The child, the Bible and protection
The child, the Bible and protection
22 June 2016
Regular readers of The Officer will know that the General is leading us on a journey towards greater accountability and that the direction of travel has been set as we commit ourselves to “strengthen accountability across the worldwide Salvation Army” (January-February edition). This represents a massive challenge and a tremendous opportunity.
You will appreciate that The Salvation Army, like many other faith groups, organisations and agencies involved in working with children, is seeking to strengthen the ways in which we hold ourselves accountable for the children in our care. Whilst it’s true that the impetus for this comes, in part, from external forces as national governments are working to strengthen their own accountability processes, the greatest impetus comes from Christ himself. I was inspired to see our General outline the work of the Accountability Movement in the January-February edition of The Officer under the heading “Christ’s values always central” as the value Christ places on children is clear and uncompromising.
I arrived into my current appointment in April 2014 and was very quickly made aware that one of the main tasks I would be involved in was with regards to strengthening our child protection policy and practice around the world. A challenging task, but one full of opportunity too: an opportunity for us to more faithfully reflect the values of the Christ who placed a child in the centre of the action (Matthew 8:1-14), an opportunity to be part of a work to see all that God intends for children being lived out in the amazing multiplicity of Salvation Army expressions around the world and the communities to which they belong.
The Safeguarding (Child Protection) work stream is working to see more child protection specialists available to oversee and support our work with children. Whilst some territories are already well served by people with relevant experience and expertise, we are aware that we have much work to do around the world to identify and equip more people to support children, those who work with them and those who have responsibility for overseeing and supporting this work. It is hoped that the impending establishment of a small team of specialists at International Headquarters (IHQ) will help to build significant momentum on this.
On a personal level, I’m grateful that the Safeguarding (Child Protection) work stream has been encouraged and is free to embed this work in the context of seeking to understand God’s own heart for children. I appreciate that sounds like a very obvious thing to say, but it’s always inspiring and challenging to reflect on Scripture and God’s continuing revelation of himself to us. As I’ve been working with others to prepare recommendations for our senior international leaders (with regards to child protection) it has really encouraged me that we were asked to begin in the Bible and offer some biblical principles as the foundation for our work. I’m grateful that we weren’t just expected to jump straight into a whole bunch of recommendations but that we were asked to think about underlying biblical principles from which those recommendations should flow.
I’m hoping that we, as a global Salvation Army community, might be able to share in conversation together as we discuss the rich themes we find in Scripture with regards to our relationships with, and obligations to, children. Whilst we do come at this from a perspective of protection, perhaps we can come from a perspective of protecting all that God intends for children and the part we have to play in that: so very much seeing protection in terms of protecting children for all that God intends for them, not just protecting them from all that would harm them.
Affirm all children as sacred human beings at all times
The first chapter of Scripture tells us “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). There are no qualifications to that statement, we know that it doesn’t tell us that some people are created more in the image of God than others. It’s a simple statement but one that presents us with so many challenges as we place it in the context of a reality that seems to add all sorts of qualifications and layers of prejudice regarding the worth and value of people, including the value of children.
The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine picks up on this theme: “Humanity was created in the image and likeness of God. This gives dignity and worth to every individual whatever their personal, cultural, religious or socio-economic circumstances [and whatever their age – my addition!]. The ethos, history and present practice of The Salvation Army affirm this fact. Both individual Salvationists and the whole body of the Army must guard against any teaching, policies or practices which are not in harmony with this belief.” What a call we have to safeguard the dignity and worth of every individual! What a call we have to face uncomfortable truths regarding the capacity of individuals (including Salvation Army officers) to abuse children! What a call we have to ensure that these powerful words in handbook of doctrine aren’t just a principle we adhere to in theory, but are made real in the ordinariness of everyday life! God help us!
Reflecting on Genesis 1:27, Marcia Bunge in Historical Perspectives on Children in the Church concludes that “all children, regardless of race, gender or class are fully human and worthy of respect. Although children are developing, they are, at the same time, whole and complete human beings.”
Obligation to defend the cause of all children
The Book of Isaiah contains many references to and images of children. Some of the references are to named children but many are to “orphans” or “the fatherless”. The message and tone of the 66 chapters is clear from the very first: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
In the context of the society of Isaiah’s day, his concern for orphans or the fatherless was a concern for those in society who were without any kind of male protection, those for whom no one served as advocate. This made orphans vulnerable to all kinds of abuse and exploitation.
The peoples’ failure to “defend the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:23) is one of the reasons for the repeated warnings of divine judgement that Isaiah proclaims. Jacqueline Lapsley in Children of Isaiah suggests that “the failure is not one of charity, as is commonly perceived in popular thought, but a failure of justice at the systematic level”. Caring for orphans is, as far as the message of Isaiah is concerned, a fundamental justice issue.
