Monday, 28 December 2009

Blind Rage Slays Children

One dark, disturbing part stood out for medieval carollers among the stories connected with Jesus’ birth:
Herod, the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His soldiers in their strength and might,
All children young to slay.
For the original readers of St Matthew’s gospel, however, the story was very much less shocking than it is to us, with our post-Christendom sensibilities and Christ derived values:
  1. This incident was very much business as usual in the ancient world. In any political, social or environmental crisis, guess who bears the heaviest burden? The poor and vulnerable... it’s not the way things should be, by Christian standards, but it’s the way they usually have been. It is still, disturbingly, more the case than we would want to think...

  2. Pre Christian people shared the almost universal fatalism about the activity of tyrants. What they got up to was largely their own affair, and without a sense that history was heading anywehere in particular, let alone the coming of Christ as universal judge, there was no ultimate bar to which they could be held to account. So you simply accepted that they got up to some funny old things. The vulnerable didn’t matter by comparison.

  3. Most ancients saw the child as, at best, a half-formed adult. Dumping of excess children was commonplace in most ancient societies, sweetened only, on occasion, by a vague hope of kindly fate. The then radical notion that the child was a complete person, entitled to full respect, was very much a Christian thing in the ancient mediterranean world. It stemmed directly from the shockingly new way Jesus had treated children and talked about them, and taught his disciples to think of them.

  4. The pre-Christian mediterranean world was no place for the squeamish: from public crucifixion to the use of condemned prisoners as playthings in the arena, life was cheap and expendable in a way you would have to go to the great atheist states of the twentieth century (Stalin’s and Mao’s) to parallel.
This story stands witness to a reverence for life that is still disturbingly absent, and that many people, including the institutional Churches, still struggle to express fully. So...
  1. How readily do we tolerate the environmental and financial injustices of our age which magnify the miseries of the poor and vulnerable? From lack of clean water to environmental disaster, from Child poverty to twaddle about trickledown, we live with this stuff far too easily, if not quite as easily as ancients did with Herod and his ilk.

  2. How do we, Christians or not, treat the vulnerable and marginalised? Do we take them seriously? Are people ever blamed and persecuted for simply being how they are? It was rage that slew the innocents — the role of anger in our discourse is well worth reflecting upon in the light of this disturbing fact.

  3. The value Christ sets on children makes the work of protecting Children especially central. This is why betrayal of children by their pastors, or any attempt by any institutional church to cover up what is going on, is so shameful. It’s possible, as child protection bishop for this diocese, to see this high volume job (for example we hold the process for about 6,000 CRB registrations) as a mainly administrative matter. It’s not. It means nothing without a culture of openness and mutual knowledge within which anomalies show up as anomalies, and are followed up. And when you go beyond preventative child protection, we may ask ask what gifts and attitudes are we giving to our children as resources for living, how much of our time, or are they mainly seen as problems merely to be tolerated, personal trophies for their parents, or teeny consumers?

  4. It’s fascinating how often outsiders, including atheists, radically critique Christians on radically Christian grounds. We are berated not for excesses of compassion, understanding and the values of the Sermon on the Mount, but for deficiencies in them. Philosophically that’s an interesting backhand complement, you may say. But it poses a read challenge. It simply will not do to underestimate such critique because of the source — To the extent it’s true, it’s true and requires our urgent attention.


Joe said...

Over the last few days and excessive church services, I have been starting to wonder if we have totally devalued the gospels by repeating certain stories to the point of total destruction - and then wondering what the 'choice' of festivals tells us about ourselves.

I wonder what we would be like if we celebrated the Sermon on the Mount or the Woman at the Well with the seriousness of Easter or Christmas.

We seem to have done good trade in festivals which involve telling ourselves that God really loves us - whilst to some extent relegating the gospel which insists that we have responsibilities, that we are sinful, that God isn't quite so concerned about us - in our greedy consumerist state - as we sometimes make out.

Anonymous said...

Alan, how could you write all this without saying a word about the 200,000 unborn children that are aborted every year in the UK?
Has the Christian left made its peace with abortion? Abortion, of coruse, is central to feminist and socialist policy (since unborn humans aren't persons, are they?), and no problem to the libertarian right, but what does the Christian mind say on the most fundamental of rights, life itself?

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Joe, perhaps one of the uses of liturgical time is to provide a public shared way of holding a story so that it is multilayered enough for each of us to derive from it the benefit we need to as we grow on through life. I think you're right about the way we are more comfortable celebrating affirmative stories, but there is a challenging note throughout even those. Christmas, for example, means little without the note the Magniicat sounds about changing the world.

