My children play war. Not a day seems to pass without swords or guns, knight costumes or military hats, the sound of explosives exploding in some pretend space in our house. Legos line up for battle in forts defended by miniature men with blaster rays and lightsabers.
“No, you’re Hitler,” my nine-year-old instructs the youngest during one such play-act moment. He knows who Hitler is. He knows what Hitler did.
Heroes and enemies are at war in our increasingly pacifist home. One just ran by with a broken stick as a gun and a belt as a bandolier. What are these games? Where did they come from?
The original Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales, collected in the nineteenth century, were named not fairy tales but “Children’s and Household Tales,” or in the German, Kinder- und Hausmärchen. I provide you with the German because it’s such a violent-sounding language compared to our Latin-laced English, and Grimm Fairy Tales require a guttural vocabulary.
They are not called fairy tales because they are all particularly appropriate for children, but because these stories express how a child might see and process the world.
So how might a child perceive the world when something awful happens?
In “The Juniper Tree,” a stepmother chops off the head of her stepson and cooks him into a stew because she is concerned her daughter won’t get all her inheritance.
His unknowing father eats the boy-stew, and his grieving sister, Marlene, who knows what happened to her brother, places the boy’s bones with his birth mother’s underneath a juniper tree. The tree’s limbs separate to release a beautiful bird in a cloud of mist and smoke and fire. After the bird flies away, the bones are gone, and Marlene no longer feels sad.
The bird goes out into the world in search of three particular gifts, singing this song:
my mother she killed me,
my father he ate me,
my sister, Marlene,
gathered all my bones,
tied them in a silken scarf,
laid them beneath the juniper tree,
tweet, tweet, what a beautiful bird am I.
That is how a child makes sense of a violent world.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples they should become like little children to enter God’s kingdom. “Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a child like this in my name welcomes me.”
That’s sweet, I think. Of course, we should become like children. And then, from the other room, the sound of explosives exploding.
“It’s MINE!” one child yells, yanking the Lego brick out of the other child’s hands.
“That’s not FAIR!” the other yells back, hitting him on the arm.
“MOM!” the first child sings, “my brother he hit me.”
My mother she killed me, my father he ate me. The truth of the violence and reality of this world is stark, blunt, and black and white to a child. There are no blurred lines of relative truth. Children are measures of and witnesses to the good and the evil.
I can’t shake this rhyme. I can’t shake the awful in this world, the terrible acts committed against the innocent, the victims of hate and power and pride and fear. I can’t shake the ache I feel for sister Marlene, tragic witness to her mother’s greed and her brother’s death, who in the story is made to feel as if she’s the one who killed him. I can’t shake the dead boy turned bird, the beautiful singing bird flying away.
I picture Jesus standing with his hand on the shoulder of the young one brought to him. I see him lift his eyes to the audience of disciples. I hear his tone change, his voice rise. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
If we haven’t lost our hearts to apathy and 24-hour news, a righteousness boils our blood, a love-fueled fury is directed toward injustice. When my children play war games they imagine the battle of good versus evil, right against wrong. They act out the justice they long to see in the world.
But where is justice when children are abused, children are raped, children are broken, children are killed?
The bird in “The Juniper Tree” flies across the countryside singing his song. He’s so beautiful that he convinces each person he visits to give him a gift. The bird receives a golden chain for his father, a pair of red shoes for his sister, and a third gift, a millstone, for his stepmother. And then he returns to his home, singing his same song.
“As she went out at the door, crash. The bird threw down the millstone on her head, and she was entirely crushed by it.”
“The father and Marlene heard what had happened and went out, and smoke, flames, and fire were rising from the place, and when that was over, there stood the little brother, and he took his father and Marlene by the hand, and all three were right glad, and they went into the house to dinner, and ate.”
Many of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen resolve this way. The justice is cold and objective; an eye-for-an-eye resolution that makes matters right and sets things straight, to the point of rejoicing in the death of an enemy. Evil is vanquished! The wicked witch is dead! Not only that, but children come back from the dead. All is made right in the world.
My children want to see justice. They want to witness good conquering evil. It is the narrative that stirs their souls.
But killed by a millstone? How about burned at the stake? Crucified? The death penalty?
How can I, as a follower of Christ, enact justice and deliver righteousness without dropping millstones on people’s heads? How do you pursue both justice and peace at the same time? What does that look like?
Justice restores order. The Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales’ form of justice—and often the world’s form of justice—is an eye-for-an-eye, revenge-fueled justice that keeps reciprocating, until someday far in the future after we’ve pummeled each other so thoroughly we’re too exhausted to continue. Only then—and only until we’ve caught our breath—does peace prevail.
Jesus’s form of justice—and what ought to be my form of justice—is a turn-the-other-cheek restoration of order.
What does it mean to turn the other cheek?
The other day, my kids were yelling, like they do, about how she broke my Lego tower and no I didn’t and it wasn’t my fault and then he broke MY tower. Grimm justice. I remembered what I learned from The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu about the death spiral of revenge versus the intersection of forgiveness.
“Lydia, take a deep breath,” I said to my daughter. “You need to apologize—tell the truth, name the hurt, and ask for forgiveness.”
As soon as she let down her defenses and spoke these words, “I’m sorry I broke your Lego tower. Even though it was an accident, I know it took you a long time and that you are really upset about it,” the anger and frustration in the room deflated. Forgiveness was given. Relationships were restored. My children played peacefully the rest of the evening.
Turn-the-other-cheek justice doesn’t mean opening yourself up for more attack. It means letting yourself be vulnerable to the acceptance or rejection that comes from telling the truth, naming the hurt, and asking for or receiving forgiveness. Turn-the-other-cheek justice finds the humanity in one’s self and recognizes the humanity in the other person.
Only then can we have real reconciliation, real peace, real restoration of order.
Real, lasting justice.
This is the same justice modeled on the cross by Jesus, who did not retaliate in the face of his enemies, who did not condemn those who sought to kill him. Instead, he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know not what they are doing.” The same Jesus who went around healing people was killed on the cross.
They killed him because of the light, because of the brightness. Filled with a righteous fury, God could have used the world’s method of justice and wiped out the guilty, right then, right there. “But God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.”
Instead, he brings life (and life abundantly) back from the dead. Instead, he promises forgiveness and the reconciliation of all creation back to him.
Maybe like Marlene in “The Juniper Tree,” our part in God’s justice is to witness, to tell the truth, name the hurt, and ask for forgiveness. Marlene wept over the loss of her brother. She gathered his bones and placed them beneath the juniper tree. She did what she could to bring light into this dark tale.
With the help of God, we can bring hope and light into the places of darkness. We can deliver mercy. We can restore order. We can bring peace.