another. There is the lake, the mountain, and now the road.
Another, less obvious, motif is that many stories are set in a house. In the particular case of 9:33–37 the story takes place in the same house in Capernaum where Jesus has drawn huge crowds before (2:1–12). The second story is also set in a house; the preceding story (10:10-12) bears this out.
And, as at least one commentator has remarked, Mark’s stories about the house often have a particular bearing on the internal matters of the church. So it is here.
Looking at the Theme of Family in Mark
Even more than in the matter of the “house”, Mark is particularly interested in the theme of the family. So much so that when Jesus first appears on the scene in 1:9, Mark holds back what he knows about Jesus’s earthly family until after God himself has proclaimed to Jesus, “You are my beloved son; in you I delight.”
My four-year-old daughter in her playing once pronounced that “Jesus is a girl today”. So according to her, we should probably read here, “You are my beloved daughter.”
Mark’s Concern with Healthy vs. Unhealthy Parenting
From chapter 3 onwards, Mark starts recounting stories of parents who act out of a strong concern for their children; there are at least four such stories. In between them, we find one example of criminally irresponsible parenting in 6:21–29, in the heart of King Herod’s royal family. (Editor’s Note: You’ll remember I talked about Assertiveness in the Time of Herods previously here.)
Child Abuse in Herod’s Family? Uh huh.
In this passage, Herod is portrayed as vacillating, rash, bombastic, weak, and ultimately deplorable, much as we might think of some contemporary politicians perhaps; his partner Herodias is a deadly schemer, probably modelled by Mark after Jezebel in 1 Kings 16.
And then there is this poor girl, probably around twelve, who is made to dance as a part of their scheme. If you wish: here you have Mark’s abuse victim, be she a little princess or not.
Mark’s Concern with the Healthy Care of Children
In sum, there is plenty to show that Mark has a strong interest in the family and particularly in children, and in the running of the church. It is no surprise then that these concerns of his kind of jump out in this “road” section, amidst all those weighty themes of true leadership, competence, power struggles, reward, suffering, defeat and glory.
These are the topics of the serious, dangerous, ambitious men-world in which the twelve struggling disciples must play a part.
(Notice in passing that the women in Mark appear to be brave, faithful and competent by themselves already; they do not need to be taught as much. Even Herodias, though wicked, is audacious and far more capable than Herod).
A Warning Against Child Abuse—But Not JUST That—Against Abuse of Us All
Is this enough to explain why we find Jesus embracing children in this part of Mark, and what about reading the text as a warning against child abuse? As to why Jesus promotes children, the text gives one reason, not explicitly but by demonstration, that points in a slightly different direction.
Children as Our Teachers?
It suggests that children can be our teachers. When Jesus sits down in Mark 9:35 and calls in a child, he assumes his role as a teacher (a teacher sent from God), since teachers sit while others stand. So by placing the child in the middle, he appoints the child a teacher as well.
This reading is supported and further developed by 10:14–15 in the second story, where we understand that children can be teachers of God’s kingdom. Participants in my Bible study believed that this is because they have a spontaneity that resists everything, including religion, that is fake or insincere. And that this attitude is what the kingdom requires.
All of Us as Children
And about the question of abuse? Well, speaking from the perspective of literature, the difficulty with that reading is that these stories are not just about children. It takes an extra bit of analytical work to bring that out, but Mark’s line of reasoning is in the end not super hard to follow.
It goes like this. These two stories are set in houses, which means they have special bearing on the church. The church, in Mark, is the place where God’s kingdom becomes manifest. In 10:14–15 he tells us that only people who approach and receive the kingdom as children (leaving behind status, dignity, ambition, etcetera) can enter the kingdom. So, if we are in the church as true members, we are in God’s kingdom, and by definition like … children.
I hate to give this point away, but there it is. These stories are not only about children, but about all of us, if we are Christians, however hesitant we may be. (“I believe, help my unbelief” exclaims a father in Mark 9:24). Everybody is welcome to be a child of God; to be included in Jesus’ embrace.
A Purposeful Mirroring?
