August 19, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, August 19, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A photograph from Syria and stories from the States: How should Christians respond to child suffering?
Sometimes it goes right through the mind and into the heart; sometimes it comes by words, sometimes by an image, but it comes. And three times in the last 48 hours, it has come in a story about a child, one in Syria, one in Arkansas, one in Ohio. All of them tell us something very important to which Christians must pay attention.
In the first place, a photograph of a little boy sitting in an ambulance and Syria became the focus of worldwide conversation. We are told that the little five-year-old’s name was Omran and that he had been rescued out of the rubble after a bombing raid in the Syrian city of Aleppo. It’s hard to imagine the horror of what is taking place in Syria right now and has been for a number of years. We’re talking about entire villages, cities destroyed, an entire civilization, a society coming unhinged and unglued. We’re talking about not only hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are affected, indeed now up in to the millions, but we’re talking about tens of thousands of refugees. We’re talking about some of the most hopeless people right now on earth.Show Full Transcript
In the United States, there is a very virulent political debate, rightly so, as to what America should have done or could have done in the face of all of this horror in Syria. But the picture of this five-year-old boy is what arrested the attention because he’s covered in mud and covered with blood sitting in an ambulance, and the shock on the little boy’s face, the absolute incredulity, the inability to understand what is taking place around him, and the fact that all of this is communicated in a photograph showing the face and small body of the child staring at the camera, is something that as I said should have our attention.
It points to the reality of human suffering all over the world, and it points to the suffering of children not only in Syria, but all over the world. And that’s something that requires a Christian biblical worldview explanation. Nabih Bulos and Laura King of the Los Angeles Times explain the image this way,
“Shocking images of suffering are documented daily and hourly in Syria … but it was not hard to see why this one captured worldwide attention. In the video, the barefoot boy is clad in shorts and a cartoon-emblazoned T-shirt — just like any kindergartner anywhere on a hot summer’s evening — lending the chaotic events an incongruous touch of childhood familiarity, right down to his slightly pigeon-toed pose.”
But later the reporters write,
“In the adult-sized seat, the child looks smaller than ever, little legs sticking straight out in front of him, barely extending to the edge of the cushion. Silently, he reaches up to touch his mop of tousled hair and his wounded face, then seems puzzled over what to do with his hand, which comes away covered with ash and blood. Uncertainly, he wipes it on the seat.
Speaking of the horror in Syria and in particular of the image of this little boy, one observer said,
“Here words die and one’s tongue is tied.”
But the other two stories that caught my attention are not from Syria. Both are from the United States, and that’s a very important point for us to recognize. Both of them came in the Washington Post, the first of them by Travis M. Andrews. He writes,
“When Officer Steve Dunham met the 7-year-old, the boy was offering to sell his teddy bear. The little guy must have seemed industrious, standing in front of the CVS at the busy intersection of Second and Main in Franklin, Ohio, trying to hawk his toy on July 7. Most children don’t want to part with their stuffed animals. In this boy’s case, it was a lone source of comfort, but he was desperate. He hadn’t eaten in days.”
The Washington Post story tells us that the logic behind this was that the little boy had figured out if he could sell his teddy bear for enough money, he could walk across the street and get a kid’s meal at Subway, at the very least a Snickers bar from CVS. Then we are told that when authorities went to his home, they discovered that his parents did not even know that he was missing. They also found in the house four other boys aged 11, 12, 15, and 17 and no edible food.
Then this story by Kristine Guerra also in the Washington Post this week:
“The 4-year-old girl had deep purple bruises, a black eye, a swollen cheek and a mark on her forehead. She also had healing scars across her back, dried blood in the corner of her mouth and ligature marks on her wrist, authorities said. When a police officer asked her what her name was, she had a startling response: ‘Idiot.’ Her mother’s live-in boyfriend, police said, regularly called the child “Idiot” instead of using her actual name.”
The child thought that “idiot” was her name, a little four-year-old girl, this time in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Here, we have three heart stopping stories about three different children—two in the United States, one in Syria.
