Posted by: rogermitchell | January 4, 2012

Ecclesia as counterpolitical activism as it relates to children

Big thanks to those who have made such thought provoking comments on the last post on the ecclesia as counterpolitical activism on behalf of the creation. I have made some further important points there which I hope will carry the discussion forward into practical action, and that further discussion will continue there to that end. But I also want to press on with the ecclesia’s responsibility towards children and this post moves onto that.

All gospel activism is birthed in hope because everything about the ecclesia starts with resurrection. Transcendence has embraced the immanence of childhood, become that most vulnerable of life forms, a human embryo, then a helpless baby, and as if that wasn’t enough, a homeless infant in peril for his life, driven from his homeland by a merciless puppet ruler of a dominating empire. Divinity in all its fullness growing up through childhood and youth to reveal a character of unqualified love and freely donated forgiveness in the face of unrestrained hate, ignorance and rejection by the powers who ultimately pursued him to death. But a death that could not hold him. He rose from the dead an indestructible new creation, and gave the gift of his Holy Spirit to all humanity as the first fruits of this. As Paul so clearly saw, this is basic to being the people of God and the good news stands or falls on it. “If Christ is not raised … we are of all men most miserable” (1Co 15:17-19).

The ecclesia consists of those who believe this testimony to be true. So it follows, as I see it, that there is hope for every child on the planet, both the born and the embryonic. I take it to be the task of the renewed ecclesia to act out of this kind of love towards children at every level, from the micro to the macro. In other words, the following three corollaries apply:
i) On a personal level; to respond to every child we are connected with from this same transcendent resource by making the same kind of identification and commitment.
ii) Where we have responsibilities on the wider level to use our influence to place and keep practical love for children and young people at the heart of policy and strategy.
iii) To mobilise together with all those currently working to expose and overcome childhood injustice, abuse, and poverty of body or spirit, wherever it takes us and whatever opposition we face in so doing.

From the point of view of rhetoric, many Christians might well seem to assent to all this. But for the repositioned ecclesia this is not a matter of rhetoric or mere assent. Thank God there already are less, and will be even fewer, opportunities for empty well-meaning rhetoric in the increasing decomposition of the western world. So I am not producing on-line rhetoric here but underlining these priorities as the defining character of the ecclesia from now on. It is this agenda that is to shape our identity and qualify our reputation and character. As Malachi puts it, this is how people will know us. “So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him” (Mal 3:18).


  1. Recently I read an article about a new book out that looks at the effects of stress (prenatal and post) and trauma on children. Beyond the obvious ones during childhood there is a large and growing body of evidence that childhood stress (poverty, hunger, abusive home life) creates long term and serious adult health issues. In other words, if we want the future generations to live good, healthy, long lives, we need to address their situation both in the womb and in early childhood. This would mean excellent prenatal care for women, employment with right compensation, day care, maternity leaves, paternity leaves, excellent education especially in the early years, provisions for families under financial stress, accessible and affordable (single payer?) health care for all. Unfortunately, the church has often only focused on anti-abortion crusades and failed to care at all for children once they are born. In fact, there is an increasingly strong anti-contraception movement in the USA. Voters in one state just voted down a proposed person-hood law that would have banned all abortions and most forms of contraception. Over the years there has been lots of energy poured into managing women’s reproductive choices but much less into the quality of life of children and teens.

    Of course the huge elephant in the room for all young people today is climate change. The continual degradation of the environment from loss of diversity, ocean acidification, toxins in land, air and water means a loss of life quality for many in the future. If we care about kids we have to care about creation.

    But all this leads me to the question of how do we know when we have achieved our aims. Does banning all abortions create the conditions necessary for healthy children? Does allowing continued free market fluctuations driven by the huge, ravonous personal greed of a few lead to stable families? Joan Walsh on today has a response to Republican presidential candidate Santorum’s extremely conservative social issues driven politics that points out that it was many liberal policy moves that created the possibility for stable, healthy families since the 1900’s in the USA. I agree with her. But I am concerned about results and measures. There is a UN life quality index that measures things that impact the well-being of children and their mothers, things like health care, infant mortality, maternal mortality, education etc. Seems to me it isn’t difficult to find the policies that support the well-being of the next and future generations though such policies might challenge some ingrained thinking.

