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Suffer the Children

“Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto Me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” For the benefit of those who didn’t attend Sunday school, that is from the Gospel of Matthew (19:14, King James Version), quoting Jesus. Suffer, in this context, is the root verb of suffrage, as in women’s suffrage, and means to allow. For my purpose, though, I’m going to embrace the word’s double meaning.

Clearly, a love of children is central to the original Christian message, but I wonder if it is still meaningful to American Christians today. There is much truth in the cliché that conservative Christians seem to love children only until the moment they’re born. I suppose those people love their own children, more or less. It’s just other people’s children who don’t seem to stir their hearts.

And there is still plenty of suffering among American children today. Suffering from poverty and hunger. Suffering from gun violence and domestic abuse. Suffering from depression and anxiety and other mental health issues. Why aren’t we doing more to address those issues?

For one thing, I think conservatives hold two wildly different perceptions of children, a difference that has a lot to do with race. The good, white children are seen as so fragile they would be shattered if they knew the full truth about America’s history and so impressionable they might turn gay if exposed to literature that affirms LGBTQ+ identity. The bad, non-white children are imagined to be hardened little monsters growing up to prey on the good people. Who would want to help them?

The other problem is that children have parents. Just about any form of assistance we might give children would have to go through the parents, and can we really trust them? The good, affluent parents take care of their own children, providing for and protecting them, and isn’t that what we should expect of all parents? It’s all about “personal responsibility,” the refrain of the assault on means-tested social welfare programs for decades now. The willful blindness to the struggles of so many is shameful.

Two recent news stories got me thinking about these issues. One is the Supreme Court case of Haaland v. Brackeen, which is challenging the constitutionality of the Indian Child Welfare Act. The ICWA was initially enacted in 1978 in reaction to a century of efforts to remove as many Native children as possible from their people. The act was designed to prioritize placing Native children within their tribes. It rejected a practice and a policy rooted in the general conviction that poor, non-white parents are by definition bad parents. It was a system that amounted to cultural genocide. And if the conservative majority on the Court have their way, we may be going back to those bad old days.

The other story involves the expiration of the expanded Child Tax Credit that was included in the American Rescue Plan last year. The result was a 40% reduction in child poverty and a dramatic easing of hunger. Yet Republicans have made it clear that they are

dead set against renewing it. In other countries, even conservatives recognize that supporting families with children is an investment in their nation’s collective future. Where is our sense of the common good?

So this holiday season, as we gather with our own families, let’s remember the children. Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or whatever you celebrate.

Paul Harris

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