Are children welcome?
by Andrew Cameron
Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. (Matthew 19:13-15, NIV)
Being dismissive to children
Contempt for children for children is not new. The old Law of the people of Israel, written over three thousand years ago, makes it clear that children have ever been subject to the self-serving schemes of self-absorbed adults.
It seems incredible that Leviticus 18:21 (& 20:1-5) has God declaring to his people, "Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech". Leviticus 19:29 has God commanding "Do not degrade your daughter by making her a prostitute". What must such people have been thinking of, to do such things to children?
Contempt for children is not just located to that time and place, though. There is evidence of the abandonment of children in Greco-Roman times. We know that today, children are recruited as soldiers to fight the battles of adults in the various African resistance armies. There is overwhelming evidence of traditional, ongoing and systemic female infanticide in India.
It's not hard to stop and imagine why adults might feel desperate enough, for various reasons, to do such things. The worshippers of Molech probably loved their children, and sacrificed them with tears. Perhaps children are prostituted when parents imagine that they have no other choice for the fate of their family. Indian women kill baby girls precisely because those are so aware of how hard it is for the girl to live as an Indian woman.
But whatever the strange reasons adults might give for their actions, the fact remains that children are often just bewildered strangers in a world of adult concerns, causes and obsessions. When Jesus says "Let the little children come to me," he says it against exactly the kind of adult view that something else matters more than these children.
"Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them."
What were these disciples thinking of, to exclude children from the prayers of Jesus? Not even just to turn them aside quietly, but actually to "rebuke' those who brought the children? Their dismissive lack of appreciation for those children is clear to see, and we can guess easily enough at their reasons for it, because we've been like it ourselves.
I was sitting in a cafÃ©, thinking about this very passage. And a little boy was hovering on the edge of my vision. He was about four. He'd just been to soccer, and his dad had been talking to the waiter for (in kid-time) about nine hours. He was bored, and wanting some attention from anyone who would give it to him. And my thoughts, as I tried to think about Jesus' words? "Go away kid,
I'm busy thinking."
The stupid irony of that is bad enough. But what is far more disturbing to me is just how easily the thought sprang to my mind. So I have been forced to ask"”what makes Jesus so unlike me in this regard? "Let the little children come to me" touched those who heard it, and then Matthew and Mark, deeply enough to mean that it was included in the gospels; and it has touched readers ever since"”I think because we know that we're more like the disciples than we are like Jesus. What makes Jesus so unlike us?
We are each marinating in a culture that is threatened, somehow, by children. We are immersed in a stew of negative attitudes to them, ranging from under-appreciation, to disrespect, to contempt, right through to outright hostility.
Not everyone adds something to the stew. Many people enjoy kids. But I'm thinking of those who pray fervently to God in words something like Jesus' words, "Oh God, please let little children come to me". There are among us those who desire more than anything, for little children of their own to come. For people like that to hear of contempt for children, is more than they can bear. Perhaps people in that situation have exactly the kind of clear-eyed clarity about the excellence of children which many others may have lost.
Modern Australian contempt
A Queensland woman had a sterilisation procedure in 1992. It failed, but unaware of the failure, she gave birth to Jordan some six years later. So she sued the doctor for negligence, and won over $A100,000 in compensation to raise Jordan. This complex High Court judgment was a 4-3 decision, and is beyond our scope. Of more interest are two of the various reactions to the judgment.