  2. Just to reaffirm that the contemporary West is birthed in and continues to be a partnership of church and empire. So it’s not surprising that politics which are rooted in this inform both the left and right of the Western system. The ecclesia is at by nature at odds with this. This is what counterpolitical means. Nevertheless we are positioned in the midst of the system to empty out its power for the blessing of the future generations and the creation which is their inheritance. So help us Holy Spirit!

  3. I have been committed to loving and influencing children as recipients of grace all my adult life, as parent, teacher and community leader/volunteer. However, what gospel action with respect to children might involve in the light of a fresh understanding of kenarchic grace and under the shadow of empire today needs some unpacking. How do we, as individuals, ecclesia and society, practically put divine love for children into action? In what ways does empire impinge upon natural, wholesome child development? What are we doing so wrong today that has brought about the perennial dislocation, dissolution and disenfranchisement of so many of our young people – especially in the UK? And maybe most importantly, what special childhood qualities are such key kingdom components that Jesus in unequivocal in asserting their importance?

    In discussing this, I’m leaving the creation/environmental aspect to Cheryl who knows much more about this than myself, but I do appreciate and very much concur with what she has recently posted…..

    Sometimes the obvious needs stating, so I shall do so now. Children are us, and so if we live under the constraints of empire then that influence starts where we start – in the womb – and works its pernicious domination from the moment we enter the wide world around us. If there is anything in the Jesuit maxim: ‘Give me the child for seven years, and I’ll show you the man’, we should be very attentive to the effect of empire on childhood (actually, another Jesuit quote – ‘Give me the child and I will mould the man’ – smacks of imperial conditioning!) Not to put too fine a point on it, I believe that to address the issue of children and the Kingdom is to get to the heart of the Kingdom in more ways than we ordinarily consider.

    It is always fascinating to see how science so often catches up belatedly on self-evident truth and adds its own insights. Though not a scientific treatise as such, I highly commend Sue Gerhardt’s ‘Why Love Matters’ to anyone interested in child development and attachment theory (though I must come clean. I only dipped in, my wife read it, and we discussed it: that’s how it often works in our household!). Gerhardt starts from the science that the development of the synapses in the brain in the early life of a new-born child is determined by the quality of the love received, ie. the love directly affects physical development. So intriguingly, we can evidence the direct effect of something as abstract as love on our natural human tissue. Conversely, lack of love stultifies this natural cellular connectivity, and – as in much of child development – a developmental stage once lost can often not be recouped, ie. the synaptic connections missed can sometimes never be reconfigured. We can see this most dramatically in the accounts of Romanian orphanages when their plight was newsworthy (I wonder where they are now?). But what about when babies and infants are left for long hours in professional care – where the quality of ‘love’ will be questionable (compared to intimate parental love), and the ratio of care of adult to child is inadequate? Or young children left for long stints in front of screens (and there-in lies another matter of concern)? Issues raised by this absence of healthy physical development are very practical: maternal/paternal love vis-à-vis professional care; maternity/paternity leave and support; work-life balance; parenting and care support; early nurture intervention, etc. I would argue these are all ecclesia issues and get right to the heart of recovering, ie. redeeming, humanity and creating wholesome, Christ-centric community in the world.

    I hesitate to move on to education because it could be to open the proverbial can of worms. But suffice to say that educational systems in most modern Western democracies were founded on platonic thinking and always, always the needs of empire. But the modern systems we are familiar with are most clearly predicated on the factory systems of the industrial revolution. If I can indulge: my favourite speaker on this area is without doubt so-called educational guru Sir Ken Robinson. If you have not come across this RSAnimate talk-with-visuals by him before, here’s a treat:

    On a positive note with respect to education, there are opportunities (as well as the sheer follies) to be found in much of the reformations that are happening well nigh everywhere in national education systems. They usually don’t address the radical question of what kind of system we need going forward, but they often allow more room to manoeuvre than before – certainly in the UK and parts of Europe. If in sport you have got to be ‘in it to win it’, with schools you surely have to be in them to change them! There’s so much to be said on this subject, that I had better stop before I really get started, but suffice to say that education, from pre-school to university, has to be a key arena for kenarchic activity.

