The other day I read a sourceless (but probably not apocryphal) story about a police officer sitting at lunch with her partner when a conversation between a mother and her son was overheard. The child had been acting up and the mother was losing her patience. The mother pointed at the two police officers and said “You see those police officers over there? They take bad kids like you to jail if they misbehave.” The officer stood up, walked over, and said to the child “Don’t worry. We don’t take children to jail. We take bad parents there instead.”
The story was meant to inspire people to not tell their children that the police are the bad guys. If a child gets in trouble it becomes harder to help them if they truly believe that the police are going to hurt them. The fear children learn about police officers from others causes the children to be less safe in the long run.
The story re-entered my brain as I was reading through the first few chapters of “God’s Unconditional Love: Healing Our Shame” by Wilkie Au and Noreen Cannon Au for the upcoming session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. In the introduction to the book the authors note that a lot of people carry two images of God with them. They carry the image that they are taught and verbally profess, but they also carry the image that is formed by their interactions with others, especially caretakers and parents. The authors call these images of God the professed image and the operative image (pg.2-3).
Looking at the story of the police officer’s interaction we see a great example of this kind of learned behavior. The child is likely taught through school programs, teachers, and neighbors that the police are there to be helpful. This image is reinforced every time they see an officer in a car with the words “To serve and protect” written on the bumper. If pressed the child might say that the police exist to help. This would be the professed image of the police.
At the same time, the child is being taught by his mother that bad boys are taken away by the police. The child is being taught that the police effectively exist to lock him up when he misbehaves. The child is being taught that they should avoid the police and this image may last for years in such a deep place that the child may not even remember. The child is going forward with two ideas in his head. He says the police are there for his benefit and yet believes (at some level) that the police exist to hurt him when he misbehaves.
I wonder how much this duality truly exists when it comes to divine education. I serve in a role as a pastor. I teach people about God on a regular basis. I tell people about the love of Jesus, the kindness of Jesus, the graciousness of Jesus, and that God deeply and truly cares for them. I try to teach this idea at a deep level.
At the same time, there are people who constantly and consistently undermine this idea. Yes, sometimes it is a parent saying that God will take them as a bad kid and throw them into a fire where they will spend all of eternity, but I honestly don’t believe many of the parents that I meet work out of that theological place. This idea is reinforced while flipping through television stations past an angry televangelist, while walking past the angry man with a sign screaming through a bullhorn, while talking with friends and relatives who have had bad experiences with hellfire/damnation preachers. All of these influences add up and in a world where there are a million and one places to get information it shouldn’t be a surprise to any of us that God sometimes ends up with a reputation as being someone who cannot and must not be trusted.
This whole concept begs a question or two for me. How does the church survive when there are so many people teaching the exact opposite viewpoint that we share of a loving and caring God? How do we help people connect the image of God they profess to the image of God that is acting on a level that might even exist below their conscious thought? How do we help people peel back the layers and find the God of love and grace below their misconceptions?
I know I have done my best to help my kids understand that police officers are good people by making sure they know how much we respect their Uncle Stefano (who is a police officer). We treat officers with respect and do our best not to speak poorly of the police (even when we don’t agree with everything that has ever been done by police officers). We do our best to connect our children with a positive image of the police.
I wonder if we might do the same thing by connecting our children to people who carry the love of God around with them in their everyday lives. I think that means making certain our children are involved in a Christian community and supporting that community as best we are able. I also believe that means doing our best to embody the faith we profess as opposed to the poor parts of the faith we may have inherited from others. I think it’ll take a lot of work.
Here are three things I think need to become a reality for this work to succeed:
- Caregivers and parents need to be aware that their viewpoints often help to educate a child about the role and nature of God. A lesson is taught when a child is dropped off for Sunday school by a parent who leaves to have “me time.” Awareness is necessary.
- Pastors, Sunday School teachers, and even parishioners need to be aware that their vocal-voice is not the only voice children hear. Our voices need to be compelling and backed up by our actions. We cannot sing “Jesus’ hands were kind hands” before saying terrible things around the table over a cup of coffee while expecting kids to remember only the first message. Our kids will hear both messages.
- Sometimes we need to state the obvious in worship so that the obvious is heard more than once or twice. Why do some churches have constant communion? Yes, there’s a theology of grace, but there’s also a richness to hearing words of grace and forgiveness regularly. Why do some churches repeat a creed or affirmation of faith every week? Perhaps a child needs the consistency of hearing the same message in order to combat the messages they see every day in the world.
What other things do you think the church can do to connect the professed beliefs of the church about God with their operative images of God? What have you seen work in your lives?