Youth Justice


One of the most-watched videos on YouTube a few years ago showed the struggle of a water buffalo family and herd to save a child. It’s called the Battle at Kruger Park. It begins with a buffalo mother, father, and child meandering peacefully ahead of the herd unaware that a pride of six lions is stealthily easing up to attack them. Sensing the danger too late, the water buffalo parents and calf immediately turn and run away. The child cannot keep up. The six swift lions lunge and overpower this slowest and most vulnerable family member, tumbling with him into a river. As the lions attempt to pull the buffalo calf from the water, a crocodile grabs one of the child’s legs, eager to share the bounty. The tug of war between the lions and crocodiles over the young buffalo prey seems to last a painful eternity. As the lions win and drag the buffalo child onto land and surround him, ready for the kill, you realize, joyfully, that the child is still alive, but are horrified that he now is going to be devoured.

In the middle of this life-and-death drama, you suddenly hear and then see movement as a large herd of water buffalo—a rescue posse—comes storming in to surround the lions, who do not immediately relinquish the child despite being greatly outnumbered. After a moment of herd uncertainty, one angry buffalo—who I just know was the mother—furiously attacks a lion with her horns and hurls him away. Others in the herd follow her lead and confront another lion, but still are unable to extricate the child. Another attempt succeeds as the child struggles to its feet, and the herd swiftly surrounds and whisks him away. A buffalo remains to chase a remaining lion away. Incredulous that the child was saved, I asked myself: Where is our human posse—our community and citizen posse—as powerful human lions and crocodiles eat our children alive across America today? And what lesson should this thrilling rescue of a water buffalo child provide us about our responsibility to protect and save our endangered children?

Protect the most vulnerable first. Powerful animal—and political—predators go after the weakest and the most vulnerable first and so we see far too many politicians calling for cuts in safety net programs for children at a time when one in five of them is poor and they are getting poorer. They propose to take away food when children and their families are hungry and homeless and cut early childhood and education investments when millions lack the reading and computing skills they need to survive in our economy. The ultimate test of American democracy, historian Taylor Branch says, “is whether we can protect our voteless, most vulnerable group—children—without whom there is no future.” So I hope you will join the human posse to rescue our vulnerable children from political predators.

I believe deeply that our unjust neglect of and failure to invest fully in all of our children is the economic and spiritual Achilles’ heel that will topple America’s leadership in the world in the twenty-first century. I want to yell, “It’s the children, stupid!” It’s the children—all children—who are the key to a safer, more economically viable and just nation and world order. And for those of us who seek to heed the prophets and Jesus Christ and who believe children are also the key to God’s kingdom, why are we so silent in the face of so much child suffering and need?

Parents alone cannot protect children: it takes a community and aroused citizens. There are many lurking dangers that threaten children over which parents have too little control like the massive joblessness and foreclosures and misguided tax cuts for the wealthy that have ravished our economy.

I am encouraged though, by two powerful leaders who get it—that it’s the children. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says: “No economy can succeed without a high-quality workforce, particularly in an age of globalization and technical change. Cost-effective K-12 and post-secondary schooling are crucial to building a better workforce, but are only part of the story. Research increasingly has shown the benefits of early childhood education and efforts to promote the lifelong acquisition of skills for both individuals and the economy as a whole. The payoffs of early childhood programs can be especially high.” And Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman in a letter to the National Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Reform wrote: “…it is a natural reaction to cut spending when faced with a budget deficit. Make no mistake, reducing spending in some areas is necessary and warranted. However, when one has dug themselves into a hole, the solution is not to stop digging as much as to start digging the hand and toe holds that facilitate climbing out. Investing in early childhood education is that hand and toe hold.”

When Dr. King left us in 1968, calling for a Poor People’s Campaign, there were 11 million poor children. Today there are 15.5 million poor children and who knows what the new poverty data will show on September 13th. I’ve no doubt he’d be calling for a poor people’s campaign today. I suggest that a loud organized voting citizen posse call on our President and Congressional leaders to begin with a poor children’s campaign and commit to protecting rather than cutting children’s food, shelter, health, early childhood development, and education they need for a positive future. Dr. King is not coming back. We’re it. Let’s get going to rescue children from the political lions poised to attack them in the weeks and months ahead.

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