Susan and I have only one child (who is now an adult mother with two sons, one a teenager and the other in kindergarten), and so we have never had to deal with the temptation of showing favoritism to one child over another. As I observe young families in the church where we now are active, I wonder how they are able to parent with equal and unconditional love for all their children. I’m sure it takes a lot of planning, patience, and perspective to offer an indiscriminate love to all within one’s family. My paternal grandmother had twelve children who lived to adulthood. I remember her saying that her love was equal for all of her sons and daughters. Several of her children died before she passed away, and a few people in her church tried to provide comfort by reminding her that she still had many children who were alive. Her gentle response was that her love was not parceled out among her sons and daughters—it was complete for each child. So, the grief she would suffer over the death of one of her children would be the same as the grief she would experience if she had only one child and that child had died.
I would think that all of us would agree with my grandmother and confess that we too love our children equally. However, my experiences growing up in a family where I was not the only child remind me that love offered by parents at specific times and in concrete circumstances is not and cannot be equal and indiscriminate. In our hearts we may love all equally, but in the throes of everyday living with all of its demands and crises, of necessity we offer our love on the base of need.
For example, if one of your children fell down the stairs and suffered a compound fracture, you would naturally give your primary attention, care, and comfort to that child. The rest of the world, including the needs of the rest of your family, would have to be placed on the back burner as you came to the aid and comfort of your suffering child. If during the next week another child came down with a severe case of pneumonia, you would shift your primary attention and care to that child. If the next week another of your children was subjected to a severe emotional blow by being cruelly rejected and bullied by his or her playmates, you would stop and focus your compassion and attention on that child’s emotional pain. And if during the next week one child was beating another child senseless with a baseball bat, you would certainly intervene with your concern and attention as you cared for the battered child and restrained the angry and violent child (not to mention later having a serious “come to Jesus” moment with the perpetrator).
In each of the above cases, no one would accuse you of loving one child more than you love another. Your love would be offered in a time and place dictated by the needs your children experienced. At such times you would be demonstrating favoritism and partiality. Clearly you would be spending more time and offering more attention to one child at the expense of the others. But the need and occasion clearly warranted such bias. Indeed, if you could not love in this concrete and specific way, then it would be doubtful whether you loved your children at all.
In the last fifty years a movement in Christian theology has challenged the church to its very foundations. That movement is called Liberation Theology. This particular theological perspective maintains that God has a preferential option for the poor and oppressed. It is not God’s will that these people should suffer from poverty, hunger, torture, and abuse. God’s will is for freedom, justice, and equality. God does not love the poor and oppressed more than God loves the privileged and wealthy. But in the concrete circumstances of the suffering of the poor and oppressed, God cannot remain impartial. Just as loving parents must respond to the particular child who is in anguish, so must God respond to Her children who are in pain and who suffer abuse and neglect. If God did not love in this concrete and preferential way, then how could we claim that God loves at all?
We live in a time where there is much debate over fairness, affirmative action, quotas, and the civil rights of many groups. There are those who maintain that equality means treating all people the same in every circumstance and on every occasion with no regard for the past injustices or the present handicaps endured by many. But the simple truth is this: as parents we do not and cannot treat our children that way. We prioritize our love in action according to need. God clearly does not approach human beings with an abstract kind of love which is oblivious to particular need. God’s love for us within God’s heart may be unconditional and indiscriminate. But God’s love for us in the concrete circumstances of our lives is expressed according to our need.
I wonder what place this perspective from Liberation Theology should have in our public debates regarding racism, affirmative action, international debt and aid, the rights of women, the struggles of the LGBTQ community, and dehumanizing and lethal poverty. I’m pretty sure I know where God stands in the concrete and particular circumstances surrounding these issues. And I’m equally sure where God would want us to stand if we are truly followers of the One who always sided with “the least of these.”