What I remember most about Katie was her large, brown eyes.(1) From those large eyes fell even larger tears as she recounted the horrors perpetrated against her by her parents. She had suffered so much in her young life that she had difficulty recalling many moments of child-like play, imagination, adventure, or happy memories. Unlike Katie, my childhood was filled with many cherished memories—our two childhoods couldn’t be more different. While I certainly had my fair share of difficult memories—of getting lost at the shopping mall, getting into trouble for mischief gone too far, or arguments with my siblings, I look back on my childhood with fondness and an appreciation for a nurturing, caring home life.
Unfortunately, there are many other children like Katie. Their memories are filled with violence, neglect, and abuse. The Children’s Bureau of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families reports through the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System in 2012, “an estimated 3.4 million reports were received by Child Protective Service agencies in the United States alleging that 6.3 million children were maltreated by their parents or guardians. Nationally, approximately 1,560 children die each year as a result of maltreatment.” (1) And in my own home state, Child Protective Services received more than 88,709 reports of child abuse and neglect. (2) Around the world, according to the World Health Organization, one in five women and one in thirteen men were sexually abused as children.(3)
Many historians have noted how modern societies take for granted the innocence and vulnerability of children that makes them beings of particular value and entitled to particular protection and care. In an article entitled “How Christianity Invented Children” author Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry cites historians who suggest that children were considered non-persons in ancient Greece and Rome.(4) In these societies, Gobry notes, “the entire social worldview was undergirded by a universally-held, if implicit, view: Society was organized in concentric circles, with the circle at the center containing the highest value people, and the people in the outside circles having little-to-no value.”(5) At the center of value was the freeborn, adult male. The value of all other persons depended on their similarity to freeborn, adult males. Foreigners, slaves, women and children were at the periphery of those value circles. As a result of this kind of social structure, Gobry, citing historical sociologist Rodney Stark, highlights the frequent practice in the ancient world that involved the abandonment of unwanted infants—especially infant girls—because of their low status.(6)
This is the world into which Christianity emerged, condemning infanticide, calling attention to children and ascribing special worth to them. Following the example of Jesus, the earliest Christians moved children from the periphery of value into the center. For Jesus welcomed children, instructed his adult followers to imitate children in their devotion to God and said that “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
Of course, Jesus’s welcome extended to other categories of vulnerable people—often the most marginalized in his society. And in our contemporary world, where the gift of hospitality seems a virtue on the verge of disappearing, might we return to that early Christian vision of creating space for welcome and room for inclusion of those on the margins?
The value of children, like Katie, as treasured human beings reflects a God who cherishes the least, the last, and the most vulnerable among us. This God chose to come as a child, as one who was vulnerable. All are invited to wonder and consider the mystery of a faith that proclaims the weakness of God and the foolishness of God to be strength and wisdom. The one who said, “suffer the children and do not hinder them from coming to me” is the God revealed as a vulnerable child in the person of Jesus.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Not her real name in order to protect her privacy.
(2) Washington State Department of Social & Health Services, Protecting the Abused and Neglected Child: A guide for recognizing & reporting child abuse & neglect, 2015.
(4) “Child Maltreatment,” World Health Organization, 30 September 2016, www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/child-maltreatment, accessed January 5, 2019.
(4) Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, “How Christianity Invented Children,” The Week, April 23, 2015. Accessed December 22, 2018.