This spring, we’ve been reading fairy tales—not the Disney versions, but the more brutal, more frightening collections of Andrew Lang and the brothers Grimm. These stories are far more violent than their modern retellings, and their outcomes are less certain. Sometimes the lovers are not reunited. Sometimes the hero makes a fatal mistake and is not rescued in the nick of time. There are themes of courage and compassion, of perseverance and patience, but one theme has popped up again and again, and this one is more disturbing than any gruesome description or dark plot twist. The theme is this: Children have little value.
Considering the fact that children were the primary intended audience for these stories, it’s all the more horrific to find so many kings who send their children into the forest to be murdered by reluctant huntsmen simply because the children pose a threat to the kings’ power. Parents are willing to abandon their children when food runs short. Others cave to pressures from hungry giants and chop fingers from their children’s hands so they can bake them in pies. Many parents pit their children against one another and promise terrible punishments to those who fail to complete herculean tasks. Still more will gladly trade beloved, longed-for offspring for such fleeting pleasures as a salad of rapunzel greens.
I was wondering what these stories revealed about the cultures in which they grew and thrived, and I was feeling a bit smug about the progress we’ve made in the intervening years when I stumbled across a photograph from the Depression. In the picture, a woman hides her face from the camera. Beside her, on a porch railing, is a large sign that reads, “4 Children For Sale – Inquire Within.” The children are seated on the steps below the sign. The oldest is a girl of no more than 7 or 8. She wears a sad smile, one that seems to say, “Times are tough, but we’re all here together, and we’re having our picture made.” Her arm is wrapped around her younger sister. On the step below them are two boys, and again the older has his arm around the younger. I can hardly recall the image without feeling sick. The contrast in the hidden, shamed face of the mother and the shining faces of the children…
Maybe we haven’t come so far after all.
And I’m speaking, of course, of the children who actually make it out of their mothers’ wombs. I was quick to judge the ancient cultures that traded children for food or advantage. But we don’t have the excuse of poverty. What does it say about us that, as a culture, we place so little value on children?
“It is the greatest poverty,” says Mother Teresa, “to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”
So that you can rule your kingdom forever, unchallenged…
So that you can eat the last of the food and live…
So that you can satisfy your insatiable craving…
So that you can live as you please…
Our culture would look at those kings and queens and see only their wealth, their freedom. Mother Teresa calls them paupers, the poorest of the poor.
It is fascinating to me, however, that these small creatures should be so continuously, so universally, assaulted. I think of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, of Pharoah’s guards killing Hebrew boys, of genocides in Rwanda and Armenia, of birth restrictions in China, of girls in India and Pakistan raised for the sole purpose of being sold into slavery. Children must be infinitely precious and infinitely hazardous to the designs of the Enemy. Why else would he expend so much energy to snuff out the light they bring into this world?
This week I read an article that attempted to shed new light on the Holocaust narrative. (http://popchassid.com/more-photos-holocaust-narrative/) The author used 20 photographs to re-tell the story of one of the greatest atrocities in history, in the hopes of showing not the depravity of mankind, but its greatness in unthinkable circumstances. In one picture, five women hold the babies that were born to them while they were imprisoned in Dachau. In another, a group of children runs to answer a dinner bell. They are healthy, smiling. All of them were rescued from Europe by a program the British Parliament called Kindertransport. Because of the generosity of British citizens, 10,000 children were saved, among them 2 Nobel laureates.
Another picture brought tears to my eyes. In this shot, a group of children sits on the ground in a formation of the Star of David. The children are survivors of Buchenwald, taken in by the Children’s Aid Society in France after WWII. One of the little boys in the group is Elie Wiesel. If you have ever read his memoirs of the Holocaust, you know the power of his voice. At the time the picture was taken, he wore a button-down shirt and short pants like the other boys in the group. He wasn’t making much of a contribution to the world when the Children’s Aid Society took him in and fed him and cared for him. At the time, he must have seemed like a burden. But what poverty to have lost him! What riches to have saved him!
When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to hear our pastor give a report on the numbers of people who had given their hearts to Christ. If two adults and one child had come to faith, he would say, “Two and a half souls have been saved today.” The words still rankle.
In the village of Hamelin, when the Mayor defaulted on his promise, the Pied Piper stole the most valuable possession of those unfaithful people. In a rare departure from the usual fairy tale theme, we see how the Pied Piper stole Hamelin’s future, stole its joy, when he stole its children. The streets of their village fell silent.
These children are not half-people, but little wonders, fresh from the mind and heart of God. They are the ones who sing in the parking garage, raising the theme from “Song of the Sea” until the melody echoes as if in some wave-battered sea cave. They are the ones who leap from their play to watch the squirrels (dubbed “Red Tail” and “Old Gray”) as they scamper over the grass and up the limbs of the maple trees. They are the ones through whom the kingdom of God advances, through whom our love or our selfishness or our indifference is carried into a future we will never see. Their worth cannot be measured in bites of food or gold coins. They are our one great investment. What poverty to lose them, and what incomprehensible wealth to know them.