Defacing the Image of God: The Children of War and Our Collective Human Failure

By Jesse Wheeler

For what purpose do we older folks exist than to care for, instruct and bring up the young?” – Martin Luther[1]

The Children of War

Martin Luther, the justifiably controversial father of the protestant reformation, poses the above question with regard to our collective reason for being. Amidst the sheer wealth of theological topics about which he wrote, he is led to conclude that our greatest and most defining responsibility as “older folk” is to care for, instruct, and bring up the young. He continues, “It is utterly impossible for these foolish young people to instruct and protect themselves. This is why God has entrusted them to us who are older and know from experience what is best for them.” Tragically, this is a task at which I must conclude we have failed miserably, a failure for which Luther warns: “God will hold us strictly accountable.”[2]

Given the fact that we have been inundated recently by story after story of the most unimaginable, gut-wrenching horror to which young children have been subjected, both within and beyond the region, I can’t help but agree that we must be held accountable. Many of us may be familiar with the tragic stories making international headlines in recent years, like that of the lifeless body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed-up on a Turkish shore, five-year-old Omran Daqneesh sitting despondently in the back of an ambulance after his Aleppo neighborhood was destroyed in an airstrike, or the over 500 children killed during the assault on Gaza in 2014 – epitomized by the images of the 4 Bakr cousins shelled down as they played soccer on the beach. Most recently, we watched in grief the video of the young Syrian boy crying out in anguish after his legs had been blown off for his daddy to pick him up and couldn’t help but feel shame upon hearing about the nine children murdered during the botched raid in Yemen. One can only imagine the terror of being a child in such moments. As I write this, I can’t help but breakdown in tears as I imagine my own young children in their place.

And yet, these children represent only the global face of a much greater epidemic of horror experienced by countless children tragically and systematically betrayed by the “older folk” with whom God has entrusted their care and protection. The violence, of course, is ongoing – in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Sudan, Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and elsewhere – with multiple reports of children being used as combatants or human shields. This onslaught of trauma has been so intense that M.K. Hamza, a neuropsychologist with the Syrian-American Medical Society, developed the phrase “Human Devastation Syndrome” in response to what he sees as the insufficiency of a PTSD diagnosis to capture the magnitude of suffering experienced by the children he encounters, children experiencing “more trauma – physical and emotional – than the medical professionals who care for them have ever seen.” According to Hamza,

“We have talked to so many children, and their devastation is above and beyond what even soldiers are able to see in the war. They have seen dismantled human beings that used to be their parents, or their siblings. You get out of a family of five or six or 10 or whatever — you get one survivor, two survivors sometimes. A lot of them have physical impairments. Amputations. Severe injuries. And they’ve made it to the refugee camp somehow.”

Once here, the trauma only multiplies. On the ground, reports of rampant sexual and physical abuse within the refugee encampments, forced labor, prostitution, sex-slavery and child marriage abound. Detained youth, it has been reported, have faced torture and sexual assault while in custody. Finally, in complete violation of the care entrusted to them, I have heard reports of teachers hurling abusive insults at refugee youth from the front of the class.[3] What all this ultimately represents is a complete and utter failure on the part of us “older folk” to adequately care for, instruct and bring up the young, those most incapable of protecting themselves.

Yet, it should be clearly stated that such dereliction of duty exists everywhere one finds a vulnerable population, within as well as far beyond the region. In the face of such evil, one couldn’t care less whether an airstrike is branded with Russian or American flags or whether an artillery barrage falls from regime or rebel territory in Syria, Yemen or elsewhere. When it concerns children, there is never such a thing as collateral damage. Children seeking shelter have been likewise abused in local encampments as well as European charities. And walls, both metal and metaphoric, are being erected in multiple hemispheres. How often, in an attempt to function normally – to not breakdown in the face of such overwhelming horror – do we wall off our own minds by becoming numb to the pain of others, relegating such thoughts to the margins of our consciousness? And if I am guilty of this in Lebanon, the epicenter of the global refugee crisis, how much easier is it for us to do the same in distant lands where we have the luxury to simply change the channel and revoke visa privileges? But, as we sit securely within the walls of our psychological comfort zones – or security councils – this demonic meat-grinder grinds on. We mustn’t let it.

