“But where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”: on faithful parents and the rights of a child

“Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’
‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied.
‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said,
‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’”

Genesis 22:7 (New International Version)

The patriarchs of the Testament, old and new, always did make better shepherds than they did parents. The child is but a lamb, and the parent but a child, obedient to God and faith and scripture.

Faith has a tremendous power, and the story of Abraham and Isaac, found in the first book of both the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible, sees that faith weave as serpent through the roles and relationships that run between child and parent, between parent and God, and the duties, expectations, and responsibilities from each to the other. Story though it is, it highlights the danger of the power of faith, and how a parent’s religious beliefs can lead them to do bad things to and for their children for what they deem to be good reasons.

To highlight further with a contemporary and striking, albeit anecdotal, point on faith and children: unlike being born Judaeo-Christian and wet with Original Sin, within Islam there exists the idea that a child is not in sin until the age of puberty, and to die before that age results in paradise unconditionally. Once that age is reached, however, paradise must be earned and sin applies, thus making that afterlife conditional and very difficult to achieve, with a lifetime of struggle through ceaseless opportunity for failure. The founder of the non-profit Atheist Republic, Armin Navabi, is an Iranian ex-Muslim and describes how he, as a near-fifteen-year-old, trusting that this concept was true and dealing with it simply logically, decided to kill himself, that being the eminently sane and sensible thing to do when one trusts one’s parents and one’s faith. Very fortunately, it did not work. When, as in Islam, belief in that concept of delayed sin is combined – as it invariably is – with belief in a real paradise which comprehensively dwarfs this life in importance, a pre-pubescent child may sensibly settle on suicide, whilst a faithful adult may hold with confidence that murdering a classroom of young children is nothing but the greatest good. Call it extreme and misguided, but it is merely actual and consistent belief in plain and simple scripture. It is not misinterpretation; it is pious.

The feelings and rights of parents should not go unchecked, and it is not enough to ensure their freedom of religion, or that freedom in general, in relation to the state. Of course, religion does not begin or end with the organised monotheisms of the Middle East. However, they have been and still yet are world-shaping, thus important for a discussion of the interplay between faith, a child’s rights, parent’s rights, and whether that freedom of religion, for the child’s sake, ought really be freedom from.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the EU Convention on Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil Rights all declare the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the accompanying freedom from interference and impairment. However, the rhetoric steers clear of children and permits much of parents.

There has been a trend, within the bills and conventions themselves and without, of always discussing and resolving issues affecting children via the parents, forgetting the fallibility of those parents and the potential clash of important interests between them and their children. States are prone to leave untouched the tendency toward a coercive relationship from parent to child. Whilst Christianity and Judaism, being older and much older respectively, have gone through considerable reform and change, this is still particularly relevant in the case of Islam, in which apostasy (leaving the faith) at any age garners severe ostracism and worse, and in which a child is simply not permitted to choose another faith, or none (of course, this is generally and widely true of the religion and its doctrine and practice, but certainly not true of every family, community, or interpretation).

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was created to address the issue of rights of, duties to, and special requirements and considerations toward children, in which the language of the child’s best interest is explicit and a balance is sought between the child as within the family and community, and as an individual person. Whilst the parents or legal guardians are listed as those with the primary responsibility in the upbringing of the child, the key factor is the recognition that the state, and not the parents or religious community, is the primary holder of duties to the child. This lay some groundwork for loosening the generally accepted grip that parents and their religions hold around their children.

There is often one hell of a cultural lag on more insidious and less glaring problems when freedom of religion, particularly for parents, other caregivers and responsibles, and teachers, is held high. For example, where an Abrahamic sacrifice would be very difficult to get past even the most apologetic relativist, physically beating children as punishment has been very difficult to stop within the modern American Christian world, and Islamic veiling receives disproportionate, bizarre defence. Whilst the supreme court, in 1944, ruled that freedom of religion does not allow for the exposure of the community or child to disease, ill health, or death, cases involving the belief that medical intervention is blasphemous intrusion and that beating is a loving stamp of parental authority combating Satan – the dangerous conviction that earthly child abuse is a temporary hell to avoid the real and lasting one – engender a shameful hesitation in the courts, the law, and the health services, thanks to heavy lobbying from religious groups.

This is often not an issue of a lack of love and concern: parents still become sufficiently concerned to seek outside help, but for prayers and rituals from clergy and community, and act ceaselessly and frantically to help their child. But it is absolutely unacceptable to allow for religious exemption when it comes to children, no matter how good a person or an intention. These religious cases are often not investigated, and some child deaths by this abject parental failure that are reported and investigated are attributed to natural causes. All of this should be recognised as the disgrace that it is, regarding the responsibility adults have toward children, no matter how intellectually understandable trepidations on interference might be.

The way in which faith and religion, as it is being discussed here, can exacerbate, hide, and prolong issues affecting children that are otherwise certainly not unique to it can also be seen in the case of the Catholic Church. The prolonged and well-known scandal over the sexual abuse of children in their care by priests is an example of many of the issues at stake.