Anon, I'd always encourage people to use their names, but there are sometimes technical reasons this isn't possible. Thank you for your point, which I think is relevant, and I incline to agree with it. I find it slightly offensive to be labelled as the Christian Left or Christian Right or anything else. I don't think anyone at the time the current UK legislation was passed in 1967 had any idea how many abortions there would be, and your statistic is a truly shameful one. I was intrigued at the last parliamentary outing by the way HMG's political managers used a right wing proposal as a stalking horse that then, predictably, rubbished the following string of proposals for more modest but effective reform which might have helped reduce this statistic. I am not convinced that the way this issue has been framed and politicised in the West by the Christian Right (if we are using such terms) has done anyone any good. It surely has not protected unborn foetuses very well. I have indeed commented on abortion on this blog, for example:

Erp said...

I would say "great totalitarian states" not "great atheist states". Totalitarians whether atheist, Christian, Muslim, or whatever tend to treat people similarly.

Also humanism (and I suspect most atheistic critics of Christianity are humanists) has many though not all of the same values as Christianity (and most other modern religions) regarding treating ones neighbors. Some Christians (and others) are criticized for failing to live up to to these near universal values and the most pointed way to do that is using their own sacred literature (hence Sermon on the Mount for Christians). Are humanists without fault? Certainly not.

Ernest said...


I sometimes wonder if we actually value or care about anything which does not fit into our comfort zone?

Your commentary on the lack of respect for life in history, remains only to well present in our own world today, from the extremes of WW2, to Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, Siera Leone, Uganda, Congo, the list is endless.

Of course Anon has raised the issue of the extremes of abortion in our own, so called civilised society.

Poverty and deprivation is rife in our own country, while the state of those living in so called third world economies is 100 times worse, so many millions of children die at a young age, due to disease, starvation or a lack of the essentials to sustain life.

Yet we live with it - we acknowledge it, we give perhaps, we preach perhaps, and we support charities and workers who minister to those deprived - we march, we protest, we raise petitions, but nothing that we do, appears to have any real effect to change things for the better. A drip here, a drip there, but the river quickly runs dry.

In the recession, we have worked hard to preserve our economies, jobs and peoples homes etc, but little has been done or considered to reduce the debt burden on the 3rd world or to help those who are going through much worse crisis then ours.

Selfishness, greed and self preservation rule our world and very few - the Christians speak of and choose to live in a different way. Meaning well, is not action! Doing not talking is what is needed. I don't have the solutions, only the will to help where I can.

One day, all will be changed, all will be well, I live in the hope that the promise made will be fulfilled. Until than, I just do the little best that I can.

Ann Memmott said...

The marginalised and vulnerable in society, whether they be children, older people, those with an impairment, those who have fallen on hard times, or any other category, are too often seen as graceless, socially unacceptable, to be pitied or treated with contempt. As you write, children in particular are too often seen as problems merely to be tolerated, personal trophies for their parents, or teeny consumers of hate-filled or sexualised goods for someone's profit. Also, along with so many others who are vulnerable, as targets for predators online or in real life. So much for the utopia of modern life and all that extra freedom, alas.

Finding that right balance between protection and empowerment, between respect and 'too much too young' is ever a difficult thing. But it is so important if we are to bring our young people into a world which knows the meaning of real love, of care, of gentleness. A world in which they can learn those skills and abilities themselves.

A society is judged by how it treats its marginalised. I know that I have been told I'm not a person, that I don't have a soul. Thus we as a society can dehumanise people to the point where no ill-treatment of them matters and where any characteristic they were born with is excuse enough to justify that neglect or abuse or denial of their very humanity and salvation.

What can we as a church do to help each of our people see that of God in each individual they encounter - to see Jesus in each vulnerable person? Big questions indeed...and ones I struggle with daily.

Prayers ever for all who are affected in some way by this topic.

Anonymous said...

"I am not convinced that the way this issue has been framed and politicised in the West by the Christian Right (if we are using such terms) has done anyone any good."

That's your view, Alan. In fact, in the US has there been a slight rollback of abortion, mainly through the banning of partial-birth abortion, despite Senator Obama's forthright opposition. In the UK abortion for handicap is legal up to birth. Gordon Brown resolutely opposed any restrictions, so one wonders how deep his own Christian formation was - rather like that "Catholic" senator Edward Kennedy.
Like it or not, 'Left' and 'Right' are simply descriptive terms for where a preponderance of political and social views lies - even if an individual is eclectic on some issues. The 'Christian Left' is how people would generally term Tony Blair, Christopher Bryant MP, Chris Smith, Tec, Jeremiah Wright etc. It can scarcely be denied that the 'Christian Left' has supported abortion, or at least opposed any attempt to limit it.

