A Facebook friend of mine recently posted his support for the kids coming to Washington to take part in the March4OurLives (M4OL), a protest calling for serious gun regulation in the aftermath of the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Numerous people commented on the post, claiming the kids were just being used by a cynical media, probably paid by anti-Second Amendment "gun grabbers," or their leaders were fake "crisis actors." These accusations are all ways to suppress the voices of these young people; marginalizing them, or rendering them irrelevant in the national conversation surrounding gun violence. In other words, it's a way to shoo them out of the center of attention.
As I watched this phenomenon unfold online—this virtual "shushing" of the Parkland children—and the denunciation of the multiple thousands of others who recently walked out of school to draw attention to the cowardly inaction of the adult world when it comes to the growing threat of mass shootings in schools and in so many other places, I thought of another such shushing. It's recorded in Matthew 19:13-14:
"Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.'"
Like so much of the Bible narrative, we tend to idealize this passage. We think of the disciples in this instance as gently moving the children out of the way so the grown-ups can get to Jesus. We often picture that they merely chided a parent for putting the child forward because after-all, Jesus had more serious things to do. This isn't how I see it, though. In fact, I think it was a lot tougher.
When you've been out in public somewhere, maybe in a mall or in a park, you've probably seen someone swat a child, scream at a bunch of kids, push them away, or angrily silence them. I have, many times. In fact, I've been to certain places in the world where this is the norm, the socially accepted treatment of children—of all ages. Of course, there's always a place for loving, careful, respectful and constructive direction for kids when they don't understand the rules or the boundaries, but that's not what I'm addressing here. What I'm referring to is a harsh, dismissive, contemptuous, and degrading bullying of children that makes them feel afraid, denigrated, embarrassed and ashamed. Some are even hit hard enough by adults that they experience significant pain and possibly even injury. As I've traveled across our own country and visited more than forty others, I've seen too much of this callous disregard for a child's value. I've seen kids so traumatized by the way adults have treated them that they no longer cry. Instead, they assume a kind of mute shock.
Taking into consideration what I know about near eastern social customs in the time of Christ, I'm convinced this is what happened when children were brought to Jesus, no doubt by parents, who wanted the remarkable itinerant rabbi to touch their little ones and pray for them. Instead of Jesus' followers warmly conveying the children to the Master, the mostly rough fishermen from backward, lower-class Nazareth, the gruff tax collector among them, and a likely stern apothecary, yelled at the youngsters and their parents, shouting at them, batting them with their hands, kicking them at their ankles, and maybe even swatting them with sticks. The disciples probably chased the boys and girls all away with some of them shrieking in fright. That's just how the ancient adult world dealt with bothersome children.
However, in a display of shocking contrast with the common practice of his day, Jesus contradicted the rebukes delivered by his disciples, ordered them to stop abusing the children, and instead commanded, no doubt with great affection, that they be brought to him. In the same breath, he demanded his errant band of cantankerous kid-clobberers "not to hinder them." As he always did for his followers' benefit, he explains to his disciples why: "For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
For most of the disciples this must have been confusing, disorienting, and probably irksome. And it had to be nothing short of infuriating for those watching the spectacle. In their worldview, children were only sometimes to be seen and never, ever heard. Yet, Jesus silences his adult disciples and calls the children over so they can teach the grown-ups a lesson: If anyone wants to live in heaven, they're going to need to be more like these young ones—not less like them.
This is how I see what is happening with the students heading to Washington for the March4OurLives. They are coming to be seen, heard, and known. They have experienced an enormous trauma few people their age—or any age for that matter—will ever be forced to bear. They have been shot at with a terrifying weapon—a semi-automatic rifle that sprays bullets faster than you can count them. Some of these teenagers saw their friends fall and bleed to death. Others visited their friends in the hospital who have exit wounds the size of honeydew melons. None of these young people will ever look the same, feel the same, or be the same again. They have all been deeply wounded; some in body; some in mind; some in soul. If anyone should be inviting these youths to come, welcoming them, and blessing them, it's those of us who follow the lead of the Master who did it himself. It was Jesus who called a child over to himself and "put him in the midst of them"—at the very center of attention— "and said 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (See Matthew 18: 2-4).
Castigating the kids of Parkland, including the hundreds and thousands of others who identify closely with them and are as vulnerable to gun violence as they are—and in many cases even more so—is to do the diametric opposite of what Jesus did on the day he called the children to himself. A day after the horrific mass slaughter at Marjory Stone High School, I received a call from the pastor of a mega church, who is a conceal carry permit holder. "Rob, God is speaking to us through these children from Parkland," he said soberly. "We better listen."
On Saturday, March 24, when the students of Parkland and countless others come to my town, Washington, DC, to march, to rally, and to speak, I will not hinder them. Instead, I will join with numerous Christian leaders and religious representatives of all kinds, to stretch our hands towards them, pray for them, and bless them. Of course, I will also listen to them—and then do my best to act on what I hear and learn from these to whom the kingdom of God belongs.
The Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck is an ordained evangelical minister and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, located in Washington, DC. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Faith Evangelical Seminary in Tacoma, Washington and is a senior fellow of The Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy at Oxford. Rev. Schenck is the subject of the Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Armor of Light, founding signer of the Prayers and Action petition, and a member of the leadership team for Survivor Sunday, a day of remembrance for the 30,000 lives lost annually to gun violence. He is also the author of God and Guns, a part of Zondervan's upcoming book, Christianity Engaged in Culture and the book, Costly Grace, due to be released by Harper Collins June 2018.