The Old Testament talks of the god Molech, worshipped by some of the tribes surrounding the Israelites. Molech was a rapacious devouring god, as Brian Walsh writes, “…a god who required the burnt offering of children as his sacrifice. A fire would be built inside the idol, turning it red with heat. As drummers would play as loudly as possible, parents would place their children into the molten hands of the idol. The drummers would beat their drums so loudly that no one would hear the cries of the children…”
We might feel grateful that such a thing does not happen today, or does it?
Perhaps if we listen carefully we can still hear the cries of our children above the noise of school bells and Spotify, through the pressure of performance, testing and exams and between the distractions of iPhones, Instagram, Netflix, or PlayStation.
If we listen and look carefully it is apparent that today’s young have taken a hit in terms of their mental health. Sacrificed on the altar of parental ambition and societal expectation many children grapple with the relentless nature of their everyday lives. Depression, self-harm and eating disorders are on the rise worldwide, along with stress induced illnesses.
The United Nations warns that one in five children already suffer from a psychological disorder.
From what I hear and see in South African schools the picture does not look much different. So preoccupied have we become with external measures of success that stimulant medication is on the rise. Ritalin ensures that children are able to keep up with schedules that, according to Carl Honoure, “would make a CEO nervous”.
On the inside our youth are often falling apart as they self-medicate through alcohol, substances or other addictive behaviours.
This story of Molech is contrasted with the account of Isaac in Genesis where his father Abraham laid him on an altar to sacrifice him to God. While the two tales sound similar, these are two very different altars.
Altar of commercialism
While today we do not place our children into Molech’s molten hands, there is pressure to give them (and ourselves) up to an equally demanding god. In Roman times the philosopher Seneca recommended mutilating children to make them more effective beggars. During the industrial revolution and Victorian age the issues around child labour were many, all for the sake of economic progress.
Given the pressure young people are under now and the attendant issues that they deal with, is it really that different today?
Many families in South Africa for the sake of economic necessity, live apart. Others, live apart in all but name.
In 2009 the Institute of Race Relations recorded that 48% of South African children have a present father, while only 35% of children live with both their parents.
Parents are often so tired they just don’t have the energy to engage once they return home after work. At the same time the fact that their own children may still have homework to complete means family engagement is likely to include shouting, tears and door slamming.
When we couple together the work demands on parents and the pressure to perform on children it is no wonder rates of anxiety and depression run so high. Fill in any gaps that are left with series, gaming or social media and meaningful family time all but disappears.
Parents are hurling their children and themselves into the flames at unrepentant rates as they spend their best days in service to this god of commercialism, wreaking havoc on themselves and their families.
There is another altar however. Like Abraham we can choose to rather offer our children up to God.
How do we do this?
Well firstly I think that as parents and teachers we have to put ourselves there first. It’s not easy. The problem with being a living sacrifice is that we keep getting up and crawling off the altar. But making a conscious and intentional effort to put God first has to be at the start line of any race we are running.
On that foundation we then need to make sure we are there for our children. Without the love of, and time with significant adults, young people will be stunted and mutilated like Seneca’s beggar children.
What is this relationship like in practice? I would suggest the following three thoughts:
1. Peace at home
A psychologist friend of mine says that children, “live, move and have their being in the atmosphere of their parents relationship.” For children this is mental and emotional oxygen. Even in situations of divorced and separated parents (as much a reality for Christians as non-Christians), “as far as they are able” should seek to maintain a positive relationship.
2. Eat together
A study by Dr Blake Bowden of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Centre surveyed 527 children. They found that those whose parents ate dinner with them five times a week or more were the least likely to be on drugs, to be depressed or to be in trouble with the law. They were also more likely to be doing well in school and to be surrounded by a supportive circle of friends.
3. Quantity trumps quality
When it comes to children there are no shortcuts. The book of Deuteronomy tells us in relation to God’s words that we should, “teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” That means we have to be there at those times.
It is my contention that we have a choice.
If we are not laying our children on God’s altar then we will, de facto, be laying them on the altar of, if not commercialism, then some other devouring god.
When Mother Theresa received her Nobel Prize she was asked, what can we do to promote world peace. She replied, “Go home and love your families.”