John Warner

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thank you for really thought provoking comments, all.

Erp, I think you're absoutely right it's the totalitarianism that produced the tyranny and death, including in confessionally atheistic states. I suppose the difference is that statements used to justify the negation of the value of people who didn't fit in (like "You can't make an omlette without breaking eggs") were logically consistent with the theological principles of the regime, rather than running counter to them. I caught a discussion on the radio the other year where two historians were soberly discussing whether the death toll for the Soviet state was better set high or low (high being around 60 million and low around 26 million).

Ernie, thanks for a chilling reminder that radical violence and genocide still goes on. Thanks also for giving it an eschatological perspective that gives hope and inspires action not passivity. Marx saw Christianity's eschatological dimension as an opium for the oppressed. In fact for early Christians, as for amny of the 19th century social reformers, it wasn't a reasn to opt out, but the exact opposite — a reason to engage, inspired by a greater hope, and a sense that these things mattered.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Sorry! vran out of comment space. Part 2!

Ann, thank you for crystalising the heart of our shared concern, and applying it to people we often, in the UK, profess to value, but in effect don't. I know how deeply you're committed and how hard you work to protect the dignity of women and exceptional people. Thanks for including old people, because I am profoundly disturbed by some of the stories I hear of failures in care for old people. If our society had a decent respect for their humanity, I suspect there would be less support among some members of the chattering classes for killing themselves and others off near the end of life, as though the only kind of dignity available to people can be assisted suicide.

John, many thanks. I'd be interested for a source on the rollback of which you speak. I was very disappointed by the debate this parliament on abortion dates. I think many people are disturbed by the UK numbers, but parliament managed to wiggle out of doing anyting realistic about them by the way the subject was handled.

I am perplexed and disappointed also by the Tony Blair "we don't do God" thing. In the cold light of history it seems rather pathetic. However pragmatically correct it was, it hardly inspires respect. I wonder that UK spin doctors can get away with absolutising the Groucho Marx "these are my principle but if you don't like them I've got others" approach.

In a historical perspective the problme is not new. the Victorians had what they called the problem of child destruction in London. I would rather have legislation, however abhorrent, that clinicalises reponse to this than do what the Victorians did.

AS far as abortion goes there does seem to be something of a social tabu about engaging seriously with the problems it raises in the UK. It is ironic that hospitals are aborting viable foetuses one end of the building, whilst desperate middle class couples shell out thousands down the other end of the building for IVF. We discuss the demographic problem of future labour shortage making no connection with one major and obvious reason. Media, as well as politicians, often compound this hypocrisy and loud silence.

As to the way this is framed, the witness of the institutional Church is, pragmatically speaking, compromised. As long as it is perceived as sexist (and its exemptions from sex discrimination legislation, however understandable, make this inevitable), the people who we would call on to think again serioiusly about the human implications of abortion as contraception aren't listening. perhaps they wouldn't be anyway. Meanwhile the RC church has tried to lead a noble charge, but if we are serious about changing hearts and minds we have to acknowledge that, e.g., reported comments of the Pope about condoms in Africa as well as public disgust arising from child protection failures in Ireland do seriously compromise the witness of all Christians in this area.

Anonymous said...

Alan, thank you for your interaction with my points in #9. The best Christian minds (in my opinion) in the US on the pro-life question are the jurisprudentialists Hadley Arkes and Robert George and the philosopher Francis Beckwith. They have done a lot to advise lawmakers in the slow process of chipping away at unrestricted abortion. The Democrat leadership are abortion absolutists, and the capitulation to this view by (nominally) Catholic congress members is one of the sad spiritual losses of our time - but one that it widely reflected in the UK as well, where conscience is left at the door or sold for power. To think that Pelosi is a Catholic (not a very well informed one, of course) and Reid a Mormon is a very puzzling business - but as I said, the 'Christian Left' in the UK acts identically.
Curiously, as well, the demographic change in the UK (and much elsewhere in Europe) is explained by the indigenous population not having babies, and the deficit being filled by immigration, since England's population (not Scotland's) continues to rise steadily. Talk abotu the law of unintended consequences.
John Warner

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Tragically inintended consequences, indeed. When back home will google yr suggested thinkers on this (having a few extra hours for reading over the next few days, even if we don't get snowed in again.) Many thanks for the tip-off!

Anonymous said...

