We in Britain have a tendency to believe that society’s treatment of children is exemplary. After all we don’t send them down the mines or up the chimneys any more, forcing them to work up to 16 hours a day and we don’t have child conscripts in our armies as many countries have. 50% of the world’s children suffer from extreme deprivation – poverty, war and HIV/Aids – but not many of those are found in the UK. But things are not what they seem.
During the trial of Michael Jackson, before he was acquitted of the charges against him, an article appeared in one of our national Sunday papers under a by-line which read ‘What actual harm has he done?’ The journalist wrote:
“Is there really any doubt that he had children in his bed for his pleasure? Child molestation of any sort is to be deplored, but in the absence of penetration, what actual harm has he done? These children have received millions for their moments in his bed. Before they were told it was a crime, they couldn’t wait to get back to Neverland”
“Crimes go in and out of fashion. Less than 30 years ago, drink driving was viewed as naughty – always an offence but a bit of a joke. Today drink driving is akin to premeditated murder. Today any form of sexuality involving underage persons or disparities of power is looked at with the utmost gravity.”
I read those words, and the rest of the article in disbelief – not because of what it said about Michael Jackson but what it appears to say about the place of children and young people in our world today. This is a period in our history when civilised society has been confronted time and time again with the horrors of child abuse, violence and exploitation in all areas of daily life – and the church in many parts of the world has shamefully played its part in this scandal. I would have hoped that the message that children have a right to the necessary support and protection which allows them to grow naturally through childhood and adolescence would now be accepted without question in all areas of public and private life. But clearly we still have a long way to go.
But where does the real problem lie? Much of our attention where the care of children is concerned has rested, in recent years, in our response to the shocking scandals of child abuse which have emerged from every corner of society. Quite rightly, steps have been and are being taken to do everything possible to protect children from violence and abuse. But of course, harm is done to children in many ways – not just physically or sexually. Increasingly, people are expressing concern because of the enormous pressure that children face to leave childhood behind at too early an age. Children are victims of advertising which pushes them into adulthood long before they are mature enough to deal with it. Television, videos and DVDs confront them with an adult world which they cannot yet understand, and those who should be role models for the younger generation seem to be increasingly unsuitable. And we are forced to ask the question: is this really what children want? And in any case, do children have the voice in our society to be able to answer?
I think the answer to both questions has to be no. Children’s voices are rarely heard. Childhood as a concept is rapidly disappearing and yet our premature adults do not seem to be able to articulate their fears in a way which is listened to. Too often as a society we seem to be scared of the young people around us and fearful of giving them a place. Too often children do not understand the way in which society works. Positive action is required.
In this regard Jesus was way ahead of his time. The New Testament which is not necessarily clear on every subject is very clear on this one.
Let the children come to me; do not try to stop them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.
Or as we heard in our reading earlier, from Matthew’s Gospel:
Jesus called a child, set him in front of them, an said, “Truly I tell you: unless you turn around and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself and becomes like this child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”
In order to understand these sayings of Jesus, one has to know something of the background against which he spoke. In Jesus’ day there was no such things as privacy; there would be kids everywhere, – and Jesus’ open – air ministry would have attracted them all the time.
They could be a nuisance (don’t we all know it!) and Jesus’ society was not sentimental about them. They saw children in terms of their potential. Children were a blessing – not because of what they were, but because of what they would become. Be patient and they would grow up into something worth having in the end. That’s how most people saw kids – insurance for their old age, someone to look after them.
No other teacher in the ancient world did what Jesus did; that is, he put children at the centre of what he did and said. He used children as examples of what adults should become. No-one else insisted, as Jesus did, that children deserved at least as much respect as anyone else, and this not because they were valuable assets for the future, but because of their worth in the present. There is something in a child that is closer to the kingdom of God than all the alleged wisdom and maturity of the adult.
Jesus didn’t say what these qualities were and we mustn’t attribute to him ideas that are quite modern about the innocence, spontaneity and freshness of children. But we do know from his teaching what qualities of character Jesus did value: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the gentle, those who have a passion for fairness, who show kindness, whose hearts are pure, peacemakers.” Can we as adults say that we are more likely to be these things than children?
So we can say that Jesus believed that children were not just an asset for the future or a commitment to be undertaken for the sake of society. They are of infinite value as children and they deserve at least as much respect and care as any other human being. Certainly they have a place at the heart of a community as individuals in their own right and should be accepted as ends in themselves and not as a means to an end. But they have qualities that may bring them closer to the kingdom of heaven than a great many adults and from which we as adults can learn. These qualities must not be destroyed. Ironically, if we could learn these qualities as adults, we would treat not only our children better but one another better as well.
For Jesus, centred as he was on God, he saw each person as created in God’s image and should be treated as such.
A confident society is one which has a vision for the good of all its members and seeks always to put the vision into practice. A society which is failing manifests the fear and insecurity which pushes some to the margins and is reluctant to face its short comings. In that situation too many people become victims and too often the first victims are our children.