When a religion asserts its own sovereignty, as does the Holy See (the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church) it clashes with the state-based implementation of human rights, and unearths the conceptual problem, in that, to some, there is no higher authority or truth than God. There is a flag of sovereignty placed, each, by state and God and parent around a child who is all too often only considered in the context of: to whom to do I primarily belong?

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child’s observations on the second periodical report into the Holy See regarding the sexual abuse of children under its care begins by lamenting the fact that there was a “considerable delay” that prevented the Committee from reviewing the implementation of the Convention by the Holy See for 14 years. Given that that is near an entire childhood. They chastised the Church for consistently prioritising the protection of its priests and its reputation over justice and the safety of children, and made clear their concern over insufficient measures and lack of acknowledgement of the extent and severity of these crimes. Strong words are not nothing, but this delay and this unreasonable caution must not be allowed simply for the sake of not offending, of not affecting reputation, merely for the sake of the Catholic Church.

When this kind of abuse occurs in religion, there is evidence to suggest that the lasting effects on the child are unique: the abuser in the eyes of the victim often became not only the priest, but God and the Church. A child’s relationship with the adults of the church and their own image of God affect their self-esteem and development, and the combination of trust, faith, power, and fear that is religious authority running through the mind of a child attempting to absorb these particular incidents of abuse can cause immense psychological harm. Far from being exempt, excused, and apologised for, child abuse within religion ought arguably be under an even more intense spotlight. The priestly abusers themselves have been shaped by a childhood beset by the dogma of celibacy, the sin of masturbation, and a faith-driven repression. The psychological child abuse cycle perpetuated by organised religion and protected by the freedom of religion and the rights of parents does not begin with these priests, and they may very well be victims of it. But they are the adults now, and it needs to be stopped.

Many an onlooker could sincerely recognise the cycle that placed the parents and other member of each religious community, as children, on this path; could empathise and understand, and show nuance in discussion. But they need not pretend that it was acceptable, need not find themselves frozen, silent, or, worse, speaking up in active defence and denial, just because that mental and physical abuse of vulnerable, impressionable children is packaged and labelled as sacred Islam, or the long-cherished practices of the Jews. Nuanced understanding on a complex issue does not require the dropping of every value that one nevertheless maintains in every other situation.

When tasked with allocating priority between the deep and heartfelt cherished beliefs and feelings of religious adults on the one hand, and the present and future of a child on the other, is it not evil to even pause?

“Thought I saw an eagle, but it might have been a vulture, I never could decide. Then my father built an altar, he looked once behind his shoulder, he knew I would not hide.

You who build these altars now to sacrifice these children, you must not do it anymore. A scheme is not a vision, and you never have been tempted by a demon or a god.”

– The Story of Isaac (Cohen, 1969)

Faith does not engender only evil or evil by neglect, and there are non-religious ideologies and practices that combine with parental rights to interfere with the protection of children, and the fulfilment of their human rights. However, religion appears to hold a unique, powerful, and lasting place in societies and cultures, standing in the space between the proclaimed universal human rights and the children to whom they are supposed to apply, and is thus particularly adept at keeping old and harmful beliefs alive and practiced, and shielded from criticism and intervention.

Children are not Muslim, Jewish, or Christian; they are the children of Muslims, Jews, and Christians. And before anything else, they are human beings of particular vulnerability to whom human rights apply, including the protection from any harm from any source, and the liberty to think and develop with guidance and not coercion. Complex, uncomfortable, and offending conversation, reluctant interference, and restriction on the rights of parents and religious entities are small prices to pay to achieve this. The abuses must be highlighted and they must be stopped, and the power of parents and religions, regarding their children, must be carefully and fairly, yet urgently and stridently, checked.

A child does not belong to either its church or its parents. They belong to the child, and only for as long as it needs them.

“For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.”

Matthew 19:14 (New International Version)

When your faith in an authority, whether earthly or hidden safely somewhere unfalsifiable, grows stronger than your sense of responsibility to your children, or to whatever children you happen to be responsible for, permanently or temporarily, at any given time, then your faith is too dangerous for deference, and it should be looked upon with grave, immediate, and actioned concern. You are not the vulnerable in the situation; you are tasked with protecting the vulnerable, and a failure to protect in this case is particularly serious.

To close, at last, by taking the words of the final revelation, and to correct Muhammad by redirecting that which was said of Satan toward a far more deserving target: toward the revelation, and all its irreconcilable variations; toward faith, and toward the mouthpieces of the faith; and, finally, toward the source, the author, the revealer Himself. If the fear, the obedience, the blind faith, and the subsequent attitude toward children encouraged and engendered truly is part of the mandate divinely given us – as scripture ever reassures that it is – then it is God, and not Satan,

“Who whispers evil into the hearts of mankind.”

– Qur’an, Surah Nas, Chapter 114


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