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Good and evil debated on bath tub beat


I believe in answering kids' questions honestly because I want them to keep asking and I want them to hear the truth from me first whenever possible. Bath time at my house is often a forum for serious discussion. Jesus' death made the "Tub Club" agenda recently when my four-year-old piped up, "Why was Jesus nailed?"

My children are fascinated by "good" and "bad" guys. As many children do, they have a remarkable faith that the good guys prevail while bad guys get theirs with sure and swift justice. I have fielded questions about "robbers" (our house was broken into once), domestic abusers (the kids have watched a women's shelter under construction in our neighborhood), and other manifestations of meanness that are evident in daily city life.

My husband and I maintain that all people are good, even if some do bad things. I think my kids can relate to that. After all, they're forgivable -- even when caught in illicit acts like using permanent black marker to write on new white boots, or performing an "experiment" involving freezing a mixture of large quantities of laundry detergent, sand and water.

Sometimes, we've discovered, it's not so easy to tell the transgressors from the righteous. Back to the bathtub. Maybe its confusing that this sweet little baby in the manger who everyone makes a fuss over can grow up to such a gory demise. And Jesus is a good guy!

We discussed Jesus in the context of Roman Empire power politics. As I shampooed small heads, I searched for words they could understand about capital punishment and scapegoating. My outline went something like this: The person in charge didn't like what Jesus was saying about God's ways being more important than the king's. The ruler was afraid that he would lose power if people didn't believe that he was the most important ruler. So even though Jesus was good, he was punished to set an example for others who might challenge the rulers' power.

It's kind of like the land mine protests, I said. My family has occasionally attended a protest held weekly at Alliant Tech Systems, a suburban Minneapolis company that manufactures land mines. On Oct. 24, we also attended a large civil disobedience action where several dozen people were arrested for peacefully blocking entrances to the building.

To the kids' questions about why we go there, I explained that this company makes a kind of bomb that is buried in the ground in places where there are wars. Sometimes after the war, people forget where they're buried, so children or grownups step on them and get hurt or killed. Since those families can't be here to say what's happening to them, I said, people like us need to say it for them. There are different ways to do that -- hold signs, sing songs or just be there with others.

Some of the protesters carry land mine warning posters that are used in Cambodia and Central America -- they are colorful and cartoonish, perhaps to capture the attention of children and adults who cannot read. To me, they are hauntingly graphic.

This scenario shakes up the children's experience of who is good and who is bad: The police, otherwise pretty much good guys, are arresting peaceful protesters. The protesters, otherwise law-abiding citizens, are being handcuffed like criminals. The workers of Alliant Tech, functionally complicit in institutional evil yet very likely personally good people, are just trying to get to work on time.

We don't condemn the company's employees. In fact, we have made a point of saying that they also care about their families and children and don't intend to hurt anybody. It's just that they don't know, I say, or don't think about how these land mines are used. Or they just need to keep the job. The people aren't bad: The bombs are bad. The system that makes them and uses them is bad.

The kids don't process this good-bad dichotomy on a conscious level. Their feedback includes comments like "It was too cold," and "I don't want to go back. It takes too long to get home." But my six-year-old perks up his ears and says excitedly, "Mom, they're talking about land mines" when he hears a report that Madeline Albright has introduced a U.N. resolution that would ban their use internationally.

What I hope my kids learn from this experience is that it's okay to question authority. I want them to know their parents take a stand. I want them to know there is power in community. If nothing else, they get lots of attention from all those grandmotherly nuns, not to mention the hot chocolate and doughnuts I use as a bribe.

I also hope I'm counteracting the planting of mines by planting seeds of understanding that we are called, to paraphrase Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin, to work toward a world where it is easier for people to be good.

Kris Berggren lives in Minneapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 1996