How I Talk To My Daughter About Terrorists (and other tragedies)

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Alison and I watched CNN together the night of the Boston Marathon bombings and the night the suspect was captured. I know that family therapists and child psychologists would probably warn against exposing a 12-year-old to coverage of such a horrific event (especially CNN coverage), but I’ve learned to happily ignore the parenting experts. We did spend a little time snickering over Anderson Cooper’s choice of attire on Night #2, so it wasn’t all heavy-loaded. But the event was tragic and there was no way to spin it otherwise. So I didn’t try. I answered her questions as honestly as I could while we watched the events unfold. Over the past week she has been especially concerned about the young man who was taken into custody that evening. For some reason, she has focused on his injuries and how he is healing. She asks about this regularly and I am unsure what to say, so I tell her that he is in a prison hospital and that is all I know about his physical state. Yesterday, she wondered if he was scared in the boat. Her tenderness towards this individual seems out of place.

I read a post from someone a few days after the event. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t want to know his name. I don’t want to see his face. I don’t want to know his life’s history, his back-story, who his family is, where he went to school, or what he liked to do in his spare time. I don’t want to know what “cause”, if any, he was fighting for. I don’t want to know why he did it, or may have done it, or what possessed him to carry out his actions. I don’t want to know. Because that’s what he really wants. I’ll be damned if I’m going to give him what he wants.

I completely understand  and share in the anger that is felt toward this person. But when my daughter asks about him, I also understand where she is coming from. We have told her that every person is loved deeply by God whether they are the worst person in the world or the best person. We have quoted the verse “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and then talked honestly about how near-to-impossible it is to do. But yet, we are asked to do it. We have told her that every person matters and that grace is not out of reach for anyone.

But what about terrorists? Shouldn’t we share the sentiment of the person who cheers the death of Osama Bin Laden or the person who says “I don’t want to know his name or see his face?” That seems fair, except that we are told that God cherishes his created ones so much that he knows the number of hairs on their head. This verse rolls off the tongue when we’re telling the loveable how loved they are, but it’s a little harder to comprehend when we’re talking about the unloveable. You might say to me at this point that if a relative or dear friend died at the hands of a terrorist I would feel differently. And you might be right. But according to what God says, I wouldn’t be entitled to feel differently.

So what do I tell my daughter when she expresses concern for a terrorist who perpetrated a senseless, cold-blooded killing? Do I tell her tell that we are not supposed to care about him and that it is permissible to spew hate for those who have carried out hateful actions? Do I allow her to cheer the death of those who caused death?

Here is one thing I tell my daughter about terrorists and tragedy: There is good in the world. There is also evil in the world. And God cares deeply about our response to both. 

We’ll never be able to love like God loves, but when tragedy is in front of us we have an opportunity to practice that kind of love if we will choose it. I keep going back to the prayer Jesus uttered before he died:  Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. It is beyond comprehension that he prayed this with his back shredded and nails in his hands and feet. I easily spout off these radically difficult verses and treat them as if they are platitudes. They are not. These are the very actions that show the world what God looks like. Love. Grace. Forgiveness. And they are hard to live out, which is why most of us don’t do it. Does my daughter’s response of tenderness toward the perpetrator reflect the character of God? I can only answer with this:

“But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:44-45. That’s what Jesus said, among many other mind-blowing things, when he was sitting on the side of a mountain talking to a crowd of people. So I’m going with that, even if most of the time I find it very difficult to do. When I talk to my daughter about terrorists and the tragedy in the world, I can find no better words to use than those of Jesus. Because I’m pretty sure he was talking to us as well.

The Simple Made Complicated

I’ve just finished reading the Journal of Christian Legal Thought, Spring 2012 issue. At this point, you are about to click off this post and go back to your Facebook newsfeed to see photos of cute kids and watch cat videos. Please don’t, just yet.

I fear the beginning of a divide between the good people of this world who care deeply about children in crisis, specifically orphans. To be clear, I’m defining orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents through death, or has been relinquished by a parent. I’m adamant about not getting technical when it comes to the definition of orphan because a child who is without a family feels like an orphan. Perception, folks, is reality. The Journal highlights dissenting opinions between those who defend the Christian adoption and orphan care movement, and those who believe that the theological analysis undergirding the evangelical adoption and orphan care movement is erroneous and dangerous for children and families. Put simply: it’s an argument between those who feel mandated by Scripture to care for orphans, and those who feel uncomfortable with that approach.

I come at this issue with a bias – on both sides of the dissent. My husband is Vice President of an international adoption agency – a Christian international adoption agency. Also, we have adopted internationally and, so far, our daughter is happy and thriving. Also, I think Scripture should move us to action, and I have no problem taking James 1:27 as a mandate. Oh, and because of the church I attend, I wear the label of evangelical Christian.

