Children aren’t and haven’t been valued in all cultures the way we generally cherish children in the modern United States. I say “generally” because even in our pro-children generations, there are still those kids who slip through the cracks and who are abused, terrorized, and forced to live in danger zones. Not every child born into an American household is guaranteed parental love, an adequate or nutritional food supply, a safe and climate-controlled home, adequate health care or any health care, or a future to anticipate with joy and confidence if their parents and grandparents keep electing yahoos as our lawmakers and public officials. And the number of at risk children escalates beyond our ability to take it in when we look at the problems of at risk children in a world context.
Some children in our world are sold into agricultural slavery; some children are sold into sex market slavery. Some children are forced to work in sweat shops, making some of the garments that several of us choose to wear. Some children are forced to take up arms and fight their parents’ wars or their tribe’s war or their nation’s wars. Some children are turned out on the streets to survive as best they can, if they can, when parents feel that they can no longer be burdened with the costs of caring for their kids. In ways, children are less at risk than in years gone by, but in other ways there are children who are more at risk than ever.
Some of you historians probably know that the total number of people murdered by Hitler and his minions in the Holocaust was about 11.5 million. You also know, by now, that not all of them were Jews; there were others whom Hitler hated and put to death as well--gypsies and homosexuals, for example. Also, not all the victims of the gas chambers and the firing squads were adults. At least 1.5 million of the people killed were children.
Hitler hated people of color, but a few Black soldiers from France had remained in Germany after some war activity. Some of those Black soldiers married German women, and these couples had children--mulattos, of course. Hitler called them “Rhineland Bastards.” Instead of putting them to death, at least wholesale, he would have them removed from playgrounds and classrooms--naturally not telling their parents where they were. They were in hospitals being sterilized so that no more dark blood could be infused into German veins. Better than a death camp assignment, these children were traumatized and remained so for the rest of their lives.
A few weeks ago I told you about the children being sold into slavery by their impoverished parents to work in the cocoa bean industry--planting, harvesting, shipping. This a pressing problem in the Ivory Coast where one of the very few ways to generate income is through the sale of cocoa beans--the Ivory Coast being the world’s number one producer of cocoa beans because of its location and climactic conditions. Almost none of those kids will ever taste even a bite of finished chocolate products to which the first world is addicted and for which the first world pays billions of dollars each year. I say again, unless we buy Fair Trade chocolate products, we are supporting those mega businesses that take advantage of the poor nation to further line their pockets with cash earned for them by little girls and boys sold by their parents into slavery in a desperate effort to support a family that might otherwise starve to death. When you buy a Hershey’s chocolate bar or a container of Nestle’s hot cocoa mix or a bag of M & M’s, you are supporting childhood slavery in the Ivory Coast.
Our country’s Department of Justice has a section or division called Child Exploitation and Obscenity. If you were to surf over to the Department of Justice’s website, you’d find some extraordinarily disturbing information. Not only are thousands of children “imported” to the US to be used in prostitution and pornography, but also we have what the site calls our own “homegrown problem of interstate sex trafficking of minors.” Our government’s estimate of how many children are lured or forced into this jail-hell of a life is in the 300,000 range at any given time. The majority of US American kids in the industry are those who ran away from home or who were thrown out of their homes and left to live on the streets and survive as best they can. They tend to come from family situations where they have been sexually and emotionally abused. Other kids are recruited, and some are doing what they’re doing because their parents got paid to let a pimp take charge of their child’s life.
Typically American kids in the sex trafficking business are taken great distances from their homes so they won’t be recognized by anyone who might be willing to pay for their services. Their lives are controlled by their pimps, and the only people they are allowed to relate to other than those paying them for sex are the other kids in the same boat essentially owned by the same pimp.
Much of the time, these children are required to have sex as many times a day as a paying customer is interested. They numb themselves by becoming addicted to drugs; if they don’t take up drugs on their own, they are often forced to use such drugs. The prime age for the most desirable girls in the biz is 12-14 and for boys 11-13. The justice department calls it a problem of epidemic proportions.
The wonderful organization, Bread for the World, estimates that today and every day these days 925 million people in the world are hungry. Right now, 16,000 children around the world die daily from hunger-related complications; a child is dying from starvation every five seconds. In 2008, there were about 9 million children of the world who died before their fifth birthdays, and a third of those deaths were related to hunger and/or malnutrition.
Let’s Americanize this so that we can bring it closer to home and get a better look. In our country right this minute, 13 percent of our citizens who are living in poverty. One in four households has trouble putting food on the table, and that comes out to 16.7 million children who are hungry to some degree.
The Rand Corporation reports that children with the most pressing health needs generally have the toughest time finding suitable health care for their problems, and if they have access even to primary care it tends to be haphazardly provided. The Corporation calls this “triple jeopardy for vulnerable children.”
