It is a Terrible Thing, This Knowing

I am still reading Mira Rothenberg’s Children With Emerald Eyes. I’m almost done, but there is a passage I came across, in her chapter “Winthrop and Others,” which struck me hard as I continue to do this amazing and strange ministry with abused kids.

The picture looked as though he had carried it forever. “He is a clown,” [Billy] told me, “he laughs. And he makes people laugh. But really he is sad. Very sad, Mira. Why?” “Maybe it is because he has lived so much and knows so much,” I said. Billy then said with a smile, “It is hard, Mira, to know so much, isn’t it?”

Why? Is it because it is hard to find words? Hard to say all one knows? A child is only a child and people don’t know how very much a child knows. Or is it because people won’t listen to a child, or even to an adult? Because they don’t want to know, other than what they already know. Or is it because they just can’t, won’t understand? Maybe because they won’t believe whatever doesn’t come within their experience? (217–218)

It is hard to know things others do not know and do not want to know. I suspect this why the phrase “children of the secret” is used. I know this ministry started with kids in the Pacific Northwest, though it is also beginning to take me farther afield, but as I drove the streets of Upstate New York, to and from work, I often wondered — what I am not seeing here? What don’t I know about this place that I know about Spokane? Who might need me here that I will never find because … because they don’t know how to find me?

Honestly, it is also tough to be an adult and know things that others do not want to know. Rothenberg is right — some people simply do not want to listen. Cannot be bothered. Like Pharaoh, their hearts have been hardened, calloused to the suffering they inflict, or just conveniently ignore.

But I listen. I have heard so many awful stories, so many terrible secrets. So much pain, sorrow, and anger. So much loneliness. I listen. I will never stop listening.

Having Protectors Matters

Jacobin Magazine, the online Marxist publication (and fantastically unapologetic about it!) has a fascinating and heartbreaking piece on the misery inflicted on women, children, and poor families by the Irish state’s close cooperation with the Catholic Church:

By 1924, there were more children in industrial schools in the Irish Free State than there were in all of the industrial schools in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland combined. The system was abolished in England in 1933, but in Ireland, particularly following the suppression of the 1935 Carrigan Report, the reformatory system continued for decades.

The Carrigan committee was tasked with investigating the “moral state” of the country, but on viewing the committee’s findings the Department of Justice decided to conceal the report. According to an internal memo, the report “was unbalanced to be too severe on men, while overlooking the shortcomings of women in these matters, and the, at times, highly coloured imaginations of children.”

But as the Carrigan committee revealed, abuse was rampant in Irish institutions, and was strongly determined by class and status. Jim Beresford, a former resident of the Daingean Industrial School, put it this way: “What eventually stopped them abusing me was that I had parents, and I was articulate. Most of the other children were inarticulate and illiterate because they had spent their whole life in the institution.” [Emphasis mine — CHF] Beresford managed to escape and his sister immediately put him on the boat to England where he remained, a fugitive at fifteen years old.

Many others were less fortunate. In 1939, twin girls born to a single mother in Cork were placed in Clonakility Industrial School. One of the girls, Annie, remembers beatings, bed-wetting, and humiliation. With regard to her education she states: “The classroom was a place of punishment. It was where we watched people being sadistically beaten. If we were ambitious to study, they did not like that.”

No doubt the desire of the church to control and moralize about all human behavior, from that of single women to poor families, contributed to this, though Jacobin makes no case whatsoever in this piece for the contributions of Catholic Social Teaching to the miserable and inhuman conditions that Ireland’s poorest and most vulnerable people found themselves subject to in the six or seven decades following Irish independence.

Nor do I share Jacobin’s faith in the secular state (whether rightly guided by revolutionary socialist theory and ideals or not) to do any of this right either. The quote I highlighted is a reality, sadly, of what it means to be subject to institutions. (And socialism of any flavor will only make that worse.) Many of the kids I do ministry with are foster kids, have been in and through the system (which is definitely not church run in this country), and foster kids by definition have no one to fight for them, no one to advocate or agitate for them. It’s why they have contacted me. Because there is no one else to listen.

They are the perfect victims. And they remain perfect victims whether they face and impersonal church or an impersonal state.

The Torah is harsh in its teaching to Israel on how those who have no protectors, no one to fight back if they are wronged — strangers, wanderers, widows, and orphans — should be treated. And what will happen to Israel if they fail to heed the words of their Lord:

21 “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. 22 You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. 23 If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, 24 and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.” (Exodus 22:21–24 ESV)

And if this wasn’t enough, Moses commanded Israel to remember the teaching as they prepared to cross the Jordan and take possession of the promised land:

“‘Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. ’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27:19 ESV)

I won’t call down curses upon Ireland, but the Irish church, that’s another matter. A church that would cooperate so closely to immiserate and abuse so many deserves to fall by the sword, burnt to the ground, left fatherless itself, cast into exile, its good and pleasant land left empty and desolate.

Room For All Who Come

Apropos of nothing in particular, these two passages of prophetic scripture are speaking very powerfully to me right now, to this ministry with abused and neglected kids I seem to have been called to.