Alan, here's a link for starters on Hadley Arkes, architect of a law on born-alive infants that Obama opposed in the Illinois senate:

'First Things' journal features a lot of Arkes's writings (on archive), also Prof. Robert George of Princeton. The philosopher Francis Beckwith was an evangelical & pres. of the Evangelical Theology Society was returned to his Catholic origins.
John W.

Ann Memmott said...

Bishop, thank you. The innate worth of us all is something I hold most dear. Memories I most treasure are those from friends with very profound learning difficulties, for example, who taught me so much more of the beauty of the world around me, the patience and gentleness of quiet prayer. Wonderful work done recently in one research project discovering the faith of those who are non-verbal/nearly so. So many of their key workers said "Oh X will never talk to you/Y will never communicate on this." Wrong. A month of respectful working alongside these fine young people yielded a faith arguably as deep and rich as any from the finest theological minds - but a faith hidden by our society's obsession with cleverness and 'adulthood'. No-one had ever wanted to listen, or ask, before. "Just mouths to be fed, burdens to be shunted about..." So good to see us value all, respect all.

Adam Gonnerman said...

I really enjoyed this post, having stumbled across your blog just this afternoon. I'll be sure to return.

By the way, the numbering of points appears to be off (or am I reading it wrong?). It counts to 4 and then starts over with 2.

Anonymous said...


Surely it is only "ironic that hospitals are aborting viable foetuses one end of the building, whilst desperate middle class couples shell out thousands down the other end of the building for IVF" if you don't regard women as individuals but only as wombs on legs?

After all, people don't go around saying, "It's ironic that hospitals are treating attempted suicides at one end of the building, while at the other desperate families are hoping for organ donations which might give their terminally ill loved ones a chance of life".

That framing - that the abortion and the infertility treatment are somehow part of the same tragedy rather than two separate tragedies involving separate individuals - is a major part of the problem.

There are a number of simple steps which anti-abortion campaigners could do to reduce the number of abortions. First and foremost, drop the promotion of abstinence-only sex education. This is Christmas, after all - the Feast of the Failure of Abstinence to prevent pregnancy. Even absent Divine intervention, rates of teenage pregnancies drop dramatically in countries with responsible early sex education, low-cost or free access to contraception and high levels of confidentiality given to teenagers seeking advice on sexual matters.

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be an achievable middle ground between the feminist ideal that abortion be safe, legal and rare and the desire on the part of certain social groups that women'sreproductive issues should be hijacked in order to bring about a society where women's overall position is that of women within the CofE at present i.e. formally denied promotion to higher positions and with special attention paid to the demands of those men who find it impossible to work with female colleagues at all.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Penguineggs, thank you for bringing me up sharp against the logic of the connection I made. I don’t think I see women as prmarily wombs on legs. Neither will a view of foetuses as merely embarrassing appendices quite do justice to the full richness and complexity of people's feelings about them, let alone moral considerations.

Your words have made me uncomfortable with the linkage I made from anything but a macrodemographic perspective.

I don't think we have abstinence only sex education over here; I’ve never come across it anyway. The boot has historically been on the other foot, where whole courses obsessed about techniques and biological diagrams in an entirely clinical way that made human choice seem to be nothing to do with sex. I think I agree with you about the desirability of comprehensive and honest sex education. All I'd add is that people have unwanted pregnancies for all kinds of complex rpsychological reasons (poverty, relational insecurity, etc) which go beyond mere lack of information.

Finally, thank you for drawing attention to the foolish way discussion of women's ministry in the C of E continues, aided and abbetted by media voices, to be almost emtirely pathologised around a tiny group of men's problems, rather than related to the obvious benefit recognising women's gifts and callings for what they are would bring to the whle Church. Ecumenical dimensions are always about RC fears, not the frustration many of our other ecumenical partners feel about working with an institutionally sexist Church.

Christopher (P.) said...

I am a relatively new reader and am enjoying the posts, and especially this one, which has me think about abortion yet again, which is good for me to do.

From an American perspective, I would reject John W's attempt to frame pro-choice as pro-abortion. It's not. The easiest way to reduce abortions is for people not to have them--and they are entirely free to refrain! There is no law that forces people to have abortions. And the desire for a law that forbids abortion is in itself callous, in that it would be a social enactment that stops an act without providing any social support for the consequences. Most abortions are economically driven, so to say to someone: "don't," while providing no recourse other than deprivation and poverty, is not a solution. That is, I'm not sensing here in the States either a willingness to provide support for children in families, or to support large-scale efforts to enable adoptions. (And this is all without considering the ethical question of the rightness of placing physical and emotional burdens on women by forcing them to bear children.)

