I have a vivid memory of the first time I became aware that children could die. It was early evening in the leisurely dusk of summer, and after eating with my mother at a local coffee shop, we passed by a newspaper vending machine outside. A child victim, kidnapped, murdered and disposed of like garbage, stared ominously out at me from the front page of the paper in grainy black and white. I remember my sense of horror when my mother told me that the child, who was approximately my age, would never see his parents again. Associating death with old people, I was stupefied by this seeming contradiction. Although raised heretically in a secular household, I had been corrupted by the prayer-saturated social universe of waxen blue-eyed Jesus’ plastered on my friends’ living room walls. Alone in my bed that night, I wondered how “God” could have countenanced such unspeakable evil.
Decades later there is an aching space where this child’s life would have been, his personhood “frozen” at abduction. Violent death by homicide at an early age is a grim reality for many youth of color. Gangsta rap romanticizes it and dishes it up for the voyeurism of white suburbia. Mainstream media ignores it or relegates it to social pathology. Every semester when I ask my students if they’ve had a young friend or relative die violently at least half will raise their hands. Their tattoos, notebooks and Sidekick phones are filled with vibrant mementoes for the dead. It is not necessary to go to Iraq, Afghanistan or some other theatre of American imperialism to experience the devastation that the killing fields of disposable youth inflicts. Yet, God takes care of children and fools, or so the shopworn saying goes. In the midst of sudden death there is refuge in the belief that the Cecil B. De Mille epic doomsayer of the Old Testament must have a special place in his heart for this tender constituency. Pied Piper religionists pat children on the head and whisper into their dewy ears that the murder of an innocent child is part of some grand design. They dish up the concept of divine providence like hard candy. They lure sweet-toothed youth with a ready “antidote” to the quandary of trying to make sense out of the senselessness and randomness of evil. The Wynken, Blynken and Nod bedtime story of grand design is chased down with the simple carrot of eternal reward for slain innocents. The inexplicable is assimilated. Senseless evil, evil that befalls the good and stalks the innocent, is legitimized as part of the divine’s hardscrabble boot camp for the living.
If it can be understood, it isn’t God, said Augustine. In ambiguity then, prayer is the great equalizer and potential redeemer. As American children we grow up with recurring images of kneeling girls and boys, hands clasped solemnly in prayer. These images propagandize faith as a normal, natural phenomenon. The magic bullet of prayer is trotted out as an escape hatch from the small indignity to the unspeakably cruel act of wild-oats-sewing youth. Bad kids pray obsessively for forgiveness. Good kids pray strategically in crisp starched pajamas for family members, friends, and Fido to be delivered to the top of God’s check list. Sinful thoughts can be defused by requesting a special audience with God. Good thoughts can be “deposited” into one’s virtual piggy bank of moral worth.
Blasting the hypocrisy of this brand of yo-yo morality in the Doors’ song “The Soft Parade,” Jim Morrison bellows:
When I was back there in seminary school, a person put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer…petition the Lord with prayer…petition the Lord with prayer…You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!!!
Morrison’s fierce monologue highlights the absurdity of prayer as a form of negotiation. Clearly, the more meditative personal and intimate benefits of prayer can be therapeutic to the believer. Yet, the assumption that prayer can be a bargaining chip in moments of crisis merely allows individuals to refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. Children who are indoctrinated into this escape hatch mentality are forced early on to reconcile an out of control, evil, morally rudderless world with the illusion of a forgiving tailor-made God that they can summon like hocus pocus. Picking and choosing morality and dividing the world into the Christian “us” and the immoral, unwashed secular/Muslim/Hindu/“them,” “faith-based” children are socialized to see and enforce hierarchies of personhood rather than embrace fellowship.
Since God sees and “forgives” everything that is petitioned, the moral universe of children is a tiny, confining funhouse of mirrors. In communities where death at an early age is considered unremarkable by mainstream media and policymakers, the deferment demanded by faith is an insurance policy against social oblivion. When death is near, it is easy to arm a child with the “faith” that their 15 year-old cousin, killed in a drive-by shooting, has gone on to a “better place.” When death is near, the fear of retaliation for being a “snitch” compels crime witnesses to remain silent. As a result, homicide cases remain open indefinitely while perpetrators walk around free and clear in the same neighborhoods. Yet faith allows victims and witnesses to rationalize this seeming contradiction. God will take care of the evildoer in the afterlife, whilst granting the departed everlasting peace and deliverance in heaven.
And for the parents of a dead child it is said that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Having lost a child to a congenital disease, this is bitter refuge and rank fraud. This reductive homily has been especially tailored to domesticate and seduce women, saddled with a thousand obligations, the primary care of children and infirm relatives, dead end jobs with marginal pay. It is God’s will that you be eaten alive by the “womanly” stress of always being expected to defer, sacrifice and persevere. And it is God’s will that you must bite back your Eve-bequeathed rage in silent complicity.
In my infant son’s final hours, I stared down at the phalanx of tubes that separated him from death. Soon, they said, he will be an angel. I could feel nothing but the obscenity of divine providence, the mockery of robust babies whisked from the delivery room to pink and blue splattered nurseries without incident, innocent of the antiseptic drone of the neonatal ICU.
But then, there is the stripped-to-the-bone eloquence of women waiting for deliverance; like that depicted in a story I read recently about a homeless Haitian single mother’s heartbreaking quest for permanent shelter. Desperately she waits for God to “put something into her hand,” to perhaps give her a sign that she won’t be like scores of parents fated by this rudderless God to outlive their young children.
Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of blackfemlens.org and the author of the forthcoming Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics and Secular America. She is a Senior Fellow with the Institute for Humanist Studies.