Yesterday lunchtime, I decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather by taking a walk through my local park. The sky was blue, the birds were singing, the flowers were in glorious full bloom; the air was pregnant with the scent of spring and the promise of abundant new life.
But then, as I walked towards the gate to leave the park, this idyllic image was shattered.
Through the gate there came towards me a young couple, probably in their mid-twenties. She was pushing a small child in a stroller, while a slightly older child of about three or four toddled along beside her. Her partner was walking along in front and to one side, hands firmly pushed down into his jeans pockets. Both were scowling.
The language that flew back and forth between at full volume them was arresting. The air was thick with insults of the most crude variety; I think every other word began with the letter “f”. The toddler trailed along resignedly, eyes to the ground and wearing a downcast expression. I had the strong impression that this was a not unfamiliar experience for him.
Setting aside the awkward embarrassment we all feel when forced into close proximity with other people’s dysfunction, I was filled with a deep sadness. I was sad for this young couple who were clearly deeply fractured and knew no better than to vent their anger and pain at each other in such public fashion. But most of all, my heart broke for these two precious little ones. Young as they were, in all likelihood they had never known anything other than this environment of verbal and emotional violence. The question inevitably formed in my mind: What chance have they got?
While it’s undoubtedly true that we’re formed by both nature (genetics) and nurture (the environment in which we grew up), I think there are some environments that are so toxic for a child that nature on its own is not enough to override their effects. Place a child in an environment of deep insecurity, open abuse, violence and fear, and it doesn’t matter how confident or strong a personality that child has: some serious damage is going to be done. This is the reproductive mechanism of sin and brokenness: the wounds of the parent are passed on to the child, and the cycle perpetuates itself. In extreme cases, the abused often becomes the abuser. In every case, it is out of our own woundedness that we wound others.
What would it take to save these children from the escalating cycle of violence and prevent them from passing on to others the violence they have experienced and learned? I think a big part of the answer would involve exposing them to love, unconditional acceptance and affirmation, and showing them that there are peaceful, constructive ways to resolve conflict. Still, depending on the depth and severity of the wounds they carry, the process of healing and restoration could take a long time.
Such were my thoughts as I walked home yesterday. And then it hit me: we are all like the couple in the park.
The doctrine of original sin notwithstanding, we are all born more or less innocent, knowing nothing of fear or shame; these things are learned responses. We learn to fear that which causes us pain; and we learn to hide that of which others disapprove. Of course, there are those who say that children don’t need to be taught how to sin, implying that sinfulness is somehow pre-programmed into them. I’m not sure I believe that any more. Rather, I’m beginning to suspect that this belief is a widely accepted myth that enables us to avoid the uncomfortable truth: that it is our own learned fear, shame and violence that ensures that our children will be baptised into the same pattern. They are not broken because they are born that way; they are broken because, in our collective pain and woundedness, we break them.
And so even the most well-adjusted of us tend to grow up knowing that, however together we may manage to appear, deep down there is something in us that is broken. To protect these raw, broken places, we learn to go on the offensive, to aggress rather than be aggressed, to hurt as a way of protecting our own damaged souls. So we grow from innocent babies into downcast toddlers, then into surly, rebellious teenagers and finally into adults determined to do unto others before they do unto us. And so the cycle goes on.
What would it take to save us from the escalating cycle of violence and prevent us from passing on to others the violence we have experienced and learned? I think a big part of the answer would involve exposing us to love, unconditional acceptance and affirmation, and showing us that there are peaceful, constructive ways to resolve conflict.
Some parents do a pretty good job of this, but even in the best case, we inevitably pick up some wounds along the way.
Thankfully, there is one who can and will show us the love, acceptance and affirmation we need. He is the well of living water that never runs dry. Unfortunately, while many of us come to Jesus and experience the wonderful benefits of his love, acceptance and affirmation, most stop there and never go on to the realisation that Jesus also came to break the cycle of violence and self-defence once and for all. Jesus’ exhortation to turn the other cheek, pray for our persecutors and love our enemies was not merely a bit of idealistic, aspirational teaching: it was the very heart of the kingdom message he came to proclaim and embody. The reason he went to the cross was that he walked what he talked: refusing to engage in the futile endeavour of trying to fight violence with violence, he instead submitted to our violence, and in doing so, exposed it for the folly that it always has been and continues to be.
I passionately believe Jesus wants to save us. But that doesn’t just mean he wants to ensure our safe passage to heaven after we die. It means he wants to save us from the self-induced hell we often create by perpetuating the violence in which we have been bathed. It means he wants us to learn that violence in whatever form – whether individual or collective, physical or psychological, explicit or covert – always begets violence.
Jesus invites us out of the chaos and pain of the world’s cycle of violence and into his peaceable kingdom. He is the shepherd king who leads us beside still waters and bids us lie down in green pastures. Even after we respond to his call and begin to follow him along this path, the process of healing and restoration may take a long time. But he is a good and faithful shepherd, and if we will keep following, he will lead us safely home.
I pray for that family I saw in the park yesterday. I pray that somehow, someone will pierce their darkness and show them the love that is, finally, the only answer to all of their wounds. I pray that those beautiful little ones will have a chance to grow up knowing the way of healing and peace.
And I pray this same prayer for myself and for all of us.
[ Image: Daniela Hartmann ]