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After the abduction

Nick Spencer

In the 12 months since Madeleine McCann went missing, our attitudes to children have undergone intense cross-examination. In a risk-averse blame culture, NICK SPENCER asks how faith and reason can restore our confidence.

Question: What is the best way to improve road safety? Answer: Fix to the steering wheel of every vehicle in the country a giant metal spike pointing directly at the driver's heart.You think I jest? I'm afraid not. Tongue-in-cheek as the suggestion may be, the reasoning behind it is sound and well-articulated (indeed, first argued) by John Adams, Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College London.

The logic is based on the counter-intuitive fact that seat belts don't save lives - at least not overall. The Department for Transport recently claimed that in the 25 years since Britons were first instructed to 'belt up', seat belts have prevented 60,000 fatalities - but the figure is, alas, something of a half-truth. Seat belts make drivers feel safer. Drivers, in turn, compensate, albeit unconsciously, for their increased sense of security and take more risks on the road. The burden of risk, and with it the burden of road injuries and death, is shifted 'from those already best protected in cars, to the most vulnerable, pedestrians and cyclists, outside cars.'

Seat belts make drivers feel safer. Drivers, in turn, compensate, albeit unconsciously, for their increased sense of security and take more risks on the road. The burden of risk, and with it the burden of road injuries and death, is shifted 'from those already best protected in cars, to the most vulnerable, pedestrians and cyclists, outside cars.' Seat belts save some lives but only at the cost of others.

This concept of 'risk compensation', in which we change our behaviour according to the level of risk we perceive, was poorly understood 25 years ago. Today we know rather more about it, and it makes for counter-intuitive conclusions. Hence the giant, metal spike: if I am made aware, at all times and in all places, that any irresponsible behaviour on my part will result in a dagger through the heart, I am liable to drive much, much more carefully.
The disappearance of Madeleine McCann from a hotel apartment in Portugal almost exactly a year ago is the equivalent of a giant, metal spike pointing directly at the heart of every parent in the country.

'Maddy' has assumed an almost iconic global media presence since 3rd May 2007. The story was so incredible that, in time, some people stopped giving it credit. A pretty, three-year old, blond girl was taken from her bed in a ground-floor apartment in Praia da Luz in Portugal. How could such a thing happen? Was nowhere safe anymore? Millions felt, however faintly, the nauseating anxiety that Madeleine's parents were experiencing. It was an anxiety to which I, as the father of a pretty, three-year-old, blond Madeleine look-alike, was not immune.

First came the speculation: who had taken her, and where, and why? Then came the sightings; then the scepticism; and then the commentaries. A year on, they haven't ended. This was the human interest story of the year, provoking a million café conversations. Where was she? Who took here? Why were we so interested? Did they do it?

All the while, every sighting, every headline, every speculation sharpened the spike pointing at parents' hearts. What if it were your child? Would you have left her in an apartment? Would you have left her out of your sight? And, more to the point, would you now?

Writing as a parent of young children who like nothing better than to wonder off into busy crowds (at least when they are not hurling themselves off chairs, tables, climbing frames, etc.) I know the answer to that last question. We are in 'risk compensation' territory. The disappearance of Madeleine McCann appears to tell us that the world is more dangerous than we had previously thought, haunted by more daring demons than we had imagined. Public space is inherently threatening. Even private space, whether a holiday apartment or your own home, is unsafe. Strangers cannot be trusted. Child abductors are everywhere. The risk is greater than we thought. We need to compensate.

If one were to follow John Adams' logic above, all this could be seen as a good thing. Just as the spike pointed at the driver's heart will encourage hyper-responsible driving and ultimately save lives, so might the Madeleine 'spike' promote hyper-responsible parenting and have the same effect.

But even if it did so - and the jury will forever be out in this case - we need to ask: 'At what cost?' Leaving aside the question of whether you can take too much care of your children, the 'spike' comes with high, if hidden, price tag. For the parent, there is the paranoid fear of 'stranger danger', an insidious sense that perils lurk round every corner, the anxiety of needing to watch over your children whatever they do, wherever they do it.
For others, there is pervasive insecurity, a feeling of being watched, of being unable to smile at, let alone talk to or comfort a child who is not your own. For all of us there is the sense that the public space is at best unwelcoming, at worst actively hostile. All told, the spike may - may - save lives, but in doing so it will further dissolve, in its universal acid of mistrust, the ties the might otherwise bind us to those we live alongside.

