Thursday, March 18, 2010

"Children of Fate"—from Chile to the United States of America

One of my ministry tasks that I especially enjoy is that of writing book reviews for the journal, Missiology. Every few months the editor sends me a list of new books, and I mark off the two or three I’d be interested in reviewing. Within a few weeks, a book arrives in the mail. This not only enables me to read interesting, significant research in areas that stretch me, it’s a good way to get free books.

Yesterday I finished writing a review of Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850-1930 (2009, Duke University Press) by Nara B. Milanich, associate professor of history at Barnard University. It proved to be a fascinating and well documented investigation on how civil law in Chile handled the problem of poor, marginalized, illegitimate children during an 80 year period of modern history.

The book begins by documenting how the Chilean Civil Code of 1855 transformed both law and culture in the ways society cared for—or did not care for—abandoned and illegitimate children. This was the post-independence period of history in Latin America, when liberal politics replaced colonialism. This liberalism was based partly on the egalitarian ideals of the French Revolution, with an emphasis on the rights of the individual and the value of personal privacy. But instead of insuring the equal rights of all, this very civil code actually denigrated the rights of the most vulnerable members of society, the illegitimate children of the poor.

The difference between legitimate and illegitimate children has always been marked in Latin America. But in colonial times, an illegitimate son or daughter had recourse to the law; proof of paternity gave access to resources for the children involved. But the new Civil Code declared investigations of paternity to be illegal on the grounds that these violated the right to privacy, basically the honor, of the men under investigation. Interestingly, the rights of the unclaimed children were not considered.

This in turn created and maintained a sub-class of “kinless” people who, without a birth certificate, had no legal rights, could not even legally get married, were barred from certain professions, were denied resources available to documented citizens, and the list goes on. At one point, illegitimate births were 40% of total births, so this situation affected a large portion of the population.

The rest of the book is dedicated to what the author calls “child-circulation,” exploring what happened to poor children brought under the care of people outside of their birth family from the upper, middle or even lower classes. This section details how informal kinship arrangements did what the civil law would not do—care for the children; it also shows the shadow side of children “given” to higher class families as servants.

At various points in the book, the author notes that even though this is a Chilean case study, the same situations prevailed throughout Latin America. While movements for reform of the Civil Code began in the early part of the 20th century, it wasn’t until 1998 that the New Filiation Law eliminated the legal distinction between illegitimate and legitimate children and fully enabled paternity investigation in Chile.

This is fascinating to me as a carefully documented study of the state’s complicity in a gross injustice, and it makes me think of other examples closer home. It causes me to ask how the church, God’s missionary people, should respond in situations when the laws of the land seem to run contrary to the values of the Kingdom of God.

(The book does not mention any response from the evangelical church in Chile; and in all fairness, this was not the topic. But I can’t help but wonder, as the early 20th century was also a time of spiritual Pentecostal awakening, resulting in conversions and church growth, especially among the lower social classes. How did this affect the plight of marginalized children?)

I think of Quakers and the underground railroad, defying the law in reaching out to runaway slaves. And I think of the contemporary plight of undocumented immigrants in our own country, caused in part by laws and procedures that clash with Kingdom values of justice and mercy. This situation has much in common with that of the undocumented children in Chile’s past. Again How are we, as the church, to respond?

This coming Sunday, March 21, Christians in favor of immigration law reform are organizing a march in Washington, DC . I wish I could participate. Perhaps the rest of us could devote part of that day to prayer for our nation’s leaders, for the many immigrants in our nation (originally founded as a nation of immigrants), and for ourselves, that we find healthy and effective ways to respond.

May Christ have mercy on us all.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for taking the time to share this. I have invited the students in my Urban Ministry course to read it as well. We will discuss it on Tuesday. I'm so grateful for your ministry through thoughtful and thought-provoking writing. You are using God gift which in turn becomes a gift to others. Mary