Tuesday 7 November 2006

The rights of children - Whose responsibility?

The proposed constitutional referendum on the rights of children is, as the government has been at pains to point out, not one that should cause division along party political lines. The great majority of right-thinking people will surely have no difficulty in making the constitutional protections for our children more explicit. The real danger that faces this proposed amendment is that it will be too narrow and therefore limited in its impact. There is already not insignificant provision for the rights of children in the Constitution. Article 42.5 states: “In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.”

The only proposed wording for an amendment so far comes from Barnardos, the children’s charity. While it strengthens the existing provision and adds another article which makes the rights of children “paramount” it is still not the substantive change that is required. It will be helpful in prosecuting cases of child abuse and in family law disputes it will give further and much needed protection to children caught in the middle of bitter disputes. This is good news but if it is truly to be a referendum on the rights of all our children then it has to go further and be a lot broader in its remit.

One of the early attacks on this proposed amendment came from John Waters in his Irish Times column (6th November), where he articulated the view that it will facilitate a “transfer of parenting rights from parents to the State”. I do not support his conclusion but I think he is right to draw our attention back to the role of parents in protecting the rights of children. No matter how big the budget, how plentiful the resources or how imaginative the legislation that might be based on any proposed constitutional amendment, the State cannot possibly be ‘parent’ to all the children whose rights are currently being denied. This is not just about the 5,000 children currently in the care of the HSE but about thousands of other children who are neglected by parents who for various reasons have neither the time nor the ability to properly parent their children.

Sadly we only become aware of this issue when it spills out onto the streets and affects our lives as well. An increasingly common manifestation is the senseless vandalism and violence committed by gangs of minors who roam our streets at all hours and in all weathers, and seem to have no respect for other people or their property. They are aware that there is little sanction that can be used against them, particularly when their parents in so many cases deny all responsibility for their children and their actions. This is the gaping hole in the Constitution that does need to be addressed. No parent, whatever the circumstances, should be able to deny that basic responsibility towards their own offspring, and with it a legal accountability for the actions of their children.

But even that is not enough! We also need to ask ourselves why things are the way they are? Why are so many parents failing to parent their children? Why do so many children want to do damage to their neighbours and their neighbourhood? Is it too much of a leap of faith to assume there is a connection? Of some comfort may be the fact that Ireland is not alone in dealing with these issues. Very similar things are happening in other countries but not all countries.

It is almost a cliché now but Ireland has experienced economic growth of a scale and in a timescale unparalleled throughout the world. Only last week the Lotto had to be raised to a guaranteed minimum of Two Million Euro, because One Million is no longer enough! Such has been the rate of change that our value systems are struggling to keep up with our new opportunities and choices. We have largely marginalised the Church and the family is increasingly seen as a curtailment to the freedom and individualism to which we aspire and which society tells us we deserve. In their place we have placed the Gospel of Prosperity which has nothing to offer to those who fall off the consumer express. Where we do show interest in the needs of our children it is more often in terms of the latest computer console or designer clothes. Even in the area of education we are more interested in school league tables which say more about our status-anxiety than the real needs of our children. We live our lives on credit, refusing to accept the inconvenience of waiting for our little luxuries and we worship shallow celebrity while mocking those who forsake material reward for moral integrity. These are the values that we are giving to our children!

Maybe we should be asking another question: Are the children who smash our windows and beat up strangers not merely the product of our own moral and spiritual poverty? Its easy to blame others but we all have a responsibility in building society and community. If the rights of all our children are to be protected then all of us need to ask some serious questions of ourselves. The Constitution is a good place to start but it is only a part of a much bigger picture. Let us hope we have the vision and the courage to do what needs to be done.

Saturday 4 November 2006

Who said we have a choice?

Sermon for Sunday 5th November 2006
Readings: Ruth 1:1-18 & Mark 12:28-34

‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’

These most profound words uttered by our Lord come out of a quite mundane situation. Jesus is engaging in the banter and dispute so popular in the Jewish religious tradition. They love throwing six-marker questions and trick questions at each other! It is theological debate in its most raw form – almost like the kind of theology and philosophy that some people discuss over a cup of coffee or over a pint of the black stuff….and yet…in this ordinary setting comes the most profound ‘Summary of the Law’ which to this day is the center of what we Christians are about: Love of God and Love of neighbour.
It sounds quite simple – just two basic principles to remember and we should be pretty good Christians, but of course in practice its not quite that simple.

This tradition of banter and trick questions is still alive in the Jewish tradition and a story is told of a rabbi who asked his class of students: "Which act of charity is higher--giving out of obligation or giving from the heart?"
All in the class were inclined to respond that giving from the heart had something more in it, but they knew the rabbi was going to say just the opposite, because in spiritual teaching nothing is logical. They were not disappointed.
"Giving from the heart is a wonderful thing," the rabbi said, "It is a very high act and should never be demeaned. But there is something much more important that happens when somebody gives charity out of obligation.
"Consider who is doing the giving. When somebody gives from the heart, there is a clear sense of oneself doing something; in other words, heartfelt charity always involves satisfying our own desire to help others.
"However, when we give out of obligation, when we give at a moment that every part of us is yelling NO! because of one reason or another--perhaps the beneficiary is disgusting, or it is too much money, or any of thousands of reasons we use to avoid giving charity--then we are confronting our own basic instincts, and giving nonetheless. Why? Because we are supposed to. And what this means is that it is not us doing the giving, rather we are vehicles through which God gives.
( Source: David A. Cooper, Entering the Sacred Mountain: A Mystical Odyssey, Bell Tower.)

I love that story because it disturbs me – It really makes me think! It challenges so much of the culture of our day which emphasizes the value of personal choice, of personal integrity and freedom and the necessity for all our acts of goodness to be motivated from within. It is a culture that revolves around our needs, even if those same needs are capable of generating goodness, they are still our needs – our choices and not our obligations. As an example think how slowly we are coming to terms with the necessity to take care of our planet – Why? Because it is an obligation, not a choice! But does that make it bad? Is there something wrong with obligation? Why has it become a dirty word? This is a culture we cannot help but be influenced by, this culture which elevates choice and denigrates obligation, and yet the rabbi reminds us of the importance of surrendering ourselves to the will of another – the will of God! This is something we are obliged to do and this is something that is not comfortable, or safe or private or personal….this is about discipline and obedience…..and we are not very good at it!

Going back to Jesus and summary of the law – Is he not saying exactly the same thing? “To love our neighbour as ourself” To truly do that is a sacrificial act which involves giving up something of ourselves for another – that is not something that comes naturally – that is something that requires the Grace of God and through which God’s love is communicated and shared. Note it is a commandment: “Hear O Israel…You shall” Jesus knows this is a difficult thing!

It’s the kind of love we see in today’s lesson from the book of Ruth where Ruth against all sensible advice and any concern for her own well being pledges herself to stay with her mother-in-law Naomi whatever the future holds: Ruth said,‘Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die - there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!’
It could not be any clearer! “MAY THE LORD DO THUS AND SO TO ME”!!!
Ruth is acknowledging the authority of God in her life and in a strange way this authority does not captivate her but sets her spirit free to serve God in and through her service of her Mother-in-law Naomi.

In a world that worships the power and ability of the individual to chip away at the power of God we worship the God who desires to fill us completely with his Love and his Power and so free us from all that prevents us becoming what we have been created for.

I want to finish with an extract from Frederick Buechner in his book, The Magnificent Defeat:
“The love for equals is a human thing--of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles.
The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing--the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.
The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing--to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is always bewildered by its saints.
And then there is the love for the enemy--love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured one’s love for the torturer. This is God's love. It conquers the world.”