I’m a thirty-three year-old, one-year-married, Christian Seattle-ite and it seems like friends and family all around me are producing babies like rabbits. Last month my housemate even had a baby in room! I’m not joking. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be living in the global south! There are nearly 2.2 billion people under eighteen years old alive today.[1] That is one third of the world’s population. The more shocking reality is that over 88 percent of these children are in developing nations.[2] That is a lot of kids.

The South is also where Christianity is growing most quickly. “In 1960, non-Western Evangelicals were half as numerous as Western Evangelicals. But by 2000 they will be four times more numerous, and if such growth rates continue, in the year 2010 they will be seven times more numerous.”[3],[4] Another reality that makes these statistics worth heeding is that most Christians receive Christ when they are children. When Bryant Myers was Vice President for International Program Strategy at World Vision International, he stated that in the USA, nearly eighty-five percent of people who make a decision for Christ do so between the ages of four and fourteen. Subsequent research suggests similar figures in other nations.

The numbers state that a great percentage of the world’s population, and also the church’s population, are young people in developing nations. Many of these nations have over half their population under eighteen years old. Thus, as Christians look forward to spreading the good news of Christ, and begin to “aim lower,” increasing their focus on children, it seems it would also be wise to aim to the South.[5] As they do so, they will see connections between children, poverty and civil war.

Most people will find it shocking that sixteen of the world’s twenty poorest countries suffered a “major civil war” in the past fifteen years.[6] In most of these wars children have been recruited to fight. Believers must ask, “How does one bring the hope of Christ to children in the midst of extreme poverty, oppression, and violence—children whose AK-47 may have something to do with how they respond to the gospel?”

Quite honestly, this question feels a little overwhelming to start with. A few other questions should send us in the right direction and prepare us for a more meaningful dialogue about the question above in the future. So, for now, what is this violence going on in the South? What is the impact? Why on earth are children increasingly the targets of violence and coercion in these contexts? And what, if anything, do these realities mean for people of conscience?


Unfortunately, internal conflict is one of the most common attributes of Southern nations. “There were on average nine active wars in any year during the 1950s, eleven during the 1960s, fourteen during the 1970s, and at least fifty [in 1998].”[7] Between 1960 and 1987, no fewer than sixteen African countries were seriously affected by violence and political conflict.[8] There were fifty-nine major armed conflicts from 1990 to 2003.[9] Only four of these conflicts involved war between countries.[10]

In the late 1990s, many development organizations were noticing the impact of the trend. World Vision noted that a final report of an inter-NGO peace building effort highlighted “the need for NGO staff to acquire training and knowledge in conflict management (prevention and resolution)”.[11] World Vision’s National Director of Ghana, Bismark Terquae, stated in the report that, “More than ever before, NGOs are faced with the dilemma of having to deal with conflicts, either structural or otherwise, in their day to day attempts at improving the quality of life of the disadvantaged communities they support.”[12]

Some refugee statistics also show an increasing number of people in developing nations affected by violence. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that in 1960 there were 1.4 million refugees worldwide.[13] In 1992, there were 18.2 million refugees worldwide, and less than 17 percent were from richer countries.[14] At the start of 2005, the number of people ‘of concern’ to UNHCR rose to 19.2 million from 17 million the previous year, an increase of 13 percent. People of concern to the UNHCR include asylum seekers, refugees who have returned home but still need help in rebuilding their lives, stateless persons and internally displaced persons (IDP).

Many of the poorest nations have over half their population less than eighteen years old. In these nations people between fifteen and forty-nine years old are about three times more likely to be HIV positive than the average person in the world.[15] Thus, it is not unlikely for a child in the world today to be a severely impoverished, AIDS-affected refugee, fleeing from a civil war. It can be very dangerous to be poor, especially for children.

Read the last couple sentences again. Linger here for a few moments.
Let faces come to mind before moving on…. children.

The Impact of Internal Conflicts
It first gets worse. In the violent internal conflicts of developing nations, children often experience the greatest harm. There is a complex and brutal reality where states are pitted against indigenous nations and guerrilla insurgencies against state governments.