    Perhaps the key issue for me with respect to children, and the one I want to focus on, is the way that empire biopower mitigates against their wellbeing, and what we lose on the life-journey from birth to maturation. It seems to me that the famous encounter in the Gospels between Jesus and the group of children the disciples were shooing away from him, which concludes with Christ’s emphatic promotion of their example of Kingdom values, is often ‘dumbed down’ to mean: let’s be innocent, simple, uncomplicated and trusting, just like children are. While the simplicity and faith elements are important, I think Jesus had much more in mind and a far greater sight of both the potential and actual qualities of childlikeness in the development of redeemed humanity. This could be summarised in terms of such divine image-bearing qualities as creativity, imagination, initiative, innovation and risk-taking Each opens up its own discourse, but just to touch the surface:

    1. Taking the issue of creativity, which is so fundamental to divine activity, studies clearly show that all children are naturally creative, just as they are inquisitive and experimental. But the same studies also reveal how most children lose this natural propensity by the time they are adult, ie it is effectively educated out if them! Why? There might be other answers, but surely high on the list is the fact that empire needs conformity, predictability and compliance to prosper, and schools are (largely) tools of empire, with their narrow externally determined agenda (and often hierarchical structures). I would argue that ecclesia should be leading the way in encouraging creativity in the core of the school curriculum, as well as promoting and facilitating creativity (and scientific endeavour, also a creative area) within the whole community, but especially among the young and adolescent. There should be plethora of art and science clubs, singing groups, dance workshops, and all sort of investigative activities. Opportunities to explore natural gifts and talents, without any other agenda. (Just one more reference to Ken Robinson. His book ‘The Element’ deals with finding our God-given [my term] talents, with echoes of 1 Corinthians 12 et al and is a jolly good read!).

    2. Imagination is a precursor to real creativity. It gives context to envision, inspiration to empathise, capacity to believe and is the language of the prophetic. I love this quotation from a speech by Joanne Rowling, which emphasises the empathic/educative role of the imagination:

    ‘Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places.
    Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise.
    And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are. They can refuse to hear screams or to peer inside cages; they can close their minds and hearts to any suffering that does not touch them personally; they can refuse to know.
    I might be tempted to envy people who can live that way, except that I do not think they have any fewer nightmares than I do.’
    (Extract from speech by JK Rowling at Harvard Commencement, June 2008)

    Whether through story-telling, role-playing, mayhem making or more adventurous pursuits, we need to rediscover the wild imagination of childhood and learn how to give it room to expand and mature with age, and dream of a world beyond and better than that presently on offer – to taste something of the age to come. Remember, the young will only reach as far as they can imagine – with the promise following that the Holy Spirit can help them go way beyond their aspirations. One thing that has excited many of us who have survived decades of partial fulfilment of promise is the hope we see in an unshackled, free-spirited youthful generation, breaking into the future with wonderful imaginings and through great exploits.

    3. Initiative and innovation. If there is one thing that the Church through the ages has been most adept at doing, it is stealing initiative away from individuals and entrusting it to those who think they know best for everyone, thus stifling the ability and denying the opportunity for people of faith to find their own way in the world, albeit in good relationship with others. It is a key characteristic of empire for the majority to cow to the few. Innovation is a consequence of fear-free initiative. A feature of modern attitudes to children is the tendency to cosset, protect and preserve the status quo, to pour in life but with so many strings attached, to presume and prescribe the journey. Children need opportunity to take responsibility, to initiate through choice. Granted, parameters are important, but shouldn’t the boundary lines fall in pleasant, ie spacious, places for them? I think we often circumvent the capacity of children to make their own way and provide such a monochrome emotional environment that there’s really no room for them to breath, let alone initiate something new and exciting. Shouldn’t we be ‘suffering the children’ to go to him who provides life in all its fullness of space, ie grace, to explore this world, both seen and unseen, to learn how to take life on and make a difference themselves, without always relying on the say-so of others…

    4. I happened to be listening to an interesting conversation on BBC Radio 4 the other day on the whole area of risk-taking in community, and how many of our approaches to safety not only curtail the element of risk that is part and parcel of living, but actually results in more accidents. In ‘playing safe’ all the time, we don’t learn to judge the risk and take the chance of growth. Even in areas such as the use of open spaces, we rely on rules rather than personal judgement and social negotiation, and it doesn’t work. In fact, research shows that our risk-averse culture may have saved us from minor mishaps, but more serious accidents have increased. Furthermore (and this is more my wife’s area than mine) the sedate and circumscribed lifestyle of many Western youngsters makes it that much harder for them to ‘centre’ themselves physically, because only the stretching and challenges of risky activity enables children to sense their place in the physical world and grow in self awareness and esteem. It was John Wimber I first heard say faith is spelt R.I.S.K. but if we don’t allow our children to grow through risk-taking, how do they learn faith? How do they learn to fall and recover, to overcome real dangers and challenges?….

