Suffer the Little Children to Come Unto Me, by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1538

Growing up on the King James Version of the Gospels, I well remember the force of a verse from Mark 10:14 in which Jesus, in anger, said: “Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.” The occasion was when several parents brought children to Jesus to be blessed, but were discouraged by his disciples. This past week has seen the suffering of little children around the world. Last Friday America was gripped by the tragedy of twenty elementary children and six adults gunned down by a disturbed young man, who first killed his mother in bed and then at the school took his own life. In a nation that wears its constitutional “right to bear arms” on its political sleeves, this was a shot to the gut. For all of us whose children have gone through the public school system, the shock lingers. It could have been any local school in any state. It could have been any of our children. A killer with a gun has denied them life. This suffering is not what Jesus meant when he said “suffer the little children to come unto me.” One need not be an expert in 17th century English to understand the meaning of the verse.

But children continue to suffer at the hands of adults all over the world. In Pakistan on Monday six health workers engaged in a project to immunize children were shot to death by extremists who have been told that such a program to save children’s lives is actually a Western plot to undermine Islam. Along with five brave women and one man, the Pakistani children who will not have immunity from polio will also suffer. The irony that six adults were killed both in Pakistan and in New Town, Connecticut is worth reflecting on. In both cases those trying to save children became victims; in both cases children suffer.

Then there is the continued violence in Syria, not to mention ongoing deaths of children and adults in Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza. All small children are innocent, no matter what religion or ethnicity they belong to. A six-year old is incapable of being a criminal, incapable of being a danger to an adult. Killing a child is an act of extreme cowardice, whether with bullets fired from an automatic weapon or the fallout from a cluster bomb. And children do not, as a rule, kill other children. Adults play with guns and all kinds of people die, but the mangled body of a small child, who is denied living to become a full member of society, is especially hard to accept. The sight of those twenty young bodies, thankfully not broadcast on the evening news, makes any grown man or woman cry.

The massive news coverage of the tragedy in Connecticut draws attention to an endemic failure in American society: the failure to protect ourselves from gun violence and the failure to limit access to military-style weapons that make such massacres possible. The worn-out NRA mantra that a ban on assault weapons, which we had sanely for ten years in this country, will domino into a ban on all guns is not only absurd, but criminal in intent. Would the NRA approve of individuals using bazookas, tanks or cruise missiles? Bumper sticker mentality that thinks guns don’t kill people, but people kill people should mean that any gun in the U.S. has a constitutional right to own another gun and any person should have a right to own another person; after all guns and people have nothing on common. We need an alternative bumper sticker that tells the truth: people without guns do not kill people with guns.

The shooting of children is naturally a headline, but most children die without coverage in the headlines. In the U.S. sanctions against Saddam’s Iraq in the 1990s, Saddam did just fine and built splendid palaces for himself and his family. But estimates as high as the death of 500,000 children due to sanctions exist. This is not to take away from the murders this past week, but the number of half a million is so staggering that it demands our tears as well. As the work of UNICEF documents, children die around the world every day in large numbers, often from diseases that could be healed or prevented. In any war with civilian casualties, children and women tend to be the most common victims. Little children are suffering at an alarming rate.

The last election saw a flurry of rhetoric about competing views on abortion, with calls for the rights of the fetus and embryo echoing across the political landscape. Putting aside the contentious issue of when life begins, why is there more concern for the unborn than those children who have been brought into the world and are born into suffering or killed because of actions beyond their control and often in our “Western” control? It is not a matter of making a choice as to which is more important, but asking why there is so little concern, especially by politicians looking for Tea Party votes, for the suffering of living children. Is it not hypocritical to call for an end to all abortion, even when the life of the mother is in danger, and at the same time not call for an end of assault weapons that are used in our country to kill innocent children? I am tired of having the constitution twisted to include access to weapons that the framers could not have imagined. We hold it to be self-evident that all men (and now black men and all women) are created equal, but all guns are not created equal by any stretch of the imagination.