In these conflicts civilians are no longer ‘incidental’ casualties but the direct targets of violence. Mass terror becomes a deliberate strategy. Destruction of schools, houses, religious buildings, fields and crops as well as torture, rape, and internment, become commonplace. Modern warfare is concerned not only to destroy life, but also ways of life. It targets Social and cultural institutions and deliberately aims to undermine the means whereby people endure and recover from the suffering of war.[16]

Typically, children are most affected by the loss of these institutions and systems. For example, they have a uniquely urgent need for education and healthcare. People do not have the same mental capacity to learn later in life as they do in their youth. Plus, children are more susceptible to many diseases that can cause serious harm or death. The estimated rise in the under-five mortality rate rises about 13 percent during a ‘typical’ five-year war.[17]

Compounding Impact
The picture of life in a developing nation with internal conflict is often one of a complete breakdown of society and the structures that it takes to move a country forward. In 2005, I visited two refugee/IDP camps in northern Uganda. One held about thirty thousand people. Both camps had existed for nearly twenty years. Most of the people in the camp were children who had spent their entire lives there. This is the life they know: a life of virtually no education and constant fear of abduction by armed rebels who may come out of the bush at night. They experience illness from lack of healthcare and poor living conditions, and survive off a large World Food Program (WFP) truck that shows up each week delivering nutrients just sufficient enough to survive physically while deepening their sense of inability and dependence.

Violence often perpetuates a cycle of poverty that initially contributes to the outbreak of violence. This is particularly the case with tactics used in common Southern internal conflicts—tactics that target civilians and public systems and structures. Loss of these things decreases the opportunities available to build one’s business and thereby the productivity of one’s nation. Poverty is increased. Tension is increased. Many people then end up feeling that they have less to lose and more to gain by participating in the violent conflict.

The compounding negative impact of war among or within poorer countries is evident from many different angles. With limited access to education there is limited access to language learning. Two countries speaking the same language trade approximately 50 percent more than two otherwise similar countries. In 1965, two warring countries reduced their trade as much as 99 percent.[18] In 1990, 82 percent represented a more typical trade reduction.[19] It is more difficult to access statistics on the degree of internal trade reduction during an internal conflict. Nevertheless, it is clear that internal trade is hindered when the security and infrastructure necessary to carry out trade is damaged, therefore making travel or transportation of goods from one part of the country to another difficult and/or unsafe.

Why Children?
Children are not only those most harmed indirectly by violence. They are often the direct and strategic targets of violence. This is done for the sake of terror, recruitment, and sometimes genocide. The murder and mutilation of children greatly demoralizes a people,[20] and the recruitment or abduction of children for military engagement raises a new generation of children on a path toward destruction. Approximately 1.6 million children were killed in conflicts between 1990 and 2004.[21]

The killing of children can also be an attempt to wipe out a new generation of a resented people group. This was the case in Rwanda where an estimated 300,000 children were killed in 90 days in 1994,[22] and children of another ethnic group did much of the killing. Though there were other dynamics at play, it is shocking that many children were very effectively indoctrinated with racist ideologies sufficient to motivate mass murder of peers.

Many modern military forces have actively recruited, trained, and used children in military combat. Some examples of these armies are the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda, Burma’s army (SPDC), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA, União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola), Forcas Armadas Angolanas (FFA), Popular Defense Forces (PDF) in Sudan and The Sudan People’s Liberation army (SPLA), to name a few. There are others. The use of children in combat is not an isolated historic event on some far corner of the planet, but an all-too-common present reality full of story after story of gut-wrenching brutality. And there is presently a gaping hole in Christian theology where there should be a focused, deep and practical contemporary construct for responding to this common tragic reality.

Why do some armies target children for use in military service? A theology seeking to clarify ethical responses in contexts where child recruitment/abduction is a common reality is significantly impacted by the reasons for which children are recruited for military service in DNIAIC. Each of distinct reason for recruitment poses a distinct responsibility and opportunity for people with capacity to respond.