All this affords Christians a marvellous opportunity to be glib. I've no idea how many references there are in scripture to not feeling afraid or worrying unduly, but there are surely many. 'Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?' (Matthew 6:27) 'Don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.' (Luke 12.7) 'For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.' (Romans 8:15) 'Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.' (1 John 4:18) 'And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.' (Philippians 4:7)

I do not, of course, mean such exhortations and observations are themselves glib. Rather the way they are (sometimes) used by Christians can be depressingly facile. This is the 'Let go and let God' mentality, as if 'letting go' is easy or 'letting God' (whatever that means) will ensure nothing bad will happen to you.

I have heard thoughtful Christians utter such sentiments as 'You've just got to trust that God won't let that happen to you' - as if they were unaware that he apparently 'let' it happen to Kate and Jerry McCann, and lets it happen to dozens of children round the world each day. Is it any wonder Dawkins and his friends have so many good lines, when believers draft for them ones like these?

What, then, are Christians to do? How should they interpret and respond to such verses? How should they live without fear in an age of paranoid parenting, when they sense the spike of child abduction pointing directly at their heart?

Some have suggested that faith in the resurrection, that one day we will be reunited with lost ones, albeit in a much-transformed way, gives us the grounds for this peace. Thus Anne Atkins has written, 'With no Christian faith, how do you live beyond the death of a child? For a secular society, there is no worse horror we can imagine.'

There is undoubtedly much truth in that. The conviction that this is not all there is has inspired Christians to do the best (and, alas, the worst) things imaginable over the last 2,000 years. It has also been a source of immense comfort to countless individuals over countless years. The belief that this is not the end should, in some way, help those facing the crippling loss of a friend, spouse or child.

But if we imagine that faith in the resurrection will help alleviate our anxiety as we take the kids to the park, I suspect we are kidding ourselves. I am not going to alter my behaviour because, if the worst happens, my resurrection faith will comfort me. We behave the way we do because of our perception of the risks involved, not because of our attitude to what will happen if the worst happens.

A better source of peace, at least in these instances, might be found in other, less obvious verses. Colossians 1:16-17, for example: 'For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… all things were created by him and for him… in him all things hold together.'

This and other verses (such as John 1:3 or Hebrews 1.2) from very different New Testament writers reveal the very early Christian belief that creation was not only ordered but comprehensible in Christ through whom, in the words of Alister McGrath, 'we have access to the same divine rationality which is embedded within the created order.'
This may seem a world away from modern parenting until you understand the context into which it emerged. In his magnum opus, A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor describes how, prior to the Reformation, self-identity was 'porous' and the world enchanted. 'The line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn'. As a result, the human mind was 'vulnerable, to spirits, demons, cosmic forces… fear.'

The shift from this 'porous self' to what Taylor calls a 'buffered self', which is largely immune to these fears, was a complex one but was driven, at least in part, by a (re)discovery of the doctrine of creation. Things did not have their own spiritual power. The world was not enchanted by spirits and demons, whose unpredictable and capricious agency made the risk they posed to humans literally incalculable. Instead, the world was strangely and wonderfully comprehensible. It still posed a threat to human well-being in all sorts of ways. But those threats could, in theory, be estimated and addressed. The world was risky, but predictably so.

The present fear for our children's safety, sometimes bordering on hysteria, is in danger of dragging us back to the age of the 'porous self'. Now, however, the paedophiles and perverts we imagine lurking around every school and playground have become the 'spirits, demons, cosmic forces' of yesteryear. They flit around our peripheral vision, menace our privacy, invade our mind, steal our children, spoil our crops. They cannot be controlled. They are simply out there.

Rooting ourselves in the conviction that creation is rational, that that rationality is accessible and comprehensible to the human mind, and that it even once took on human form, is the best protection we have against such undue fear. Such a mentality will help us banish the child-snatching demons of our imagination and hear, instead, the statistics that don't sell newspapers:

  • Child death is rarer today than at any time in history.
  • Fewer children die on British roads today than they did 80 years ago.
  • Child abduction is very, very rare.

In other words, the risks are not as great as headlines imply and fertile imaginations think.

These facts should not be causes for self-congratulation. The reason, for example, why road deaths are fewer today is that roads are simply too dangerous for children to play near them: hardly something to crow about.

Nevertheless, confidence that the world is not haunted by a host of capricious demons, whether human or spiritual, that creation is ordered rationally, and that we are created so as to be able to understand that ordering should give us some confidence.

We should navigate our way through the risks and uncertainty of modern parenting not by noise of feverish front page but by the light of the logos, the word of God, whose peace guards not only our hearts but also our minds.


1 Visit his excellent web-site for more details
2 Alister McGrath, A Scientific Theology, Volume 1: Nature, T & T Clark, 2001, p. 191
3 Reviewed in Third Way in March 2008
4 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard/ Belknapp, 2007, p. 32