Shuck and Jive

Friday, July 16, 2010

Won't Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children? -- A Sermon

Won't Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?!
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

July 18, 2010

Mark 10:13-15
Matthew 19:13-14
Luke 18:15-17

And they would bring children to him so he could lay hands on them, but some followers scolded them. Then Jesus grew indignant when he saw this and said to them: “Let the children come up to me, don’t try to stop them. After all, God’s domain belongs to people like that. I swear to you, whoever doesn’t accept God’s imperial rule the way a child would, certainly won’t ever set foot in God’s domain!
Gospel of Jesus 2:6-8

In the television show the Simpsons, Helen Lovejoy is the wife of Rev. Lovejoy. She likes to gossip and moralize about the activities and the people of Springfield. Whenever the community gathers to face some issue no matter how big or how small, you can count on Mrs. Lovejoy to exclaim in a panic:

Won't Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?!

"Thinking of the children" is on one hand a rhetorical device. It is an old ploy to appeal to emotion (usually fear). Some adults are opposed to some kind of reform and so they present children as a reason to be afraid this reform. As if just mentioning "the children" is an argument in itself.

Remember Anita Bryant--the beauty queen turned anti-gay activist? In 1977, Dade County Florida passed an ordinance to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Anita Bryant led the opposition to the ordinance. Her homophobic enterprise was called "Save Our Children." The intent of her rhetoric was to stir up fear that somehow gay people would “recruit” the children.

Sarah Palin's internet advertisement for her new political action committee also appeals to the “children under attack” motif. Although the ad is vague on specifics, in fact non-existent regarding specifics, that she and her fan club are “mama grizzlies” is quite explicit. The message appears to be:
"Obama is in the White House. Won't somebody PLEASE think of the children?
Have no fear. Sarah "Mama Grizzly" Palin will think of the children.

When someone brings up an emotional and vague appeal to "the children" to make a point, it is wise to be skeptical. This appeal is likely a cipher for a number of irrational and ugly fears just under the surface of awareness. Throughout our history appeals to "the children" were covers for such fears such as homophobia, xenophobia, and racism to name a few.

We shouldn't use "the children" as a rhetorical device to score political points. As if I come to my views because I care about children whereas you do not.

Now all of that said, it is wise to think of the children. We should think about not just "our" children but all children. Not only present day children, but children yet to be born. According to the Great Binding Law, the Constitution of the Iroquois Nations, we find this ethic:
“In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.”
That is not easy. Nor does it seem to be done very often. Not to pick on politicians, but how many (rhetoric aside) actually think of the impact of their decisions beyond the next election? Not to pick on corporations, but how many (rhetoric aside) think of the impact of their decisions beyond the next quarterly statement?

It is a good question. How far ahead do we think?

The commitment to think of seven generations ahead is a reminder of the importance of sustainability. If we continue our way of living at the way we live today, will our descendants be able to sustain it? That is what is behind this seven generations thing. Is our way of life sustainable? Can we continue this indefinitely? What will be the results on our household if we continue the way we live into the future?

If the decisions we are making are not sustainable, then they are not good decisions. They are not decisions that think of "the children."

When we think of growth, such as growth in the economy, we are talking about using more and more energy. Not only do we consume more but we sink more in terms of waste on the other end. Energy and money are interconnected. There is no such thing as infinite growth in a finite system. Growth will stop. Growth is not sustainable. There is no such thing as sustainable growth.

This I learned from Albert Bartlett. Dr. Bartlett is a retired professor of physics. He taught at the University of Colorado. On Youtube you can watch an important lecture that he gave and continues to give. It is called, "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy."

Bartlett's famous quote is this:
"The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function."
Anyone whether she or he has a science background or not, will understand the exponential function and its importance after watching this lecture. The basic tenet of the exponential function is this:
Any steady rate of increase will over time eventually approach astronomical numbers.
A helpful formula to understand growth is to divide the % of growth over time into the number 70. That will give you its doubling time, the time in which an amount of a certain quantity doubles.

For example, let's say China's economy is growing at seven percent per year. That means it is increasing its energy consumption by seven percent per year. How big is that? If you take 7 into 70 you get a doubling time of ten years. At a seven percent growth rate per year, China's economy would double in ten years. If it continued that growth it would double again in another ten years.

Let's say China wanted to increase its oil consumption by 7% per year in order to grow its economy. If they use 8 million barrels per day, in ten years they will use 16 million per day. Ten years after that 32 million per day. Then by 2040, 64 million per day. That is not going to happen. There are all kinds of reasons to stop that growth from happening. The amount of oil available would be one reason.