Lack of Defense
First of all, children are less able to defend themselves. As explained earlier, the use of child soldiers is most common in poor countries that struggle to provide basic public services such as police and other defense forces. Between June and December 2002 the LRA made 456 attacks in just two districts in northern Uganda.[23] The Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) intervened in only thirty-three of these instances.[24] When children are not sufficiently protected or defended, militants abduct children because they can. Human Right’s Watch reports that in Northern Uganda “Many camps each containing tens of thousands of people have not a single police officer to monitor, investigate, or prosecute crime…”[25] The beginning of the 2007 report of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict highlighted that IDP camps “have become choice targets of parties to conflict and prime areas for recruiting children.”[26]

Recruiters also seize opportunities when children are more vulnerable, for example when children are lost or alone.[27] This was the case for twelve-year-old Myo Chit in Myanmar. He recalls, “I was with my aunt and my cousin, and when the train stopped and we got off I got lost in the crowd and couldn’t find them.”[28] Two soldiers quickly noticed Myo and forcibly took him with them saying, “You must join the army. You are lost, so you must follow us and join the army. You have no ID card and no papers, so the only way is to join the army. If you try to escape or refuse to join, we’ll use these.”[29] They then showed Myo handcuffs. This is a lie that is told to children so often by authorities in Myanmar that much of the population believes it to be true.[30] How might children in such contexts be better defended?

Forming Worldview
Secondly, because children learn quickly and their worldview is still being formed, they are typically much more likely to be persuaded by the ideology of a given army than adults would be. Military forces work to raise up new generations of military combatants that are completely committed to the group’s ideology and will carry the movement forward into the future. Adults, on the other hand, have to let go of an old worldview in order to receive a new one. Children are just beginning a process of discovering how the world works, what they believe, what they will live for, and what is worth dying for. Thus, they are more susceptible to indoctrination.

Recent research by George Barna confirms that many child recruiters hold the beliefs outlined above. In his book, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions, Barna’s research emphasizes how critical it is to invest in children. He says that “What you believe at age 13 is pretty much what you’re going to die believing.”[31] Also, in 2003, Barna Group surveyed pastors, church staff and lay leaders in the United States. Four of five leaders said they participated in children’s church programs for a number of years before they turned thirteen.[32]

It seems that child soldier recruiters also did their research. In February of 2003, Human Rights Watch (HRW) received the following report from a representative of the World Vision rehabilitation centre in Uganda. “Now, children of nine or ten are being abducted. It used to be thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen. Now, children of fifteen and sixteen are being released. They’re more interested in the younger ones.”[33] HRW believes this may be because of two reasons, “younger children are easier to control and younger girls are less likely to be infected with the HIV virus.”[34]

How might children in DNIAIC be given authentic opportunities to know Christ and form more positive and accurate worldviews in ways that are not manipulative or coercive?

Fiercest Fighters
Some armies believe children to be extremely fierce and effective fighters. Human Rights Watch reports that in Sri Lanka, “An elite ‘Leopard Brigade’ (Siruthai puligal) was formed of children drawn from LTTE-run orphanages and was considered one of the LTTE’s fiercest fighting units.”[35] Brett and McCallin’s research in Sri Lanka notes that “children between the ages of twelve and fourteen were used to massacre women and children in remote rural villages.”[36] Their study also “cited reports indicating the use of children as young as ten as assassins.”[37] Sri Lankan born UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radikha Coomaraswamy, says, “The children have an underdeveloped death concept. So they tend to be very fearless in battle. They will go rushing like cannon fodder against the enemy.”[38]

Within the MODEL forces “[p]articularly feared were the young boy fighters, with orange tinted hair, who would harass civilians, steal, loot, and rape.”[39] Twelve-year-old Patrick F. fought in a Liberian government Small Boys Unit for one and a half years. In 2003, he reported to HRW, “I was not afraid. When I killed LURD soldiers, I would laugh at them, this is how I got my nickname, ‘Laughing and Killing’.”[40]

In Uganda, it is often stated that children are used to perform some of the most brutal atrocities. It is clear that typically, children are merely following orders to prevent being beaten or killed, and that the Ugandan LRA orders children to commit atrocities in order to psychologically bind them to a life of violence committed to the LRA. Children often feel that they can’t go back to their families and communities after doing such things.

