A defining characteristic of pagan societies is the sacrificing the well-being of children on the altar of adult happiness and self-fulfillment. Our own pagan society is no different. In a single-minded pursuit of sexual pleasure, career, or lifestyle, we tell ourselves that “the kinds will be fine,” even though they’re clearly not.
Throughout history, across cultures and time periods, Christians bringing the Gospel to pagan cultures found themselves defending and protecting abandoned and abused children as well.
For example, 19th century India was not a welcoming place for girls. Considered inferior to men, women were not allowed to be educated or to work for a living. Child marriage was a fairly common practice. Though the practice of sati (burning widows on their husband’s funeral pyres) had been abolished, the fate of widows in that culture was harsh. Considered to be cursed, they would often be subjected to terrible abuse at the hands of their husband’s family.
Pandita Ramabai’s family was different. Pandita’s father, a member of the priestly caste known as Brahmins, encouraged her to learn how to read the Hindu scriptures. Not only did she learn, her skills and mastery of the text earned her acclaim. Her study also fed her growing doubts about the truth of Hinduism.
After she was married, Pandita found a copy of the Gospel of Luke in her husband’s library. Drawn to Christianity, she invited a missionary to their home to explain the Gospel to her and her husband. Not long after, her husband passed away.
And not long after his death, a child-widow came to her door looking for charity. Pandita took her in as if she were her own daughter. Moved by the young widow’s situation, Pandita started an organization called Arya Mahila Samaj to educate girls and to advocate for the abolition of child-marriage.
It was when she traveled to England that Pandita Ramabai formally converted to Christianity. Returning to India, she set up a school for girls and widows in what’s now called Mumbai. At first, to avoid offending Hindus, she agreed not to promote Christianity and followed the rules of the Brahmin caste. Even these concessions weren’t enough. Within a year the school was under attack, and her local financial support dried up. So, she moved the school to Pune, about 90 miles away. In 1897, after a famine and plague struck the area around Pune, Pandita Ramabai established a second school 30 miles away from there.
Among the subjects taught to the girls in her school was literature (for moral teaching), physiology (to teach them about their bodies), and industrial arts such as printing, carpentry, tailoring, masonry, wood-cutting, weaving, needlework, farming, and gardening.
At first, Pandita had only two assistants. So, she developed a system to help take care of and educate the girls. First, they would teach the older girls, who would then take care of and help teach the younger ones. In this way, they managed to care for the growing number of girls who made their way to the school and take care of. By 1900, 2000 girls were living there.
In 1919, three years before her death, the British king awarded Pandita Ramabai the Kaiser-i-Hind award, the highest honor that an Indian could receive during the colonial period.
Pandita’s example is one of many that we must take seriously today. To live in a pagan society is to encounter victims of bad ideas. Often, especially in our culture, these victims are children.
Whenever a Christian or a church decides that to speak up on controversial cultural issues is to “get too political,” they leave these victims without protection and are out of step with Christian history. Whenever a Christian or a church claims that they avoid these issues because “it distracts from the Gospel,” they are embracing an anemic, truncated Gospel. Christians today can join those who’ve gone before us, proclaiming the Gospel and caring for children. One way to do this is by signing the Promise to America’s Children, pledging to protect the minds, bodies, and the most important relationships of children in our society. And learn all the ways children are being victimized and how the Church can help, by reading Them Before Us: Why We Need a Global Children’s Rights Movement, a vital new book by Katy Faust. Them Before Us is the featured resource from the Colson Center this month.