The Ancient Mystery of Guiltless Suffering

Chicago, IL | March 21, 1957

When you devote your time to the mentally retarded, you are selecting the most difficult students to inspire. You are working where the work is hardest, and the compensations sometime least: But in doing this work you can be sure of the gratitude and thanks of parents, children, and of the public.

On January 7th, 1957, "Time" magazine published a moving and remarkable story. It was told by the Commander-in-Chief of our Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Charles Brown. The subject was a 9-year old boy, the son of John Peurifoy, formerly our Ambassador to Greece. The child's name was Clinton, and he was a spastic.

"He was a brilliant lad," recalled Admiral Brown, "... and deeply appealing." Queen Frederika grew fond of the boy while the Peurifoys were stationed in Greece, and often asked him for long visits to the Royal Palace in Athens.

During these visits young Clinton Peurifoy played freely with Queen Frederika's two children. One day, Prince Constantine said to his little American friend: My sister and I have been talking about you, and we have decided that you must be the favorite pupil of Jesus." What do you mean?" asked Clinton. Well," replied the Prince, "you know how it is. In school the best pupil is always given the hardest problems to solve. God gave you the hardest problem of all, so you must be his favorite pupil." With sudden tears in his eyes, the crippled child replied: "I don't believe you!" The Prince answered with all the finality of a child's argument: "I don't care what you think. My sister and I think you are."

That night the Queen sat on the edge of Clint's bed as she tucked him in. She said: "I heard what the Prince told you today, and I agree with him. I believe you are a favorite pupil of Jesus." For a moment, two troubled eyes stared back at her. Then Clint said: "I don't believe it! I won't believe it unless my Daddy says that he believes it!"

Later Queen Frederika told Jack Peurifoy the story. The Ambassador shook his head and said: "I can't tell him I believe that. I cannot believe that a good and just God would do that to my little boy." And the Ambassador burst into tears.

Two thousand years ago another story was written, not in "Time" magazine, but on the eternal pages of time itself. This story is only one paragraph in length. It is well-known. Probably everyone here remembers it. It will never die. Here it is: - "As Jesus was passing by," so the story begins in St. John's Gospel, "He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, 'Rabbi, who has sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?' Jesus answered, 'Neither has this man sinned, nor his parents, but the works of God were to be made manifest in him.'" (John 9:1-3) We have no record of the immediate, public reaction to Christ's words. But down the ages many have replied "No!" "No," they have said. "If God's truth demands the tortured cry of even one innocent child, then God's truth is not worth the price of admission." (Dostoevskys Ivan Karamazov)

Others have said that any guiltless suffering, for adults or children is wrong and should be ended. "Mercy killing" is the mellifluous phrase used by some; "improvement of the race" is the argument of those who believe in eugenics; efficiency, economy, productivity are the rallying cries of materialists like Hitler or Stalin, whose economic and cultural theories eliminate any need for the blind, crippled, aged, or mentally retarded.

But here in America, thank God, the overwhelming Majority has not been seduced by any of these pagan arguments. Instead, we have adopted in substance and in fact the standards, the thinking, and the ideals of Christ. These standards have been described by an eloquent and eminent American clergyman in these words:-

"... the Christian inspiration in dealing with 'exceptional children' ... is very different from that of any other civilization. It might be summed up in the proposition that the measure of the degree of a community's civilization, as Christians understand civilization, is what we may call the 'test of the least,'

"What provision does a civilization make for its least members? What advantages does it offer for those who are least able to take care of themselves? Jesus said, 'For as much as ye have done it to the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it to me.'

"Pagans believed that their gods were pleased by the progress of the best, by those who could be 'top dog' and be exceptionally independent. It was only when Jesus spoke about the least that a new concept dawned as to what constitutes the civilized community. As a result, with us the test of the worth of a community is not how well the most privileged people make out, but what provision is made for the least, for those who are exceptional in their need for our kindness." You teachers of the mentally retarded have realized, instinctively, intuitively, that Christ was right. You have dedicated your lives to the service of "the least in mental capacity, the least in physical endowment, the least in years, the least in all things people covet for their children." You are notable examples of citizens living in accord with one of the highest and most profound ideals of our civilization.

In this work it should be noted, too, you are serving the cause of education, not of public welfare. You are teachers first -- teachers in the same manner and tradition as the two greatest teachers of all time, Christ and Socrates. Neither of them taught in a university. Neither of them concentrated on research. Neither of them confined their conversation and activities to philosophers or to doctors of education, physics, literature or history. Socrates taught in the market place of Athens. He taught the ignorant, the untutored, the "least," if you will, of Athenian citizens. It is typical that he begins his famous questions with the words: "... Tell me, Stranger..." Christ wasted little time with the doctors of the law or with the pharisees. He taught the deaf, dumb, blind, and lame; he spoke mostly to the multitudes, not to the elite.

When you devote your time to the mentally retarded, you are selecting the most difficult students to inspire. You are working where the work is hardest, and the compensations sometime least: But in doing this work you can be sure of the gratitude and thanks of parents, children, and of the public. We recognize in you the truth of the statement by a famous educator that "Education is, after all, charity. Education cannot, by its nature, make a profit. Its existence depends upon what society is willing to contribute to it."

Chicago has established a glorious record of contributing generously to education, both private and public. But of all Chicagoans, you teachers here tonight take a front place in the ranks of those who are contributing to the "charity of education."

You are giving yourselves to your fellowmen, voluntarily, generously, daily. This is charity in its best, simplest, and noblest sense, -- different from the common usage of today when many have come to consider themselves "above charity."

No one is above charity. Only the supremely important parts of our community and civil life ever reach the point where they are worthy of charity. No one would ever think of classifying street cleaning or sewers, highway construction, or mass transportation as charities. But education can with accuracy be so described.

Let us thank God that education is a charity in this fundamental sense. Let us give thanks, too, that the overwhelming majority of our citizens encourage and support education; and let us give thanks that some, like you teachers, give their lives to make sure that even the least of our children shall enjoy to the maximum of their capacity the full fruits of educated living.

More than this, no teacher can do.