Friday, August 8, 2014

Children Aren't Disposable

I have been thinking a lot about children lately. (Not about having them. About the children who already exist.) Children coming across the U.S. border, fleeing violence. Children huddled inside shelters in Gaza, or playing on the beach, unprotected from the war raging around them. Children who become accustomed to running down to the bomb shelter when a siren goes off. Children who don’t have enough to eat during the summers when there is no school lunch program, or who go to school each day from a homeless shelter. Children who are unintended casualties of drone attacks in Pakistan. Children whose homes are more dangerous than their schools.

We can blame it on their parents’ poor decisions, or their neighborhoods. We can blame it on their governments, whether those governments are Honduras or Guatemala, or involve Hamas. But too many people think of children as disposable.

We would never call children disposable, not out loud. We love children, we say.

People who block buses of refugees or advocate for more military aid or vote to cut school lunch programs or bring charges against parents for illegally registering their children in a better school district demonstrate the disposability of children through what comes after their declaration of care. Their parents need to stop being poor. Their parents need to stop sending them away from home to cross borders in dangerous conditions. Their parents should protect them better. Their parents need to find better-paying jobs. Their parents shouldn’t allow Hamas to speak for them.

At which point are we okay looking children in the eye and telling them they are not worth the time and energy and resources to make a way in the midst of such horrible conditions?

At which point do we require moral purity as a prerequisite for our compassion? At which point are their parents the only ones responsible for these living beings?

This is not someone else’s problem. This is our problem. We used to allow child labor in our own borders, and still purchase products manufactured using child labor elsewhere. We have a child trafficking problem. Sexual and physical abuse of children happens every day.

I think children matter. I think everyone’s child matters. I do not believe that parents or communities or even children need to be virtuous or free of fault in order to think their children and perhaps even their parents deserve protection and generosity. You can make all the bad decisions you want, but I still believe you and your children deserve life. I extrapolated this from the lesson my parents drummed into me: You do not have to earn grace. It has already been given.

Deuteronomy 10:18 says “[God] enacts justice for orphans and widows, and [God] loves immigrants, giving them food and clothing.” Deuteronomy 24:17 says “Don’t obstruct the legal rights of an immigrant or orphan.” (from the Common English Bible)

Our own scriptures instruct us to watch out for the most vulnerable in society, whether they be poor, young, old, sick, or without legal protections afforded to citizens.

Why are we so stingy with children? If they’re too poor, they don’t have a right to this school district, or to food, or to housing. If they’re too Palestinian, they don’t have a right to movement beyond those walls. If they’re too gay or too trans or too non-gender-conforming, they don’t have a right to be who they were created to be.

I’m so confused. I heard those of us without children of our own are the selfish ones. I suppose it is selfish to think we in the U.S., out of all the places in the world, with so many religious communities, can make a way with all these children, even where no way yet exists. I suppose it is selfish to consider that if we allowed ourselves to be inconvenienced, we could make a difference.

So call me selfish. I want the world to be full of happy children, not dead ones. Not hungry ones. Not dismembered ones. Not abused ones.

As Christians, these children are our business.  As humans, children are our business.

I’m like everyone else. I get tired. It is overwhelming, all this caring, all this “trying to change the system” stuff. I have a job and a family and taxes and bills and birthdays to remember. And like everyone else, sometimes I just want to sit down with my hand-poured coffee from a locally-owned and operated farm in Puerto Rico that I carried on the airplane, and not think about all this.

Then I remember I can control only myself, not anyone else. I can choose to give up, to focus on pictures of kittens and a good cup of coffee to the exclusion of everything, but avoiding what is difficult tells me I have surrendered one of the things that makes me human (real, justified indignation on behalf of those who suffer) to the kind of consumption that temporarily numbs my restlessness.

We don’t have to be murderous, whether through deliberate action or complicity. We don’t have to write off Palestinian children, Guatemalan children, Honduran children, or any other child. We don’t have to resign ourselves to the criminalization of our own children, deciding they deserve to be stopped and frisked for walking down the street or asked for their papers just because they’re black or brown. We don’t have to resign ourselves to marginalizing children just because they’re poor, just because their parents have to live out of their cars, just because they can’t afford their lunches.

Children matter. Their families matter. Grace has already been given. Let’s act like it.

How to start acting like it (add your suggestions in the comments):

Support the Children’s Defense Fund. They do great work at a policy level.

Read Toxic Charity. Consider changing your mission to be less charity and offers more agency to people. Bulk discounts (for your Sunday school or book group) are available.

Write letters to migrant children.

Advocate for immigration reform that will allow people dignity and a path to regularization. Congress has recessed for August, so there isn’t legislation to advocate for. But you can still leave a message with your U.S. and state congresspeople urging them to support meaningful immigration reform and humane immigration processes, particularly for children and their parents who may be eligible for asylum, rather than increased criminalization and security measures. has many books and downloadable studies to help you and your church talk about immigration and take action.

Oppose zero-tolerance policies in schools, stop and frisk public policing, and other ways that disproportionately criminalize black and brown youth.

You may give to UNICEF and UNRWA, who work with children in Gaza and the occupied territories. You can also ask your congresspeople to reconsider our typical military aid package to the nation of Israel. You could work with local peace organizations to advocate for an end to the blockade and the occupation.

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