This spring, I taught Elie Wiesel's rending memoir Night. My students and I watched a video of him returning to Auschwitz, where as a teenager he had been held captive, starved, used as slave labor, and forced at gunpoint to run forty-two miles through a snowstorm on an injured foot, solely because of his race.
Fifty years later, he stood in Auschwitz again. In front of a glass case full of baby clothes, he explained to Oprah Winfrey how these infants had been slaughtered in the gas chambers, their clothes carefully collected in case they might later prove useful. He, himself, had witnessed babies tossed alive into burning ditches. An estimated 1.5 million children were killed in the Holocaust.
Oprah, struggling to put words to the enormity of it all, turned to Professor Wiesel. "I can't get my mind around it," she said. Wiesel responded, softly, "Oprah, the suffering of one child makes no sense. How could this?"
Last fall, a friend of mine from college went into labor very early and delivered three fragile triplets. Within a week, she and her husband held two of them as they died, their tiny babies unable to bear the strain of life apart from her.
The suffering of this family is something no one should ever have to endure. Yet they were just two of 4 million newborns worldwide who die within their first month of life each year.[i]
My little cousin Makenzie just turned four. Over the past year, she has endured chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant, a host of biopsies and procedures, and complications as the new blood cells that were her only hope of a healthy future began fighting against her body. She has lost her hair, lived with 'tubies' coming out of her chest, and has been isolated from everyone except immediate family. Recently, her family found out that her kidneys were not functioning properly. For several weeks, doctors were not sure of the cause or how to proceed. Her mother, Holly, wrote during this time
"We are grieving. And still in shock. Kenzie was supposed to be off all medications by Christmas. Now she has a condition that may not even be treatable with medications and can lead to dialysis and even death. This feels worse than last year. Why two rare conditions? Why can't there be a promising treatment? Why Makenzie at all? There will not be answers to any of these questions until Heaven. Friday night I went to bed with Kenzie at 7:30 pm but could not fall asleep until 10. I just held her, thinking about everything. I could not even utter words to Jesus other than His name. All I could say was His name over and over."
Makenzie found an umbilical cord blood match. The transplant worked. Specialists believe they have found the cause of her kidney condition and now have a treatment plan. Still, the suffering of this one child has irreversibly impacted both her and her family. In 2008, the year before she was diagnosed, 8.8 million children around the world died before their fifth birthdays[ii]. This means that 8.8 million families faced Holly's worst fears.
Twice, I have feared for my son's life. Both times, we sat in the emergency room in the middle of the night, his head sagging limply on my shoulder as nurses tried to entice him to drink, to eat a popsicle. Helpless, I felt his feverish body burning against me. I held him through his screaming as the nurses pierced his right arm, his left arm, finally his feet in the search for a vein that would accept the threadlike IV tube he needed for hydration.
Though his pneumonia was complicated by a high fever both times, we had access to the IV fluids that brought it down within hours. Worldwide, the most common causes of death for children under five are untreated pneumonia and dehydration[iii]. If we had been in different circumstances, either of those torturous nights in the emergency room could easily have been the last night I held him.
The suffering of one child is enough to shake the soul of anyone in his life. The suffering of the 1.2 million children who are trafficked each year for various purposes[iv], the 150 million child laborers ages 5-14[v], and the estimated 500 million to 1.5 billion children who have been affected by violence[vi] is nearly unimaginable.
When something bad happens to adults, we can usually find a reason to explain it (and often to lay blame). If he had taken better care of his health, he wouldn't have gotten sick... If she hadn't made bad choices, she'd have a job now...
But when devastating things happen to obviously innocent children, what is there to say? In the suffering of one child, the cost of sin becomes obvious.
Many religions and philosophies hold that humans, and the world, are engaged in a gradual process of improvement which will ultimately lead to Nirvana, the arrival of the Kingdom of God[vii] or at least "a better world for [us] and our children" (Council for Secular Humanism).
Elie Wiesel, too, states that he thought that, after the Holocaust, people would understand the damage human beings could cause to each other and work to avoid it in the future. But in a 2004 interview, Wiesel acknowledged that despite the vivid testimony provided by him and other Holocaust survivors, "the world is not learning anything."
Millennia ago, our ancestors brought forth on this planet a government, conceived in self-will, and dedicated to the proposition that the world works best when we do what we believe will make us happy. We are presently engaged in a great civil war, testing whether any planet so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.
Although the world may seem to be getting better in some ways (I can now communicate with you across the whole planet via this screen, for instance), in the ways that matter most, our own selfishness continues to corrode and destroy us.
Our only hope is Jesus: Jesus' grace, which "teaches us to say 'no' to ungodliness and worldly passions" (Titus 2:12), Jesus' Spirit, which fills our lives with "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23), and most of all, Jesus' return, when he will wipe away the tears of all the children who have suffered and ensure that "there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain" (Revelation 21:4).
If not for our own sakes, then for the sakes of the children who suffer daily all over our planet, let us claim Jesus' grace, cooperate with Jesus' Spirit, and do whatever we can to hasten his return.
[i] United Nations Children's Fund. The State of the World's Children Special Edition: Celebrating 20 Years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (http://www.childinfo.org/files/SOWC_SpecEd_CRC_EN_2010.pdf). New York, 2009, p. 19
[ii] ibid., p. 18
[iii] ibid., p. 17
[iv] ibid., p. 25
[v] ibid., p. 24
[vi] ibid., p. 24
[vii] Special thanks to David Hamstra, whose article on "Little 'a' adventism" helped me clarify my thoughts on this post.
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