I think the hardest lesson for God to learn about people was this: just because you create someone who is in your image, it doesn’t mean he or she will turn out like you. No kidding.
The whole of the Bible is God coming to terms with that truth.
And – what an irony – about the only thing that actually is reliable about being in God’s image is that parents, mentors and other authority figures have a hard time learning the same lesson. It is true on a macro level and on a micro level.
Those of us who are lucky and marry well (like me) have kids that actually turn out better, but for all we have in common with our kids, they all wind up being who they are, not who we are.
There is an exquisitely painful set of instructions for parents who raise a stubborn and rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:18-21). If they reach the end of their rope, they are instructed to haul him before the elders of the city, declare his (very specific) crimes of refusing to listen to his parents and being a glutton and drunkard. And then the elders stone the son to death. The section concludes with the rationale: all of Israel will hear and be afraid.
I must say it works. My parents never (seriously) threatened to have me formally charged with being stubborn, but the first time I read this little section it stuck with me. The fifth commandment may set the expectation that I behave well toward my parents, but this scenario made it real.
Of course, it is horrifying. What parents, seriously, would take their child to be executed? How could this be true? Yet, there it is in the Holy Scripture!
The rabbinic architects of Jewish law seemed to be horrified as well. They put so many restrictions on this little section that it was impossible to act upon. An entire chapter (8) of the Talmud (Sanhedrin) is devoted to defining the eligibility of the intended victim out of existence. By the time they are finished, they conclude that this stubborn and rebellious son “never existed, never was created.” All that is left when they are finished is the rationale: all of Israel will hear and be afraid.
The fear of disappointing parents and, by extension, God is probably the most useful and the most damaging feature of religious life. (Yes, I know – not every religion has God and not every kid has religion. Still.) If we did not aspire to be the people our parents and God imagine (i.e., create an image of), we might never learn to have aspirations of our own. That’s very useful. On the other hand, I have never met anyone who did not react to some misdeed large or small by saying, “My parents are going to kill me.” They don’t mean it literally. Right?
When the expectation set by family or faith seems so clear and so non-negotiable, the child who lives in fear of divine or parental disapproval often sees little difference between life and death. And especially when the model of what constitutes living in the image in which the child was created is clearly defined, the consequences of a different path can be devastating.
I know how much attention is being paid to the choices children make about their life path. Will they follow the religious commitments of their parents? Will they subscribe to the political attitudes with which they were raised? In some families, choices of career, military service, education and even sports teams can rise to the level of expectation. Challenging those orthodoxies can tear a family apart, but more often than not there is room for compromise. No verse in the Bible requires you to root for the Cubs. Though it should.
But when there is a verse and it is layered with long-standing community norms, those matters that do not involve choice, rather identity, require preemptive attention.
Some percentage of our children understand their sexual and gender identities differently than the heterosexual and cisgender (look it up – I had to) majorities in our society. And when they confront the condemnatory verses that formed the foundation of society’s attitudes toward LGBTQ people long before those five letters held meaning, they understand that someone important believes they are as deplorable as the stubborn and rebellious son. They do not live up to the image. Perhaps they should be hauled before the elders, so that all Israel will hear and be afraid.
Listen, my friends – those of you who are parents and those of you who have ever been children. Not a one of you would pull the most stubborn and rebellious child to the public square for execution by a disapproving elite. No matter how different than your imagining that child might be, you stand with the rabbis of 2000 years ago who declared that a child worthy of such treatment “never existed, never was created.” They interpreted those verses clean out of existence.
We need to do it again. The child whose sexual identity is an abomination – that’s the word – never existed, never was created. We need to make it clear to every child in every image of every parent. And of God.