And then yesterday in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, a very prominent and influential columnist with the paper, wrote an article entitled,
“If Syrian Kids Were Pups, We’d All Care.”
He writes about the fact that last Thursday the Kristof family had to say goodbye to their golden retriever, then age 12. Kristof then wrote about the death of the family dog saying that,
“I mourned [the dog’s] passing on social media and received a torrent of touching condolences, easing my ache at the loss of a member of the family. Yet,” he says on the same day that his dog died, “I published a column calling for greater international efforts to end Syria’s suffering and civil war, which has claimed perhaps 470,000 lives so far. That column led to a different torrent of comments, many laced with a harsh indifference: Why should we help them?”
All this represented a great moral challenge to Nicholas Kristof. He concluded his article by saying,
“I wonder what would happen if Aleppo were full of golden retrievers, if we could see barrel bombs maiming helpless, innocent puppies. Would we still harden our hearts and ‘otherize’ the victims? Would we still say ‘it’s an Arab problem; let the Arabs solve it’?”
“Yes, solutions in Syria are hard and uncertain. But I think even,”
He mentions his dog,
“In her gentle wisdom would have agreed that not only do all human lives have value, but also that a human’s life is worth every bit as much as a golden retriever’s.”
A part of Nicholas Kristof’s unique influence in the national and international media is the way he brings a human dimension to stories from all over the world and he draws particular attention to those who are the most vulnerable around the world. He mixes this, of course, with his political commentary, and that’s at least a part of the background here. People are deeply divided over what the United States might have done or should have done when it comes to Syria, but Nicholas Kristof is arguing that there’s a moral mandate to do something. He actually seems to argue that there’s a moral mandate to do something even if it isn’t really effective, because doing nothing is simply unacceptable.
Here we face what is rightly diagnosed in the United States and elsewhere as compassion fatigue, and that would be multiplied hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of times over if we knew of the stories we didn’t get to read and the images we didn’t get to see, and in particular when it comes to human suffering on a massive scale and on a very tiny frame such as that of a human child. And yet, Nicholas Kristof is onto something really important when he draws a contrast that might affect us now more than any other time in terms of this compassion fatigue. Is it really true that there would be many people living in contemporary America who would find it far easier to come up with a moral mandate to intervene if what was threatened was the suffering of a dog rather than the suffering of the child?
This is where Christians have to understand that far more is at stake here than anything that can be described in a column like this in the New York Times. We also have to understand that Nicholas Kristof is onto something really, really important here. Frankly, I tend to agree with him and his political analysis of Syria, but even those who disagree with him must understand that what we see here is the brokenness of the world that not even the United States with all of our military might can actually resolve or accomplish. Furthermore, the really frightening thing is that if we did achieve a certain stability there, violence would break out yet somewhere else.
It’s a situation in which we are vexed and, yes, we are exhausted by the reality that the needs around us are so many and the evil around us is seemingly so massive. Christians must also understand that we too can fall prey to compassion fatigue. We can decide that we’re simply exhausted by the sheer enormity of the suffering around us. But we are called as Christians to do what we can do, to do more than we thought we could do, when it comes to the suffering of those around us and, of course, the suffering of those beyond us.
But we also recognize biblically that we are never going to be able to resolve all these problems. The Christian is unsurprised when all of the sudden brokenness is healed and danger is alleviated in one place, only to see violence and evil break out not only in another place, but many other places. But perhaps now in the United States, there is a particularly dangerous form that this compassion fatigue is taking, and that betrays a tremendous and dangerous confusion when it comes to worldview. That is the relative value of the life of a dog or the life of any animal over against the life of any human beings and, in particular, of any child.
Nicholas Kristof concluded his article by saying that a human life,
“Is worth every bit as much as a golden retriever’s.”
No, it’s not. I’m not suggesting that that’s all Nicholas Kristof would actually mean to say, but we must be certain that we say a great deal more. We are not saying that the problem in terms of this confusion is that somehow there are people who would value the life of a pet more than the life of the child and that’s wrong because they are of equal value—the child’s life is worth fully as much as the pet of the animal, of the cuddly. But that’s not what we’re saying. The biblical worldview reminds us that every single human life is infinitely more valuable than the life of every single animal. That’s something that many modern people can’t comprehend, but that’s a major problem. The eclipse of the Christian worldview is not just disadvantageous for society, it is very dangerous for human dignity.
