In his Christmas address in 2016 the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople declared 2017 “The Year of Protection of the Sanctity of Childhood.” This statement was later incorporated, in February of 2017, into the joint declaration “Sins Before our Eyes: A Forum on Modern Slavery” issued in Istanbul by Patriarch Bartholomew and the Archbishop of Canterbury. These two addresses are landmarks which address the poverty of moral imagination in our world, and whose message deserves not to be relegated to the archives of church history, but to be heard as part of a call to re-imagine the world with a degree of sanity and compassion.
These two declarations have formed a substantial part of my own reflections and meditations throughout the year. It was not an easy year to be a Canadian, as my government decided to take the Human Rights Tribunal to court over the compliance order issued by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal against the government of Canada over the latter’s failure to observe Jordan’s Principle. (Jordan’s Principle is a child-first principle declaring that where jurisdictional disputes between First Nations and other government departments arise with respect to care of First Nations children the department of first contact should pay for the services and sort out jurisdictional matters afterward. The intention of the principle is that timely and effective care will be provided to all children. More information can be found here. ) Thankfully the litigation was later withdrawn, but not before we were treated to a display of litigious and bureaucratic behaviour of precisely the sort that Jordan’s Principle was intended to combat in the first place. The Toronto Star reported that $707,000 was spent in legal fees, an amount nearly twice that required by the Wapekeka First Nation for emergency mental health services. (Toronto Star, June 2, 2017)
This display highlights the very real need for the Patriarch’s moral exhortation to be taken seriously, and not only by people who share his faith. Children are the most vulnerable demographic, and their well-being can be guaranteed only if we are all willing to do some hard work and ask difficult questions. Those who attend church services during the Christmas season are reminded each year that the beautiful and joyous occasion of the birth of the child Jesus is marred by the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, when King Herod murders all the children two years and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem. The intel which leads to this activity is given by the magi, unwitting accomplices in this political conspiracy. There are lessons to be drawn here, one of which is that the Protection of the Sanctity of Childhood demands a certain level of creativity, involvement, and awareness. Bureaucratic structures will not deliver if those involved are conditioned by an atmosphere of paranoia and a spirit of litigation. Turf wars are destructive of those who are most vulnerable. This is true at the level of national and international response, just as it is at the level of family responsibility.
A renewed moral imagination needs to become central to our actions with and on behalf of children. The phrase “Sanctity of Childhood” may conjure up images of a sentimental scene, a childhood protected from the hard truths of life. The intention of the Ecumenical Patriarch, though, was something quite different. Sanctity refers to the safeguarding of integrity. The sanctity of childhood is important, not because childhood is some special reserve of existence, it is important as a principle consonant with the dignity inherent in every human being. The global refugee crisis affects the rights of children, especially, because they are the most vulnerable demographic in terms of their physical, experiential, and legal powers. Sanctity, moreover, is not only subject to physical violations and the brutality or indifference of structures of power. There is also the element of seduction, which Bartholomew refers to in a section describing the “altering of children’s souls through the uncontrolled exposure to electronic means of communication and their subjection to consumerism.”
These, too, are part of an overall machinery leading to blindness and ignorance. Children, but not only children, need to be trained to process the social and moral meanings and relationships inherent in the events and objects they encounter. The access to a plethora of information, whose access is not so much uncontrolled as it is managed by commercial interest (some of it explicitly black-market), is not conducive to the time it takes to develop the capacity of discrimination – the ability to judge between what is helpful and what is harmful. There are, naturally, some difficult questions here, as there is probably no figure of authority who can claim to have always acted in the best interests of those under their care. Nevertheless, readier access to information (which is never as unmediated as we might claim) does not necessarily translate into more democratic practices and or greater institutional representation.
As we enter into 2018, then, the exhortation to safeguard the sanctity of childhood, along with the urgent plea for vigilance regarding the ways in which our society neglects or discriminates against vulnerable demographics within our midst needs to continue to be at the forefront. Something like Jordan’s Principle needs to enter into our cultural ethos; otherwise the predatory behaviour and neglect will remain as institutional hallmarks in our society. The principle, moreover, needs to be internalized and made manifest in imaginative and creative ways, which is not at all to say entertaining. The scandals that erupted in the entertainment industry in 2017 serve as a painful reminder that the factories of illusion, too, have a human cost – they take a physical, psychological, sexual, moral, and spiritual toll.
This toll is not a necessary price; I have never been an advocate of bombing villages in order to save them. The mandate of this website, which takes its cue from Ben Okri’s Mental Fight, is to be constantly vigilant about the dreams and fantasies that shape our engagement with the world. Okri writes that, ” Illusions are useful only if we use them to help us get to our true reality. Initiations and rituals, if they are noble, Have this power, (They magnify the secret hour) They enable us to pass from. The illusion of our lesser selves. To the reality of our greatest selves.” (Ben Okri, Mental Fight). This is a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly concur, even as I express it more prosaically than does Okri. The transformation, even transfiguration, of our society and its expectations is necessary. William Blake, in the poem from which Okri derives the title of his own work, notes that the technological achievements of the modern world have not built Jerusalem – the City of Peace. The mental fight required to acquire justice in the world is a ceaseless requirement and demand placed upon each person, in view of building the city of peace, together.