….be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, Our God, and Redeemer. Amen.
Please be seated.
Next weekend on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, tens of thousands of congregations of all faiths will be lifting up the needs of children in worship and service and advocacy. And I’m very honored to kick this weekend off today in this wonderful National Cathedral.
Albert Camus, speaking at a Dominican monastery in 1948 said, “Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured, but we can reduce the number of tortured children.” He described our responsibility as human beings if not to reduce evil, at least not to add to it, and to refuse to concept to conditions which torture innocents. “I continue,” he said, “to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Protestant theologian who died opposing Hitler’s Holocaust, believed that the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.
The United States is badly flunking Bonhoeffer’s test.
The state of millions of children in the richest most powerful democratic nation on earth is morally shameful, economically costly, and politically hypocritical. An American child is reported abused or neglected every thirty-eight seconds. An American child is born into poverty every forty-six seconds. One in five children are poor. During the first three years of life, the child’s great brain development. An American child is born without health insurance every minute, and 90% of our 9 million uninsured children live in working families, although we lead the world in health technology. An American child is killed by gunfire every three hours, eight every day. Nearly 90,000 children have been killed by guns since 1979 when we began to collect child gun statistics. That’s more than we’ve lost in all the battle causalities in Vietnam. Where is our Anti-Child-Killing Protest?
It is safer to be an on-duty law enforcement officer in our nation than to be a child under ten. Millions of our children begin school not ready to learn, and millions more lack safe affordable, quality childcare and early childhood education when their parents work.
In the 20th century, America won 168 Nobel Prizes in science. We cracked the genetic code. We are able to mine tens of billions of dollars from a tiny microchip. We can order anything we want instantly in our global shopping arcade.
I don’t believe for a moment that we can’t figure out how to teach every one of children how to read by third grade? Why don’t we make that commitment as a people? The majority of our 4th and 3rd graders can’t read nor do math at a proficient level. Yet our priorities in all of our states spend three times more on average for prisonment than for public school pupil. What kind of priorities, economic priorities and social priorities, are those?
Why do we have millions of children hungry again in our nation, at risk of hunger? Living in worst case housing or homeless? Particularly when an overwhelming majority of them are in working households.
These facts are not the acts of God. They are the moral, economic, and political choices as Americans, ……. We can change them. We have the money. We have the power. We have the know-how. We have the experience. We have the vision. And we have the moral, social and economic responsibility. It cost a lot more to maintain children in foster care than in Head Start. And to imprison rather than educate them. It’s so much cheaper to immunize them, than treat children in hospital emergency rooms for preventable disease.
Together, what we must do at the beginning of this 21st century and 3rd millennium, is to build a civic and spiritual engagement of enough citizens, political leaders, women, parent, and the media, to speak up for children. And to speak up for new choices in America. To pierce the profound lack of awareness about and indifference to preventable and solvable child suffering. It must do away with the poisonness politics of self-interest and greed. Challenge narrow ideological agendas, which believe the government should help the rich and the powerful most, and the poor and powerless least. And we must challenge the political hypocrisy of leaders at all levels of government and in all parties who leave millions of children behind while pretending to do otherwise.
Before and since September 11th, while thousands of bone-weary and discouraged children, parents and grandparents and working people have been waiting in food pantry, homeless shelter and unemployment lines and on long childcare lists across America, lobbyists for powerful corporations and rich special interest who shower campaign contributions on political leaders, have been lined up inside Congress and the White House and State Houses, demanding and getting hundreds and billions of dollars in new individual tax and corporate breaks. Our invisible but real children, each a sacred gift of God, a member of our American and human family and future, face daily, life and death terrors and perils we can prevent and alleviate by making more just choices in our rich and powerful nation.
Each of these statistics I’ve given is not just a statistic. It’s a real child. Let me share two of them with you that I’ve talked about for seventeen years, and a lot this year as we are attempting to get the Congress—and we’re not going to succeed, but we will keep at it—to invest $20 billion to move from one-in-seven to two-in-seven, the number of children who are eligible for childcare assistance at the Federal level, but who are not able to get it, although their parents are required to work.
Seventeen years ago, three-year-old Anthony and four-year-old Maurice died in Dade County, Miami, Florida. Their mother worked to support their family, but her income was too low to pay for childcare. Since she qualified for government help she was put on Florida’s long-waiting list for childcare assistance with 22,000 other names. While waiting for state childcare assistance she relied, as so many working parents do today, on informal arrangements with relatives and neighbors if they are lucky, and some days those arrangements fell through. On one such day she couldn’t find childcare, and she had to decide whether she was going to stay home and lose her job, or leave the boys alone. And she decided to lock them up in the house. And her three and four-year-old climbed into a clothes dryer to look at a magazine in a seemly cozy place, closed the door, and tumbled and burned to death.
The Miami Herald wrote, “There are hundreds, maybe thousands, more tragedies waiting to happen in Dade County, and every home where young children are left to fend for themselves alone, locked inside by the day, by parents who can’t afford daycare, can’t afford not to work, and can’t get assistance. Anthony and Maurice might be alive today if affordable care had been available.
Today there are over 46,000 children on Florida’s waiting list for childcare assistance, 36,000 in Texas, 18,000 in Massachusetts, and in California over 280,000! These two little boys died from poverty, and from the refusal of our nation to invest adequately in a safe, affordable, quality, childcare system for working parents, to help children get ready for school and to not have parents have a hopsian (?) choice of choosing between the safety of their children and their ability to put food on the table.
I think September 11th and our faith beacon us to think differently about the kind of nation and world we want to build for our children and grandchildren. We need to change direction. We need to recover a sense of urgency about saving our babies. We need to redefine the measure of American success. And to make sure that the principles of justice, rather than power or money and militarism, guide our feet and national priorities.
