The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. . . . You are my servant, he said to me, Israel, through whom I show my glory.
Isaiah 49: 1,3
All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
Luke 1: 80
Today’s Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist is an extended scriptural reflection on life as call. Every human person who is born is, as was John the Baptist, called from birth to be a singular and unique part of the body of humanity, of Christ, to have been given an unrepeatable task as servant of our loving God’s will for the world.
What makes a Christian believer “pro-life” is the understanding in faith that it can be said of every single infant what is said by the people of John the Baptist: “What, then will this child be? For the surely the hand of the Lord is with her.” Obedience to the will of God requires that with all our heart, and soul, and mind, and strength we reverence and foster the call that is every child.
As I read the scriptures for today, I find myself, then, reflecting on the two sides of our core belief in the worth of each child: the summons to realize and incarnate in our life and life work the call that each of us is and our responsibility to recognize and foster the development of the growth of the call of each human child. Our faith demands of us that we see every infant and child as God’s gift to the world, as named by God to manifest God’s glory. No less than those who were amazed at the naming of John the Baptist, we are to look at each of our children, for every child is ours, and ask in wonder “What will this child be? For surely the hand of the Lord is with her.”
Yesterday afternoon I was gifted with the unexpected privilege of helping friends, who are very shortly expecting their first child, set up the nursery for that child. It was for me a deeply affecting experience, as I was allowed to participate in a small way in making preparations for their daughter’s coming. In our working and in our speaking, we were pondering at its depth the question “What, then, will this child be?” and how can we prepare a place, physical and spiritual, for her call to take form first in herself and then through her in the world.
Not so far from here, however, an unspeakable horror is occurring. On the southern border of the United States children are being imprisoned and in many ways tortured in unhealthy and unsanitary conditions. They are subjected day and night to experiences that cannot help but affect their sense of call and identity for the rest of their lives. Doctors and social workers who have witnessed the conditions have said that the 24 hour a day fluorescent lighting will affect the brain development of these very young children. Young children, who are physically and emotionally unable to do so, are expected to care for even younger ones. They are all being fed uncooked frozen food, and far too little of that, and have not even the most basic aids to cleanliness and sanitation, soap and toothbrushes. In the view of those who have witnessed the conditions, all of the children are traumatized.
Many years ago as a fairly young man, I had he powerful experience of visiting the site of the concentration camp at Dachau in Germany. What struck me immediately was that there were regular neighborhoods and houses well within sight of the camp. I wondered how it was possible to carry on ordinary life for these people when these horrors were occurring behind the walls of the camp. It was not until after defeat in war that the German population, at least to some degree, asked itself the question of who they were if they could have allowed this to occur.
Recently in the United States a great debate has sprung up because the young congresswoman from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the detention facilities described above “concentration camps.” In an insightful essay on the website The New Yorker Today, Masha Gessen of The New Yorker, spoke to the debate as an “argument about imagination.” The piece is entitled “The Unimaginable Reality of American Concentration Camps.” Gessen argues that we tend to see “history” as “something that has already happened to other people. Our own moment, filled as it is with minutiae destined to be forgotten, always looks smaller in comparison. As for history, the greater the event, the more mythologized it becomes.” Thus, the monstrosity of the horrible events of the past makes them, in our imaginations, something that could never happen in the mundane present. This makes of these horrors, “something that could never happen here.”
When the Vice-President, a self-proclaimed person of deep Christian faith, was asked yesterday about the treatment of these children, he diverted responsibility on to the Congress for failing to pass adequate immigration legislation. As the questioner attempted to move back to the concrete issue of why these children had no beds, no soap, no toothbrushes, inadequate food, this representative of the executive and administrative arm of our government asserted that “we are doing all we can with what we have.” The President himself has asserted that we are doing “a very good job.”
Masha Gessen concludes her essay by saying that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her critics both agree that “the term ‘concentration camp’ refers to something so horrible as to be unimaginable.” Thus the choice before us “is the choice between thinking that whatever is happening in reality is, by definition, acceptable, and thinking that some actual events in our current reality are fundamentally incompatible with our concept of ourselves—not just as Americans but as human beings—and therefore unimaginable.”
So today, as Christian believers, we are challenged by the scriptures that tell us of the absolute and inviolable value of every human child, for every child is a spark of divinity, a gift from God to the world. It is the task of every generation to serve and to foster the gift of its children for the sake of the world and to the glory of God. Yet, at this very moment, the “unimaginable” is happening in the United States, something that we claim is “incompatible with our concept of ourselves—not just as Americans but as human beings.”
The unimaginable happens in human society when drop by drop the unacceptable becomes normalized. Unfortunately, it is easier than we’d like to think to repress the spirit in us. Our own fear and greed and laziness, usually unconscious to us, can lead us to allow and accept that which is incompatible not only with our faith but with our reality as human beings. The words of the scriptures today are painful and haunting. Every human person is “called from birth” and “named in his or her mother’s womb” to manifest uniquely in the course of her or his life the glory of God. The proper stance before the child is awe. It is to perceive and to serve that child in light of the question: “Who, then, will this child be? For the hand of the Lord is with her.”
Oh, I know what I wanted to tell you. This is important. So, on Wednesday, we received reports from children of a lice outbreak in one of the cells where there were about twenty-five children, and what they told us is that six of the children were found to have lice. And so they were given a lice shampoo, and the other children were given two combs and told to share those two combs, two lice combs, and brush their hair with the same combs, which is something you never do with a lice outbreak. And then what happened was one of the combs was lost, and Border Patrol agents got so mad that they took away the children’s blankets and mats. They weren’t allowed to sleep on the beds, and they had to sleep on the floor on Wednesday night as punishment for losing the comb. So you had a whole cell full of kids who had beds and mats at one point, not for everybody but for most of them, who were forced to sleep on the cement.
Warren Binford, Interview with Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker, June 22, 2019