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Punishing Children for their Fathers’ Sins

In John 9, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth, and his disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” The implication of the question is shocking to a lot of modern readers, but it was a common assumption in parts of the ancient world that children could be blamed for the sins of their parents. This meant not simply that children sometimes suffered inadvertently because of their parents’ misbehavior, but that God might actually harm a child for the sake of punishing the parents. Even the Old Testament has passages that seem at face value to point in that direction, such as 2 Samuel 12:15-23.

Nevertheless, Jesus responds clearly, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God may be manifested in him.” Jesus then heals the man, and he becomes a follower of the Lord and a means by which the hypocrisy of the spiritually blind Pharisees becomes known.

In modern America, we have decided that punishing children for the perceived crimes of their parents is both acceptable and practical.

In an abhorrent 1923 article for The New York Times, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger said that the spread of birth control to impoverished and racially diverse parts of the country would bring about

the release and cultivation of the better racial elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extirpation of defective stocks — those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.

In other words, it would keep poor people — and particularly poor people with dark skin — from having children who would become a burden on society. Almost a century later, a third of aborted children in the United States are African American. Half of the women having abortions in the United States are poor and another quarter are low-income. Sanger’s dream of eliminating poverty and “defective” people by eliminating their children is surprisingly resilient.

The 2005 book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Steven J. Dubner argued that the drop in crime experienced across the country in the mid-1990s was at least partially attributable to the legalization of abortion in the 1970s. Since poor people are more likely to have abortions and more likely to be incarcerated for violent crime, legal abortion meant that many would-be criminals had been eliminated before they could ever start. The theory was controversial, but it got a lot of buzz. While Levitt and Dubner claimed to be reporting facts impartially, their assertions bore a striking resemblance to the vision of Sanger. Abortion was being presented as the answer to society’s woes, while children were made to be the scapegoats for all of our worst fears.

In recent weeks, we have seen a similar scapegoating play out in reactions to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. In May, White House Chief of Staff Joe Kelly told NPR that a policy of separating children from their families “could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent” that would make people think twice before attempting an illegal border crossing. The administration has since gone back and forth on whether that was the policy’s intention.

Christian leaders from across the spectrum roundly condemned the policy. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, “Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral.” Evangelical leader Franklin Graham, who has long been a Trump supporter, called the policy “disgraceful” and added, “It’s terrible to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit.” Presiding Bishop Michael Curry essentially agreed, saying, “This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue. It’s a humanitarian issue.” Rarely have I seen such unanimity in a Christian response to a moral crisis.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded to criticism of the policy from Christian leaders by saying “illegal entry into the United States is a crime” and citing St. Paul’s call in Romans 13 to obey the rightful government, but of course the ones being punished are those with no agency to make such distinctions, the children of immigrants (an estimated 2,000-plus remain separated from their families as of this writing). Even though the president eventually relented, signing an executive order to end the separations, the new order includes the possibility of indefinite detainments of families, potentially creating an even larger crisis, especially if judges are dismissed and due process is dispensed with as the president now suggests.

I have been genuinely horrified by the number of conversations I have found myself in or witnessed in the past couple of weeks in which the suggestion is made, sometimes subtly and sometimes blatantly, that the children are the problem. After all, they are the children of “illegals,” which makes them also “illegals,” carrying the sins of their fathers and mothers to the third and fourth generation. Their presence in our country will be disruptive because they are poor and therefore likely to commit crimes, despite all evidence to the contrary. This incredibly flawed line of reasoning bears a striking resemblance to that used by Margaret Sanger all those years ago.

Christians of good will may disagree about any number of important social issues, including the best approach to immigration policy. What we must agree, however, is that the fundamental identity of each child is the one given by God when he made that child in his image. As children of Adam, we have all inherited the wound that the Church has long referred to as original sin, but our kids are not responsible for our crimes, nor should they ever be punished as a way of getting even with us. “The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son” (Ezek. 18:20).

A society that sanctions either the killing or the incarceration of children because their parents are poor is a society in desperate need of a moral awakening. The Scriptures affirm repeatedly that children are a gift. All children, without exception, deserve to be treated as such.

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