In ancient times, a child without a father was defenseless. In most cultures, women were treated as property and viewed as good only for creating children. So, a fatherless child with only a mother to protect him or her was absolutely helpless and very likely to starve without help. A woman without a husband was likewise defenseless, left to struggle to make ends meet or be forced into marriage just to survive. An alien, one who didn’t share the common beliefs of everyone around him or her, was equally helpless, not protected by the law, not welcomed as a visitor, and not wanted by most. These three groups of people were all defenseless, and it is these three groups of people that God uses His great and limitless strength to defend.
The Bible is full of the stories where God comes to the aid of the defenseless, and in preserving and passing down these stories to her children, the Catholic Church teaches them that their strength is a gift given to them not so that they can take advantage of others in their weaknesses but so that they can defend those who cannot defend themselves. This isn’t just a side note in Catholic teaching. It is a crucial element to teaching her children how to love others as their Father loves them.
In our day and age, defending the defenseless is a counter-cultural notion. In many states, the children who transition out of foster care – the fatherless – are tossed out onto the streets without any help at all on their 18th birthday because that’s the same day the checks stop coming in from the state for providing help. Every day children are bullied in schools, taunted by the strong for their weaknesses. Some of these children break under the pressure and commit suicide. Laws are passed that make being homeless a crime so that people don’t have to be confronted with the realities of it or have their sensibilities offended by its ugliness.
Compassion is the glue that holds together any group of human beings, and that includes a family, a community, or a nation. Compassion for other human beings is an inborn trait common to us all, but it can be lost if it is not cultivated and trained. Teaching our children to defend the defenseless is about teaching them to empathize with and care for other human beings as if those needs were their own.
Reading for InspirationA great deal of teaching happens in stories. The Catholic Church, being a very wise parent, knows this and so she reads to her children regularly stories of men and women throughout history who have taken up the cause of defending the defenseless. We see David stepping up out of obscurity to defend the nation of Israel against their much larger and far mightier cousins the Philistines. We have Ruth who bravely risks her life to defend her people. We have Judith the widow who stands up against forces that threaten to kill off the nation of Israel by cutting them off from water by infiltrating the camp and cutting off the head of the general. Throughout the entire Old Testament we see God, the most powerful of all creatures, bending low to defend the nation of Israel, the most defenseless of all nations. In the New Testament, God takes on human form in the person of Jesus Christ, and Jesus is constantly defending the defenseless. He gathers to himself the homeless, the lepers, the blind, the lame, the prostitutes, tax collectors, and all those who are outcasts and defends them, heals them, restores them, and even elevates their status.
These, of course, aren’t the only stories she selects to hand on to her children. She keeps records of the lives of her saints and passes those on as well. In reading the lives of the saints we, her children, are inspired to be more like them and given the courage we need to see how to put our faith in action. This is the power of our stories.
If we are to teach our children to defend the defenseless, we must do as our Mother has taught us to do. We must find stories for them that inspire them to do as we desire them to do. One lovely tale I read during my children’s literature class was the Tale of Desperaux. It’s about a mouse who, for the love of a princess, sets an entire kingdom free by defending them from tyranny. Many children feel quite a bit like a mouse – timid, afraid, small, and perhaps even unwanted. Such a story can inspire them to take up the cause and become the hero.
There are many theological problems with the Harry Potter series, but there were many good things about it as well. Harry was a child who suffered abuse at the hands of his foster parents and yet went on to display great courage, putting his own life on the line to defend those who could not defend themselves. He became a hero because of that willingness to sacrifice. This is the nature of what makes a hero a hero. The hero is not a hero because he has great power or many friends or great wealth. The villain often has those at his disposal. The hero is a hero because he takes what he has and he uses it to defend and protect those who cannot defend and protect themselves even when it requires of him a sacrifice of what he values most.
We must read these stories to our children as often as possible, in as many different formats as possible, until the stories become so deeply ingrained in the hearts of our children that they live them out.
Putting It Into PracticeOf course, stories are not enough. Stories are just a place to start. When it comes to defending the defenseless, we must also show our children how to put it into practice. The first place we can put it into practice is in how we, as the adult, treat our children. They are the defenseless in our homes. When we value them and elevate them, we are showing them how to use their own power to value and elevate those who are less powerful than they are.
Defending the defenseless also extends to how we talk about the defenseless in our homes, behind closed doors. What kind of attitude do we have toward the homeless? What are our feelings about illegal aliens or minorities or those who are in poverty? Do we teach our children to view these people with compassion, or do we treat them as the enemy and view them as an unwanted burden? If we are truly interested in defending the defenseless, this is one important place to start.
The second place we can put it into practice is using the stories we’ve read them to shape how they look at and view their younger siblings. Encourage them to practice becoming the hero of the story by defending and protecting their siblings rather than taking advantage of them. Remind them that they were once small and helpless, and that they needed your help then just like their brother or sister needs their help right now.
The third place is in the service activities we choose as a family. Adopting a poor family at Christmas and making sure to shop for them before we allow any shopping for our own families, or serving at a homeless shelter, volunteering at a food pantry, participating in a mentoring or fostering program for children are all ways that we can put our teaching about defending the defenseless into action for the betterment of our lives, our families, and our communities.
Thank you for taking the time to read this chapter of Catholic Parenting: What the Catholic Chuirch Teaches Us About Parenting. If you are just joining us, you can find the introduction and earlier chapters by following the link above. I hope you will join us tomorrow for chapter 35: Cherishing the Value of All Life.
Please feel free to leave a comment below with your thoughts, feelings, or stories about parenting.