But it will not happen unless you and I live the gospel of Jesus Christ we profess, and unless we join together in building a powerful movement committed to truly leaving no child behind, that bubbles up from every nook and cranny in American life, to transform the political and economic priorities in a nation that has turned a deaf ear to the cries of children and stacked the decks in favor of the rich and powerful, in favor of war rather than of peace.
It’s time for new choices.
Now I want to be clear that I don’t begrudge anyone their first, fifth or tenth million or billion—if they are earned on a fair playing field and after children’s crucial survival needs are met. But something is out of kilter when just three of our wealthiest Americans possess greater wealth than 7 million American families combined, and the revenues of 19 state governments with 25 million citizens. They and others in the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans did not need the huge tax cuts that the Administration and Congress gave them in 2001. And they do not need these tax cuts excelerated or made permanent, as the Bush administration’s budget and some in Congress propose, while there are still hungry, homeless, uninsured and poorly educated children and struggling working families who can’t keep a roof over their heads and enough food on the table.
I hear very often in the Congress and in State Capitols and around the country, those who say we do not have the money to keep our children safe and parents working and provide early childhood programs to get them ready for school, or health care when they are sick.
And I say, “Nonsense. We do not have a money problem in America. We have a values problem in America. And I hope the people of God will begin to say so.”
A clergywoman friend told me about taking her car to the Jiffy Lube on a weekend to get it serviced. While she was waiting she looked for something to read. Her choices were “Field and Stream”, “Popular Mechanics,” and a small white manual for boat owners. She chose the manual. And she flicked through and ran to a chapter called, “The Rules of the Open Seas,” which described two kinds of vessels, burdened boats and privileged boats. Burden boats are like rowboats or sailboats. They have no power, and are at the mercy of the tide, wind, and human effort. Privileged boats have motors and have the power to go where they want when they want. And the Rule of the Open Sea says when a privileged and a burdened boat meet in open sea; the rule is that the privileged boat must give way, so that the burdened boat can make it to safe harbor. My friend said she quickly turned to the front of the book to discover the author of this great theological treatise. Could it be Karl Barth? Or Martin Luther King? Or Abraham Joshua Heschel? She said, no, it was the Department of Transportation of New Jersey.
This Rule of the Department of Transportation of New Jersey and of the Open Seas must, in my view, become the national commitment and public policy and practice for every child in the richest and most powerful nation on earth.
I think it’s time for people of faith to say, “Let’s put child welfare ahead of corporate welfare.” I think it’s time for people of faith to say, “Let’s close the hypocrisy gap between political word and budget deed for children.” And rather than freezing the number of children in Head Start, and freezing childcare funding, let’s freeze the huge annual tax handout that will give the wealthiest 1% a total of $477 billion if it is fully phased in over the next several years, .by 2010.
That money would pay for all the health care, education, Head Start, housing needs that our children have. We have choices in our nation and people of faith must speak up for just choices. I think it’s time for people of faith to say we should place mother and child and family defense systems on earth ahead of missile defense systems for wars in the stars. We’ve already spent one hundred billion dollars testing technology for missile defense Star War system and are proposing almost another eight billion this year.
Even if we could figure out the technology for hitting a missile, is that the highest priority in a world when UNICEF reports 38,000 children die everyday from preventable sickness and disease, and when thousands of our children here in America are dying from preventable violence and sickness in their homes?
National and Homeland Security is far more than military security. I hope before, even before, we have tested and appropriated tens of new billions for Homeland Security, and even before we have proceeded to declare war in Iraq, which estimates vary from one-hundred-billion to two-hundred billion dollars, that we will think about what is most important, and the tradeoffs engaged in these decisions.
President Eisenhower reminded us that every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies theft from those who hunger and who are not fed, who are cold and are not clothed. This world, he said, …..And arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.
I hope people of faith will find their voice. I hope we will remember that justice for children is our goal, not just charity. It is an important gift charity, but it can be taken away at any time. Children have a human right to food and health care. They have a right to their basic survival needs. We can end child poverty in America.
I hope we will find our voice, our true patriotic voice, by asking hard questions and helping leaders honor our nation’s highest ideal.
Like Albert Camus, I should like to be able to love my country and love justice. I don’t want just any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep justice alive, and I want to keep it alive by speaking as a true citizen.
And finally, as we worship a Savior, who came into the world as a poor child, I hope that in these challenging times that we will recommit ourselves to protecting and respecting all of God’s children.
So let me end with a prayer to the God of all children.
O God of the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan, of India, Israel, Iraq and Iran, of Jerusalem and Jericho, of Krakow and Cairo, Chicago and Croatia, help us to love and respect and protect them all. O God of black and brown and white and albino children and those all mixed together, of children who are rich and poor and in between, of children who speak English and Spanish and Russian and Arabic and Mong, and languages our ears cannot discern, help us to commit to loving and respecting and protecting them all. O God of a child prodigy and of a child prostitute, of a child of rapture and a child of rape, of run and throw-away children who struggle everyday without parent or place or friend or future, help us to love and respect and protect them all. O God of children who can walk and talk and hear and see and sing and dance and jump and play, and of children who wish they could but can’t, of children who are loved and unloved, wanted and unwanted, help us to love and respect and protect them all. O God of beggar, beaten, abused, neglected, AIDS, drugs, violence and hunger ravished children, of children who are emotionally and physically and mentally fragile, and children who rebel and ridicule, torment and taunt, help us to love and respect and protect them all. O God of children, destiny, and of despair, of war and peace, of diseased and disfigured and dying children, of children without hope