World Vision International shocks us with another sickening statistic. A quarter of a million children around our world are forced to take up arms and fight the world’s wars; some of these child soldiers are as young as 7. Are you interested in knowing what these kids do militarily, kids who should be living with loving parents and getting up, going to school every day to learn and to enjoy recreation with their peers?
Well, the little girls are often, whatever else they may do, sex partners for the adult soldiers. Many of these kids are forced to be spies in especially dangerous places and circumstances. Many of them are sent to fight on the front lines of battle to minimize the chances of death to the more valuable adult and/or career soldier. Many of these kids become suicide bombers because they have been told that what they will do is a really fun and funny game. Kids, again to preserve the more experienced soldiers, are often required to walk through mine fields to see if a mine explodes.
In November of 1959, the United Nations adopted its “Declaration on the Rights of the Child.” To my knowledge, this strong declaration still stands as an important part of the United Nations’ identity and has been amended little if at all in these last fifty years.
- Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have, in the Charter, reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights and in the dignity and worth of the human person, and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
- Whereas the United Nations has, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, proclaimed that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth therein, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, gender, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status,
- Whereas the child, by reason of her or his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth,
- Whereas the need for such special safeguards has been stated in the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1924, and recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the statutes of specialized agencies and international organizations concerned with the welfare of children,
- Whereas humankind owes to the child the best it has to give,
Now therefore, the General Assembly proclaims this Declaration of the Rights of the Child to the end that every child may have a happy childhood and enjoy for her or his own good and for the good of society the rights and freedoms herein set forth, and calls upon parents, upon men and women as individuals, and upon voluntary organizations, local authorities and national Governments to recognize these rights and strive for their observance by legislative and other measures progressively taken in accordance with the following principles:
The child shall enjoy all the rights set forth in this Declaration. Every child, without any exception whatsoever....
The child shall enjoy special protection and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable the child to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity.
The child shall be entitled from birth to a name and a nationality.
The child shall enjoy the benefits of social security. He or she shall be entitled to grow and develop in health; to this end, special care and protection shall be provided both to the child and to her or his mother, including adequate prenatal and postnatal care. The child shall have the right to adequate nutrition, housing, recreation and medical services.
The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by the particular condition.
The child, for the full and harmonious development of personality, needs love and understanding. She or he shall, wherever possible, grow up in the care and under the responsibility of her or his parents, and, in any case, in an atmosphere of affection and of moral and material security; a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from the child’s mother. Society and the public authorities shall have the duty to extend particular care to children without a family and to those without adequate means of support.
The child is entitled to receive education, which shall be free and compulsory, at least in the elementary stages. This education will promote her or his general culture and enable the child, on a basis of equal opportunity, to develop abilities, individual judgement, and a sense of moral and social responsibility, and to become a useful member of society. The best interests of the child shall be the guiding principle of those responsible for childhood education and guidance; that responsibility lies in the first place with the child’s parents. The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavor to promote the enjoyment of this right.
The child shall in all circumstances be among the first to receive protection and relief.
The child shall be protected against all forms of neglect, cruelty and exploitation. He or she shall not be the subject of traffic, in any form. The child shall not be admitted to employment before an appropriate minimum age and shall in no case be caused or permitted to engage in any occupation or employment that would prejudice health or education, or interfere with physical, mental or moral development.
The child shall be protected from practices that may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination. He or she shall be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood, and in full consciousness that her or his energy and talents should be devoted to the service of fellow human beings.
This glowingly optimistic document has probably helped some children in the world, but plenty of countries and individuals completely ignore it--to the detriment of children past and future. Right in our own country are parents and neighbors and teachers and priests and devoted child predators on the loose. Children still are at risk.
The Church longs for ways to protect all the unprotected in our world--our precious children included. Children have to trust adults, and that makes them unavoidably vulnerable.
The biblical story on which we focus today is out of place, as we use it. It should come after Christmas rather than before or during Christmas. Furthermore, the story of the Magi makes a theological statement that not all devotees of Jesus were ready to affirm the instant Jesus was born. Finally, there’s a geographical problem in how the story has been conventionally conceived.
The story from Matthew’s Gospel has already been read for us. Let me remind you of how it began, Matthew chapter 2:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
There is so much to take note of in these two brief verses. First, the calendar we currently use is off; some scribe made an error in calculations somewhere along the way and lost about six years. So, if the calendar for Christians begins at Jesus’ birth, then the current year is 2004 and not 2010. If you want to, you can think of yourself as six younger than you are, although a year is still a year regardless of whether it transpired before or after Jesus’ birth. But you could still make the argument that the year on your birth certificate is six years off.
According to the calendar many of us use today, Herod the Great died in 4 BC or BCE. These Magi show up when Jesus is about two years old. Mary and Joseph and Jesus had long since left the manger and were now living in their family home. The word they use to ask Herod the whereabouts of the one born to be King of the Jews is not the word for infant; it’s a word for young child or toddler. This makes Jesus’ birth year, again according to the calendar most of us use today--Jews excluded--6 BC or BCE. What we now treat as year zero, the point at which we had thought Jesus was born, was actually Jesus’ sixth year; he was six years old in the year the errant scribe computed his birth year as year zero.
