In an attempt to increase the “human capital” of his country in 1966 Nicolae Ceausescu initiated a government enforced effort a population growth.
Romania’s leader from 1965 to 1989, banned contraception and abortions and imposed a “celibacy tax” on families that had fewer than five children. State doctors—the menstrual police—conducted gynecologic examinations in the workplace of women of childbearing age to see whether they were producing sufficient offspring. The birth rate initially skyrocketed. Yet because families were too poor to keep their children, they abandoned many of them to large state-run institutions. By 1989 this social experiment led to more than 170,000 children living in these facilities.
For those of us old enough to remember the fall of the iron curtain will remember the stream of horror stories coming out of Romania’s orphanages. These stories moved many in the United States and around the world to try to adopt these children to rescue them from their horrible plight. The solution to such obvious suffering seemed equally obvious, get the children into good homes.
As with many of our saving instincts the obvious solution was insufficient. Of course the most adoptable children got the best shot at placement in homes in affluent countries, and after the spotlight went to other places naturally many children would remain in Romanian institutions. But even for the lucky ones like Izador Ruckel who was adopted into a middle class Christian family in San Diego the undoing of terrible brokenness in this world is not so easily done.
Experts in child development have been following the children of Romania’s orphanages and learned much about how the deficiencies of these institutions has permanently shackled many of these children. Izador himself talks about the difficulty he had learning to receive love.
These studies reveal the integral role parents play in the development of children. It appears that the brain has a developmental clock built in and it looks for external input from parents for parts of the brain to develop. If there is no person there to take on the parent role, those developmental opportunities are missed. Sometimes they can be made up later on, but sometimes not.
Legacy of Flawed Parenting
We know that even in situations far less dramatic than these children parents play a foundational role in our lives. Parents are almost godlike creatures for us when we are growing. Failures of parents sow seeds in children that flower into adult issues. We have a multi-billion dollar industry that majors in trying to help undo the failures of parents. Since there are no perfect parents all of us have some of these issues, for some of us these issues dominate our ability to relate productively and joyfully with others. Into this world sometimes the command “Honor your father and mother that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God is giving you” might seem to be a cruel joke, just one unjust authority structure backing another.
Honoring, Like Forgiving, Is Good for You
One reading of the commandment in this broken world echoes the good advice given to forgive because it is good for you. Harboring unending bitterness and resentment in your heart for the failures of your parents or other adults in your childhood doesn’t necessarily help you become a better adult. Not all parents are worthy of honor, but if you honor them for your own reasons you can actually move towards healing rather than harmful retribution. This is good advice, but how can we find the power to do it? Is this what this commandment is even talking about?
Support Social Security
John Walton’s work on ancient culture actually sees the interpretation of the commandment as being fairly simple. Remember, as we read the Ten Commandment and the other laws in the five books of Moses as religious these laws were in effect the civil law for the Hebrew people.
Honor your father and your mother (20:12). This verse has been subjected to many interpretations. Most ancient readers would have understood this as an admonition to care for one’s elderly parents. There is ample ancient Near Eastern evidence to support this. The Akkadian term palāḫu, like the Hebrew verb (kibbēd) used here, means “to revere, treat reverently.” The term palāḫu also designates the responsibility of a son or, less often, a daughter to provide food and other necessary items to one or both parents. Texts from the site of Emar in Syria, for example, use palāḫu as a synonym for the term wabālu, which means “to carry/support” and frequently occurs in texts that require adult children to support aging parents.
Walton, J. H. (2009). Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Old Testament): Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (Vol. 1, p. 233). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Just like children need support when they are young and vulnerable, those of us who live long enough will reach the end of our strength before the end of our days. Seems simple enough.
Caring for Parents
News story from today, chosen by Google from the Boston Herald.
A 75-year-old woman withered away helplessly in a frigid Stoughton basement while under the care of a suspect facing criminal charges in what cops said was “one of the worst cases of elder abuse and neglect we’ve ever seen.”
The victim “had sores that were down to the bone” and was malnourished and dehydrated when police found her in a cramped 8-by-10 corner of the basement of her caregiver’s home, Stoughton police executive officer Robert Devine said.
“It was more like a cell than a room,” he said. “The thermostat on the wall read 51 degrees. It was just, it was deplorable.”
Sandra Lucien-Calixte, 48, was charged Feb. 21 with committing serious injury to an elder or disabled person, Devine said. Police disclosed the arrest yesterday.
Cops began investigating Feb. 16, after firefighters responded to a report of low blood pressure. The victim’s body was so still, firefighters thought she was dead.
“She was just sitting there, wasting away,” Devine said.
When she was brought to Good Samaritan Hospital in Brockton — where she also was treated for sores in January — she weighed just 78 pounds, a physician’s assistant told cops, and was diagnosed with renal failure due to neglect. She was covered in urine and had a filthy makeshift catheter that was not attached to any bag.
A police report described Lucien-Calixte as the victim’s niece, and the suspect told police that she brought the woman into her home “out of the goodness of her heart because no one was willing or able to do so,” the report said. Authorities were unable to confirm the relationship yesterday.
Police said their efforts to contact the victim’s family have been unsuccessful.
This is not a story of the brutality of a Communist dictator. This is a story from the most affluent, powerful nation on earth where our politics gives more money to seniors than it does to children.
While this is a case that is unusual enough to make the news, what doesn’t make the news are the thousands of aging Americans who are languishing in ignoble nursing homes. If this is the case in a prosperous country, what does it look like around the world? Do you know that part of the reason Japan feverishly develops robot technology is because in their aging society they are hoping that robots will help care for their elders? As many of you know far better than I, growing old is not easy and there are many sides to this story of loss.