Someone wrote to the newspaper arguing that abortion was an option, but that since the woman had chosen to keep the child, the economics of raising it should be her problem, not the doctor's. The newspaper's editor said this argument was "mean-minded nonsense" because the woman's decision to "keep her boy is entirely natural". (1)
There is a point of deep agreement shared by the letter-writer, the editor, and the disciples of Jesus who turned children away from him (Matthew 19:13-15). All say to children, "you can come when we say you can come." The letter-writer, the editor and Jesus' disciples all agree that children are to fit in around the edges of adult concerns, in the cracks between adult causes. They are to eke
out such an existence as we permit them, in the spaces between adult obsessions. The deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, was provoked to object that Australian adults act and think as if "children [are] a consumer durable, there for our pleasure, rather like an expensive fridge or a new DVD player". (2)
Australian adults do not sacrifice children to Molech or turn them into prostitutes [cf. Leviticus 18:21, 19:29, 20:1-5]. They simply require kids to exist on the terms that they set. Children must "argue' harder, as it were, for us to allow them among us. They must prove their way into existence upon hostile terrain. One observer describes that terrain as it currently stands in Australia.
Child-free restaurants and housing estates are on the rise. On Sydney radio, social researcher Hugh Mackay says that, in the future, people with children will be as unpopular as smokers. In Sydney's cafe society, dogs are more welcome than children. Proprietors happily provide free bowls of water for dogs, but do not offer a menu for children. (3)
Magazines regularly total up the cost of children, as if they are so costly that a married couple would be mad to have one. More than two children, we are told, is environmentally irresponsible, because resources are so very scarce. The age at which Australians have children keeps rising, and people are having fewer and fewer kids. Not only does Australia have one of the lowest birthrates in the world; our abortion rate is spectacularly high. ("During 1997 there were about 500,000 conceptions resulting in the 251,800 registered births, and in the order of 2,000 still births, 150,000 miscarriages and 95,000 abortions."(4)) Even the Family Planning Association sells a book called Child-Free Zone.
The writers of this book also sell it through their website, which includes a striking graphic of a baby with the red circle-and-slash over it. ("We think it is funny", they say.) Their site promotes "a wonderful child-free future" for more people. For them and for those they represent, having a good time does not include raising children. They don't pause to question these thoughts and feelings.
They want the community to subscribe to the view that resources are scarce, therefore more children are a liability.
Of course, such ideas are not particularly interesting. Selfish people have never been in short supply, and there is no need to be especially surprised by novel forms of selfishness. What is perhaps new, though, is the overt and acceptable nature of these attitudes. Once, "child-free housing estates' would have been considered a strange and offensive idea. But now, the estates are not only thinkable, but oversubscribed. Yet a "disabled-free' or " "sexual deviant"-free' or ""different skin colour"-free' housing estate still remains entirely, and rightly, unthinkable. What has changed to make children fair-game in this way? The phenomena we are seeing might result from a variety of causes, but they are at least consistent with an increasingly contemptuous attitude to children.
Of course, it is possible to overstate the problem. To note widespread lack of appreciation for children is not quite the same as saying that all Australians hate children or that our society has no place for them. Many Australians care for children, and that many clinics exist to assist the childless certainly shows that there remains a deep interest in having them. A whole raft of state and federal government initiatives exist to support parents and to create safe and nurturing environments for children. The Howard government appointed a Commonwealth Minister for Children and Youth Affairs; New South Wales now has a Commissioner for Children and Young People; and other States are moving towards, or already have, their own such Commissions. A Family Court system
tries to keep the interests of children at the forefront, and a recent federal government is trying to find a better deal for children in shared custody.
One thing children can rely on is their cuteness"”a great good that shouldn't be underestimated. In Christian thought, "cuteness' is a blessing from God to assist people to accept children. The great fifth-century Christian, Augustine, tells of sexual relationships like one in which he was involved, which are just "a bargain struck for lust, in which the birth of children is begrudged""”"though, if they come," as a son did in his own case, "we cannot help but love them."(5) God has made children to be magnificently subversive: they have a habit of overwhelming the most elaborate defences of the most selfish adults.
Still, should we accept "cuteness' as the sole basis upon which children might justify their existence among us? That they can stay, because we want them, because they please us because they're cute? Did Jesus say, "Let them come', because they were cute?
Children are not always cute, and indeed, some kids will never have much of a shot at being cute. To allow children to stay because we've decided we want them is a long way from the kind of welcome to children seen in the ministry of Jesus.