Addressing these issues in the context of contemporary society, Walter Brueggemann, in his article Vulnerable Children, Divine Passion and Human Obligation, suggests that the principle of defending the cause of the fatherless extends widely to any child without adult advocacy and goes on to state that “we may take ‘orphan’ to be the ‘other’ beyond our own children for whom we have profound obligation, an obligation that depends not simply on good intentions but on well-funded provisions of protection and sustenance”.
Pointing to numerous Old Testament passages, Brueggemann contends that “this obligation toward children other than our own is rooted in the very character of God.”
As children attend Salvation Army activities around the world, we often accept the role of serving in loco parentis (in the place of a parent) and the obligations that come with that role. For Salvationists, these obligations do not merely represent a duty of care but a profound call to be faithful to all that we believe about the nature and character of God.
The full inclusion, participation and protection of children in their communities
We know that the Gospel accounts include episodes where we see Jesus placing a firm emphasis on the place and value of children. Bunge comments that “We see Jesus blessing children, embracing them, rebuking those who turn them away, healing them and lifting them up as models of faith.”
In Mark 9:33-37 Jesus teaches that welcoming a child is synonymous with welcoming him. The Matthew chapter 18 account of Jesus placing a child in the midst sees him issue a stark warning to his disciples: “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 round their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
Jesus unmistakably has a view on accountability and, on this occasion, links it to the way in which adults care for children.
Reflecting on the Matthew 18 passage and the implications it has for any follower of Jesus, Keith White in Jesus, the Kingdom and Children concludes that “you cannot follow (and that includes welcoming and accepting) Jesus without welcoming children. You cannot reject (and that includes refusing and marginalizing) children without rejecting Jesus”.
The Gospel of Mark includes very few references to Jesus being “indignant”. The fact that the Mark 10:13-16 account of people bringing little children to Jesus is one of those few references can only leave us to assume that the cause of such a strong response from Jesus was a reaction to the disciples’ behaviour towards the children in their presence: the rebuke the disciples directed at the children provoked a firm rebuke in their own direction from Jesus.
Judith Gundry in Children in the Gospel of Mark offers one explanation for the strength of the response we see from Jesus: “His anger is aimed at his own disciples, for they are opposing rather than aiding his mission to inaugurate the kingdom of God.” It is a sobering thought to reflect on the connection between any failure to treat children correctly and frustrating the mission of God.
Jesus took the spirituality of children very seriously. The Gospel narratives testify that there was no hint of him viewing their need of or response to him in any kind of lesser way than the need or response of any other person. We know that the numerous accounts of Jesus bringing healing to people include incidents where we see children being healed. His attention to and acceptance of their worship of him (Matthew 21:15-16) shows us that he took the spirituality of children very seriously. It is a call for us to do the same and to try to think through the full implications of doing so.
Whilst building on a biblical perspective of children’s spirituality, Rebecca Nye in Children’s Spirituality notes that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) includes reference to ‘spiritual rights’ and she goes on to say this: “Acceptance of rights means that we are not simply choosing to respond out of kindness or courtesy but because it is imperative. We are under an obligation to meet these rights and cannot simply be left to patronise children or value their spirituality when it suits us. When spirituality is understood in these terms, it should fundamentally affect everything we do. Specifically, it should challenge and inform the content of ministry with children, how we think about children and the relationships necessary to support [and perhaps we could add, protect or safeguard] this understanding.” Our work must include work to safeguard children against spiritual abuse: there’s a conversation there in itself and a discussion to be had around what we even mean by that.
Children as recipients, messengers and ministers of God’s grace
In his contribution to Toddling to the Kingdom, Keith White outlines what he calls “an Old Testament Cast of Children”, commenting that “some of the most significant acts and revelations of God were through these children. Their faith and actions are critically important in the unfolding and outworking of God’s purposes.” We see children and young people feature prominently in the New Testament as well.
As I conclude this article I can only reflect on the “cast of children” who have shaped and continue to shape my life and faith: generations of children who have ministered God’s grace to me, children who have helped me see God in action, children who have participated in God’s continuing revelation of himself to me, children for whom I will be forever thankful.
I wonder who are the “cast of children” in your life? Who are the children who have shaped and continue to shape your life and faith? Who are the children who have been messengers and ministers of God’s grace to you?
As The Salvation Army continues its work to strengthen child protection policy and practice around the world I pray that this work will help to safeguard children and their role in the continuing unfolding of God’s purposes for the world.Major Janet Robson is the Youth and Children’s Officer, International Headquarters
We need your help!
The Safeguarding (Child Protection) work stream would love to hear from you and would welcome any continuing dialogue with regards to our relationship with and obligations to children. Please feel free to email us at email@example.com with any comments, insights, articles or questions/concerns you have to share on this matter.