In discussions of emotive issues the first casualty is often perspective. There are few more emotive issues than the death of children at the hands of their parents or carers. If headlines in the media were to be regarded as proxies for truth then we might think that children were being abused and murdered at an ever increasing rate. Thankfully this is not the case. Child deaths in general have decreased dramatically in developed societies in line with social and economic developments. One effect of the decrease in child mortality rates has, however, been to draw attention to the circumstances leading to deaths in particular groups of children. Since the 1970s, much of the effort within developed nations has been concerned with research and intervention to decrease mortality in certain sub-populations eg campaigns to lower child death rates in car accidents by the introduction of seat belt laws. There has also been progress in understanding the antecedents of abuse and neglect leading to non accidental deaths with the result that the child protection system has had some success in this difficult area. In England and Wales, between 1974 and 2006, the annual number of such deaths fell by 38%.
How then do we explain the depth of public anger and blame when such deaths are reported? One explanation is that the horrendous accounts of protracted suffering of children simply serve to eradicate any sense of perspective that things may in some ways be improving. Any death like this is a death too many, especially if perceived professional incompetence has played a part in failing to prevent a terrible outcome. Professionals in the field have been left in no doubt that if they are working with a family in which a child dies then their actions will be subject to the closest scrutiny, with media campaigning fuelling public anger for politicians to do something about this sometimes resulting in the end of a professional career.
As we grapple with these issues it is important to consider how our thinking has been influenced by the Enlightenment. With science promising control over elements of the physical universe we have sought to better understand ourselves with the result that modern social policies are largely built on calculation of risk. As a consequence we have become obsessed with reduction of risk factors in relation to health and well-being in order to live longer and happier lives. Whilst science has delivered much in this regard, it cannot offer absolute prediction at the individual level; there will always be some people who murder children. There are limits to the Enlightenment project. And, in a world which has come to expect a good life, anything less opens us up to the horror that has dwelt within us since the time of Adam; we wanted to go our own way, control this world using our own resources and we have nobody to blame but ourselves. And so we reach the limits of prevention through rational calculation and intervention and realise that our long good life merely delays the onset of ever more complex amalgams of illnesses before our eventual death.
This is the second loss of perspective. We have rejected the possibility that actions may be influenced by more than a confluence of particular social factors and psychological responses and imposed a temporal time-frame. We have rejected the idea that sin indwells us all and have sought to condemn God to non existence. An appreciation of God’s perspective enables us to understand the limits of our control over our own lives and sets temporal events within an eternal dimension. The understanding that within the Kingdom of God justice will be done and tears will be wiped away forever is the only possible redress to our damaged perspectives.
Trevor Spratt lectures in social work at Queen’s University Belfast.
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