    Well, as usual, I have just run out of steam (and time), so sorry I’ve finished abruptly, but maybe there is some food for thought here.


    • Bravo – excellent response. I can absolutely affirm your thoughts about education. Every course I teach encourages student creativity and their own design work. Even in something like classes on computer software. Yet, each time, it is a struggle with the powers that be to get such an approach accepted. Yet, those powers also acknowledge that my students do very well and very much enjoy their classes. Strange eh – something so effective is still so subversive! c.

  4. Thanks, Cheryl, but having now spoken to my wife, Lynne, (always a useful exercise), she makes some additional points (though prefers me to articulate them).

    1. Well, firstly Lynne points out that I’m a bit out-of-date (!) and that the most recent research shows that the unconnected synapses of the brain I referred to earlier can, in fact, be reconnected and pathways restored but it takes a lot of love to do so. This should not surprise us since God is love, and since all real love emanates from God, it is, therefore, life transforming in its healing power – right down to the cellular level! For example, nurture groups set up in schools and other settings aimed at children with these emotional attachment difficulties, can – where intense, dedicated, low-ratio support over time is provided – be very successful in turning these children round. The key is the early, empathic, focused intervention. The dividend is immense in that it can actually forestall the kind of later dysfunctional behaviour we are so familiar with in the homes, schools and streets of Western societies. If all the resources invested into the ecclesia by the Spirit could be distilled down into one word, it must be love. So it is incumbent upon us as God-lovers to love children unconditionally….

    2. Before moving to Lynne’s next point, it occurs to me how much the love of children is so fiercely opposed by dark forces through the double whammy of abuse and fear of abuse. Clearly, both the actual abuse taking place and the climate of suspicion and fear that the increasing public awareness has produced, is a very real, intentional attack on this important expression of our humanity – expressing genuine, wholesome, nurturing, unconditional love for children. So in the real world we need to be wise and resourceful in countering the negative while being determined to restore the holy freedom of the Spirit to love children with our whole hearts.

    3. Coming back to your comments on environmental issues, Cheryl, Lynne was reminding me of something she has commented on many times before – how cosseted our children are in the West from the elements of creation. We keep them inside when it rains, wrap them up to the hilts against wind, snow etc. Many children rarely experience the weather in its raw force. There is always so many layers of protection. I know we loved taking our kids out in all weathers when they were young (well, Lynne loved it from the outset each time: I loved it eventually!!). Our kids still remind us of those wonderful occasions coming home absolutely drenched through to the skin, pulling the wet things off and getting warm with towels and hot chocolate! For many children today, the earth is what lies somewhere outside their sanitized, indoor world – something to pass through quickly from home to school, or shops to a friends house, all in the comfort of the family 4×4!

    4. Finally, for those interested in education and liberty, Lynne reminded me of a incredibly insightful series of books we had read a number of years ago by William Nicholson, entitled ‘The Wind on Fire’ trilogy. It dealt with a family‘s journey from their home city where the Chief Examiner ruled… I’ll leave it at that!! Together with Nicholson’s later Noble Warrior Trilogy, they are all packed with adventure and prophetic insight and despite/because they are written for children, were simply a wonderful read! (no, I get no reward for this promotion!)

  5. So Roger – a question. What do you mean by ‘activism’? And what makes it counterpolitical in any of the areas under discussion? c.

  6. Some new stats out this week on poverty and children in the USA. Not good. It would be interesting to compare this with Europe under austerity. I kind of figure that overall ‘austerity’ isn’t going to be good for kids. c.

  7. Well here is another one – good Sunday reading on a huge social justice issue about children and education and a ‘punishment paradigm’ ruling a society. This should curl your hair. . . c.

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