Old Age is not Cute
Caring for failing adults can be emotionally quite different from caring for children. Psychologists tell us that children are “cute” to us to motivate us to love them and care for them, to expend ourselves for them in sacrificial, costly ways. What the age of decay takes from us does not make us cute. On various levels ageing adults are uncomfortable reminders of where each of us will go when the years rob us of our strength, beauty and clarity.
Perhaps you were blessed with good parents and you are rightly motivated to protect and care for your parents with all the strength and resources available to you. Blessed are you AND your parents. Dutiful children are blessing for good parents.
There are of course many others who pass their years alone because bonds were not made well, or kept well or their children are neglectful or evil or they have no children. These can be very sad stories.
Love Your Enemies
As with many of Jesus’ teachings his command to “Love your enemies” is one we quickly dismiss as being impractical, overly costly and possibly naive.
When we talk about “loving enemies” we often think about people far away like the Taliban or Al Qaeda but this doesn’t by any means exhaust the command. Most of the murder that happens in this world happens not between strangers but within families, neighborhoods and nations. There are few people in this world that can hurt you more deeply than family and there are few hurts more enduring than the hurts that parents intentionally or unintentionally perpetrate in their children. For some of you this may be an emotionally simple command to fulfill, for others this command is telling you to do nothing less than to love those who have hurt you, wounded you, damaged your capacity to live joyfully and in community until the day you die. For some of you your greatest enemy is a parent.
A Complicated Enemy
A parent, as any therapist will tell you, is a terribly complicated enemy. Even children who have been horribly abused by a parent cannot fully hate their parent. There is a debt, a burden, a reservation that the evil can seldom fully dismiss. We get our flesh and blood from our parents and to hate a parent is to hate our very self. In few other ways in this world are we caught in such a complicated bondage. In few other relationships is it so evident that to hurt our enemy is to hurt our own self.
The command, however, is equally uncompromising. The New Testament notes that this is the first commandment with a promise. I would suggest that “living long in the land” doesn’t simply mean longevity, it evokes a promise of blessing, wholeness, well-being and goodness. It is ironic that this promise is attached to a commandment that points to the kinds of wounds that often most deeply rob us of well-being. For those who have been deeply hurt, wounded or failed by bad parents few other crimes against us can rob us so thoroughly and consistently of life, turning long life into a long, painful road. The command hints that unless there is healing in this space a long, happy life is impossible.
The Limits of Our Power or Good Intentions
In this area as clearly as in any other can we see our incapacity to fix this world or heal its wounds. Armies of therapists march out to heal the wounds of their patients inflicted by parents. They can testify to some success but know that all such wounds will never be healed by them. As a pastor I can also attest that many more victims of childhood would will never even be treated by a therapist. The sins of the fathers and mothers are visited to the third and fourth generation. Most of Ceausescu’s victims will never be healed or even sufficiently consoled.
As a parent myself I cannot escape my own failures in my past. I hope my children never rise to condemn me as a monster but I know the many ways I have failed my children. I was often too busy, too distracted, too pre-occupied, too inattentive to their needs and desires. I have wounded my children. How could I not have?
At some point when facing the world we see the limits of our power which illuminates the limits of the law. We cannot parent sufficiently well to solve the world’s problems and we cannot honor parents sufficiently well to have our wounds healed or to secure for ourselves the life of well-being our hearts yearn for.
Divine Child Abuse
Scot McKnight in his blog notes the following:
About a decade ago it became avant garde theology to contend the classical Christian theory of atonement was nothing less than divine child abuse. That is, the image of a Father punishing a Son, or exacting retribution at the expense of his own Son, or punishing a Son for the good of others — each of these became a way of deconstructing classical atonement theory.
Unfortunately, this approach works from a very simplistic image: a father, a son, and a brutal death and attributes intention to the father as one who brutalizes a son. As an image, it connotes abuse. The image, however, abuses the Bible’s image.
Without affording too much credit to this cheap shot taken a Christian theology even this simplistic image shines some light on the redemptive power of Christ’s sacrifice. In the narrative the son cries out to his Father “My God, My God, Why have your forsaken me!” This is the plea of every abandoned orphan, every brutalized and confused child who is the victim of the intentional or unintentional violations of shalom at the hand of their parents. On the cross Jesus stands in their place too. He knows their pain. He knows what it is to be abandoned by his father. He knows what it means to be innocent and bear the sin of others. He takes this and he returns good for evil. Jesus now honors his father and the rest of us, his family, in the hour of his abandonment.
Richard Dawkins in his book “The God Delusion” famously describes Yhwh in this way.
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
If this is true then this is Jesus’ father and out of love on the cross Jesus honors and redeems him as well as all other fathers and mothers in this world that have failed their children and look to him for rescue.
Jesus fulfills the law. In Jesus the wounds of this world that we cannot begin to touch are addressed.
We cannot fix this world where children are not adequately loved nor are our weak parents loved, honored or cared for. On the cross, Jesus shows us the meaning of honoring an abandoning parent and in that moment sides with all who are wounded and have suffered loss in this way. While wounding parents may never repent or acknowledge what they have done, the grace of Jesus can free us to do what he does, to bless those who are unworthy. To forgive not because the guilty deserve it, but because we need to forgive and our enemy needs to be forgiven.
It is then graceful gratitude that provides the power of the cross and resurrection to do what the law was unable to accomplish. A life of shalom can begin when we forgive, when we allow the hurts in our lives to heal by releasing the guilty from our debt. We can then begin to untwist the puzzle of loving enemies who are our own flesh and blood. Loving people who do not deserve our love, yet who we must love for our own reasons but from the power of the one who loved his father who abandoned him in his moment of greatest need. A God who would become sin for us because we needed him to.