How might young passions, energy, and creativity be given real opportunities to wage peace rather than war?

Physically Easier to Control
It seems that another reason children are used as soldiers, is that they are clearly physically smaller than adults and more easily manipulated. A child’s relative weakness may also be a reason why some armies are now looking for younger children. In most of the documented interviews with children who had been abducted, they use the language of being forced or ordered to commit violent acts, with a threat of abuse behind every order, whether it was spoken or assumed. Abducted children give many gruesome examples.

One child abducted by the LRA reported, “Two girls, aged fourteen, were captured. They were given to the group of child abductees and we were told that we must kill them with clubs. Every one of the new recruits was made to participate. We were warned that if we ever tried to escape, we would be killed in the same manner.”[41]

Another child reported, “One boy tried to escape and was caught, tied up, and marched back to camp… Soldiers then laid the boy on the ground and stabbed him three times with a bayonet until the blood began seeping from the wounds.” Each new recruit was given a stick and ordered to beat the boy. “Each one had a turn and could only stop once the blood from the body splashed up on you.”[42] The example showed the children what would happen if they did not follow orders. Children are more easily forced to obey, in part, because, they are physically weaker than adults. These are just two stories from one country. Thousands of children from around the world have reported similar stories.

Who will be sources of strength and protection for children who can’t defend them selves? And who will have the strength to hold the abusers accountable remaining motivated by love rather than a need for revenge?

In contexts where children are a very large percentage, or even a majority of the population, they are sometimes seen as expendable. A 1998 report in Sri Lanka discovered that between 40 and 60 percent of the LTTE soldiers killed in combat during the 1990s were children. A major United Nations report by Brett and McCallin found that in Sri Lanka “children were reportedly used for ‘massed frontal attacks’ in major battles.”[43] A 1991 HRW report on Ethiopia discovered that many young boys were recruited from football games in order to fill regional conscription quotas when adults were not available.[44] Also, during Mozambique’s many years of civil war, children were recruited particularly in areas “where there was a shortage of adult males.”[45] A child who fought in a Liberian government Small Boy’s Unit reported, “We were many, plenty small boys, from ten, eleven and twelve. You would be sent to the front first. You go and get killed and then the next one takes your place, it never ended.”[46]

In places where children are sometimes the majority of the population, who will help cultivate cultures that value each child as unique, irreplaceable, and made in the image of the living God?


A Christian living, working, and serving in a context of great violence is forced to work out her theology of how one should live in such a context. Whether or not she is consciously intentional about developing and articulating her beliefs, or whether she feels she has not thought too much about it, the way she lives reveals her theology. If one living in such a context is not intentionally working out a theology of how to respond to the violence around her, others will likely feel that she is being at least a bit irresponsible. Christians have sometimes avoided struggling to develop a theology of how to respond to violence. They have done so primarily by using one or more of three tactics; avoiding violence, obeying one’s God-given government, or believing it is all God’s will (a sort of manifest destiny, laissez-faire theology, or Calvinistic fatalism).

In the past, one’s responsibility was primarily related to physical proximity. This was because physical proximity was necessary in order to exercise one’s influence. It was very rare for an individual’s sphere of influence to stretch a great physical distance. Until the relatively recent development of communications technology it was impossible for even the wealthy and powerful to exercise their influence immediately at a great physical distance. Thus historically, most moral logic or theology of responsibility to assist others has understandably been framed around proximity.