This is kind of where the two stories about Jesus and children point in two different directions. They mirror each other, intentionally so I believe. If this is because they somehow really happened this way, or because Mark wrote them up like this does not ultimately matter much.
The first story places the child in the center and subverts existing (male) hierarchies; the second story places us all on the same level as children of God.
Reparenting Our Inner Children into a Hopefully Healthier Family?
A quick aside here. From my own experience in psychotherapy I remember the “little people” – plastic toy puppets, the kind my daughter plays with and that tricked by wife in believing she had her keys in her pocket just the other day.
My therapist used these puppets to map intergenerational family patterns, to help me understand how my adult self should come to the assistance of my wounded self, and how the unmet needs of my parents would influence their behavior.
She explained that our inner child with unmet needs from the past still persists in trying to satisfy those needs, even though the time for that is long gone. Our grown-up self needs to support and embrace our past self.
Time to Embrace and Care for Our Own Inner Children
The reason I bring this up is that because learning from Mark about children can also go two ways. If we are still in the phase of hurt and seeking healing, there is not much more that needs to be said. If we are ready to trust our whole integrated selves and reach out beyond, there is some more distance to travel.
Really about Any Kind of Abuse of All of Us, Including Spiritual Abuse
With that, back to the text. If Mark’s story is really about all of us, that means it is about anyone who has been hurt or damaged in the name of the Christian faith while those in authority did nothing. Jesus’ terrible warning applies to church leadership across the board. And it is also written for the benefit of anyone who has been hurt.
Mark’s Also of Course Against Abuse of Children by This Point, Obviously
In fairness to Mark, by the time he gets to chapters 9–10 his standard of Christian excellence and leadership is really pretty high. We do not need him to tell us that abusing children is wrong and a terrible crime. If we had a chance to ask him directly if he meant that, he’d tell us to get a grip, since that should be obvious to anyone who as a sense of morals, law, and decency.
If on the other hand we told him that somehow our political and Christian leadership failed and let children be abused on a massive scale, he’d probably roll his eyes, sigh, cry, and point back to his chapter 3.
Time for All of Us to Learn from the Child Abuse Crisis
So now, how do we learn from children? Well, it seems that the first thing in order is to learn as much as we can from the child abuse crisis. That is perhaps a very grown-up response but there is no way around it.
So we should ask, how did the Christian churches allow themselves to be so perverted? Speaking from the context of Canada, where the residential schools make the news many times a year, that question carries a specific urgency. It is unfortunately also a deeply political matter, which would require a discussion of its own.
Learning What Children Need—and Reminding Us What Our Inner Children Need Too
How else can we learn from children? Perhaps Mark meant something like this. It is in the nature of parents to want what is best for their children and to try to create the best possible world for them. But quite often they lose their focus and fail, perhaps especially men, for whatever predictable reason. Mark suggests to me (following Jesus) that we all need some of this natural dedication of parents to their children’s future.
We need to learn from children what they need, that in our pursuit of whatever kingdom or calling we aspire to. And we need play, (appropriate) kisses, busy hands, colorful artwork, embraces, and blessings, all those things children are particularly good at.
Learning from Youth Leaders Like Greta and Malala
And moving on from there, we need a bit more of the spirit of children as Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg – now young adults already. We can learn from them too, what made them who they are and what do we owe their generation, even if we will not always agree with them.
Staying Accountable to Treating Children Well, as Though They Were Christ
There is both warning and hope in Mark’s message. Even someone carrying a millstone around their neck can be rescued from the sea. On this journey with Jesus there is no turning back: leadership will always be needed. There is no alternative to persisting and shouldering whatever burden comes to us. Jesus is this girl, this boy we are accountable to today.
May Those Who Have Ears to Hear Keep Them to the Ground
The sad fact is that the child abuse scandal in the church is by no means the only failure of the Christian family. And just as this scandal took years and years to come to light, who knows what the present turmoil is hiding.
We would be deceiving ourselves if we looked only at past failures of God’s earthly family and ignored the more present ones for which our generation must bear responsibility. Once the noise subsides, and the smoke finally clears, they are going to be seriously tough to deal with.
But let no one in the church say they hadn’t been warned. By Mark, among others.
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