One of the most prophetic voices in our generation in this regard is Archbishop Rowan Williams. He has written extensively on the destruction of childhood, and the removal of the frameworks necessary for children to grow up naturally into adulthood and be competent to fulfil that role. Speaking recently he highlighted the danger of a society which has lost sight of the role played by children and young people in shaping our world. Reminding us of our common responsibility he said:
Children are not brought up, are not educated or inducted into human society just by one or two people. The whole of the social complex of which they’re part makes them the persons they are. And that is true whether we like it or not, whether we notice it or not. When a culture ignores or sidelines the question of what it actually wants to produce, what kind of human beings it actually wants to nurture, when it assumes indifference, it still educates. This is to say it still shapes a certain kind of person. And if that turns out to be not quite the sort of person we would like to see in huge quantities, well, we might have guessed.
If children are not an active part of our society when they are young – how can we expect them to play a full part in community as they grow? If as children they do not learn to trust others, can they really be expected to learn trust later on in life? If we do not give them examples of caring, of reaching out to others, of self sacrifice, what example do they have of servicing those in need? If many of our popular television programmes treat people with disdain and rudeness that has an effect on all of us including our children.
Or to put it into a universal context, in a world where children are still exploited as child labourers, what chance are we giving them to grow up with an education and an experience of how good the world can be. When countries are still sending children into battle armed with the most modern weaponry, how can we ever hope for lasting peace and reconciliation when we are teaching children to fight.
We need visionaries now who can challenge us again, to remember the dignity, the value and potential of the children of today. Which is why we gather today to mark the centenary of Barnardo’s death on coincidentally the 160th anniversary of his birth. We meet not to celebrate an historic event, but to pray for, and to commit ourselves to, the vital work of supporting, nurturing and protecting children and young people today.
Thomas Barnardo’s originally planned to train as a doctor so that he might become a medical missionary in China. But on arriving in London in 1866 his plans quickly changed as he was faced with a city struggling to cope with a rapidly rising population, overcrowding, poor accommodation, low pay and high unemployment. Poverty and disease were everywhere. Despite legislation dictating the conditions under which children could work, children were still employed at an early age, often sleeping on the streets, many injured from their work in factories, and left to beg.
Barnardo soon decided to commit his life to helping such children. He opened a school providing a basic education for poor children. But in 1870 he opened the first home for boys a project which would grow into what was for many years the most famous area of his work. Numbers were limited at first until a boy who had been turned away was found dead from exposure and malnutrition. From that moment onwards the sign on the door of the shelter read ‘No destitute child ever refused admission’.
The significance of this commitment is immense. In a society where poverty was regarded as shameful or a mark of laziness, and where, except for the privileged few, children and childhood meant little or nothing, Barnardo faced an immense battle. He went further than other organisations – he accepted all children including black, disabled and illegitimate children and worked tirelessly, with the support of his wife, not just in the practical care of children in the homes he opened for them, but in promoting his work and the needs of the children and raising funds for his projects. He was outspoken and pushed his work to the limits. Not surprisingly he was much criticised both for his work and the methods he employed. Despite many set backs and battles for funds his work developed.
Many things struck me as I read the history of Barnardo’s but especially the way in which Barnardo’s has adapted to meet the changing demands of society. Following Thomas Barnardo’s death, the organisation was dominated by his ideas and methods. But the upheaval caused to many families by the Second World War, and closer working between Barnardo’s and other agencies would necessitate change. The Curtis report of 1946 proposed that adoption, or otherwise fostering, not residential care, was the best option for children without a family. A major shift in mindset had taken place – children were being recognised as the nation’s responsibility and that was an affirmation of the work of people like Thomas Barnardo. Barnardo’s vision and the vision of those involved in similar work was being realised by society at large. The Children Act of 1948 placed a duty on local authorities to care for homeless children and those whose parents were unable to care for them and for setting up a system of registration and inspection which brought together in a national child care network a number of voluntary agencies. This had a profound effect on the work of Barnardo’s. By 1983 its last residential homes – for many people the centre of Barnardo’s work were closed. But the work of the society continues.
And it continues because Barnardo’s is still committed to nurturing children in its care as full members of society, ensuring their protection and their emotional, physical and mental health, and when necessary supporting families who are struggling to cope.
To achieve this Barnardo’s is involved in, among many projects, teaching parenting skills, foster placements, adoption work, parent and toddler groups, after school and holiday play schemes, support for young girls and boys who have been sexually exploited or drawn into prostitution, counselling for children who have been abused, and support groups for mothers and children who have suffered from domestic violence. It provides short term breaks, befriending schemes, debt counselling, credit unions, advice for refugee children, advice on substance abuse, health education and programmes for young people with disabilities. It also offers support in mainstream schools and special schools for those who have been excluded because of disability or behaviour problems.
We can thank God for Thomas Barnardo, for his work and for this work which continues today. But more importantly we commit ourselves to that work. It is our responsibility, not someone else’s. It is not just about the future it is about the present. The values we impart to our children have an enormous effect on them for good or ill for the rest of their lives. May God bless the work of Barnardo’s as it seeks to care and nurture the most vulnerable members of our society, help transform their lives and fulfil their potential.