But I’m biased on the other side of the dissent as well. I’m a cynic when it comes to evangelical “movements” in general. I believe that Scripture can, and is, often tossed around to justify and perpetuate our own political and social agendas. Interestingly, Jesus was silent on the issues that evangelicals are most vehement about, and spoke passionately about things we stay silent about. Evangelicals sometimes embarrass and anger me. So I don’t typically jump on the bandwagon of everything that evangelicals deem to be crucial social issues.  Also, I have a bit of bias since I am adopted. It’s one of those circa mid-1960s closed adoptions, which means I have two birth certificates – one that I have seen, and one that is sealed in a court of law that I have never laid eyes on. It’s “as if” my birth mother never existed. There is little about this arrangement I find appealing, but as the adoptee I don’t have the legal right to open the sealed court records. No one does. So when those who are critical of adoption (especially closed, “as if” adoptions) speak out, I find myself shuffling over to their side.

So for me, this is complicated. But it’s also complicated for a guy named David Smolin, who is a Professor of Constitutional Law and Director of the Center for Biotechnology, Law and Ethics at Samford University’s College of Law. He writes exhaustively on this issue and comes down on the side of those who are uncomfortable with the evangelical adoption movement. And I sympathize with him. He and his wife adopted two older girls from India, only to discover after the adoptions were finalized that the girls had been trafficked. Their impoverished mother had placed them in the orphanage as a temporary solution, but the orphanage had illegally adopted them out. Trafficking is ultimately the bottom line concern of all who would seek to end or curtail international adoption. Those who have been damaged by international adoption (and many who haven’t) continue to squirm as evangelicals point to Scripture when advocating for adoption as one answer to the crisis. On the surface, James 1:27 is simple. What does God ask us to do that represents Him in the purest form? Care for the most vulnerable people – the ones others ignore or exploit. There you go. Now that’s something to sink your life into. Except…in our world today, it’s just not that simple.

Smolin brings up points that should not be glossed over in our efforts to offer up our purest form of God-honoring activities in the realm of intercountry adoption: There have been systematic abuses such as child trafficking, child laundering, and falsification of documents on the part of both some sending and receiving agencies. There are most certainly bad apples in the world of adoption agencies, and even the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption has not been successful in eradicating these abusive practices. They are few and far between, but they are the squeaky wheel that gets greased, sometimes in the form of our our State Department shutting down entire countries (Nepal, Guatemala, Vietnam). And yes, it is often hard to define when intercountry adoption is an appropriate intervention – what children are truly in need? Here’s an example of that particular complication: UNICEF and folks like Smolin will tell you that if there is any kinship options available for a child in the birth country, this is the second-best option if the birthparents have died or the child has been relinquished. So take the case of one little girl in Uganda named Mary. Her parents died of AIDS and so she went to live with her uncle in a nearby village. Someone could have come along and said, “We know of families in other countries who will adopt AIDS orphans.” But those who believe that culture and kinship trump everything would shake their heads and send Mary off to live with the uncle. Which is what happened. In the course of a three-year period, Mary was raped repeatedly by her uncle and several cousins. The tiny bit of property that was rightfully hers is really what the uncle wanted. He had no interest in raising Mary, and eventually he threw her out into the streets when enough time had passed that her property became his. Mary was 10 years old. He began raping her when she was seven. She has been physically damaged so much that she will never bear children, and she has nothing left that was rightfully hers after her birthparents died. Of course, no one could have known what was going to occur when Mary went to live with her uncle, but to brush the kinship option with such broad strokes misses some cultural realities. In not every culture is kinship a sure-fire second best option. Sometimes it is, but when it isn’t, it can ruin a child’s life.

Sweeping generalities about intercountry adoption – in either direction – cause us to forget that every situation is unique. Sometimes adoption is the best option for a child. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes child trafficking is obvious. Sometimes it isn’t. And sometimes God gives us clear direction on how to carry out James 1:27, and other times He doesn’t. I have felt conflicted about these issues many times over the past several years. We adopted our daughter almost eleven years ago, and then learned about the orphan crisis. Our adoption of Alison was not because we were moved by James 1:27. We just felt our family was incomplete and something kept leading us to China. Now, however, I’m deeply involved in the issue of the orphan crisis and I am passionately moved by James 1:27. But I’m often unsure what to do with that passion. I see both sides. I think intercountry adoption can be a beautiful solution, and it is most certainly a picture of how we have been adopted by God. But it isn’t the only, or even the best long-term solution to the orphan crisis in our world. Those who are passionate about caring for orphans should be equally intentional about finding a more encompassing way to do this. William Sloane Coffin Jr. said, “To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.” I think people on both sides of the international adoption discussion can agree on this one.

