By John Dickson
In recent decades we've learned a lot about the way institutions like the Church haven't cared for children in the way they should.
The Boston Globe's famous Spotlight investigations between 2001 and 2003 found that under an extraordinary cloak of secrecy, the Archdiocese of Boston in the 10 years prior to publication had quietly settled child molestation claims against at least 70 priests. They had sometimes just reassigned known pedophiles to other parishes or parallel ministries in hospitals and prisons. Some of these priests offended again. The Globe reports triggered a raft of other investigations around the United States and the world. The largest ever conducted actually was the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. It found that as many as 7 per cent of priests in some Christian denominations were pedophiles, and that church officials had - at least in some cases - sought to protect the Church's reputation more than the children in their care.
Now, this issue deserves an entire episode and I promise to confront this topic. My point for now, though, is that Christian institutions haven't lived up to the community standards of care, let alone the standards demanded of them by Jesus himself.
The New Testament actually opens with a shocking indictment of violence against children. Matthew 2 reports that Herod the Great slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem and surrounds in an effort to kill the baby Jesus. Now, admittedly, there's no external evidence for this event outside Matthew's Gospel. It was probably too small an event to mention, involving maybe only 10-20 children. But it is the sort of thing we know Herod did throughout his reign. So the Gospel opens with a stark reminder of the pure evil of the powerful abusing the most vulnerable. There were other, much less dramatic examples of the mistreatment of children in the Gospels.
So this time, it's by Jesus' own disciples, we're told in Mark 10, that people were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. But the disciples rebuked them. Ordinarily, children weren't really meant to be seen in public. There's a sense in which these parents who wanted Christ's blessing on their kids were breaking a polite decorum. The disciples probably thought they were preserving Jesus' honor by rebuking the parents.Jesus had more important things to do, right? But we're told in the next line that when Jesus saw this, he was indignant. This is a really strong word: Aganakteo. It's like our word "outraged". Jesus then rebuked his followers in the words that follow in the text,
"Let the little children come to me," he said, "and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
There's an openness in children to the knowledge that they're not the masters of the universe, that their lives depend on others, that they don't know everything.
Elsewhere we get a similar teaching. In Matthew 18, Jesus has a whole discourse on the topic, part of which goes like this:
Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven ... 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 ... See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven."
There are so many interesting things here. We can probably surmise that Jesus' own response to child abuse and cover-ups in the Church would be something like: "It would be better for such church officials to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."
Then there's the weird reference to children having their own angels in heaven "who always see the face of my Father". There's loads of discussion about what that might mean. Frankly, I can't make up my mind, but at the very least, Jesus is saying (whether metaphorically or literally) that children are represented before the throne of the ultimate judge.
I'm also struck by Jesus' insistence that no one gets into the kingdom of God unless they change and become like little children. Or, as that other statement in Mark's Gospel puts it, "Let the little children come to me for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these."
Jesus is referring to the humility of children. I don't quite mean that kids excel in the virtue of humility instead of selfishness. I'm a Dad. I know that kids can be as self-absorbed as the greatest adult narcissist!
But still there's definitely an openness in children to the knowledge that they're not the masters of the universe, that their lives depend on others, that they don't know everything. Their incessant curiosity about flowers, clouds, even dirt is an intellectual humility - a realisation that there are millions of things yet to be discovered. And obviously they look at nature and the world around them in awe and wonder, and sometimes fear, because they more immediately recognise their smallness in the scheme of things.
It's really adults who are deceived into thinking we're so large in the world. This humility - whether intellectual curiosity or the sense of dependence - is sometimes lost on us. We grow up to be cynical, not curious. We grow up to imagine we control everything when actually we're tiny and totally dependent. And Jesus seems to be saying, at the very least, that without this openness - this humility, this sense of dependence - we're not going to understand the Christian faith, let alone know how to embrace it.
Those who abuse children sure aren't getting into the kingdom, but nor are those who don't become like children.