Ask Andrew: Unequal Children

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew Part 5: Unequal Lives for the Children of the World

 Several weeks ago, during the Children’s prayer, thanks was given for the health, care and good enjoyed by our children. Around the world, not all children enjoy the same level of these benefits. Does the United Church have a rationale for why all children do not enjoy the same life style? Does God favour us more than others?

Matthew 18:1-5 Habakkuk 2:4-5

When we talk about our children we hit some really hot buttons, especially young children, whom we see as innocent. They can’t be blamed for what country they are born in or which parents they are born to. They start off as tiny, helpless, totally at the mercy of others in life. When you add to this that as Christians we are familiar with our Matthew passage, where Jesus uses a child as the example of what God looks for in humans to enter the kingdom of heaven. With all that in the mix, I could see how we might feel inspired to ask questions like the one above.

The feeling behind the question is obvious: if the minister can lead our children in a prayer of thanks for all the good things we enjoy here, what about all those children who don’t have the same good things, whose prayers might be really different? Why hasn’t God given those children the same benefits?

The practical problem is that children do not exist independently. All children are connected to their culture, their history and the place they live. We have to ask the question a different way, which is already contained in the question itself: Does God favour us more than others?

There are some churches today who would say “yes” to that. They preach something called a “prosperity gospel”, which takes a very superficial interpretation of scripture, and turns it into the idea that if you are doing well in life, in business, then it means that God is pleased with you and is blessing you with prosperity. There are lots of individual passages of the bible you can find to support this idea, and whole books you have to ignore at the same time, including most of the teachings of Jesus.

If we want to try to tie God’s blessing to a person’s individual prosperity, the closest we can realistically get is to talk about people being born into a land “flowing with milk and honey”; in other words, a land with lots of natural resources. Then we could raise the question of whether God prefers (for example) those who live in jungles to those who live in deserts.

As soon as we do that, though, we have to admit that some of the nations of this world with the most natural resources, such as arable land, water and minerals, are also some of the nations with the poorest and hungriest children. And if we look farther we discover that a lot of these nations were colonies of more powerful nations a century ago or less, and are now deeply in debt to those same wealthy nations. We find a complex web of debt, cash crops, restrictions on land use and water use, mining interests that profit those outside the nation more than those inside it and displace people, including children, as is going on right now in the Philippines.

What this actually represents is a profound difference between what God wants and what we humans have put into place over the years. It is a question of basic justice for all people, children included, and the United Church has a lot to say about that.

Does God favour us more than others? God doesn’t need to; we have learned to favour ourselves.

That may feel like an unfair statement. I personally don’t know many people who have personally gone and made colonies of other places, or deliberately worked to oppress other people. But we all benefit from these parts of our world. Maybe the banks we use hold debts from poor nations. Maybe our mutual funds or pension funds have investments in companies that are dealing unfairly with people in poor countries to increase their profits and our returns. We participate in structures that allow us to benefit from the poverty of others and at the same time remain blissfully unaware.

The simple fact that our immigration policy is set up to welcome the brightest and best of other lands, while putting as many barriers in the way of the poor and desparate, should give us pause. Not only is it a comment on how cautious we are about sharing what we have, it is also a good way to prevent those other countries from advancing as we cherry-pick the people that are best able to help them.

And that’s just Canada. There are other nations that are much more willing to take advantage of the relative weakness and poverty of a land to negotiate deals that make the rich richer.

There was a time when empire building was considered a natural and good thing. It was called “social darwinism”, where a nation’s success and ability to defeat others was a sign that it was socially and even morally superior. I have recently read Margaret Macmillan’s book The War that Ended Peace, about the lead-up to WWI. One of the fascinating aspects is that even then, just 100 yrs ago, it was considered normal and appropriate for Europe’s “Great Powers” to openly plan to conquer and colonize “inferior” nations, and use their colonial resources to build up their home countries.

That apalls us today. The Russian annexation of Crimea is typical of the kind of thing those countries did as part of extending their empires in those days. We see that happening now and we (quite rightly) become very anxious, because we do remember the lessons of history, and we would hate to see another huge military conflict erupt.

One of the ways we have avoided military conflicts through the days of the Cold War into the present is by building economic empires with contracts and trade agreements instead of guns. The attitude of taking from the poor and giving to the rich has not been expressed out loud very much, but it is a basic colonial attitude, and it has controlled a lot of the deals we have put in place.

