It is a season for children. We think about what they represent for the world: hope, and responsibility of our generation to theirs. We think about them personally, the children we know and love, by name, each of them precious, each of them people we wish we could protect from life's harshness. Our preparations for Christmas - for all the winter holidays -- are really about the magic of childhood, treasuring that unique perspective of the child, the natural wonder that is the heart of reverence. The innocence of a child are no myth, they are a reality, and a fragile one. Children (along with our elders) are our most vulnerable citizens. It hurts all of us to think that there could be a child who will not get to experience the magic of the season, even as we know there are many who will not. The holidays are a time when we also revisit our own childhoods and think affectionately of those who wrapped us in a secure feeling of warmth and love and being treasured, of being good children who were deserving of gifts and treats and special memories. We think sadly of the hurts of childhood, of the neglect, the pain, the confusion, the guilt we may have experienced when our homes were not places of safety and warmth, and we did not understand that it was not our fault. Some of us -- and in fact probably most of us - have reason to both grieve aspects of our childhoods and also to remember them with appreciation.
It is a time of year to especially think of children and our obligation to them. And so we cannot turn away from stories such as the one that broke a few weeks ago out of Penn State University, where it was revealed that assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused children who participated in the school's community outreach program for years without being stopped, even though there is clear evidence that many people knew what was going on. It had been reported multiple times. We can't turn away because this is not an uncommon crime, and because we owe it to all children to be awake, and in the words of our child dedication service,"aware of the world as it is and of the power of one dedicated individual to change it." One such person is Joe Ehrmann, a coach and former NFL star, now an ordained minister and the founder, with his wife Paula, of Coach for America. Coach for America's mission"is to inform, inspire and initiate individual, community, and societal change through sports and coaching." I heard of Ehrmann through the Rev. Deborah Spratley, the Associate Pastor at the UCC Norwell Church. She told me that Joe is coming to speak in March here in Norwell and she loaned me his book InSide Out Coaching, where I found this powerful passage. Erhrmann writes,
"Childhood is a unique time of life to be honored with certain inalienable rights critical to children's development. All children are entitled to far more than they are receiving. All children merit a positive identity based on their inherent value -- not based on their skin color, creed, performance, or ZIP code. They merit being cared for simply because they exist and not because they perform. They are entitled to a safe environment and protection from violence - whether that violence is in the home, in school, on the streets, or on the athletic field. Children who play sports, like all children, are also entitled to be free from adult sexual demands, exploitation, and exposure. Sadly, the contract is repeatedly broken and few provisions and protections are provided. We need to write a contract mandating that young players' security, well-being, self-esteem, and joy be primary and absolute in our coaching and programming." (108)
I would call that a prophetic voice. What Joe Ehrmann is calling for is a covenantal approach to sports programs, a sacred promise that those participating in sports -- players, coaches, parents, teachers and institutions (and their leaders) -- will put human relationships and human person's well-being first, and winning secondary. And that includes all the money and the endorsements and all the alumni gifts that come with winning. How different things would have been at Penn State if this ethic had prevailed. It is an ethic that needs to prevail in our schools, our religious organizations, our arts organizations, our neighborhoods, all our institutions."Children merit being cared for simply because they exist, not because they perform."
Outside of the gates of ancient Jerusalem there was a place known as the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, recorded in the Hebrew Bible as"Gehenna." If you grew up hearing the Bible read regularly, you will know this word,"Gehenna," and the horror it connotes. Jesus used the word eleven times in the synoptic gospels that record his teachings (e.g.,"It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.") The word"Gehenna" wound up being translated later as"hell" or"everlasting fire." It was an actual location, not just a metaphysical idea, as Hell has come to mean to us. Gehenna was a place where children were sacrificed by the Canaanites to their god Moloch. Fires burned in the valley day and night, where was thrown anything that anyone wanted to get rid of. Terrifying place. Everlasting fire.
No one sacrifices children to Moloch anymore. Today we sacrifice children to Mammon, the Sumerian god of wealth and prosperity whom Jesus warned was an ungodly power that would divert us from ethical commitments and the moral life."Man cannot serve both God and Mammon," he famously said. In the minutes since we began this worship service, ninety children were sold into sexual slavery. Two children every minute. 1.2 million children are being trafficked right now as sexual slaves: into prostitution, pornography, or sex tourism. They are sold by siblings paying off gambling debts. They are lured into brothels by promises of a job. They are kept in crowded thatched huts like chickens and killed if they try to escape. This is not just happening in developing nations, but in ours as well: 100,000 children in the United States are forced into prostitution or pornography every year.
