Editor’s Introduction: Addressing the Sin of Child Abuse

[1] In December, Christians, especially those in the United States, tend to think a lot about children. Part of this is, of course, theological.  Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation of God as an infant.  Fragile as any child, the maker of the stars was, at his birth, unable to support his own head.  Jesus as child was completely at the mercy of his mother and Joseph.  Their own ability to protect him was, of course, dependent on the larger social community which called them to walk to Bethlehem, failed to provide a room at the inn, and allowed the murder of innocents by Herod after Jesus’ birth.

[2] Theologically motivated as the interest in the Christ child is, the focus on children at Christmas is also part of American modern culture.  Instead of the medieval focus on taking care of the poor on Christmas day, more and more families in the 19th century in England and the United States, turned to taking care of their own children as examples of the least of these within their own household.[1]  This turn to the taking care of one’s own children rather than the poor fit and fits well with a national narrative that the family is the foundation of community.  One is responsible for taking care of one’s own children.

[3] Yet, of course, such a view of family is not so unique.  This view that the state takes care of heads of families and the heads of families take care of their dependents (a view showcased in political speeches today as many candidates claim that their goal is to help families) is remarkably similar to that in the Greek and Roman worlds.  This view, explained by Aristotle in the Politics, is a model in which the care and well-being of the whole household is the responsibility of the father, who alone has full citizenship.  This view, as Kathleen Gallagher Elkins explains, is adopted, also, in Ephesians further legitimizing its place in contemporary American Christian society both at Christmas and at election time.

[4] But, of course, this model is dangerous for those who are vulnerable to abuse in their own families. Sadly, the statistics show that this vulnerability to abuse is present in the majority of family structures. From Victor Vieth’s essay we learn that more than 60% of adults have been subjected to one of the following: sexual abuse as a child, physical abuse as a child to the point of receiving injuries, emotional abuse, physical neglect, or the experience of witnessing violent treatment of their mother.

[5] This means that child abuse is normal.  This means that when a child reports incidents of abuse to their friends, it is most likely that the friends will say, “Yeah that is how it is at my house.”  This means that many children think that this must be okay because normal often becomes normative.  Perhaps this is why rarely do pastors preach against child abuse or domestic violence and why rarely churches have a policy to help children in abuse situations. Perhaps this is why there has not been an issue or even an article on child abuse in JLE.

[6] And yet, children who suffer abuse “are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, or alcohol or drug abuse.” They are more likely “to have difficulty controlling their anger; to engage in risky sexual behavior and to become pregnant before leaving high school.”  Vieth’s essay explains that adults who were abused as children are more likely to get cancer, have a weakened immune system, and to engage in high-risk behaviors. Child abuse also weakens the faith of children: faith in a God who protects and faith in a church who professes care for children.

[7] This issue of JLE is dedicated to calling a thing what it is.  Child abuse is abuse, abuse that profoundly harms members of the body of Christ.  The three essays in this issue grapple with the topic Biblically, theologically, and practically.

[8] The first essay by Kathleen Gallagher Elkins takes on the household codes of Ephesians in order to help readers grapple with what the raising of children might look like without the use of force.  She asks readers to consider the way in Scripture many “children of God” (such as Abraham and Job) interact with their heavenly Parent as a model for how we might expect children to interact with their earthly parents.

[9]. The second and third essays by Victor Vieth and Craig Nessan urge Lutherans to take to heart and hand their theological beliefs about caring for the least of these and our commitments made to children and all people in baptism.  These essays give practical advice about what we should do to honor these commitments, from teaching trauma informed care in seminaries to addressing very specific issues in our churches and society.

[10] This Advent and Christmas season, as we consider the infant Christ, we must also consider how we treat out own children and how we seek to protect all children.  These three essays will help readers think deeply and particularly about how to change our attitudes about discipline, about families, and about the role of the church in nourishing and protecting children.



[1] See for example Rosemary Radford Ruether, Church and Family III: Religion and the Making of the Victorian Family, New Blackfriars Vol. 65, No. 765 (March 1984), pp. 110-118.  https://www.jstor.org/stable/i40127790  and  Paul Ringel, Why Children Get Gifts on Christmas: A History in The Atlantic. (12/2015). https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/12/why-people-give-christmas-gifts/421908/




Jennifer Hockenbery

Jennifer Hockenbery serves as Editor of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics .  She is Professor of Philosophy and Dean of Humanities at St Norbert College. She attends Grace Lutheran Church in Green Bay, WI.