Thinking seven generations ahead is actually something we can do mathematically. What will steady growth of a certain quantity look like seven generations from now? If we take an arbitrary number of 20 years as the length of a generation, we can think of seven generations as 140 years from now.

For instance, let's say the administration at ETSU wants to increase enrollment at the university by a rate of 3 and one-half percent per year. I am not saying they want to do that. But just for fun, let's say they did. 3 1/2 percent divided into 70 has a doubling time of 20. At a steady growth rate of what appears to be a small number, 3 1/2 percent, the amount of students at ETSU will double every 20 years.

What would the enrollment be in seven generations?

Let's think of the children.

Today 15,000 students
1--20 years from now (2030) -- 30,000
2--2050 --60,000
3--2070 --120,000
4--2090 --240,000
5--2110 -- 480,000
6--2130 -- 960,000
7--2150 --1,920,000 students at ETSU

Obviously, that isn't going to happen. The university would take over all of the Tri-Cities. In other words, a 3 1/2 percent growth rate is not sustainable. It isn't just that 3 1/2 is not sustainable, no steady rate of growth is sustainable. A smaller number simply means the doubling time is longer.

In a finite system, such as Earth, any steady rate of increase cannot sustain itself. This goes for population, energy consumption, the amount of fish in the sea, the amount of oil under the sea, the amount of coal in the mountains, fresh water, economic growth, everything.

Any time we see a percentage of growth in the news, divide that number into 70 and see what that doubling time will be. Then think of the children and think of what that quantity will be in seven generations.

Then ask, if it is not sustainable, is it just? If we can't keep it up for seven generations is it just to do it today? Who are we robbing in order to "grow?"

Amidst all the calls to grow and to stimulate the economy, we might step back and ask, "Is that the sustainable direction?" Is it perhaps our addiction to growth that is the problem? Some very wise people, such as Albert Bartlett, are saying not growth but a managed reduction is required. As we reach our limits, that should be more and more obvious.

I have to say, that is the first time that preaching on Jesus welcoming the children has led to a sermon on the exponential function.

I do think that in a certain way it fits. As the story goes, people were bringing children to Jesus and Jesus stopped what he was doing and he blessed them. His followers were perturbed. We can imagine them saying to one another, "We have got to move on. Jesus has important stuff to do. We have a movement to grow."

Jesus uses this event as a teaching moment. This is a teaching moment for the adults. He says, "Unless you become like children, you will not enter God’s domain."

What does it mean to become like a child? Maybe it has to do with recapturing a sense of wonder. Seeing things again for the first time. Trust, delight, living in the moment. Maybe Jesus was thinking of these or of other romanticized notions of childhood that we should emulate.

Or maybe Jesus was talking about the vulnerability of children and that children are dependent upon others for survival. Becoming like children means recognizing our dependence upon one another and upon Earth. Perhaps he was telling us that what we think of as unimportant is really most important.

Maybe the smallness of children is the lesson. Perhaps rather than becoming big and expansive, to participate in God’s domain of justice, peace, and sustainability, we need to become small, to allow space for others and for Earth’s creatures. The values of bigness and growth are reversed as we see the child.

Perhaps Jesus was reminding us to think of how our decisions impact the least of these, those who will pay the consequences for today’s actions.

In Douglas John Hall’s theology book, Thinking the Faith, he quotes from a novel, The Blue Mountains of China, by Rudy Weibe. It may give us insight to what Jesus was talking about:

Jesus says in his society there is a new way for [people] to live:
You show wisdom, by trusting people;
You handle leadership, by serving;
You handle offenders, by forgiving;
You handle money, by sharing;
You handle enemies, by loving;
And you handle violence, by suffering.
In fact you have a new attitude toward everything, toward everybody. Toward nature, toward the state in which you happen to live, toward women, toward slaves, toward all and every single thing. Because this is a Jesus society and you repent, not by feeling bad, but by thinking different.

I don't know what Jesus meant when he said we must become like a child. I don't know what he means by the phrase "God’s domain." I have guesses. But perhaps more important than my guesses is the invitation to think differently.

Jesus was inviting his audience, and as we enter the story, us, to think differently about what is valuable. He was inviting his audience to challenge conventional wisdom even when, perhaps especially when, this wisdom comes from powerful and influential people.

He was inviting us, each of us, to claim our role, to be informed and responsible about the decisions that are being made and to think differently.

At face value, perhaps we should take seriously what Helen Lovejoy of the Simpsons says:
Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of the Children?!


  1. Wish we had a pastor and a church like yours. Your congregation is very blessed to have you.

  2. Thank you, Clint. I am the lucky one.