Why? They have been sacrificed to Mammon. It is estimated that trafficking generates around $32 billion annually. This is a system within which everyone profits but the children. Law enforcement is paid to look the other way, and all the systems are set up to protect the perpetrators, most of whom are wealthy and powerful enough to have the means to protect their own privacy while exploiting the bodies of children as young as five and six years old.
This is a terrifying, sordid reality but we cannot pretend it isn't happening. We can't let these children go on being sacrificed outside our city gates and within them and walk by the immolating fires. We owe all children our vigilance, and our action.
There are three things that we must all commit to so that no child is left to the hands of a perpetrator while we stand by wondering what we saw, wondering if we should say something, wondering if we dare confront the powers-that-be in order to protect a child. The first is to be conscious and honest. Child sexual abusers don't look a certain way or fit convenient stereotypes. The most trusted, respected and wholesome person we have ever met could be a pedophile. That doesn't mean that we need to be paranoid, it means that we need to trust our eyes and ears. If something seems creepy to you about the relationship between an adult and a minor, put the child's safety first. Before friendship, before allegiance to institutions. Ask questions, pay attention. Denial is a powerful force in all our psyches: we don't want to see people we know and admire as abusers, not on any level. Even when the evidence is right in front of us, as it was at Penn State, we have amazing powers of avoidance and justification. Our religious principles, and especially our first Unitarian Universalist principle to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people, requires that we hold ourselves, and others, accountable for any act that degrades the body or spirit of another, that threatens their emotional safety and well-being. And this isn't just about men and children. I used to teach high school with a wonderful, friendly woman who clearly was having inappropriate relationships with her male students. Everyone winked and snickered about it when she sat in her car with them or standing too close to them in the hallway walking the halls in tight skirts and 4" heels, but it wasn't a joke. It wasn't okay. Children and teenagers should be free to learn from their teachers -- and to have healthy crushes on their teachers -- unrequited crushes -- without being sexually exploited. Unfortunately, we should never believe that old excuse,"He/she could never do something like that." Confidence in human goodness is a wonderful trait. Willful naivetee leaves too many children and young people to be victims.
Second, if you or someone you know is an abuser of children or a consumer of child pornography or sexual slavery and tourism, this church teaches that you are never beyond God's grace. But it also teaches that we are responsible for our own morality and that we are accountable to others in community. For all of those reasons, the church is available to support you if you need spiritual and practical support disengaging yourself from this form of systemic oppression, as it also available to provide healing ministries to those who have been victims of it. There is a powerful industry that hopes to keep consumers of child sexual exploitation happy customers. It requires more than good intentions to break free of that. While we are sitting here uncomfortably considering this, several more children were sold into sexual slavery and God knows how many more abused. One person at a time, one community at a time, we confront this. If we can save one child from being molested, it is worth our discomfort.
Finally, in the sanctity of this meetinghouse, it falls to each of us individually and all of us as a community to examine whether or not we are worshiping the right things. What is sacred to us? This is what Penn State needs to ask of itself: do they worship their football program to the extent that its coaches became high priests, beyond authority, beyond the law? Minor deities? Is college football the"true religion of America," as Toronto reporter Margaret Wente suggested? Perhaps that is a dramatic overstatement, but we cannot deny that we humans do have the tendency to worship false idols, and to make terrible sacrifices to those idols.
To worship rightly means to set our hearts on worthy things, and this religious tradition, of which we are heirs, claims that the inviolability of each individual's personal dignity is at the top of those worthy things. Each person, from the moment they are born, deserves to have their personhood respected and their body protected, nurtured, and free from harm. Each one's freedom must be allowed to flourish. Within each human being there is a sacred spark and a divine potential; each is a unique creation precious to God and to the human community. In this season, when we seek again the spirit of a child, and to weave a magic and sparkling enchantment of abundance and joy and happy memory for them, I hope we will also commit ourselves to weaving a stronger fabric of world community, of safety and accountability so that none of them need fall through the loosely knit threads of our interdependent web.
Blessed be this community where we can abide together in the hard truths as well as in the hope and the brighter vision to which our faith calls us. Amen.