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Dr. Paul Offit loves children.
As a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases and immunology, he’s long been at the center of the debates swirling around the efficacy of vaccines. When he thinks that parents or politicians have made choices that put kids at risk, he doesn’t hesitate to speak up.
That includes writing an entire book about his conviction that religiously motivated people can be genuinely dangerous.
Offit was an attending physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1991 when a measles epidemic swept through the city. As Rebecca McLaughlin points out in her book Confronting Christianity, hundreds of children became sick. Nine died. Offit was distressed to learn that two Philadelphia churches with adjoining schools had refused vaccination and medical care for the scores of children served by their ministries. Thus they became Ground Zero for the epidemic.
Offit, a religious skeptic, responded with Bad Faith: How Religious Belief Undermines Modern Medicine. His intent was to provide evidence, as he put it, that religion is “illogical and potentially harmful.” His research led him to explore the history of pediatric medicine and to read the Bible for the first time.
That’s when something unexpected happened. Paul Offit found himself brought to tears by Christianity’s central character.
He writes, “Independent of whether you believe in God…you have to be impressed with the man described as Jesus of Nazareth. At the time of Jesus’ life, around 4 B.C. to 30 A.D., child abuse, as noted by one historian, was ‘the crying vice of the Roman Empire.’
“Infanticide was common. Abandonment was common. Hippocrates, who lived about 400 years before Jesus, often wrote about how physicians should ethically interact with patients. But Hippocrates never mentioned children. That’s because children were property, no different than slaves. But Jesus stood up for children, cared about them, when those around him typically didn’t.”
Offit ultimately decided to change one of the words in the subtitle of his book.
“How religious belief undermines modern medicine” became “when” – acknowledging that while religiously-motivated people can indeed sometimes put kids at risk, Christianity has accomplished, in his estimation, “the single greatest breakthrough against child abuse in history.”
That’s because Jesus treated children as if each of them had enduring value.
Very few people in the ancient world shared that conviction.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” reads the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal…” The greatest minds in antiquity, however, could not imagine that equality was a self-evident truth.
Plato believed that slaves were not fully human, but should be classified as “human tools.” Plutarch declared that prior to reaching the age of eight days, a child was “more like a plant than a human being.” Aristotle taught that some people are, by nature, “marked out for subjection, others for rule.” Little girls were particularly vulnerable because, well, they weren’t little boys. Aristotle theorized that “females are imperfect males, accidentally produced by the father’s inadequacy or by the malign influence of a moist south wind.”
This would seem to dampen the fun of cutting into a pink cake at a gender reveal party.
For most of human history, there have been no kids’ clubs, no kids’ TV channels, no kids’ back-to-school fashions, and, for that matter, no kids’ schools. Children have typically been treated as little adults, and as such have frequently been exploited because of their frailty. As recently as 150 years ago, it was not uncommon even in developed nations for little children to work in factories or mines for 12 hours a day.
Throughout the Roman Empire, the very survival of children at stake. Families were legally empowered to abandon their kids.
What changed global thinking? What led to the widely embraced assumption that all human beings, even children, have inherent dignity?
Human rights were not the invention of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, nor dreamed up out of thin air by 20th century sociologists.
The idea that all people have inherent dignity springs from the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, where we read, in Genesis chapter one, that human beings bear the stamp of God’s own image. People may differ with regard to height, eye color, beauty, musical talents, and the ability to run the 100-meter dash, but, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “There are no gradations in the image of God.”
Jesus said a lot of things that still seem flat-out amazing.
One of them has to be how he answered the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
“He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’” (Matthew 18:2-5)
Jesus’ ancient world followers, prompted by texts like that as well as his command to care for “the least of these,” rescued abandoned children, gave them names, provided them security, and raised them as their own. We know of no other group, in any culture, that has ever pursued such a mission.
That’s what brought Dr. Paul Offit to tears.
And that’s what might lead us to hug a child a today – to put our arms around one of the smallest but most beautiful expressions of the image of God.
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