Having said this, it would be valuable to have a good societal debate and the Church's clear affirmation for life--backed up by actual fiscal support for families, and not for lobbying! Alas, I fear this is almost impossible in today's political climate, and, as noted here, with the compromised positions of both the Roman and Anglican churches.

Thanks for the opportunity to engage again on a topic with no easy answers.

Anonymous said...

"It's ironic that hospitals are treating attempted suicides at one end of the building, while at the other desperate families are hoping for organ donations which might give their terminally ill loved ones a chance of life".

A sea of non sequiturs in this post, along with a strangely mocking reference to the Incarnation. The secularised UK is in any case moving ineluctably towards encouraging "medical" suicide, so no worries about ironies.
If you try replacing 'foetus' (which is simply Latin for 'offspring') with 'unborn child' you will have an entirely different moral outlook on the question. First determine what words mean before you moralise. Read Anglcian theologian Oliver O'Donovan on this.
Abortion is never "safe" for the unborn child. And when it's legalised it's never rare.
As for the CofE's 'ecumenical partners' - the URC and the Methodists are disappearing faster than the CofE itself.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Dear Anon, thank you for your comment. I know there are sometimes technical reasons names can't be given, but I look for what is of God in any sincere comment, and hope this will encourage an atmosphere of respect around here where people can feel confident about using their own names, or at least a recognisable monkier. That way, ideally, we know who we're talking to, or failing that, at least whether we're talking to the same person.

I found Penguineggs' puzzling references to Christmas more than a little bizarre — whatever is being mocked, it struck me as a long way away from the Christian vision of Incarnation.

I agree with your instincts about UK assisted suicde, which I've written on elsewhere ont he blog. I very much appreciate Christopher's words about the need to reframe the issue, beyond simple slinging of insults and incomprehension between pro-life/pro-choice activists. I don't think the last outing of this subect in the UK parliament showed it at its best, and one feature of the debate was the way in which the extreme "pro-life" position of the first proposal before the House of Commons was used to make much more measured and realistic reform look so ridiculous that in the end the politicians could get away with doing very little to protect late aborted children.

I have to say as well that sincere incomprehension about the Church’s apparent gender discrimination is usually greater among friends in some of the new (often Evangelical) non-Denominational Churches, as among historic Protestant denominations.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry if you found my remarks about Christmas either puzzling or mocking: I certainly didn't intend them to be.

Whatever else the story of the Incarnation is, though, it's also the story of an unmarried mother in a society which has the strongest of moral and legal sanctions against unmarried mothers. I often hear comments about the need to increase the sense of shame about unmarried pregnancy as a weapon in promoting abstinence.

I can recall my mother telling me, as a product of a society which had precisely this extreme sense of shame about unmarried pregnancy about the horror and fear which the story of Mary evoked in her (a girl who does everything right and still has to go through the shame and misery of an unwed pregnancy! What kind of loving God inflicts that on his loyal servant?). She literally could not get past that vision, the thought of, "How on earth could Mary convince her parents of the truth?" in order to see anything glorious in the Incarnation.

I found that viewpoint a profoundly affecting one.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Penguineggs, many thanks for taking us deeper into what lay behind your sentence int he other comment. It did come over very strangely, but suspected I hadn't got the half of what you meant, which turned out to be the case!

Now I understand it better, your thought makes me think of how easy it is to turn Mary into a plaster saint. I was shocked but moved when I was a student by some words of John Robinson, my NT tutor. He was very big on the historicity of John, a profoundly unfashionable thing in 1970's Cambridge. He suggested that Jesus' opponents jibe "We are not base-born" in John's gospel reflected historical scandal around Jesus human origins which had been ignored or sanitised by other gospel writers. Thanks for sharing your thought.

Vinaigrette girl said...

Thank you, Bishop Alan, for listening to Penguineggs and for being sensibly open about the question of abortion.

What your Anonymous correspondent finds hard to accept is that if God really didn't want women's reproductive choices, made as fully moral agents, to be part of his plan he would have found a way to ensure that human reproduction took place differently. However, as things stand, we continue to be borne via gestation in a womb which is part of a fully-realised human being. Although men may use violence, legal or otherwise, to try and control this process, it is still, ultimately, the women who have the babies, and accepting this placement of power in women's hands rather than in men's hands drives certain kinds of men crazy with frustration. Seeing this placement as part of God's plan for the world is even more challenging: what would the world be like if we actually made raising children in safety our principle measurement of success?

Well? Name one political process in the world which would not be better if that criterion were applied as the main goal and priority. And you know what? We might even reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, too.

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