It is commonly held that if one comes across a drowning or otherwise endangered child and the potential rescuer can save the child with relatively little risk to herself, then she has a moral obligation to do so. The principle of one having a moral responsibility to save innocent life when one can reasonably do so holds strong today, but the proximity-bound-world in which the moral maxim was developed no longer exists. In this contemporary world, like no other time in history, the average person in an industrialized nation has a sphere of influence that stretches around the globe and back again. And, like never before, she has the potential for significant immediate influence in locations around the world. Thus, we need to reconsider a theology of responding to violence in which responsibility is not as connected to physical proximity as much as it is connected to an agent’s capacity and her potential for influence.[47]

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. offered a prophetic call that now seems truer than ever:

I feel that we’ve got to look at this total thing anew and recognize that we must live together. That the whole world now it is one—not only geographically but it has to become one in terms of brotherly concern. Whether we live in America or Asia or Africa we are all tied in a single garment of destiny and whatever effects one directly, effects one in-directly.[48]

If responsibility is no longer bound to proximity, but rather ability, then most in the North and many in the South have a much larger set of moral conundrums with which to wrestle. For example, they are responsible for choosing what they will do or not do about AIDS orphans in Africa, prostituted children in Brazil, and child soldiers in Burma. There is at least a moral obligation to truly struggle with the questions of if or how to respond, and then to act on one’s best conclusions. We do not escape all responsibility by not being in a Lusaka AIDS clinic, or in the child prostitution district of Rio, or in the refugee camp in Burma. We are “response-able” as far as we are able to respond.[49]

What really implicates people, holding them responsible for their actions or inactions, is the fact that most people are aware of much of their power. For instance, BBC’s Jo Twist named 2005 “The year of the digital citizen,” noting that the everyday citizen’s techno tools became “powerful tools for political expression and reportage… The consumer was turning into the citizen with a meaningful role to play. Media started to look more participatory and inclusive.”[50]

The old pattern of throwing one’s hands up, shrugging one’s shoulders and saying, “But, what can I do from over here?” no longer works. We know that we can find out what we can do. We know that the internet, banks, NGOs, FBOs, churches, accrediting agencies and the like are in place, and that with a reasonable amount of effort we can save lives, or at least bring significant help.

One may then jump to the next most common escapist exclamation, “But, the problems are so big. . . I can’t do everything.” It is understandably easy to feel overwhelmed by a reality such as fifteen million AIDS orphans. Nevertheless, something can be done. Not being able to save every person does not relieve one from the responsibility of saving the persons one can save. The inability to do everything does not relieve a person from the responsibility of doing something, or from really struggling with difficult questions like, “How much can I do? What should I do? How much should I sacrifice? What sort of efforts should be supported?”

The concept of ability-related responsibility, as opposed to outdated proximity-bound responsibility, is also important for children. This is not only because it affects adult responsibility, which is dynamically interconnected with children’s responsibility, but also because children of the North have an increasingly resource-rich sphere of influence. They also have a seemingly innate ability to think and work virtually. Yet, children of the South may soon be leading the way. Almost every street in Southern mega-cites is dotted with small Internet cafes that are typically started and run by young entrepreneurs. Southern children may also soon be carrying the world’s proverbial torch as they positively impact violent southern nations by using virtual means to exercise and expand their sphere of influence in making peace.


The vast majority of the world’s children are in the South, many of whom are either currently facing the tragedies of war, or who will soon be facing its ruthless impact as war increases in the South. Most of these conflicts are civil wars that compound the difficulties already experienced in impoverished nations. Children are typically the most vulnerable to exploitation, neglect, and abuse. In the face of armed conflict, children are commonly viewed as an expendable commodity that is more easily controlled and indoctrinated than are adults, and are also more easily beaten into fierce fighters. All too often children can be exploited in this way because they are insufficiently defended.

The exploitation of many of the worlds children is a heartbreaking reality, however, the children themselves are a great hope to a broken world. We must not underestimate the ability of the third of our planet that is under eighteen years old to effectively wage peace in places of violence. Rather, the older folks on the planet must set the example of taking hold of ability-related responsibility, living for more than self-gratification, accumulation, and preservation, and believing in, resourcing, mentoring, and being willing to follow young people, helping them to fulfill their God-given potential.

