Teaching our kids about justice and mercy

July 14, 2017

Americans value equality and fairness. Our constitution states it clearly: "All men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." Fairness is a self-evident principle. We know every person should be subject to the same rules, without respect to ethnic heritage, class, or creed. It's engraved at the front of the highest court in our land: "Equal justice under the law." That's why civil rights organizations have fought so diligently for equal opportunity employment and to end unequal sentencing. For fairness to reign, we should all be playing by the same rules. 

There’s more to justice than fairness

So, when American Christians think about justice, we immediately think fairness. It shouldn't be a surprise. It's our national heritage, but we're only half right. Biblically speaking, justice does involve legal and social equality. As early as the Exodus, God gives his people instruction about honest weights and scales (Lev. 19:36; Prov. 11:1). He commits to punish those who defraud others with unfair business practices (Hosea 12:7-8, 14; Micah 6:11)  But the Bible goes one step further.

The Scriptures teach us true justice also requires a special concern for the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable. Proverbs 31:8 says, "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute." If you've been afforded more but you don't share with those in need, the Bible makes clear this is unjust (Zech. 7:9-10). It's not just greedy; it's an injustice. You see, true justice requires more than surface level fairness. It requires compassion and generosity toward the oppressed and poor. True justice involves doing merciful, leveling work where inequity has occurred. 

Learning about true justice from Lucy

Raising a child with special needs alongside two typically developing children has given us a unique opportunity to learn about justice. We have three daughters, and they are all gifts. Two of our girls, Rachael and Elisabeth, are over-achievers (if you will allow me to be a proud dad). They make good grades and enjoy music and sports. Rachael has strong relational skills and leadership abilities. Our youngest, Elisabeth, longs to create and make the world more beautiful. 

Our middle daughter, Lucy, is different. Don't get me wrong. Lucy is wonderful, but she's also profoundly impacted by Autism. She has a poverty of cognitive and relational ability, and she's really needy in many ways. At the time of writing, she's ten years-old and not fully potty trained. It takes extra effort to help her transition from one activity to the next. Her unique needs often require we give her more attention and care. When we're on vacation, we have to take into account how much she can handle. Times at the beach are cut short by sensory overload. She needs longer breaks at amusement parks. Her special diet controls the kinds of restaurants we choose to patron.

Lucy's sisters love her, and they show great compassion, but I'd be lying if I told you the extra attention and accommodation Lucy gets is easy for them. Complaints about the inequality of their situation can become a refrain: "That's not fair. Why is what we can do always about Lucy? Why does she get all the attention?" Often I hear my wife say, "I never promised everything will be fair. But I will choose what is best for our family, and I will take into account what you need and what Lucy needs." Moments like those highlight one of the great gifts God has given our family in Lucy. Through her presence in our life, our family is learning that doing what is good and right doesn't always mean we make everything even.

In The Life We Never Expected, Andrew Wilson writes, "By being autistic, our kids draw mercy from others. It increases the currency of God’s qualities in general circulation." I love this quote, because it gives me a vision for how Lucy can bless our home. But I'm also aware compassion rarely comes naturally. It's a skill that must be learned. Not every family will be graced with a child with special needs, but we all have a responsibility to train our children in empathy, holistic justice, and mercy. Here are three ways you can be intentional about this with your family:

1. Consider your environment.

Parents want to give their kids every advantage. We're careful to choose the "best" neighborhood and schools. We seek out athletic and academic programs to help prepare our children for success and college scholarships. The trouble is this can, intentionally or unintentionally, divide our children from other kids who are different from them. It can reinforce selfishness, because it's nearly impossible to develop empathy toward someone who is different from us without first spending time with them.

I'm convinced there are skills my typically-developing daughters wouldn't learn growing up in a suburban neighborhood unless Lucy was their sister. But you don't need a family member with special needs to expose your children to diversity. Would you consider joining a more ethnically or socioeconomically diverse playgroup? How about a school or youth group that doesn't have the nicest facilities but challenges its students to serve their community?

2. Teach your kids to move toward brokenness.

Simply living in diverse surroundings is not enough to teach children empathy.

When Lucy throws a tantrum, the tendency for our other girls is to be embarrassed and avoid her. I want to teach them to be respectful, patient, and not complain when their sister is particularly needy, but I want more for them than that. I also want to teach them the skill of moving toward her rather than away from her. I want to teach them to look for what's wrong. I want to teach them to think with curiosity, "I wonder what has caused her to get upset. How can I help her? How can I serve my sister right now?"

I've discovered that for my children, living with an autistic sister on it's own isn't enough to engender this kind of love and patience. Megan and I have to model compassion for our daughters, and we have to explain to them how they should love and care. It's not only true in our home. Simply living in diverse surroundings is not enough to teach empathy. Be intentional about explaining it to your kids. Take time to explain the importance of moving toward brokenness and not away from it.

3. Teach them to cling to Jesus.

The just life God requires from us is humble and shows merciful compassion to others (Micah 6:8). But anyone who tries to live such a life will quickly see it's too big for them. Our only hope is found in clinging in prayerful trust to the one who has lived this life in our stead. So, finally, we must remind our kids how Jesus has shown mercy and compassion to us. Jesus valued our redemption more than he valued his own experience of fairness. As Philippians 2:6-8 reminds us, he, "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing." Jesus moved toward our brokenness. He's the great leveler (2 Cor. 8:9): he was rich and privileged, but he became poor for us so we might experience the wealth of being made just in him.

If we’re going to share Jesus with the next generation, teaching them to do justice and love mercy is essential. If your family is weak in one of these three areas, press in. I’m confident your kids will grow to care more and more for those who are hurting and distressed, because such works testify to true faith (James 1:27). By faith, we can grow in compassion and empathy, because that’s the way Christ first loved us (1 John 4:19).

Editor’s Note: Parenting is hard. But it is even more difficult for Christian parents to raise kids in today's changing culture Join us for the fourth annual ERLC National Conference on "Parenting: Christ-Centered Parenting in a Complex World" on August 24-26, 2017 in Nashville, TN, this event will welcome key speakers including Russell Moore, Jim Daly, Sally Lloyd-Jones, Todd Wagner, and Jen Wilkin. You can learn more and register here.

Jared Kennedy

Jared is the husband of Megan and father to Rachael, Lucy, and Elisabeth. After serving fifteen years on staff at local churches, Jared now works as an editor for The Gospel Coalition, coaches children's ministers through Gospel-Centered Family, serves on the Theological Advisory Council for Harbor Network, and teaches as an adjunct instructor … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24