I’ve been reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s essays. She believed that youth were the key to truly radical change in our world. Young people hold the potential to change the world through a spirit of sacrifice and service. Reframing the social standards for judging what qualifies as a successful life, from a life wealth and power to a life of service to community, is an important beginning point for inspiring youth involvement in the community. Young people have the opportunity to bring a religious spirit of cooperation into relationships with others and to civic responsibilities. In order to accomplish this, Roosevelt believed that youth must find a way to bring a lived-every-day Christ-like existence into their communities. The religious dogma and ineffectiveness of the church cannot bring about social justice and change in the way that as youth, energized in this way, can. Through this spirit of cooperation, youth are able to build bridges between themselves and other youth, between youth and the wider community, between communities within the nation, and even beyond their own nations. How are we as the church preparing our youth to be radical change agents in a troubled and hurting world?
A video advertisement has emerged in the past few days that is receiving quite a bit of attention. The video, produced for the online t-shirt sales company FCKH8, shows young girls, some as young as 6 years of age, dressed in cute, Disney-esque, princess costumes, repeatedly using extreme profanity to promote a feminist message.
I have a problem with this. I have a big problem with this. As a woman, I have a problem with this. As a mother, I have a huge problem with this.
Since I first saw this ad, I’ve been struggling to try to identify when it was that political activism became a legitimate excuse for child abuse. When did the politically-defined war on women become a justifiable reason to take part in the actual war that is happening – on childhood?
For several years now, I have become increasingly aware of an outright attack on childhood. Children’s fashion has become increasingly sexualized. Media aimed at children has become more adult in its content, while at the same time portraying adults – especially those in authority – either as objects of ridicule or as corrupt. And of course, social media, with which children are decidedly more comfortable than are their adult counterparts, is a largely un-regulated, un-supervised black hole of regulation. Effective parental supervision is only possible if a parent can maintain a degree of tech-savviness that is one step beyond the “cool” peer who feed vulnerable children just enough knowledge to circumvent scrutiny. In education, children are exposed to (sometimes graphic) information on sex at ages where we were considered edgy if we had even kissed a boy who wasn’t our brother!
The war on childhood is a real one – and it is robbing children of their innocence. It is also creating a generation of premature pseudo-adults who are armed with knowledge that would have previously been deemed age-inappropriate, contained in brains that lack both the neural development and life experience to know what to do with it. It is a war and it is a successful one – because it is being waged on those who are unaware that it is being waged, and even if they were aware, they would be unable to fight back – because they are children!
In the discussion surrounding this latest – despicable – attack, several ethical issues come to mind:
- The producers of the video, and the parents of the children, reject the notion that this is a form of child abuse. When asked about it on Entertainment Weekly on October 23, 2014, the mother of one of the children defined child abuse as “rape.” That’s a pretty narrow definition, I have to say! And one of the producers – rather oddly in my view – claimed that income inequality was somehow child abuse; a rather convenient contortion given that income inequality was a major point of the video. It is unethical – to say the least – to play spin doctor in order to justify making what is ostensibly a political point, while avoiding the substance of the matter – that children are being manipulated and adversely affected – to make that political point. I reject their sophistry and willingly accuse both producers and parents of child abuse.
- The “war on women” issue is not one that comes anywhere close to warranting such a radically provocative approach. In essence, this advert is juxtaposing a tenuous partisan point with a very real infringement on the well-being of children. Yet, to my dismay, I know of at least one church leader who has promoted this video on Facebook, by “liking” it. This exposes a fundamental flaw within the church today. The church has so enmeshed itself with its “adjectival” identities, that many – not just leaders – are more keen to align themselves with those who share their “adjective” – for example liberal or conservative – than they are to identify themselves with Christ and Christianity.
- This video is an advertisement. It is selling t-shirts for a for-profit company. This isn’t a Public Service Announcement. Now, while children are often used to peddle goods, I have never seen such a blatantly egregious infringement of their childhood in order to do so.
I am sure there are some who would argue that there is nothing essentially un-Christian or un-Christ-like about this video. To them, I would say that Christ’s dealings with children shows his compassion for children and how severely he abhors those who abuse them. Indeed, in Mark 10, when Jesus famously presents a child as the standard for all of us to attain the kingdom of God, it is against a backdrop of so-called adult sophistication and high-minded religiosity. Jesus had no time for any of that, and promoted child-likeness instead. Might it be that that fact alone goes a long way to explaining why there is now such an assault on childhood?
I sincerely hope that Child and Family Service departments are investigating these parents and producers. Indeed, FCKH8 should also be investigated for child endangerment and exploitation. After all, what’s the difference between abusing children by making them make cheap, tacky clothing, and abusing them by making them sell it?
We are called into relationship with Christ, and from this calling, we are compelled to love our neighbor. “Who is our neighbor?” my 8 year-old daughter asked. “Who do you think?” I asked. “My friend,” she said. To her, our neighbor is literally the friend who lives next door whom she sees every day.
But Christ’s command to love extends to all – not just our neighbor next door. Indeed, the command to love extends even to that part of the neighborhood marked “enemy territory.” Conveying this concept to my 8-year-old presents me with two challenges.
Firstly, I must be careful to define this love as Christ defines it. To our collective detriment, the concept of love has been degraded by a societal drift toward a form of romanticism where feelings and emotions control our responses and the validity of the love relationship is largely measured in what “I” get out of it. Yet Christ calls us to love each other “as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) That love led to Calvary. That love stood silent in the face of hatred. That love looked remarkably unlike the shallow selfishness that parades itself as love today. I’m challenged in conveying this kind of love to my daughter, because it, quite frankly, is a kind of love that can and will be abused in today’s world.
My second challenge is that Christ-love is hard to live and I’m convinced my daughter has her own personal hypocrisy-detector! I can’t get away with telling her that Jesus commands us to love “even our enemies” while I have difficulty being civil to the old lady who shushes children in church!
In the final analysis, Bonhoeffer offers me assistance in my challenged state. Christian love means “liv[ing] in peace with every person.” (Christ and Peace) Yet, as Bonhoeffer also points out, “… peace lies only in God … [and] is inseparably bound up with the gospel.” I can’t manufacture love for my enemies; I can live into the gospel and be transformed by God’s Spirit. If I try hard enough to love, I’ll still fail. But if I give myself over to God, I – and maybe even my daughter’s hypocrisy-detector – might be surprised!