Jesus knew perversity of children. He had seen "children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others: "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.'" (Matt. 11:16-17.) That is, he saw children being irrationally difficult. Anyone who has seen that kind of maddening stubbornness in children knows not to depend on their cuteness as a reason for loving them. Jesus is not naÃ¯ve about children. He knows, just as we should know, that cuteness cannot become the only basis for children to exist among us.
So what, then? What causes him to command what the disciples wouldn't allow? What did Jesus see that disciples didn't?
"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." (19:14)
God welcomes children, and people like them, into his heavenly kingdom. But what is it about them?
Children are drawn to Jesus, because they see so clearly that they need him. Jesus notices this about them repeatedly: that children see him, whereas adults are blind to him. Children cheered Jesus at the temple, and the so-called men of God were outraged. "Do you hear what these children are saying?" they asked him. "Yes," replied Jesus, "have you never read, "From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise'?" (Matt. 21:16) "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." (Matt 11:25) Jesus notices that children see him, whereas adults are blind to him; and he spells the matter out for us very clearly in Matt 18:1-4:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Children simply know how much they need adults. Particularly the adult called Jesus, it seems; but adults in general. They might be perverse, but they're also humble, because they have to be. They might even know that they can use "cute' when they have to. But they know they're dependent. They know that the world is just not the kind of place where they can rely on their merits, or go it alone.
The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as them. God welcomes people into his heavenly kingdom who have seen what the children see. God welcomes adults, who know their perversity, but are humble towards God because they have to be. God welcomes adults, who know that God sustains them only by his grace and favour, and not on their own merits. God welcomes adults, who have seen their own deep need when they see Jesus Christ, and who are drawn, like the children, to him.
Jesus comes because we're lost, teaches because we're ignorant, dies because we've sinned, and rises because we're dead. Without him, we can't find ourselves, know truth, make forgiveness for us or give ourselves life. Each of us is every bit as dependent upon Jesus Christ as a child is upon an adult. And any adult who has finally seen this about herself, or himself, is able to understand what
Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 18:5: "whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me."
What is it to welcome a little child "in Jesus' name"? When adults know that they need Jesus Christ, they become able to welcome children. They nolonger require a child to justify her existence by being "cute'. Anyone who knows Jesus, and their own deep dependence upon him, is able to welcome children in all of their perverse and maddening costliness.
A community of welcome
"Let the little children come to me", says Jesus. Christian thought cannot help but notice the difference between Jesus' attitude of joyful welcome to children, and that of modern married couples who express a disinterest in raising them.
But it's easy to think we're on Jesus' side just because we think children are cute. It's easy to think we're on Jesus' side just because we badly want kids of our own. It's easy to think we're on Jesus' side, just because we've had some kids already. But"”is it possible to like kids, to want kids, to have kids, but all the while being as hostile to them as the disciples were?
Jesus' words to children are a call to all selfish, greedy and sinful adults to start again in dependence upon him. You too can start again, like a child, welcomed into the loving arms of Jesus. He asks you to change, to become like a little child to him, he who says "let the little children come to me". You can have your need met, and be forgiven of your past, in childlike dependence upon him.
1 The Australian, 18 July 2003.
2 Dennis Shanahan and Megan Saunders, "Anderson criticises baby damages", The Australian 18 July 2003.
3 Julia Morgan-King, "Society forever cursed for ignoring the foetal attraction," SMH 25/7/2002.
4 Media release 3301.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, accessed November 2003 (http://www.abs.gov.au)
5 Augustine, Confessions, tr. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p. 72 (Â§IV.2).
6 Michael Novak, quoted in John Powell, Unconditional Love (Allen TX: Argus, 1978) pp. 92-93.
Dr Andrew Cameron lectures in ethics and philosophy at Moore Theological College.
This is an edited version of a paper that originally appeared on the CASE website.