Baby Jesus Ethics

Perhaps it was the story about the camel falling over during the Nativity Scene rehearsal, but I have begun to have ethical qualms about the use of real infants to play Baby Jesus in Christmas scenes and pageants. This morning, Fox News featured another one, with Mary and the gang holding a five-month-old child outside in sub-freezing temperatures. “He’s very warm, ” Mary said of the star of the show (I guess a Christmas pageant is one show where the “star” is literally a star; Baby Jesus is, what, the leading man? A key prop?). “Jesus” was wrapped up like a mummy, though his face looked cold. Was it really necessary to have a real child?

Using non-consenting children as props for plays and movies violates classic ethical  principles, especially in the Kantian formula which decrees that using human beings as a means to an end is absolutely wrong. In the vast range of such things, wrapping up a sleeping child and making him hang out for an hour with actors, some sheep, cows, and a (non-tipping) camel seems mild compared to all those crying newborn scenes in pregnancy movies. What if the baby doesn’t want to cry? I bet they have ways of making them cry. What do you think they did…pinch him hard? Show him a picture of Barney?

I believe that it is inarguable that using babies in such exhibitions fails all basic ethics tests. It isn’t necessary, and the babies suffer stress, perhaps minimal, but stress nonetheless, as they are used like a spear, a handbag, a starter pistol or one of the sheep…an uncomprehending, non-consenting prop or special effect for the enjoyment of others.  I’d ask “What would Jesus do?”, but it’s hard to do much when you’re helpless and clueless.

The first step in getting informed consent is making sure a child is old enough to understand the question. Failing that, step two (making sure he knows exactly what he’s agreeing to) and step three (being certain that he has the capacity to for independent judgement, and that no duress or undue influence is involved) won’t come into play at all.

They make some very realistic baby dolls these days.

Let’s use them.

12 thoughts on “Baby Jesus Ethics

  1. Umm… I think the use of a real child is subjective to the conditions and I don’t buy the “stress test” argument. Who said all stress is bad? You start with a little stress and when you are able to manage it, you can handle more stress. Obviously if enough people think conditions are bad and that they haven’t been accounted for or mitigated by the parents, real legal charges may be filed. But I don’t think an hour in a parka is going to raise that alarm, nor should it. There are many activities parents do with their young children such as stroll through the Denver Botanic Gardens Christmas lights at night which takes more than an hour. That’s fun and the child may or may not enjoy it. At 5 months, I think the child probably only cares whether he/she is with his/her parents and nothing else. (Beyond being fed, clean, and rested.)

    • I think the stress of being manhandled by strangers playing your mother or her doctors is significant, though. The question is: are you making the kid uncomfortable for profit or your own goals? I would not be sorry, all things considered, to see a “No kids under 2years old” rule.

      • Actually, what you just said is a bit inaccurate, even though it seems counter-intuitive. Very young children tend to be very social and comfortable with strangers. It’s only when they get a little older (10 mos) that they become shy and uncomfortable.

        Additionally, isn’t it usually the baby’s actual mother that gets to play Mary? So Baby and Mom are still united. Being “manhandled” comes with the territory when you’re a baby.

        • I was speaking of the birth scenes in the previous comment. I’m dubious about claims of what non-speaking organisms are “thinking” and ” feeling.” For decades, scientists claimed that lower species didn’t feel pain.

  2. Jack,
    Doesn’t that then invalidate your whole point? Since we don’t know what the baby is thinking, feeling, etc, there’s no way of making an ethical call one way or another. Moreover, if you’re of “the faithful” there is a point as its a way of demonstrating your beliefs to others and sharing in the “Christmas spirit.”

    In other words, “come ooooooonnnnnn” ….


  3. Jack, if your view is correct, a whole host of forced baby activities are unethical — photo sessions, baby birthday parties (which are really an excuse for parents to get together), letting your friend hold the baby for awhile and many other activities in which parents show off their babies.

    • Don’t forget dressing Junior up like an adorable Broccoli or reindeer.

      Obviously there are lines to be drawn—socialization can be painful, but needs to start early. The key word is “prop.”

  4. Well Jack,
    I’m apparently in the minority, with you, regarding your perspective. I agree with your view. As a father of 4 (3 teenagers), still persevering, I would never allow my children to be be treated like chattle for the entertainment of a school play, or a pre-school re-enactment of the birth of Christ in freezing tempatures. Having coached multiple youth sports over the past 10 years, I can say with certainty, based on experience,that parents sometimes lose perspective of the ” big picture “.
    Ethical responsibility in my view – Be a responsible parent and do your best to keep your child out of harms’ way, especially at that age level.
    By the way, your spelling has improved dramatically. (I think I spelled that word wrong)


  5. Oddly, Regular Joe did fine with “dramatically”, but had a little trouble with “chattel”. Oh, well.

    Not much to add to the discussion, except to observe that I think the “people-as-props” problem isn’t limited to babies. They’re just the easiest kind of people to make it work with.

    And, of course, our treatment of babies has changed over the years. Who hasn’t shed a tear at the heartbreaking words of Psalm 137, the lament of the Jewish exiles in Babylon?

    “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

    And who among the weepers reads on to the next verses?

    “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”

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