This passage from Isaiah 54 has long resonated with me, for a couple of years now, and I feel in my bones as if this promise — because my wife and I do not have children of our own — has been made specifically to us:

1 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
2 “Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
3 For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your offspring will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities.
(Isaiah 54:1-3 ESV)

And this passage from Jeremiah 31 — a stunningly beautiful chapter that begins with God promising to gather the scattered people of Israel and redeem them from their sin and their exile — describes, I think, with intense beauty this ministry I find myself doing:

15 Thus says the Lord:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.”
16 Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
17 There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
(Jeremiah 31:15-17 ESV)

“For I will satisfy the weary soul,” God promises toward the end of the chapter, “and every languishing soul I will replenish.”

Amen. Let it be, Lord. Let it be.

How Kids Are Different

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote something of an addendum to my long essays on what the story of scripture, and not just the law, have to teach us about sexual relations (Here, here, here, and here.) called “How Sex is Different.”

Israel faces a lot of penalties for failing to keep the covenant — disease, pestilence, famine, conquest, exile, slavery. But those are all externally imposed. They come from outside the land of Israel, in the form of Assyrians and Babylonians. Only in the case of these sexual sins does the land itself threaten to grow sick and expel Israel.

That’s what makes sex different, and what makes these acts unique. (The passage does not say why sex is different. We are free to speculate, but any conclusions we come to are just that — speculation.) They poison the very land, which grows so ill that it will expel Israel, just as God expelled the Canaanites so that Israel may take possession of the land.

The passage in Leviticus 20 that contains some of the strongest admonitions against unlawful sexual relations — that is, sex with close relations — is also bundled with strong condemnations of anyone who “turns to mediums and wizards, whoring after them” (Lev. 20:6) and anyone who “curses his father or his mother” (Lev. 20:9). Death awaits the latter, and a cutting off from the people await the former.

But Leviticus 20 begins with this warning:

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. 3 I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. 4 And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, 5 then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech. (Leviticus 20:1-5 ESV)

Leviticus 18 contains a much smaller version of the same warning, right before it condemns men lying with men “as with woman”

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God:I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:21 ESV)

Molech — מֹּלֶך — comes from the very same Hebrew root “king” does, and it implies sovereingty and rule. We have few references in Molech in the Bible (Stephen mentions Molech in his final witness before the high priest), but all the references we have describe a god to whom children are sacrificed. Specifically, they are burned alive.

This burning alive, ushered in by Solomon’s wives (1 Kings 11:1-8) and performed by kings Ahaz (2 Kings 16:3) and Manasseh (2 Kings 21:6) of Judah, is one of the indictments Jeremiah hands to the Kingdom of Judah during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem:

34 They set up their abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. 35 They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jeremiah 32:34-35 ESV)

This is a special sin, this sacrificing of children, on par with illicit and unlawful sex (as outlined by Leviticus). And it pollutes the land.

Scripture doesn’t say much about what Molech demands or why anyone would sacrifice a child in a roaring fire. It is simply portrayed as a repugnant act — even as scripture also tells the story of God demanding (and then rescinding the demand) that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, slitting his throat and setting him alight atop a large pile of wood. And as God takes the lives of the firstborn of Egypt in the horrible night of the Passover as Israel waited in terror for its redemption.

It is a horrible thing, this sacrifice of children. A detestable thing. It defiles and sickens the land. And Israel, despite the command, tosses it’s children into the fire to appease a god who isn’t even real.

Some evengalical protestant groups have used this bit of scripture to describe abortion. But it’s not a mainstream view (no one with an angelfire website has been mainstream since 1996). And not why I’m writing about this today.

I have, in the last couple of months, come face to face with a foster care system that has, for want of a better term, gladly and happily sacrificed at least some of its charges to Molech. Living, breathing, thinking, feeling, beautiful, amazing, smart, sweet, wonderful kids, bound and tossed into a fire. Kids no one cares about, except maybe for profit and/or for sadistic pleasure. Kids given up, and given up on.

Kids, faithful and persistent, who — despite the suffering and horror they have endured — have not given up on themselves.

And it makes me angry. Like nothing else has ever made me angry before. Because how we treat our children matters.

I cannot say much more about this right now. Except that I’ve gotten a sense, through all my whining about not having work and my book not selling, what my real calling and my real ministry is. To these kids. Who persist, and live, and hope, and love, like plants growing out of the side of a brick wall.

There’s a story in thge Qur’an that also happens to be a Jewish legend. Young Abraham has already become a devoted follower of The One God, and he asks his father about the idols his people worship. “We found our father’s worshiping them,” Abu Ibrahim said, as if that settles the matter. Abraham then tells his father they are all wrong to worship these things made by human hands, and during the night he sneaks in and smashes all the idols except one — the largest of them.

When the people come and find all their gods broken to pieces, they accuse Abraham. “Did you do this?” they ask.

“Nope,” he replies. “The biggest one did it. They are your gods, ask him!”

“You know very well these things cannot speak!”

“Then why do you worship them?” Abraham responds.

At which point they tie Abraham up and toss him into a fire — a fire God commands to be cool and safe for Abraham. (Quran 21:51-70) Such is the fate of those who challenge what “we found our fathers doing.”

I want to break some idols and rescue some kids. Because those idols need to be broken.

And those kids need to be rescued.