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The Little Children Suffer

Dunblane is a small town in Scotland, with a river tumbling through a wooded valley to the accompaniment of birdsong, and a beautiful medieval cathedral standing serenely amidst gravestones marking the many generations who have lived and died there. But some of Dunblane’s graves bear witness to a traumatic event that seared itself into the town’s history and changed British law.

Just after 9:30 a.m. on March 13, 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane Primary School with four legally owned handguns. In a shooting spree in the school gymnasium which lasted only a few minutes, Hamilton killed 15 children and a teacher before turning the gun on himself. Fifteen others sustained gunshot wounds, and a 16th child died on the way to hospital. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in British history, and it led to a radical change in this country’s gun laws. Two Firearms Acts, passed in the years following the shooting, led to the near-total banning of private ownership of handguns throughout Britain.

I am writing this the day after yet another massacre of school children in the United States, this time at Uvalde Elementary School in Texas. As always, social media is awash with grief, shock, prayers and outrage. In the aftermath of the shooting, Cardinal Blase Cupich tweeted, “As I reflect on this latest American massacre, I keep returning to the questions: Who are we as a nation if we do not act to protect our children? What do we love more: our instruments of death or our future?”

It is hard to imagine the grief and horror of those whose children were killed, injured or traumatised in what has become an all-too-predictable fact of life in the U.S. Much soul-searching will undoubtedly take place over the next few weeks and months. Whether or not it will finally bring about the kind of change that Dunblane brought about in this country remains to be seen, and I have nothing to add to this anguished debate.

Instead, I want to reflect on a question that is obliquely related to this, which is the ways that some forms of conservative Christianity influence how we understand violence in relation to childhood. In the U.S. context, there is something very strange about a society that claims to respect the absolute sanctity of the unformed embryo’s life while accepting that the repeated murder of schoolchildren is a price worth paying for the absolute right to bear arms. To quote Cardinal Cupich again, “The Second Amendment did not come down from Sinai. The right to bear arms will never be more important than human life. Our children have rights too. And our elected officials have a moral duty to protect them.” Yet apart from a few notable exceptions, the U.S. bishops are deafeningly silent on the need to outlaw guns, while being only too ready to engage in political grandstanding when it comes to outlawing abortion. The statement the USCCB issued in the immediate aftermath of the Uvalde shooting is blandly platitudinous.

Catholic teaching documents have much to say about the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, and in recent decades they have been admirable in their defence of human rights and dignity. There is however a lacuna in these teachings, for there is very little in Catholic social teaching about the rights of children once they are born, and virtually nothing about the plight of nearly 300,000 of the world’s poorest women and their unborn children who die every year through complications relating to pregnancy and childbirth.

But there is another aspect of Christian attitudes toward children that has preoccupied me recently. Grandparents will know what I mean when I refer to the gap between frequenting toy shops as a parent of young children and returning to that mode of shopping when grandchildren arrive on the scene. One of the largest high street toy store chains in the U.K. is called The Entertainer. I was horrified when I started going in there with my young grandchildren. Had I glossed my memory of what toy shops were like, or had they changed since my children were small? I think the latter. The Entertainer stocks toys that reinforce rigid gender stereotypes. The girls’ sections are glaringly pink, promoting activities such as playing with dolls, doing housework and beautifying oneself. But it’s the boys’ sections which shocked me most, for they are filled with the most ugly and violent monsters, robots and fighting machines.

I recently discovered that The Entertainer is run by an evangelical Christian owner who claims to uphold Christian values in the toys he stocks. For that reason, he will not stock anything featuring Harry Potter. Poor J.K. Rowling—banished by evangelical Christians for the ‘darkness’ of Harry Potter, and banished by transactivists for identifying with gender critical feminists!

As I reflect on why so many conservative Christians seem so pragmatic about violence— both war and militarism and the right to bear arms—I think of that warped idea that Harry Potter is dangerous but toys that encourage little boys to see themselves in terms of warriors and fighters are consistent with Christian values. If we teach little boys—against all the evidence of the Gospels—that machismo is virtuous, weapons are an expression of Christian masculinity and resorting to violence is an appropriate way of dealing with conflict, we should not be surprised that societies dominated by a certain kind of conservative Christianity have a problem with violence.

And the children suffer, and the children die.


Tina Beattie is professor emerita of Catholic Studies, University of Roehampton, London, and director of Catherine of Siena College. [email protected]

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