God does not approve of this way of doing things. When we look at our reading from Habakkuk, we find we can recognize in our modern world people, companies and countries that fit that remarkable description of greed:

They open their throats wide as Sheol;
     like Death they never have enough.
They gather all nations for themselves,
     and collect all peoples as their own.

I am not saying that we are all bad. Canadians have, through the years, worked hard to develop many struggling nations. Canada used to have a really good reputation in Africa for helping out until the work of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) was cut way back a few years ago.

And I am not saying all of this so we can go around feeling guilty. Guilt doesn’t really accomplish anything very much.

I am saying this because it is true. It is the structure of the world we live in: a structure that we humans have put into place over the years. It is a structure that contributes to the reality of whose children are healthy and well fed and whose children can’t have enough food or clean water. It is a structure that allows us to have an adequate supply of HIV medications while countries in Africa have a whole generation of orphans growing up because their parents have died of HIV and AIDS; not only because of a shortage of medications but often because of a basic lack of clean needles and a lack of infrastructure to get people to where treatment is available.

God has given us the wonderful gift of free will. With that comes the truly scary consequence of responsibility.

The inequality of the children of the world is a situation that we humans have created. In part this has been by discovering all kinds of wonderful ways to live longer and healthier lives; to have more and better food and medicines. In part it is by creating a world where only a select group of people can really benefit from these advances.

We can’t blame God for these inequities, and we can’t expect God to solve them.

We can look at our investments and consider how ethical and just they are. We can push our banks and funds to behave in ways that do not hurt poorer nations. We can check out the UCC website to see what the church is doing with its investments to try and make changes that will help balance out the lives of the children of the world. We can consider our Canadian agencies and policies and work to become a nation that is once again at the forefront of helping others.

There is actually a lot we can do once we start looking at the situation and decide we’re not prepared to live with the injustice.

And we can thank God for children; because if we only had to consider adults it would be far too easy to dismiss their problems as somehow their own fault.

It is when we look at the lives of children that we really see the ways injustices have affected the lives of the people of the world. It is when we look at the children and their struggles that we find the motivation to make changes.

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2 Responses to Ask Andrew: Unequal Children

  1. Jane Thomson says:

    Andrew, this sermon about children’s lives being unequal around the world really got me thinking. I was transported immediately to a day in the countryside of Tanzania two years ago when a work colleague and I had stopped at a roadside stand to look at hand woven baskets. Three barefoot children surrounded their father who was selling the baskets and other hand woven goods. They were clearly faced with a very difficult life. The children were quite thin and their clothes showed evidence of the dust and dirt of their part of the country. (Water is in short supply and people must often walk kilometres to get daily supplies.) The smallest child, 4 years old at the most, surprised me when she boldly leaned forward and demanded, “Give me my money!” I was not expecting such a young girl to make such a request, but later as I thought about it, I concluded that this was her job! No doubt any money she collected would add to the family’s meager income for the day. Of course, my colleague and I gave her some money, but we were uncomfortable at the thought of a child so young having to beg. Your sermon asked us to consider the cause of such a dramatically different way of life and made me very uncomfortable with my responsibility as a member of our affluent North American culture.
    I know that we can’t change the world quickly, but there are small things that we can do that might make a difference. Micro-financing has had a profoundly positive role in many countries around the world since its adoption a few years ago. One group that does wonderful work is KIVA. http://www.kiva.org/
    Once a donation is made to this organization, it keeps on giving. Small loans are made to people who sew clothing, stock small grocery stores, buy live-stock and so on. The recipients repay the loans on their own terms, sometimes at $1.25 per month. Once the loan is repaid, the money can be lent again. It is a wonderful opportunity to provide people with a “hand up” not a hand out. Hopefully, this would mean their children could attend school and not have to be part of the “family” business like the small Tanzanian girl I met.

  2. Andrew Jensen says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Jane.

    I first learned about microfinancing back in Kent Presbytery. Since then I have heard a lot of really good things done through micro-loans. Like anything else, there are chances for it to go wrong, but mostly it goes well, and allows people to develop very practical businesses for their situations.

    I agree that giving people the chance to help themselves is vital. It is better than traditional charity for the families involved, and it gives us the chance to see them as our equals (or equal to what we would like to be: really impressive, energetic and creative people), rather than charity cases.

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