One final thought in terms of these three stories, and in particular the two stories from the United States: thankfully in both of these cases children received after horrible abuse help from the community around them. And in both of these stories, law enforcement acted to take criminal action against the parents who are either negligent or abusive or both. But what we need to note is that virtually no one is complaining about this and making a serious argument for moral relativism. The moral relativists want to argue about the fact that all morality is relative, especially when it comes to sexual issues. But you’ll notice virtually everyone understands that hurting a child is wrong, that failing to take care of a child is evil, that hurting a child is horrendous. And thus, you see the fact that the worldview of moral relativism faces a meltdown in headlines like the ones we just shared about these three children. What has taken place in the lives of these children is not relatively wrong. It is absolutely wrong. It is not just wrongdoing, it is evil. Any worldview that cannot accommodate that is a worldview that must be discarded very quickly, because human life and far more is at stake.
Over-scheduling and postponed responsibility: What worldview animates American childhoods?
Next, shifting to yet another dimension of parenthood from a Christian worldview, it’s interesting that there’s a new book out entitled,
“The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.”
It’s published by Princeton University Press, written by Paula Fass, and it’s about the fact that what we’ve seen in the United States is not just a shift in political views, it’s not just a shift in economic theories, it’s a shift in worldview that inevitably has affected the way we understand children and the responsibility of parenthood, how parents understand their responsibility to raise children. In this book, The End of American Childhood—remember the subtitle, it’s a history of parenting from life on the frontier to the managed child—that already tells us that the shift is pretty significant. That last phrase in the subtitle, “the managed child,” points to the fact that this particular analyst when it comes to child raising in America says that the big shift has been from responsibility understood to fall to the child to the responsibility being virtually entirely on the parent.
Along those lines, a reviewer of the book in the Financial Times, John Banville, writes,
“The book’s rather doom-laden title, The End of American Childhood, is a reference to Fass’s conclusion that modern American parents, in micromanaging their children, are breaking with a long tradition of independence of thought and action that differentiated children in the New World from their European counterparts. ‘The American boys of the early republic grew early into independence. They were neither indulged nor coddled. They were given some say in the objects of their labor and, when possible, free time to play. But the children were also seen as ‘little citizens’ — persons with capacity as well as potential.’ Children, even the children of wealthy parents, had to work in the home or on the land in early America, something that did not happen in the more developed European nations, where well-off homes had servants and children were considered in need of protection. Meanwhile, many young Americans needed entrepreneurial spirit — they had to make a living from an early age.”
The big point from the Christian worldview perspective is the fact that we have moved in this country from an effort to raise children to be adults at an early age to an age in which many children are not ever becoming adults at all. And that’s not just because of a change in the society. It’s because the worldview has shifted when it comes to understanding the role of parents and the goal of parenthood, what parents are to do in raising their children, and how they are to understand the child. What this author refers to in terms of the “age of the managed child” is where the parent takes on virtually all responsibility, managing the child, scheduling the child, indeed, over managing and overscheduling, trying to create an environment in which every detail of the child’s life is determined with virtually no responsibility on the part of the child, all responsibility deferred to the parents or other authorities or, for that matter, a constellation of experts who may be hired or brought into the family’s life in order to further manage the child.
The inequality behind educational inequality? Growing up with mom and dad in the home.
Another article that appeared, this time this week in the New York Times, had to do with the divide that marks the lives of so many children, and it becomes immediately visible, especially in the context of the schools, the public schools, and standardized testing. Here’s what the research tells us as reported by Susan Dynarski, again for the Economic View column of the New York Times. She tells us that the problem of inequality among children is actually far worse than many people recognize, and it shows up even earlier than many people had known. It shows up in standardized testing of children at virtually every grade level, but this reporter’s concern is what she calls the magnitude of the learning gap between the richest and the poorest children.
