Moral Disintegration - Is There Hope for Our Children?
by Dr. Darren J. Torbic
In America today, abortions are legal, the sanctity of marriage is being tested by civil unions and gay marriages, there is a high divorce rate, many unwedded couples are living together, and many children are being born to single mothers. These are just a few of the immoral, or unethical, acts that are taking place and being readily accepted by a portion of American society. How do we change this so that the basic moral values of children, and society as a whole, does not disintegrate? To begin with, parents must focus on raising their children as Orthodox Christians. Parents must instruct their children to lead an Orthodox Christian life through their example. Living a Christian marriage is the foundation through which parents can do this. Parents must also teach their children basic values. This is not a responsibility that parents should expect children to learn either through school systems or some other societal means. It is the responsibility of parents to teach their children values. This paper first discusses how a Christian marriage serves as the foundation for ethical values for children and then addresses how parents can teach their children right from wrong.
Marriage as the Foundation of Ethical Values
A discussion on how marriage serves as the foundation of ethical values for children can only begin by discussing marriage as a sacrament in the Orthodox Church. One of the primary reasons for the poor moral condition of society today is the crisis in the institution of marriage in western society. In western society, marriage is frequently stripped of its content as "mystery". For many, marriage has turned into a formal ratification or a liturgical blessing of the natural social union of two persons of opposite sexes, and in some cases, this is even being challenged. Thus, for many, marriage does not involve any participation in the ecclesial totality of life (Yannaras, 1984). This is contrary to the Orthodox perspective on marriage. As Gregory the Theologian stated, "Marriage does not remove God, but brings us all the closer to Him, for it is God Himself who draws us to it," (i.e., marriage) (Breck, 2003).
In the "mystery" of marriage within the Orthodox Church, a man and a woman are given the possibility to become one spirit and one flesh in a way which no human love can provide by itself (Hopko, 1976). The mystery of marriage transforms human love, childbearing, and family relationships into realities of eternal proportion and significance. This union between husband and wife, in which two become one, symbolizes the union of Christ and the Church. Thus, it is important for parents remember that marriage is not an experience where they are involved alone, but where they act in communion with God (Meyendorff, 1984) for "God is love" (1 John 4:8).
God's love is not self-love but shared love, not a single person loving himself alone, but a communion of three persons loving one another (i.e., a union). Since we humans are created in the image of God, then the human person is also love, not self-love but shared love. St. Paul explains this explicitly in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 when he writes, "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
Although we are all called to "love one another", the basic and primary form of human communion remains always the mutual love of man and woman within marriage. This is one of the reasons St. John Chrysostom calls marriage "the sacrament of love." Marriage, then, as the "sacrament of love" expresses our fundamental human personhood according to the divine image, precisely because we humans believe in God the Trinity and are created in His triune image (Ford, 1999).
When a man and a woman are united in the sacrament of marriage, the couple wear crowns during the service (Krause, 2002), becoming king and queen of their kingdom to represent Christ as the Bridegroom and the Church as His Bride. The kingdom that the bride and groom rule over is their home. Thus, the homes of every Orthodox Christian couple are actually "little churches". Every Orthodox Christian couple is called to live their faith within the walls of their home. When the couple is blessed with children, this little church becomes the primary place for everyone (i.e., father, mother, and children) to learn to live their faith and grow closer to God.
In the wedding service as the couple stands with the crowns on (or over) their heads, the scriptural readings begin with the prokeimenon and verses from the first half of Psalm 20 (21), "O Lord, the king shall rejoice in Thy strength; and in Thy salvation he shall greatly exult... ." The selection of this psalm for the wedding service emphasizes what is seen as the primary purpose of marriage in the Orthodox Tradition (Ford, 1999). The supreme purpose of marriage is that husband and wife should help each other to enter the heavenly kingdom, and if God has given them offspring, husband and wife should work together for the salvation of their children. As an eternal union between two unique and eternal personalities, the sacrament of marriage has no other end than this.
For a marriage to lead to the path of salvation, it must involve spiritual growth. A basic aim of spiritual growth within a family is to convey to children the concept of what is good and what it means to feel good (Koulomzin, 1975). This "good" means the condition of blessedness, joy, inner peace, and love for others. If the children have in their home the basic desire to be good and have really experienced what it means "to feel good," a solid foundation has been laid for their Christian growth. Pious Christian parents give their children a great head start on the path of holiness (Ford, 1999).
The part of the image of God that is in us that prompts and directs our freedom to actually choose and do the good is our conscience (Harakas, 1983). The conscience needs to be developed, formed, enriched, sharpened, cultivated, and educated. The experience of family life and the explicit teaching of a religious and moral nature, as well as self-discipline serve to educate, sharpen, and hone the conscience to greater sensitivity.
Teaching Children Good from Evil
When teaching children about morals and ethical values, parents should first teach with their actions rather than words. When parents order their lives according to God's law, their children will also submit willingly to the same law (Chrysostom, 2003). The key is laying a strong foundation. From their earliest years, parents should set a pattern for their children to imitate (Coniaris, 1977). Parents should treat each other with love and respect, and when they do not, they should be quick to forgive. Families should pray together, and parents should encourage their children to pray. Families should participate regularly in the liturgy and the sacraments, and families should read the Holy Bible together. Through their actions, parents should teach their children to be good, to be gentle, to be forgiving, to be generous, and to love thy neighbor, and parents do not even have to leave their home to find that neighbor (i.e., for husbands thy wife is that neighbor; for wives thy husband is that neighbor; and for parents thy child is that neighbor). Wherever there is harmony and peace and a loving relationship between husband and wife, all good things come together. This will instill virtue into the souls of children and reveal the image of God within them. In general, children acquire the character of their parents so when parents have a strong moral character, they instill the same within their children.
Parents must understand the tremendous importance of the early years of a child's life. It is in the first ten years of a child's life that parents plant a sense of values in their children, not only by what they teach about God, but also by the way in which they live their lives (Conairis, 1977). It is the childhood experiences that form the foundation of moral character. As indicated above, children generally adopt their parents' values and beliefs if their parents have clear values and communicate them effectively. Some vital questions parents should be asking themselves concerning the upbringing of their children, are as follows: