In the waning days of summer in 2015, a three-year-old boarded a boat with his father to make the journey from the resort town of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos. Clad, as any three-year-old might be, in blue shorts and a red t-shirt, he was just another among the nameless, faceless migrants fleeing Syria, until an image surfaced of his fragile body washed up on a Turkish beach. Images of Aylan (Alan) Kurdi lying face down in the shore quickly spread around the world. The ferry he was on had capsized, and he, his mother, and his five-year-old brother Galip drowned in the Mediterranean in the early morning hours on September 2, 2015. This image of a lifeless child challenged the world.
In his Christmas Eve homily this past year, Pope Francis urged all Christians to “allow ourselves to be challenged by the children of today’s world, who are not lying in a cot caressed with the affection of a mother and father, but rather suffer in the squalid ‘mangers that devour dignity’: hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants. Let us allow ourselves to be challenged by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satiates their hunger, by those who have not toys in their hands, but rather weapons.”
Children deserve the best—the loving caresses of parents; the care and protection of the community; a safe, clean place to sleep; the stability of a home filled with affection; nourishing food to eat; clear, clean water to drink; the joy of playing with siblings and friends; a dignifying education; and participation in the life of the family and society. Children do deserve the best of our time, energy, and affection. Yet children are made to bear the brunt of society’s failures. They are in the precarious position of being useless, redundant, of being non-producers. Children endure the weight of modernity’s failures, its violence, and its sin. We enslave their fragile bones and vulnerable bodies, and on flesh imprinted with all the freshness of dignity, we inscribe hunger, violence, and death.
Children deserve to be at the center of families, communities, and societies, yet too often they are condemned to the peripheries of society. Children may deserve the best, but according to the scandalous calculations of modernity, a child’s right to stay around is precariously dependent on her geopolitical location, her gender, her parent’s economic stability, and, yes, even her race. She may end up sold into slavery or crushed at the bottom of a raft, or she may never be allowed the rarefied privilege of taking a first breath. She may be expunged from the human family, her body relegated to the waste yard, because she fails to meet the rigorous expectations she knows nothing about.
Children deserve the best, yet they are often what the late Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “‘collateral casualties’ of progress,” excluded from protection under the law, non-persons. Children are our first casualties. They are among the first to be un-humaned, to be declared unwanted. The child that drowns in dark waters of the sea; the child who stares in blank silence, bloodied by barrel bombs dropped on his school; the child who has taken up arms; the child who tries to draw back as a syringe of saline searches her out in the darkness of her mother’s womb—these are the little ones who had the audacity to be poor, to be exiled, to be at school, to be alive.
Children are the most vulnerable among us. As Christians, we forfeit the right to determine a child’s worth. When we die in the waters of baptism, we forfeit the right to decide someone else’s usefulness, value, or right to exist. We forfeit the right to choose to love some but not others. To be Christian is to take up the duty to love without discrimination. This love compels us to lay aside the weapons of the battlefield, the weapons that are used to kill children while they attend school. This love compels us to lay aside the weapons of the boardroom, where decisions are made in the interest of profit margins that mean certain death for the most vulnerable. This love compels us to put down the weapons of the medical field that are used to eliminate human life in the womb.
Christian love forms us into a new vision, a dignifying vision that stands in solidarity with women and with their preborn children, a vision that sees value where the world sees uselessness—in the preborn child with Down syndrome; in the indigent elderly man who can’t consume the small, white communion wafer; the refugee, the women and children fleeing persecution searching for signs of hospitality; yes, even in the unrepentant death row inmate. To be Christian is to be formed in the love of Christ, who loves us while still sinners. This means to forfeit the right to decide who is worthy of love. It means we forfeit the right to decide which children will be allowed to take their first breath or which mothers will receive adequate prenatal care. This love is not a uniform love, but it is unifying love. It is a vision that sees that a society that fails to defend its most vulnerable members will soon find that it is unable to defend the principles of integral human ecology and that what is considered a “right” will be determined by the whims of the powerful.
This vision sees that the realities of abortion, war, migration, economic exploitation, of human trafficking and sexual slavery, disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us, namely children, but also that all offenses against human life, in different ways and at different levels of gravity, participate in a logic of violence, in a logic that produces a throwaway culture. To be Christian means that we participate in a form of love that is whole, healthy, and fresh—that doesn’t choose its own way, but is led by the love of Christ, who loves people, not systems. To love like this is to love against the grain, to love into the darkness, to love with that burning heart that only Christ writes in us.
Jessica Keating is the director of the Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.