I noticed in today’s news that a man and a woman have just been convicted of causing or permitting a child’s death and then pretending it had taken ill on a London bus. I am grieved at this story, but even more grieved by the large number of results I got on Google when I entered , “convicted of child killing.” It made me realise how many of these there have been recently and how easily I had read about them, without shock.
A fair proportion of these killings are carried out by people whose own lives are a mess: poverty and addiction are frequent factors. Violence between partners, especially by men on women, is another. A significant proportion however seem due to an unexplained malevolence in the perpetrator’s character, and even more disturbingly, to a malevolence shared by partners, directed at their child. Although people express their revulsion by asking how people could do these things to their own child, I fear that the harm is done precisely because it is their own child.
One of our ingrained beliefs is that a child belongs to its biological parents, which allows them rights over the child which they do not have over any other child or person. The right to use violence, for example. This cherished right is now being legally questioned in Scotland, attracting a denuciation from Rev. David Robertson of Dundee Free Church of Scotland. I could be guarranteed to vote for any social policy which had on the wrapper, “Denounced by Rev David Robertson.” I guess he believes that kids should be smacked in the name of Jesus. In this he is supported by majority opinion, which remains convinced that what people do to their kids is their business. Until they kill them, of course.
Most people don’t know that child- killing can be traced in the Bible. Let’s look at Exodus 22: 28,29:
The first-born of your sons, give to me.
Do this also with your ox and with your sheep:
for seven days let it be with its mother, then give it to me!
The example of the animals shows that the text is commmanding sacrifice of the first-born animals and sons! There are many other indications that the sacrifice of children to God was an issue for the Israelites, a custom which they gradually learned was abhorrent. The famous story of the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham is the best known example of the change from human to animal sacrifice only. The story in no way criticises Abraham’s readiness to kill his son; in fact it praises him for his obedience to God. Of course, if we interpret the Bible as a human document we can see a development away from a bad custom towards a better one. But those who have a fundamentalist view of scripture are left with what the texts say. Small wonder that some of them insist that God had to ‘kill’ his own son Jesus in order to forgive the sins of humanity.
The biblical evidence, along with anthropological research from around the world, reveals that children were often sacrificed to secure the blessing of the gods for the family or the tribe. I’m not making the mistake of judging these customs as cruel in the way that modern child abuse is cruel, but rather taking them as evidence of how children, albeit precious or maybe because they were precious, could be considered disposable for the benefit of adults. The contemporary view, that parents have rights over their children, is an extension of the classic view, that under certain circumstances, children are disposable.
The tradition about Jesus found in the Gospels contains a strong rebuttal of the classic view because it asserts the worth and dignity of children as children over against all adult denials, so much so that “being a child” becomes one of the most desirable conditions of humanity under God. This is one of the charateristics which distinguishes the Jesus tradition from all other ethical and religious traditions in the world.
In a startling subversion of the classic view, Jesus taught that just because children belong to God, their lives and welfare should be a primary concern of human beings. In a week when we also note the death of the child -killer Ian Brady, this gospel has especial relevance.