At this point, we need to note that the article takes economics as the most basic, if not solitary, reality behind this educational inequality. The formula is quite easy to understand by this argument: economic inequality means educational inequality. The children of economically developed parents do far better than the children of economically disadvantaged families.
From a Christian biblical worldview perspective, there is every reason to understand that economics will play a very important role here. But a key question from the Christian worldview is whether or not the economic considerations are the cause or the effect of a more fundamental inequality, and we might wonder if this report might get to that question. And in its own way it does.
It’s a heartbreaking story about the fact that children who begin educationally disadvantaged tend to continue educationally disadvantaged, not only throughout their school years but throughout their lifetimes. But the story does get to a prior question from a Christian biblical perspective, and it does it with these words:
“These data also show that persistently disadvantaged children are far less likely than other students to live with two parents or have a college-educated mother or father. Just 2 percent of persistently disadvantaged children have a parent with a college degree, compared with 24 percent of the occasionally disadvantaged (and 57 percent of those who were never disadvantaged).”
The big story here is not only about the educational attainment of parents—that makes perfect sense—but of the fact that there is a clear advantage acknowledged in the story to a child having two parents in the home, a mother and a father.
The other very interesting thing to note is that this story was published in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. There across the top, the New York Times Sunday, August 14, 2016, it’s in the financial pages on page 6, and yet it uses two words that in the worldview of the New York Times and the intellectual elite it represents have become out of date. And yet, they’re used here because there’s really no substitute for them, those words are mother and father.
There’s something very important revealed in that vocabulary. Because as it turns out, when you’re talking about children, as much as you might want to affirm that mothers or fathers, or mothers and fathers, or a mother and a mother and a father and a father, really don’t matter. The consideration is merely, however, a family might be put together and all families are the same. It turns out that when you’re talking about something as serious as this and you’re talking about how children actually live, it’s pretty much indispensable to suggest that it really does make a difference if a child has a mother and a father.
Going home to no home: California wildfires, Louisiana flooding, and gaining perspective
Finally, it’s been interesting to look at the news for the last several days and look at what’s present and what’s absent, or what appears only to disappear and perhaps appear again. A part of it has to do with the fact that we’re living in the midst of a presidential election year. And if you pick up any basic edition of a daily newspaper, or if you watch the news, or look at the Twitter feed, you are likely to think that the most important thing in the entire world is the 2016 presidential election. As is usually the case on a four year cycle, a presidential election takes up most of the media oxygen in the room and a good deal of our cultural conversation as well. It takes a great deal of effort for anything else to breakthrough that particular wall of news, and it often does so for a very fleeting moment.
Just consider the fact that in the United States right now in California we have raging fires that have led to the evacuation of tens of thousands and, as newspaper headlines yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere helped us to understand, there will be thousands of people who will go home to no home. Similarly in Louisiana, flooding that was thought in the beginning to be major has now turned out to be massive and, as we now know, there are also thousands and thousands of people in Louisiana who will be going home to no home.
Here’s a point in the Christian worldview we need to keep in mind even as we’re praying for all those whose lives and families are affected: we need to keep in mind that this helps us to understand that even something as important as the United States presidential election eclipses into the background if you are one of those who are affected by the fires in California or by the floods in Louisiana. It’s a matter of perspective. That reminds us that long before we actually have the luxury of getting to a dispassionate or even a passionate political debate, there’s the reality of having to take care of ourselves and our family, of basic human needs that are prior to any kind of political consideration or political or media interests.
All the stories taken together today on The Briefing remind us that though the headlines are important, there is often something far more important behind the headlines, sometimes in stories we come to know, sometimes in stories we will individually never come to know. So as we tuck our children in tonight and as we have a safe bed, a dry bed in which to tuck them, let’s not only give thanks to God, but let’s remember those who have no such bed, or no such home, and no place to place there head, people for whom the most urgent political headlines of the day have to take backseat to issues that are even more pressing and urgent. Another of the most important issues in the Christian worldview is perspective, knowing just how important certain stories, certain issues, even certain headlines, really are.