End Things

In The Child's Song: The Religious Abuse of Children (Westminster / John Knox, 1995) I contended that the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews was a victim of child abuse and that his theological views indicate he was still imprisoned within this abusive structure. I suggested that his writings bear evidence of dissociative and paranoid thought processes characteristic of childhood abuse victims, and that in portraying God as chastising whom he loves, the epistle writer provided theological legitimation for the abuses he and his readers had suffered as children.

I lamented the fact that his is the primary scriptural text (12:5-11) for the obligation of Christian parents, in the name of discipline, to inflict pain on the bodies and psyches of their very own children. By reinforcing similar views expressed in the Book of Proverbs, Hebrews thus implies that whatever changes in the ways of human relating were envisioned by Jesus' followers, ones involving parents and their children were not among them. In fact, by portraying God in paternal terms, the author made a powerful link between paternal and divine chastisement and in doing so directly challenged Jesus' own view of God (found in the earliest strata of the Q source itself) as a caring, merciful father. In contrast to Hebrews, Matthew's Gospel (cf. Chapter 18) envisions a new era in adult-child relations, one where the child is treated with dignity and respect.

Noting Luther's profound unhappiness with the Letter of James, I acknowledged my strong wish that Hebrews had been excluded from the scriptural canon for all the gratuitous suffering it causes; however, I also argued for its value as a "teaching text," for we may learn much from it about the enduring effects of child abuse on the adult psyche. Even more importantly, it offers a test case for the redemptive value of our own theological affirmations. If the writer of Hebrews is still imprisoned within the abusive structure (and thus, as my Lutheran tradition has taught me, is a prisoner of the law), how may the grace of God be convincingly – liberatively – portrayed to him?

Of course, this is not our usual way of approaching a biblical text, especially a New Testament one. But this is fundamentally no different from Luther's complaint, recorded in Table Talk, that the author of James is terribly confused. Says Luther, "He presents a comparison: 'As the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.' O Mary, mother of God! What a terrible comparison that is! James compares faith with the body when he should rather have compared faith with the soul!"

My complaint against the author of Hebrews is similar: Why compare the divine father to human fathers on the basis of their bloody chastisement when one may instead compare them, as does the parable of the prodigal son, on the basis of the father's longing to embrace the child, regardless of intervening estrangements and deep personal grievances?

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But how to make this familiar theological point newly, vividly compelling? Perhaps this: Our nation in recent years has experienced several emotionally wrenching murder cases‹those of O.J. Simpson, Susan Smith, Timothy McVeigh, and Terry Nichols being the most prominent. In such cases, the presumption is that the defendant's parents will take the witness stand and testify to the essential worth of their son or daughter. I confess that such testaments leave me cold; or rather, they evoke in me the white heat of moral outrage: "What could ever prompt you to place family loyalty above compassion for the victims?"

And yet, I must concede that were Jesus in our midst today he might have spoken thus to the crowd gathered on the courthouse steps: "The deep ways of God are like a father who entered the witness box and said in a breaking voice expressive of a broken heart, 'I cannot refute what has been said here today about my son, but as I look at the man you call the defendant I go back to when he was a boy, so full of promise. O how I worried for him! O how I feared that evil would befall him! Forgive me, but I cannot see him any other way than this. He is my son, and I view him through the eyes of love.' "

The very center of divine grace is a love that cannot deny itself. Is this the redemptive word for which the author of Hebrews longs? I believe so. It came for me, as a child, on the wings of song:

  O Love that wilt not let me go,
  I rest my weary soul in thee;
  I give thee back the life I owe,
  that in thine ocean depths its flow
  May richer, fuller be.

In writing The Child's Song, I felt obliged to "expose" the Letter to the Hebrews for its legitimation of child abuse, but I live for the day when we will be able to read it as a plea for love, and so embrace the author as a contemporary who has disclosed the scars that the years have not effaced from the soul of one who suffered the abuses of childhood.

Copyright 1998 Princeton Theological Seminary
The URL for this page is http://www.ptsem.edu/read/inspire/3.2.endthings.htm
[email protected] | last updated 07/07/98

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