As I was recounting the events of the Christian Holy Week with a group of children, Jess* waved her hand wildly in the air to get my attention. She then exclaimed, “I know why Jesus was killed. People got so mad at him that they forgot to use their words. They should have taken a time out!”
Many religious and spiritual stories contain elements that adults find difficult to explain to children. Persecution, martyrdom, injustice, antiquated worldviews – we may be tempted to gloss over these aspects and hope kids don’t ask too many questions. Yet facing these ‘hard parts’ head on can be beneficial for children’s spiritual development. That’s because such stories provide ideas about how to interpret and cope with difficult situations and ethical dilemmas.
The stories of the Christian Holy Week are an example. They link together events in the life of Jesus that lead from a boisterous welcome into Jerusalem to a symbolic dinner, sudden arrest by armed guards, hurried trial, and condemnation to death. The tale ends with a joyous surprise on Easter Sunday: the discovery that Jesus is no longer dead.
Whether you are sharing the narrative as part of your religious beliefs or as an explanation of what others are celebrating, acknowledge the strong emotions these stories evoke. Hearing about threats of violence may generate anger or fear. A description of Jesus’ death may evoke deep sadness. Invite children to share their reactions and talk about the different ways that people respond to good and bad things happening.
Another way to engage is to link experiences in the stories to children’s life experiences. Notice how the conversation around the last supper table is similar to family conversations at mealtime, including some bickering among the participants. Suggest that the muttering by others is akin to peer or sibling ‘drama’ or negative social commentaries based on race, gender, class, and ethnicity. Invite children, like Jess*, to identify the connections they see as well.
Many Christians emphasize Jesus’ courage and commitment as a central theme of the stories. This approach underscores his agency as someone making good choices under difficult circumstances, which is an empowering message for children. Talk about the kinds of tough choices kids have to make and what helps them to be courageous and committed.
It is also prudent to review storybooks and videos for implicit biases and stereotypes before sharing them with children. Rather than blame ‘the Jews’ for Jesus’ death, talk about the politics of the Roman Empire and how it pitted minority groups against one another. With older children, debate the ethics of arresting soldiers ‘just following orders’ or a Pontius Pilate currying favor with other politicians and lobbyists.
Throughout the conversation, encourage children to ask questions and explore them together. Think of yourself as a guide facilitating a spiritual journey rather than an expert who has to have all the answers. Start with your own ideas about why things happened and then seek further information and opinions [see Related Resources for some helpful websites] to expand the conversation.
*This name has been changed.