Jesus is reported as saying 'unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven'. Did he mean what he said or was he being idealistic? Do his words mean anything for today? I think they do, especially for Christian ministries in the light of the work of the Royal Commission and its likely recommendations for ensuring the safety of children.
These reflections are written in the context of ensuring that the best possible policies, practices and compliance systems are in place to keep children safe when in the care of institutions.
There is risk, however, in that we might focus so much on compliance that we will lose sight of the children.
In the Christian gospels the child is the exemplar, par excellence, of what God's world is meant to look like. In this view, the care of children and young people moves beyond compliance with safeguards to a greater openness to the divine. Children show the way on this because children are much more open to enchantment, much more open to the presence of God.
In social policy, on the other hand, the child tends to be portrayed as a powerless innocent. For example, the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child calls on member states to 'to recognise the rights of the child and to 'strive for their observance by legislative and other measures'.
The United Nations document gives a kind of moral basis for caring for the child, but it is a deficit basis that rests on the child's vulnerability: 'the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care'. It is a call for compliance based on the weakness of the child rather than on the importance of the child and the strengths of the child.
Similarly, criminal law exists to protect good order and to keep citizens safe. Laws to keep children safe focus on protection of the child rather than on the unique giftedness of a child.
In past years, some Catholic institutions have failed the standards of both gospel and society: on the one hand by discounting the importance of children and not listening to children, and on the other hand by not having appropriate practices and policies to ensure the safety of children.
'In conscientiously developing standards for the safeguarding and flourishing of children, the standards set by the state and the standards set by the church should be expected to be closely aligned.'
In the best of worlds, Christian community and secular society can learn from each other. A truly human culture will have much in common with a truly Christian culture because, for Christians, Christ is the model of the fully human. In conscientiously developing standards for the safeguarding and flourishing of children, therefore, the standards set by the state and the standards set by the church should be expected to be closely aligned, particularly in relation to the kind of observable details that can be monitored through compliance processes.
In some Australian jurisdictions, for example, efforts are made to place the child first in all decision making, in almost the same way that Jesus places the child first in the Kingdom. The Victorian Child FIRST policy was a leader in this, but much progress is still to be made, partly because of social attitudes, as the KPMG 2011 Evaluation of the Child and Family Services reforms indicated. In the best of worlds, policy and compliance will change the way society thinks about children.
The Christian theology of children adds two further dimensions for giving a child our full attention. The first dimension is based on the priority that Jesus gives to children, because they are models of the way God wants the world to be. The second dimension is based in Christian anthropology, which understands all persons to be fully open to the divine. Let us consider each dimension in turn.
Children are the first in the Kingdom of God
The key texts here are Mark chapter 10 verses 13-16, Mark chapter 9 verses 33-37, Matthew chapter 18 verses 1-5, and Matthew chapter 21 verses 14-16. Matthew chapter 18 verses 1-5 capture the essence of all these texts:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: 'Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Judith Gundry-Volf, in her study of children in the New Testament, notes that at the time of Christ children 'occupied a low rung on the social ladder'. She observes there are five main ways in which the significance of children is underscored in Jesus' teaching and practice.
He blesses children brought to him and teaches that the reign of God belongs to them. He makes children models of entering the reign of God. He also makes children models of greatness in the reign of God. He calls his disciples to welcome little children as he does and turns the service of children into a sign of greatness in the reign of God. He gives the service of children ultimate significance as a way of receiving himself and by implication the One who sent him.
There are two separate points being made here. First, children, along with the poor and the sick and the outcast, belong among the people of the beatitudes, among the ones for whom the Gospel is intended. Followers of Jesus are thus expected to welcome children and to serve them, because in serving children we serve and encounter Jesus. If we are cold towards children we are cold toward Jesus, and cold towards the Father who sent him.
Children are not only the first ones invited into the Kingdom, but they are also models of what we need to become if we ourselves are to enter the Kingdom of God. This is the call to conversion: to become like little children. This doesn't mean being childish, but it does mean being child-like. When it comes to matters of love, trust, joy, simplicity, and openness to wonder and mystery, children are to be imitated before they are to be taught. Gundry-Wolf concludes:
Children are ... are not only to be formed but to be imitated; they are not only ignorant but capable of receiving spiritual insight; they are not 'just' children but representatives of Christ ... Jesus ... cast judgment on the adult world because it is not the child's world. He made being a disciple dependent on inhabiting this 'small world'. He invited the children to come to him not so that he might initiate them into the adult world but so that they might receive what is properly theirs — the reign of God.
In other words, every time we reverence a child and come to be more child-like, we undergo conversion.
In Christian anthropology, furthermore, a child or a vulnerable person is not a person-to-be or a person-with-a-deficit, but is already perfectly human. Martin Marty, in his study of The Mystery of the Child, argues that:
The provision of care for children will proceed on a radically revised and improved basis if instead of seeing the child first as a problem faced with a complex of problems, we see her as a mystery surrounded by mystery. The need to deal with problems will, of course, be pressing in the case of every child, but if this need dominates the thoughts and actions of those who provide care, much of the wonder and joy of relating to children will be shrouded or even lost.
If a child is understood as essentially open to mystery, then a child is also to be understood as essentially open to the divine mystery.
In Christian anthropology, the essence of a human person is their openness to the Other: their insatiable wonder and yearning and searching. For adults, the market's cheap substitutes for the quest for transcendence often smother our openness to the divine. The market also turns a person into a commodity. For the child, however, the gift of being open to divine mystery remains pristine.
'The theology of children and vulnerable persons demands that we not only keep them safe, but that we also give them the first place in our hearts and in our society. We are challenged to learn to see reality through their eyes.'
Karl Rahner makes this argument in a dense but illuminating essay on 'Ideas for a Theology of Childhood'. He remarks that childhood is 'infinite openness to the infinite' and that the child expresses a mystery: the mystery of the gift of unique existence.
Sometimes we describe a new born child as an 'angel fresh from God'. In many senses this is true: a child is a representative of God, a confidante of God. In Christian anthropology, the human person's primary purpose is to receive God's love and to return God's love, rather than to get a job, buy things, get married and have children, nor any of the other things we often educate children to be. The child is certainly not an object or a commodity. A child may grow and learn more things and gradually take on greater responsibilities, but a child should not be seen as a potential adult, or an adult with a deficit. A child should be seen as a fully complete human being, a fully complete person. Right from the start, the child enjoys and reflects the love of God. Indeed, for the childlike, there is an absolute trust in God, an unquestioning openness to everyone and everything, an immediacy to the infinite.
So, while setting and maintaining standards for safeguarding children and vulnerable people is an essential duty of care, for Christians there is more to be done. For Christians, a child's innocent and enchanted outlook is ultimately more important than the individualism, materialism and consumerism that cut across secular society. For Christians, belonging and relationships and wonder are more important than perfect bodies, efficiency, and encyclopaedic knowledge.
The theology of children and vulnerable persons demands that we not only keep them safe, but that we also give them the first place in our hearts and in our society. We are challenged to learn to see reality through their eyes.
The standards for safeguarding children, with this added intent, become standards for the transformation and conversion of those with power and privilege. They may become catalysts for the development of both a more Christian church and a more humane secular society, where there is more focus on humanity and community and zero exploitation of children.
John Honner worked in child protection for ten years at MacKillop Family Services and Edmund Rice Community Services, and was a director of the Victorian Council of Social Service. He is currently a member of the Council of Edmund Rice Education Australia.
This article was first published in Eurkea Street.