We have incorrectly thought of the wise men as shooting over from Iran to Bethlehem almost as fast as the shepherds did who were just around the corner from the stable in which Jesus was born; it’s not possible. Nor does a careful reading of the story bear out those conclusions.
We know the Magi followed a star to find their way to where a person born for greatness had been born. We have realized that a star visible to us only shines at night and then only on certain nights so we have said that the star shone intermittently, and the Magi had to keep on their toes to see it when it was up and to try to find where it was leading them. That makes sense, but in what they say to Herod to try to describe their mission in a nutshell raises the need for more thinking about these details. “For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” That sounds to me like they observed the star at its rising, that one time, and that was it. They didn’t follow a guiding star; rather they saw this magnificent star once, and figured right at the outset, being the professional star gazers they were, where this star was drawing them. It took them a couple of years to make the trip, no doubt with lots of trial and error, wrong turns and detours.
After Herod was no help at all--and in his defense he didn’t know anyone had been born who’d been named his successor or he’d have already killed that person since he didn’t believe in successors--the star showed up again after two years to illuminate the place where Jesus was now living. A star cannot provide great precision with focused lighting the way a sun beam can, the star can get them to general areas. If the star had been able to guide to where X makes the spot, the Magi would have had no reason to stop and ask for directions--and from the last person whom they should have asked, a violent and paranoid old king who somehow iMagined that he would occupy his throne forever.
When Herod heard this news, he was polite enough to the Magi, but when they were out of his sight Matthew’s Gospel says that he was frightened. Terrible translation choice. Herod was not “frightened”; he was uneasy, edgy. If someone had been born to be his successor that disrupted his desire to see himself as immortal; this meant that he was going die and that he could not be King of the Jews forever. So he was troubled or uneasy, but he wasn’t frightened. When he was upset about something everyone who lived near his palace became upset too because he was likely to go on some kind of tirade in which someone or someones were going to end up injured or dead.
He wracked his brain trying to figure out how a king could be born that could supersede him, and the only one he could think of was the Messiah promised from ancient times who’d never come. Some Jews still looked and hoped; others thought Messiah had just been a symbol of some kind, and others thought those looking for Messiah were wasting their time. They believed that those who predicted a Messiah had just been wrong--pious and sincere, but wrong.
Herod pretended to be trying to help them on their search. He told them tradition had named Bethlehem as the site of Messiah’s birth. He told them how to get there, and asked them to come back to tell him where they had found the little boy so that he, too, could go and pay his respects. Of course, Herod had no intention of paying respects. He was going to kill off this little boy if he found him.
Well, the Magi found the home shared by Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, and they honored him with gifts fit for a king: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. A two year old kid didn’t know what to do with any of these gifts; he probably tried to bite on the gifts or eat them. After the ceremonies, the Magi were warned in a dream not to go back Herod so they skipped him altogether as they prepared for their long journey back to Iran.
Almost simultaneous to that, Joseph also had a dream in which God’s messenger told him of the danger to Jesus in Jerusalem and directed Joseph to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt, which was the only place Jesus could have been kept safe from the violent Herod. God’s messenger in the dream told Joseph to stay in Egypt until in another dream he’d be told to come home. Joseph followed those directions, and Jesus was saved from Herod’s jealous rage.
Assured that he would get rid of the Messiah-to-be--messiah meaning God’s anointed one--Herod ordered his thugs to kill off all the little boys two year old and under in the Bethlehem area. Bethlehem was hardly a thickly populated area, and we’re talking only a few little boys killed. Even so, every life is of tremendous value to God, and every child has a mother a father. The pain of those parents as Herod’s thugs killed their little boys two years and younger went up as a blood curdling cry. This tragic situation reminded the writer of Matthew’s Gospel about an event in the experience of the ancient Hebrews so the writer closes this section of his story by quoting the Prophet Jeremiah who’d written about that tragic event: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
Children still are at risk just as Jesus himself as a child was at risk. He was spared a cruel death as a child, but only because his father was sensitive enough and attentive enough to follow God’s lead and get him out of there. We have to assume that the same messenger who came to Joseph in a dream attempted to do the same for the other fathers in Bethlehem since God certainly did not love their sons less than God loved Jesus, but they didn’t hear; or they didn’t understand; or they had no means to make the trip. They lost their children to Herod’s ignorance and hatred--a Jewish king killing little Jewish boys.
I dream a dream of peace and safety for children. I dream of a world in which each child is cherished and in which tears occur only because of bumps, bruises, and broken toys. However, I live in a world in which hundreds of children are sexually violated by someone that they love and trust. I live in a world in which children experience the most painful physical injury at the hands of those with whom they should be safe. I work in a world of violence, tears, nightmares, and fear.