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28 February 2014

Like a child

Like a child

Pretty much every day, I thank the Lord that I'm not a politician.

Most of the time they can't do right for doing wrong, as the saying goes, and they all seem to come in for a turn at being lambasted for something or other.

This week (and last week too) it has been Harriet Harman's turn for the front pages. Based on her connections 30 years ago, she is being asked to defend her position on paedophilia and child abuse.

The story for me raises all sorts of questions about truthfulness and blame, and civil liberties arguments which arguably ignore questions of power and agency and so on.

But at the heart of this, and where the debate has eventually found itself, thanks to
commentators like David Aaronovitch in the Times (paywall) are the needs of children.

The context of childcare and education is different for each generation and in every country, with wildly differing views about appropriate sex education, access to learning, opportunities to work and the right age to leave school or to vote.

But at the heart of many cultures and faiths is a recognition that children are a blessing - in many countries, bringing reassurance that parents will be provided for financially in their old age - and need protection.

And one of the signs that a society is struggling is that children are exploited, whether they're bought and sold in Cambodia or India's sex trade, forced into labour in garment factories in Bangladesh or given in place of money to pay off debts in Malawi. Closer to home, of course, many children are also vulnerable to violence or neglect here in the UK.

It's interesting that Jesus was unequivocal about the value of a child and their place in the kingdom. Despite being provocatively ambiguous in much of his teaching, often raising more questions than he answered through wise storytelling that drew listeners into a conversation and challenged them to think through the practical implications of theology, on this he was clear.

When the people around him dismissed children as less important than adults and tried to send them away, Jesus welcomed them.

He answered questions about status by pointing to a child.

Matthew 18: 1-5 says: "The disciples came to Jesus and asked, 'Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: 'Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."

He is deliberately using a child as an example because he is making a point about perceptions of power, and celebrating meekness and gentleness over aggression. But this is more than a metaphor: Jesus identifies a child as the example for others to follow because there is something about childhood that reflects the nature of the divine within us. Having been a child himself, Jesus chooses to celebrate childhood as a time in our lives when we most closely identify with him.

The vulnerability, innocence and optimism of childhood is a picture of the freedom we find when we receive eternal life; through an often painful journey of brokenness and healing, God takes us to a place of joyful reliance on Him. We no longer have to prove to ourselves or others that we are big and strong. Instead, God's strength is glorified in our weakness.

In the topsy-turvy world of the kingdom of God, where power is not greedily grasped or desired in and of itself, a child reminds us of who we are before God.