As an adoptive mother of a daughter from China and someone who is grieved by 147 million orphans (at least), I am concerned about the broken structures that continue to cause the orphan crisis. I want to find a way to help repair those broken structures. I believe that’s what Jesus came to do, and then He left His followers to walk the same path. Perhaps, in the end, this is the bigger picture of what it means to “care for orphans.” And maybe, this is where we find the purest form of our religion.

The Sanctity of Every Life

I have a friend who attends quite a few pro-life rallies. She believes deeply in the sanctity of life and so she holds placards on street corners, at the state capitol, and sometimes she travels to Washington D.C. so her voice can be heard on behalf of unborn children. There are many people who do this, and their passion and zeal is undeniable. They are willing to go to great lengths to get people’s attention about the horrors of abortion for both the fetus and the mother, and they don’t shy away from the graphic images that make an effective accompaniment to their arguments for the sanctity of life. I admire their commitment to advocate for those who do not have a voice and cannot speak for themselves. However, I have a tiny problem with my friend’s rallies and placards. Maybe the best way to describe it is to tell a couple of stories pulled straight from the pages of our hometown newspaper:

On March 25th, a toddler was found dead in a car that had been stopped for erratic driving in Tulsa. Zamontay Green, 19 months old, had been dead for hours and abused over a period of time, court records show. He had subdural hemorrhage, abdominal trauma, broken ribs, multiple bruises – including loop marks around his legs, which indicates he had been whipped with a type of rope. Jazmin Williams and Mica Shoate, both 22, have been charged with child-abuse murder, permitting child abuse, and child neglect. they were taking care of the boy while his mother was staying in Arkansas, records show.

Felicia Dawn Potter, 21, was charged with child neglect on March 19 on accusations that she exposed a 2-year-old girl in her care to unsafe and unsanitary living conditions. Court filings allege she exposed the child to “marijuana, human vomit, human feces, used tampons and/or rotting trash and food.”

These, my friends, are not good stories. But neither are they unusual, isolated incidents. If you want to read a smattering of other tales that will turn your stomach, you can find them here. Okay, I know this is not a post you’re probably wanting to finish at this point, but please do. Humor me, okay? Here is why I have a problem with the very loud and pervasive conversation about the sanctity of life: I think our passions often wane when the child exits the womb. Somehow, once we’ve successfully convinced a woman not to have an abortion, then it becomes her responsibility to make it work from there – even if she’s single, uneducated, unemployed, and without a healthy family or community structure in place to help give support. So, who suffers in this scenario? Children, of course. The ones that we advocate for while they are still in the womb.

Where are the passionate souls who will charge Capitol Hill on behalf of children – now born – who are victims of child abuse? Who holds up placards for children who languish in state custody? Where are those who will march around to decry the lack of foster homes for children who, through no fault of their own, have no home?

“That’s not my responsibility,” is the unspoken justification that most of us hold out. “It isn’t my problem that mothers use drugs or allow their boyfriends to abuse their children.” “If these people can’t take care of their children, they shouldn’t have them.”

Well, it’s too late. There are approximately 8,300 children who are in state custody in Oklahoma, and over 400,000 nationwide. Some of them await adoption, many are being bounced from one foster care home to another, and far too many are living in shelters waiting for adequate and safe foster homes to be found for them. In fiscal year 2011, our underpaid and overworked DHS employees took 9,344 calls alleging abuse or neglect of a child in Tulsa County alone and completed 3,096 investigations. 1,023 of those cases were confirmed abuse or neglect. Wait, let me restate: 1,023 children were confirmed to be abused or neglected. That’s in one county in this state. Multiply that across this great nation and you have a crisis of tragedy involving the most vulnerable among us.

If you’re still hanging with me, (and if you are, thanks so much) I’m going to explain the photo.When Child Protective Services (DHS workers) are called to a home to remove the child from an abusive or unsafe situation, they give them a black trash bag and let them pack a few things before they take them to a shelter to await a foster care placement. A trash bag. On Saturday, a group of people who are generally appalled by all of this gathered at our city’s child welfare shelter, The Laura Dester Shelter. We brought suitcases to donate because we understand the state DHS is underfunded and can’t supply them for the children. And then we walked around the shelter and carried our suitcases to represent that we want to speak out for these children who cannot speak for themselves. The event is called Walk a Mile In My Shoes.

So here is the challenge: Can we believe in the sanctity of every life? The born child. The single mother. The deadbeat dad. Are there only certain lives that are precious to God? Or is every life – whether we deem it worthy or not – a life that God wants to save? And if God believes that life is worthy of saving, then perhaps I should too. Next year when we attend Walk a Mile, I’m carrying a placard.