Thursday, October 12, 2006

Why Little Children are Special

Why are little children special to Jesus? Not because of their innocence. Even quite small babies quickly learn to be very manipulative. They know just when to cry, when to smile, when to throw a tantrum, and how to go limp all over so that it becomes very difficult to lift them up and put them into a pushchair or sit them up to the table,

Nor are little children special because they are humble. Tiny children think they are the centre of the universe – that everything revolves around them and their wants. They expect to eat, sleep, be wakeful and be amused just when it suits them. Sensible and capable parents have to begin, quite early, to teach their children that other people are important, too, otherwise they become spoilt.

Nor are little children special because of their openness and trust. Children go through phases. Immediately after birth they are very trusting indeed and will happily go to anyone who is prepared to look after them and make the right soothing noises. But very soon they become extremely suspicious, especially of strangers, and will burst into tears or cower behind their mothers and fathers if forced to be with someone they don't know or don't like. It's only later, once they start talking and interacting more with other people, and learn to be a bit more independent of their immediate family, that they generally become more open and trusting again.

So if it's not these things which make little children special to Jesus, what is it that is so special about them that we are told to become like them? I think what made children special was that they were at the bottom of the pile in the world where Jesus lived. They had no rights, no privileges and often not much opportunity to have fun or simply be themselves. The kingdom of God belongs to those whom no one else thinks is important – the people whose opinions are not valued; the people who, like the children of bygone times, are expected to listen but who are never heard.

The crowds who flocked to see Jesus instinctively knew that he cares for children and brought them to him, but the disciples – despite all that they had seen and heard – still did not seem to understand this. They thought that children are an unnecessary distraction from what Jesus had come to do. Clearly, they were blind to the truth, but maybe we shouldn't be too critical of them because the truth is not always easy to see. [1]

A Buddhist proverb says that three things cannot long be hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth. But sadly that's not really the case. Problems can be so familiar, so ordinary and so routine, that they can go unrecognised for years.

This is how it was with child abuse. People have sometimes seen it as a modern issue, but actually it's an age-old issue which was simply overlooked, as proved by the hundreds – and perhaps thousands – of people who have come forward in recent years to say that they were abused as evacuees during the Second World War.

And this is how it was with bullying which, for as long as schools have existed, was just assumed to be part and parcel of normal school life. Despite the immense psychological harm which it inflicted on children, who often hated and feared school because of the bullies when they might otherwise have enjoyed it, teachers just seemed to shrug their shoulders and assume that there was nothing much that could be done about it. Or else they would pretend that bullying didn't exist in their school just because no one – or hardly anyone – ever owned up to being bullied. But now that bullying is more out in the open, it has rapidly become the single biggest reason why children phone Child Line for help and advice.

And this is how it has been ever since commercial television began broadcasting adverts which exploited children and their parents to sell toys, snacks, fast food, films, sugary breakfast cereals and drinks, and much else besides. As a result, children's health has been damaged, their hopes and dreams have been manipulated, and their pocket money – and their parents money – has been raided to make profits for big corporations.

And that's before we get to all the child soldiers, child refugees and child disaster victims from around the world. They continue to be the most vulnerable people, the people at the bottom of the pile, the people with whom we must identify if we want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

And it's not just children with whom we are asked to identify – but anyone who has been reduced to childlike vulnerability: asylum seekers, minority groups, people who are longterm unemployed, or who have lost their homes and possessions, their health, their pensions, or whatever. We are asked to identify with them because God identifies with them! In Jesus, born in a manger and crucified on a cross, he became one with them that they might enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And we must become one with them to if we want to be heirs of that same Kingdom.

This is something which the Church is called to do, but it's also something which we are called to do as individuals, if we would be followers of Jesus. We are called to imagine what it was like to be a little child, to see things from a little child's point of view, to pray for the weak and the vulnerable, to stand alongside them, to support them, to act to help them, just as God in Jesus acted to help us.

In the final analysis, we have to acknowledge that we are actually like little children as far as God is concerned. We all need to acknowledge our dependence on God. We all need to recognise our vulnerability to sin. We are all weak and in need of help. And that help is at hand. If we receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, Jesus will still lay his hands upon us and bless us – just as he blessed those children long ago.

[1] Mark 10.13-16