Mistreatment of children was very much in the news as 2008 was ending. For example, in Egypt a teacher beat an 11-year-old child to death for not doing his homework. In England a local authority was accused of failing to protect a 17-month-old baby from being tortured and eventually killed by his family despite numerous warning signs. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) drew attention to the plight of child-soldiers in Sudan and Sri Lanka. And children in Gaza, already deprived of food, medicine and other essentials because of a blockade, were bombarded from the air.
Despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Convention on the Rights of the Child, across the world children continue to suffer and sometimes die through starvation, preventable disease, neglect and violence. They are deprived of education and opportunities for play, made to work in appalling conditions, victimised and sometimes vilified.
There are various reasons why the authorities fail to act to protect children, and in some cases actively participate in harming them. These include unwillingness to confront the wealthy and powerful locally and nationally, and distorted priorities in public policy and spending. This is to some extent underpinned by a tendency on the part of adults not to listen attentively to children, perhaps in some cases because it stirs up memories of being vulnerable themselves.
Christmas is also a time when traditionally there has been a focus on children and in general the needy and powerless, as Christians and their neighbours celebrate the birth of the Divine as a baby. Though carols can be sentimental or avoid the more challenging aspects of belief in the incarnation, they can offer an important counterweight to images of God as a mighty ruler. While such images have their place, taken to an extreme they may give the dangerously misleading impression that God is a violent despot or ultra-patriarchal father-figure.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus urges his followers to ‘love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful’ (Luke 6.35-36). When the disciples argue about which of them is greatest, he brings a child to his side and tells them, ‘Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great’ (Luke 9.46-48).
Some find this difficult to believe, confusing divine greatness with human notions of power and grandeur. Indeed God may be misconceived as being more like the perpetrators of human rights abuses than those on the receiving end.
But the Christmas story depicts a God willing to renounce privilege and instead undergo the lot of ordinary people, especially children – being subjected to administrative callousness and vicious persecution by the authorities, and experiencing poverty, insecurity and exile. The Christ-child joins the ranks of the insignificant, for whom even the most basic things cannot be guaranteed. As the carol ‘Once in royal David’s city’ puts it:
He came down to earth from heaven,
who is God and Lord of all,
and his shelter was a stable,
and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor, the scorned, the lowly,
lived on earth our Saviour holy...
He was little, weak and helpless,
tears and smiles like us he knew.
and he feeleth for our sadness,
and he shareth in our gladness.
(Once in royal David's city, CF Alexander)
While it is important for those concerned about human rights to have an intellectual grasp of the issues, most people also need empathy and hope in order to take action in a sustained way. Faith traditions at their best can offer ways of entering imaginatively into others’ experiences, acknowledging the more difficult aspects of one’s own life and holding on to the vision of a space where all can live in freedom and peace.
A French carol, based on Luke’s account, imagines an exhausted Mary and anxious Joseph seeking shelter as she is about to give birth, but the innkeepers are unsympathetic:
My guests are rich men’s daughters
And sons, I’d have you know!
Seek out the poorer quarters
Where ragged people go.
(In the town, anonymous, paraphrased E Farjeon)
In Matthew’s account, King Herod’s reaction to the baby’s birth is one of extreme violence, a reaction which is all too familiar even now when tyrants feel that their power is threatened. Like so many before and since, Jesus’ family must abandon all that is familiar and flee for their lives:
O sisters too, how may we do,
For to preserve this day
This poor Youngling for Whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?
Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
(Coventry Carol, anonymous)
Though, on this occasion, he escapes, in time the mother and child will pay a heavy price for challenging the existing social order so profoundly, as indeed some carols indicate.
Yet the overall mood of many Christmas songs is one of tenderness and hope, not least for children:
When God with us was dwelling here,
In little babes he took delight;
Such innocents as thou, my dear,
Are ever precious in His sight.
Sweet baby, then forbear to weep;
Be still, my babe; sweet baby, sleep.
A little infant once was He,
And, strength in weakness, then was laid
Upon His virgin-mother's knee,
That power to thee might be conveyed.
(A rocking hymn, George Wither)
At the coming of this baby, the mighty are brought down from their thrones and the lowly exalted (Luke 1.46-55), and God’s tender mercy dawns on those who dwell in the shadow of death (Luke 1.76-79):
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
'Til He appear'd and the soul felt its worth….
Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.
(O Holy Night, Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure, tr John S Dwight)
While those in positions of power ordinarily maintain their own comfort and security through the toil and sometimes sacrifice of their subjects, notions of leadership are here turned upside down:
Jesus, cradled in a manger,
for us facing every danger,
living as a homeless stranger,
make we thee our King most dear.
(Jesus, good above all other, Adam of St. Victor, tr John Mason Neale and adapted Percy Dearmer)
This is a radically different kind of realm:
When Christ was born in Bethlehem,
fair peace on earth to bring,
in lowly state of love he came
to be the children's King.
A mother's heart was there his throne,
his orb a maiden's breast,
whereby he made through love alone
his kingdom manifest.
(When Christ was born in Bethlehem, Laurence Housman)
This is a place of peace and safety for children and other living creatures. An Angevin carol imagines a conversation between a young woman and her friend:
‘Where, then’s his mighty kingdom, say you?’
‘So! And how may I know it, pray you?’
‘Kindness is there.’
‘Kings have bright swords to follow after,
Bugles to ring?’
‘Nay, here is only children’s laughter,
Here thrushes sing.’
(The kingdom, Francois Colletet, paraphrased Patrick R Chalmers)
At Christmas people are invited, on an emotional as well as a rational level, to take part in the process of personal and social transformation. By opening oneself to God and neighbour, this world may become a place where children and all who are vulnerable are cared for and treated justly:
And art Thou come with us to dwell,
Our Prince, our Guide, our Love, our Lord?
And is Thy Name Emmanuel,
God present with His world restored?...
Thou bringest all again; with Thee
Is light, is space, is breadth and room
For each thing fair, beloved, and free
To have its hour of life and bloom.
(And Art Thou Come With Us To Dwell?, Dora Greenwell)
In the words of a famous hymn-writer, preacher and anti-slavery campaigner:
Where children pure and happy
pray to the blessed Child,
where misery cries out to thee,
Son of the Mother mild;
where charity stands watching
and faith holds wide the door,
the dark night wakes, the glory breaks,
and Christmas comes once more.
O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in,
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel!
(O little town of Bethlehem, Phillips Brooks)
(c) Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka and works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK. She is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. An Ekklesia associate, Savi is author of a number of research essays and a regular column. She has contributed several chapters to the book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow (Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia, 2008).