Talking to kids about religion in age-appropriate ways often feels like a strange puzzle. Every year, religious holidays get harder for me to navigate. Eleanor is a steadily descending line on a graph, where x is her age and y is my confidence that I can pass on tenets of Christianity to her in a way that sits well with my soul. I don’t have a road map for what happens when we reach negative numbers.
Christmas is the easiest. It’s all peace and love and hope, one-syllable words with broad facets that even the smallest toddler can comprehend. Easter is complicated. First of all, it’s about a brutal and bloody execution–not the most pleasant thing to explain to a five-year-old. I’m still recovering from the time she cornered me in the car and asked me if kids can die.
But beyond the surface subject matter, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the fulcrum point of Christianity, and it contains some of the most complex ideology in religious thought. Nothing highlights this more in my mind than the way that my dad explained “the power of the cross” to me when I was around ten. The setting is hazy–we must have been either driving or hanging out in the garage, which is where most of these conversations happened. What I do remember, though, is how his tone sobered when he started talking about the depth of Jesus’s forgiveness.
“It doesn’t matter what you’ve done,” he said. “Whether you’ve told a lie or been a serial killer and murdered dozens of people. Jesus took all of that sin on Himself on the cross, everything evil we’ve ever done and ever will do. So even though we can’t ever really comprehend it, it’s because of the cross that Jeffrey Dahmer (this was a contemporary reference in the mid-90’s) sitting in his prison cell can ask Jesus for forgiveness and receive it. He’s restored to the Kingdom and his sins will be washed away as though they never happened.”
This shook me deeply. I thought about all the villains of every movie I’d ever seen, every news story I’d ever heard on the radio. Jeffrey Dahmer cut off people’s heads and ate their organs. My dad was telling me that such a person could be forgiven by God with the same fullness that I was forgiven for coveting my neighbor’s neon Trapper Keeper (mid-90’s y’all). I realize how crazy, and possibly offensive, that idea may sound, but for me, it was a beautiful perversion. I loved this radical definition of justice that valued restoration at all costs. I struggled with so much of Christian theology my entire life, but I held fast to the notion that God’s love would follow me to the ends of my every destructive impulse. A common quip I heard in Sunday school was that even if I was the only person on the face of the planet, Jesus still would have died for me. On Easter morning as we celebrated the empty tomb and victory over evil, I felt irreplaceable.
To Eleanor, Easter is pastel plastic eggs with candy in them and chocolate bunnies and a week off from school. I would like to communicate the meaning of the resurrection story to her. I would like for her to understand justice in this way, for her to view herself and every other person as infinitely, cosmically, divinely valuable. But I stall out because I don’t know how to do it. Untangling truth from fundamentalism is like trying to pull out one color of embroidery from the underside of the canvas. It’s painstaking, time-consuming, and it’s a fucking mess back there. This year I gave myself a mulligan, and instead of attending a church service on Easter morning, we left for a four-day camping trip in Georgia. Existential procrastination at its finest.
We got back late Wednesday night, and Thursday was a lazy, chill-ass recovery day. I left the back door open for the kids to ping pong between the backyard and the living room (okay let’s be honest–the backyard and directly under my feet) while I caught up on chores. At lunchtime, Eleanor and I listened to a children’s story podcast that we both enjoy, and that’s when it happened.
Sometimes, y’all, amidst the diapers and the snot and the whining and the time-outs and the overall mundane mist that you move through as a parent to young children, you experience a moment of deep clarity. Every once in a while, your kids pause while eating their boogers to wreck your soul in the best and most profound way.
The story was an adaptation of an African folktale called The Big Scary Cave. In it, a rabbit comes home one day to find his beloved cave home has been taken over, as a voice booms from the darkness, claiming to be a fearsome creature who devours hippos and eats lions as snacks. The rabbit flees back to the forest, returning with friend after friend who vow to defeat the creature and give the rabbit back his house, but none are brave enough to enter the dark cave once they hear the terrifying voice. Finally, the wise frog agrees to help the rabbit, and after listening to the voice, demands that the creature show itself. After an embarrassing silence, a tiny caterpillar crawls out and says, “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. It just seemed like a warm place to sleep.” The rabbit thanks the frog and cooks a big feast for all of her friends to celebrate. The end.
Except Eleanor wasn’t having that ending. “That’s so sad!” she said. “The caterpillar doesn’t have anywhere to sleep now. Why didn’t they invite him to the dinner?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure the animals wanted the caterpillar at the dinner because he had been greedy to steal the rabbit’s cave and scare him away.”
“That’s a sad ending,” she insisted. “I don’t like that. He was sorry, and they should have invited him to dinner.”
At that moment I realized that I didn’t need to worry so much about how to explain the Easter story to my daughter, because that story is already written on her heart. She either innately understands or has cobbled together from her brief experience so far on this planet that true justice does not stop at ending harm, it pushes on to restoration. God and Eleanor and Love are not satisfied until everyone can be brought back to the dinner table.