Children and the Economy of Salvation

The great irony to all these “holy” wars waged in the name of God is that it is God Himself and His Divine Image we betray.[4] For as we observe throughout salvation history, children exist as the very sign of God’s continued presence in our midst, “the tangible manifestation of God’s blessing upon his creation.”[5] From the repeated blessings in the book of Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply,” through the myriad genealogical lists of children begetting children, to the messianic prophecies of Isaiah proclaiming that “unto us a child is born and the government shall be on his shoulders,” we are reminded that God’s blessing – his continued care for his fallen creation and ultimately His plan for the salvation of the world – has always gone hand-in-hand with the continued presence and promise of children in our collective midst.[6]

The messiah himself, we read, arrives as a child. Conceived under socially precarious circumstances and born in a less than ideal setting, he would soon be forced – like far too many children today – to flee his homeland under the cover of night to escape the genocidal designs of a murderous pretender. Eventually, we come to learn from Jesus the crucial significance children play in the economy of salvation. In Mark 9:37, Jesus declares: “Whoever welcomes one of these children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me isn’t actually welcoming me but rather the one who sent me” (CEB). Immediately following, Jesus angrily castigates his disciples for trying to prevent the children from being blessed by him and declares in Mark 10:14 that “God’s Kingdom belongs to such as these.” Though the disciples viewed children as little more than a peripheral distraction, in actuality they were the central intent. God’s in-breaking Kingdom, the central redemptive act and promise of God’s continual presence in the world, belongs not to the prophets, priests and kings of whichever era one belongs – nor to the revolutionary zealots and holy warriors engaged in misguided crusades – but to children. For as with Christ himself, they represent the very sign of God’s presence in our midst!

I think it is fair to say, therefore, that the status of children in our respective societies is emblematic of the status we attribute God Himself. Furthermore, the presence and condition of our children reveals to us the extent to which God’s Kingdom has been made manifest in our midst. To honor a child is to honor the presence of God in that child. Conversely, to harm a child is to deface the very image of God. Ultimately, it is Jesus who rightly warns us, in a passage I am convinced is a first-century euphemism for the horrors of child abuse, that:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones … to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6, NIV).

Anything preventing a child from experiencing the full fruits of God’s Heavenly Kingdom rightly results in His wrath. I don’t see much grace here. Given that thousands of children are currently living through what can only be described as Hell on earth, it seems to me we are failing miserably in our collective reason for being. Let us not, therefore, eradicate the image of God as we wage wars in His name. Let us forevermore protect our children from devastation.

Key Documents

How to Help

If you would like help but aren’t sure how, I encourage you explore the links below. These are just a few of the organizations doing great things to make life better for thousands of those most vulnerable:

  • War Child works toward a world in which no child’s life is torn apart by war. While armed conflict is reality for millions of children today, War Child is committed to supporting such children to overcome their experiences, and have a real chance at a better future.
  • Geneva Call is dedicated to promoting respect by armed non-State actors for international humanitarian norms in armed conflict and other situations of violence, in particular those related to the protection of civilians. They are currently focusing on banning the use of anti-personnel mines, protecting children from the effects of armed conflict, prohibiting sexual violence in armed conflict and working towards the elimination of gender discrimination.
  • Viva is an international children’s charity passionate about releasing children from poverty and abuse. They grow locally-led networks who are committed to working together so that children are safe, well and able to fulfill their God-given potential.
  • MERATH (Middle East Revive and Thrive) seeks to empower communities in the Middle East to reach their full potential as sons and daughters of God. They currently have over 20 relief projects running across Lebanon, Syria and Iraq covering education, child protection, basic assistance, monthly food assistance.*
  • Stop the Traffik is a global movement of activists who give their time and energy to build resilient communities and prevent human trafficking. They equip people to understand what trafficking is, how it affects them and what they can do about it.

__________________

[1] Martin Luther, “To the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Schools” in Children and Childhood in World Religions: Primary Sources and Texts, ed. Don D. Browning and Marjia J. Bunge (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009) 121

[2]In addition to the above, see also: Jane E. Strohl, “The Child in Luther’s Theology: For What Purpose do We Older Folk Exist than to Care for … the Young?” in The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) 134 -159

[3] This was revealed to me in a personal conversation.

[4] I recognize that the usage of the term “holy war” might be challenged. Nevertheless, religious language has been employed as both a justification of and motivator for violence throughout the various conflicts in the Middle East – even by Western powers.

[5] Much of the following section has been inspired by the writings of Biblical scholar, Claire R. Matthews McGinnis in The Child in the Bible, edited by Marcia J. Bunge. [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 2008]

[6] I need to stress this: Individually, the lack of children in one’s life no way represents the absence of God’s blessings. By no means! Some people can’t have children and it can be heartbreaking. Others intentionally choose not to and this is completely fine; it’s even commended by the apostle Paul. But, the simple truth is we live together in an interconnected global community.

*MERATH is our sister organization under the Lebanese Society for Educational and Social Development (LSESD).

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