Safe Havens educates faith leaders on how to recognize and respond to domestic violence.
There are many reasons for divorces and one of them is domestic violence. It's true that there are women and men who experience domestic violence and never leave the marriage; they only want to cleave while others leave for their dear life. Domestic violence can be viewed as family violence but there are family members from whom we may rarely hear in these situations, namely children. Most certainly, domestic violence impacts the perpetrator and victim yet if there are children in the same space, they, too, will be affected. They, too, may even be beaten, battered, and bruised. This is the blues-inflected struggle of life.
The book of Mark focuses a lot on the suffering of Jesus. Pain seems to have some privilege in the way Mark preaches the gospel. He keeps it real. Mark is a truth-teller because even today many travel a "trail of tears". The level of pain and the type of pain vary. But the honest truth is that life is not a bouquet of sweet-smelling roses. There are thorns and fractures. There is brokenness--broken bodies and relationships--so it is of no surprise per se when we see Jesus and the Pharisees engage in a conversation about marriage and divorce, topics that may heighten our awareness of human brokenness in our society. It's no secret that many marriages fail and end in divorce, whether they are people of faith or not.
Through this lens, it might not be a coincidence that directly following the teaching about marriage and divorce (vv.2-12) is a short story about how Jesus blesses children (vv.13-16). We can't avoid this literary connection that points to existential realities. Children are affected by divorce, not just the partners. Children may be torn between two parents but one could also say that we, adults, may be prone to divorcing children, that is, separating from them and their needs, neglecting their voice and place in the home or broader society, ignoring how they may be impacted by domestic violence.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that 1 out of 15 children are exposed to domestic violence and 90% of them are eyewitnesses to it. Safe Horizon, another organization aiding victims of domestic violence, states that more than 3 million children see domestic violence in the home. In general, we don't hear about the children's perspectives in these dire situations. Maybe they are to be seen and not heard. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising, though it still is, when in the Christian tradition God came into the world as a child. We don't usually hear the question, "Are the children safe?"
In the ancient setting of Mark, children of the Greco-Roman world were held in low esteem, which is why Jesus embraces them as a sign of his own self-identification with the least of these (Mark 9:33-37). The ostracizing of children is also pronounced in that though children are present throughout the gospel of Mark, we never hear their voice. That in and of itself is a form of violence, a tactic to silence young potential victims. Their bodies are there but we never hear from them. They may even be healed but they never speak (Mark 5:21-24, 35-43; 7:24-37; 9:14-27); they don't have a voice. They are silenced in Mark and in the discussion about domestic violence. We can barely hear any echo of this still small voice asking, "Are the children safe?"
There's so much more attention put on the husband and wife who are married and divorced, so much more attention on adults than on children. There are eleven verses on the adults' relationship issues (vv.2-12) and a measly four on Jesus and the children (vv.13-16). Even in this respect, children are short changed and we see the domination of adulthood, though all of us were children at some point in our lives. It's the ongoing neglect (what might called 'the violence of neglect') of children and their needs.
The disciples don't care either because when "people were bringing the little children to [Jesus] in order that he might touch them," "the disciples spoke sternly to them." Sometimes, many times, followers of Jesus miss the mark too when it comes to the role of children in the world. To scold the people who bring children to Jesus for a blessing is a sign of how we can 'divorce' children. It's not enough that we never hear the voice of children, or that we sometimes get antsy if they make too much noise in a church service, the disciples have to scold the constructive attempt to bless others. The disciples prefer to keep the status quo and are happy with the way things are as long as they are not affected. Modern day disciples may even, in the name of God, encourage couples to stay in their abusive relationships, maintaining the same family system that hurts not only the couple but also their children. With this unholy maintenance, the bruising can continue.
However, Jesus is not in the bruising, but blessing business. Only in Mark is Jesus indignant with the disciples for hindering the little children and only in Mark does Jesus bless children. Jesus is a child advocate extraordinaire. He responds to his followers and says, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs." He welcomes them and holds them up as models for the kingdom. He then goes one step further by resisting the societal fear of touching the lowly, and in our day, touching children because of all of the abuse scandals.
Jesus takes a risk and engages in redemptive action. "He took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them." He brought near those who were usually far off, even in conversations about domestic violence. Jesus embraces the little ones who might be hurt through experiencing or seeing violence. One translation says Jesus "hugged the children." If so, his hugging is a form of rebellion against a contemporary culture where touching can be viewed as sexual predatorial behavior, rather than a practice of faithful discipleship, following the welcoming way of Jesus.
Jesus was right. "Let the little children come," even come to be a part of the notion of domestic violence because they, too, might be vulnerable victims. But like Jesus we don't have to support the status quo. Rather, we can bring children closer to this conversation and to ourselves in order to raise our hand, not to bruise, but to give a benediction, a blessing over their lives. We can hug them, hold them and love them, thereby embodying the way of Jesus, the real Safe Haven, more effectively.
Bible Study Questions
1. How does Jesus respond to other children in the gospel of Mark?
2. Why do you think the teaching about marriage and divorce is located before the story about Jesus blessing children?
3. Are there places in Mark where children experience violence of some kind?
For Further Reading
Blount, Brian K. Go Preach! Mark's Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today. Orbis
Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus. 20th
anniversary edition. Orbis Books, 2008.
Ramsey, Nancy and John McClure, eds. Telling the Truth: Preaching Against Sexual and
Domestic Violence. United Church Press, 1998.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.