List of Abbreviations:

DNIAC Developing Nations Impacted by Armed Intrastate Conflict
FFA Forcas Armadas Angolanas
IDP Internally Displaced Persons
LRA Lord’s Resistance Army
LTTE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
LURD Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy
MODEL Movement for Democracy in Liberia
PDF Popular Defense Forces
SPLA The Sudan People’s Liberation Army
UNHCR United Nations High Commission for Refugees
UNITA União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola)
WFP World Food Program


[1] The State of the World’s Children 2005: Childhood Under Threat, UNICEF (2004) 2.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Patrick Johnstone. The Church is Bigger Than You Think. (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Evangelical Press, 1998) 110.
[4] Most statistics on global Christian growth vary somewhat, but show the same trends of major Southern growth. For example, in a November 2002 New York Times article Daniel Pipes claimed that, “By 2025, two-thirds of all Christians (and three-quarters of all Catholics) are expected to live in the South. (This actually understates the contrast in growth rates: Many Southern Christians are relocating to the North. In London today, half of all churchgoers are blacks.) Under present trends, by 2050 non-Latino whites will make up just one in five of the world’s Christians.”
[5] The term the South, or global south, is often used to refer to the poorer, or developing, nations of the world as opposed to the North, which is richer and more developed. In some cases the compass direction south is not accurate; Australia and Japan are in this sense Northern countries, even though they are south of the equator.
[6] UNICEF (2004), 163.
[7] Patrick J. Bracken, and Celia Petty. Rethinking the Trauma of War. (London: Free Association Books, 1998) 9.
[8] Ibid., 3.
[9] UNICEF (2004), 163.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Siobhan O’Reilly. The Contribution of Community Development to Peace building: World Vision’s Area Development Programmes. (1998) 38.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Bracken and Petty (1998), 3.
[14] Ibid.
[15] UNICEF (2004).
[16] Source?
[17] Bracken and Petty, (1998).
[18] Joseph S. Nye and John D. Donahue, editors. Governance in a Globalizing World. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000) 54.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Alex Moorehead, Jemera Rone, Peter Bouckaert, and Eric Stover. “Uganda: Uprooted and Forgotten: Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda.” Human Rights Watch Vol. 17, No. 12 (A), p20.
[21] UNICEF (2004), 163.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Jo Becker. “Uganda, Stolen Children: Abduction and Recruitment in Northern Uganda.” Human Rights Watch Vol.15, No. 7 (A), (2003) 7.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Moorehead et al. (2005), 48.
[26] Radhika Coomaraswamy. “Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.” Sixty-second session: Item 68 (a) of the provisional agenda: Promotion and protection of the rights of children (a) Girl-Child Soldier By Force—Everywoman Tv Production. (2007) 3.
[27] Kevin Heppner and Jo Becker. “My Gun Was as Tall as Me: Child Soldiers in Burma.” Human Rights Watch (2002) 29.
[28] Ibid., 40.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid., 31, 32.
[31] John W. Kennedy. “The 4-14 Window.” Christianity Today Vol. 48, No. 7 (2004) 53
[32] Ibid.
[33] Becker (2003), 7.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Jo Becker and Tejshree Thapa. “Sri Lanka: Living in Fear, Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.” Human Rights Watch Vol. Vol. 16, No. 13 (C), (2004) 6.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Coomaraswamy (2007).
[39] Tony Tate. “How to Fight, How to Kill: Child Soldiers in Liberia.” Edited by Lois Whitman. Human Rights Watch Vol. 16, No.2 (A), (2003) 19
[40] Ibid., 20.
[41] Becker (2003), 10.
[42] Ibid., 8.
[43] Ibid., 6.
[44] Chen Reis. “Children in Combat.” Edited by Lois Whitman and Michael McClintock. Human Rights Watch Vol.8, No.1(G), (1996) 8.
[45] Ibid., 11.
[46] Tate (2003), 21.
[47] Peter K. Unger. Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)
[48] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Nonviolence Or Nonexistence.” (1967) 1/16/2006
[49] Ronald J. Sider. Rich Christians In an Age of Hunger (20th Anniversary Revision). (Dallas, TX: World Publishing, 1997).
[50] Jo Twist. “The Year of the Digital Citizen.” BBC News (2006) 12/05/2007.