This is part of the twelve-day series on the values of Christmas I am writing in an attempt to stay in the season of Christmas through January 6.
“I got my mom a STERLING SILVER NECKLACE!” my ten-year-old friend said proudly to my grown-up friend and me just before Christmas, so proud of himself for having pulled off such a high end gift.
“Uh huh. How did you get her something so nice?” my friend asked carefully.
He said something about allowance and we let the moment pass.
My friend and I weren’t sure whether to believe him.
Because ten years of both really messed up parenting and a really messed up foster care system have done a number on him.
There’s a lot of talk about love at Christmas, and I had planned on talking about the unhealthy ways parenthood is reflected in holiday art: I could definitely go on a bit of a justified feminist tear about how Mary’s love gets turned into a caricature of itself to prop up patriarchy instead of acknowledging that Mary knew she was playing a role in the liberation of her people, and that being the mother of Jesus involved not just sweet and gentle love but a tenacious love that would put today’s tiger mothers and mama grizzlies to shame. There are some fantastic writings on this subject and I encourage you to read them. Elizabeth Cady Stanton even said in her Women’s Bible in the late 1800s, “I think that the doctrine of the Virgin birth as something higher, sweeter, nobler than ordinary motherhood, is a slur on all the natural motherhood of the world. I believe that millions of children have been as immaculately conceived, as purely born, as was the Nazarene. Why not? Out of this doctrine, and that which is akin to it, have sprung all the monasteries and nunneries of the world, which have disgraced and distorted and demoralised manhood and womanhood for a thousand years. I place beside the false, monkish, unnatural claim of the Immaculate Conception my mother, who was as holy in her motherhood as was Mary herself.”
There’s another way we’ve gone and mistletoed up the Christmas message, though. Thanks a lot, Mariah Carey.
If you’ll forgive me mixing this Christmas series with my dating series for a quick minute, here is my favorite imaginable response to the Love, Actually Christmas crowd:
Yeah. That made me laugh really hard for a long time.
Back to my ten-year-old friend, though. He has just been placed with a family that loves him unconditionally, and he wants to respond to that love. At the same time, he’s spent ten years with people who either don’t know how to love him or only know that love and abuse are somehow connected or who are too wrapped up in their own brokenness and addictions to realize that loving a child also means protecting that child. For ten years, my young friend has had to work out this horrific amalgam of having his own back because you can’t trust ANYONE and simultaneously trying really hard to win the affections of the people who are in theory in the position of bestowing protection and affection. So with this child’s most generous action, I’m left wondering whether it’s come by 100% honestly, because after a decade of having your own back, well, old habits die hard.
You probably know all of the horrors of foster care (although there’s a heartrending “private industry doesn’t always do everything best” angle from the Press Democrat on this subject: “Nearly three decades ago, California began privatizing part of its foster care program as part of a grand experiment. But an analysis of state records by the Los Angeles Times has found that those children living in residences run by private agencies are now about 33 percent more likely to be the victims of serious physical, emotional or sexual abuse than children who reside in state-supervised foster family homes.” The article talks about a woman with a criminal record letting her boyfriend with a criminal record kill their foster toddler, and the licensing agency getting fined $150 for this breach.) You know about the challenges of foster youth facing unsafe group home conditions and having to deal with the emotional trauma of having parents who are alive but unable to care for them. You may know the devastating statistics about the chances of foster kids as adults. You may have seen the movie Antwone Fisher or just know enough children in foster care to know that their status as children in the foster care system is usually one piece of a complicated and painful puzzle that the foster care system rarely makes easier. You may know that years of scarring by biological and foster parents cause so much trauma that children end up back in the system because they are too much for prospective adoptive parents to handle. And you probably know that the burden disproportionately falls on children of color, because prospective adoptive parents prefer White children (and then Asians, and then Latinos, and then Blacks) at a shockingly high rate.
On my end, I know a whole bunch of foster and foster-to-adopt parents who love their foster and adoptive children fiercely, with a tenacity that rivals Mary’s, and they sometimes have to do battle with the foster care system in order for their children to get the opportunities and support and love they need and deserve.
So this Christmas I find myself more than a little annoyed with how the western Victorian construct of romantic love has been imposed on the Greatest Story Ever Told. And I find myself fairly despondent about how little access there is for a ten-year-old boy to the kind of love Christ came into the world both to bring and to model.
In this season, Christians worship a baby. A vulnerable baby to whom much devastation could occur. According to the gospel of Matthew, we worship a baby whose king wants him slaughtered, so the magicians from a far off land point the Holy Family in the direction of Egypt — better refugees than parents grieving a murdered infant.
In this season, we are surrounded by babies and children and teenagers who need to know what real love looks like. And it doesn’t look like the codependent love of Mariah Carey and Love, Actually. It doesn’t look like the abuse and psychological manipulation that runs rampant in our increasingly privatized and underfunded child welfare programs all across this country that causes beautiful, smart, kind children to become distrustful and manipulative and unable to be the loving and caring and vulnerable children they really are.
I’ve beaten up on the mainline church more than a few times in my blog posts over the years, but you know where I experience the real Christmas love? I experience it in these tenaciously loving parents (all of whom I actually know from church with two exceptions), and I experience it in the mainline churches where they take their children. As opposed to the fundamentalist churches my ten-year-old friend grew up in that terrorized him and also cultivated his skepticism (he’s a smart child who asks questions when he’s not likely to get punished for it), the church he goes to now acknowledges and works with his behavioral issues as best they can and extend both love and grace to him, and they offer him a model for being a decent and kind person in life that reinforces what is modeled for him at home, so his home life doesn’t seem like an aberration.
That’s what we need. We need the love of a church functioning as a family to honor the best in a child that the rest of the world is quite willing to throw away. We need the love of a church that sees the baby Jesus in the midst of the pain and trauma that makes the world shrug its shoulders at what it sees to be a delinquent. We need a church that can love that baby Jesus delinquent into an adult who no longer feels the need to simultaneously protect himself from and ingratiate himself to those in authority (and eventually those with whom he wants real realtionships). And we need a church that will comfort and support and cry with the parents brave enough to embrace the baby Jesus delinquent children, thorns and all, and to provide salve for the wounds the parents receive in the process.
Christ almighty, we need more of that. We desperately need more Christmas love to counter the ugly malformed versions of love on one hand and buffoonish, ridiulous romantic versions on the other.
We need love as tenacious as Mary’s, as attentive as the magis’, as vulnerable as a baby’s, and as all-giving as that of the poor shepherds who showed up with what little they had.
We need Christmas love more than ever.