In the West we have forgotten how the world devours children because mostly when our children die they are defined as subhuman by the law, and so we don’t count their lives when we stop their hearts from beating.
We have escaped an age when half the children born to us die before adulthood, and so we need not live—most of us—with the daily presence of death, prowling as it does like a wolf in tall grass.
When death comes for our children it is an anomaly, and our suffering, no matter how closely those who love us draw near, must be borne largely alone. Our friends grieve for us and in a sense with us, but most of them can’t know, thank God, what it is to grieve as us.
Until, that is, some hell-riddled boy brings guns to a school and blows holes through children whose coffins will be no bigger than your luggage. Until some cult-minded psychopath detonates a bomb that rips off their arms and legs just as easily as you’d shuck corn. Until what surely must feel like the hand of a vengeful God crushes them where they huddle screaming in grade school hallways.
Then we remember how thin are their bones and how little breath and blood they can spare. Then we grieve not in ones and twos but in community, and if you believe at all in the gathered crowd of witnesses, then you must believe that these all-seeing saints weep.
They weep for us in this privileged corner of history, and they weep for the thousands of children bombed and starved and enslaved and raped every day, even as we in the West pay them little mind.
The world of men grinds children to dust, but we can count ourselves blessed here, so blessed that we pause, when children die in a tornado, or have their limbs yanked free by a bomb, or are shot to pieces by a lunatic, because such destruction is unusual in our sliver of earth. It gives us horrified pause, and it should.
We count ourselves blessed but perhaps a better word is protected. We live in this relatively peace-filled, prosperous place not because God chose to favor us with easy lives, but because our frames are so weak, our faiths so tenuous, that we couldn’t bear what God’s people bear daily in Sudan, in North Korea, in Turkmenistan.
We are mostly spared, which has a different connotation than blessed. The former should inspire gratitude and humility, whereas the latter too often inspires, especially in the hands of wrongheaded preachers and writers, a sense of pride. God chose this land and we people and therefore we are righteous.
Thank God we know the destruction of our children only rarely, though those parents who suffer it are forever scarred. Would that we remember them long after the television news stations move on to juicier fare, and remember as well parents in places too inconvenient or unpopular for news anchors to report.
Their children are being ground up—victims of war and lust and theft and disease, and often simply of perceived inconvenience.
This quiet slaughter is perhaps the greatest perversion wrought by the devil after the fall. The most innocent among God’s most favored creation, cut down by a world in turmoil and rebellion, often by the hands of those who ought rightly be their protectors. Most of us are spared these horrors, and one shudders to think what would become of our churches, our sleeve-worn “faith walks,” if our society were as deeply penetrated by suffering and loss those across much of the planet.
Could we bear it? Could we continue to croak out our praise songs, were our graveyards thick with small stones?
My suffering has been relatively small, weighted against that of the girl sold to a brothel in Thailand, of a father who watches his sons tortured to death in Egypt, of a preacher encouraging his illegal church in Cuba. How do they endure?
Here we leave churches because we get our feelings hurt. In those countries, people cling to the cross at the risk of things that make quick death sound merciful. What would happen, were the winnowing here to become just as ferocious, as systemic, as hell-driven, as it is in places most of us can’t even pronounce?
I pray I never find out, that we never find out. I have friends who believe it is precisely such persecutions that make the church stronger, but I don’t care to test this hypothesis. I pray instead that our hearts are broken more over the suffering we do have, over these tragedies that seem to roil our country with increasing frequency, over the torment of our brethren abroad.
Perhaps most of all, may our hearts be broken over how often we have failed to be heartbroken in the past, whether from ignorance or indifference or, worse still, a deep-seated sense that those people far away are not really our brothers and sisters, because unlike us, they don’t live in the God-blessed U.S. of A.
Tony Woodlief lives outside Wichita, Kansas, and is the author of a spiritual memoir, Somewhere More Holy. His essays on faith and parenting have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The London Times, and WORLD Magazine. His short stories, two of which have been nominated for Pushcart prizes, have been published in Image and Ruminate. His website is www.tonywoodlief.com.