The recent discovery of 13 siblings allegedly neglected, starved, and tortured by their parents embodies the essence of human depravity. Disgust churns in our stomachs as we consider the deplorable conditions that prosecutors claim Louise and David Turpin “raised” their children in—shackled to beds, deprived of food, beaten, compelled to wallow in filth. We balk at the thought of parents discarding the children God entrusted to them as rotten and expendable. We wonder how they could withdraw all affection from their children, and dote on their dogs instead. If true, this case of child abuse exemplifies raw sin. It exposes evil at its most horrific. We recoil from the sight of it, because the soul knows no other response.
These shocking findings in Perris, California, have appropriately sparked outrage. As desperation spurs us to act, the public dialogue has focused on homeschooling, with a flurry of articles debating the need for tighter regulation. As a homeschooler myself, I’ve read these arguments with interest, but I can’t ignore the greater issue lurking between the lines. A more sinister question, fundamental to Christian identity, hovers in the squalid hallways of the Turpin house.
Why did no one report this abuse?
The Turpin family didn’t live remotely, lost in the wilds of some forgotten corner of the world. God placed them in a community. They lived in suburbia, where rows of cookie-cutter homes fringed their own. Neighbors noted the emaciated children pacing within rooms. They saw the bicycles untouched on the lawn, and felt taken aback when a casual greeting elicited widened eyes and a panicked retreat into the house. Previous neighbors saw the filthy and unsettling conditions the family left in Texas, with the refrigerator padlocked shut, ropes tied to beds, and dogs eating dirty diapers discarded on the floor. Relatives tried to reach out to the kids, but were barred from contact. Classmates noted one child’s grimy clothes while she attended public school for four years, and at least one teacher admonished her for wearing trash in her hair.
Neighbors, family members, teachers, and classmates noted things amiss. Yet over decades of alleged abuse, no report reached the desk of a police officer or social worker. Not one. Acquaintances now voice remorse that the children suffered for so long, and some have lovingly assembled care packages to express their regrets. Yet when asked why he didn’t contact authorities, one neighbor remarked, “We discussed it and we didn’t want to have the repercussions with [the family].”
Jesus taught that loving our neighbors is second in importance only to our devotion to God (Matt. 22:37–40). We’re called to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34)—with a radical love that reaches out and sacrifices. We are to lay down our lives for others (John 15:13).
The Turpin case warns us against a cultural tide that veers away from this sacrificial love in favor of a pervasive complacency.
The Turpin case warns us against a cultural tide that veers away from this sacrificial love in favor of a pervasive complacency. Being a good neighbor in modern America means being civil and minding your own business. We ride subways with earbuds silencing our surroundings, and hide within ourselves while jammed in a city throng. The moment someone joins us in an elevator we feign interest in a newsfeed. We value niceness more than intimacy, privacy more than active fellowship. In The Neighboring Church, Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis quote this wise comment from Ramin Razavi:
The reality is that nice falls in the middle of the affection spectrum. It’s not mean or disagreeable or awful, but it’s definitely not what Jesus did toward us. Nice neighboring is not enough. Loving God and our neighbors, as Jesus modeled love, means sacrifice.
We live in an era when technology dulls the fervor of Christian neighboring. We construct relationships through tweets rather than through real personal contact. We craft our identities and social circles in the glow of our smartphones, substituting Instagram for intimacy.
“In the smartphone age,” Tony Reinke writes in 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, “when our cognitive actions are separated from our bodily presence, we tend to overprioritize the relatively easy interactions in the disembodied online world and undervalue the embodied nature of the Christian faith.”
Loving with Christlike Love
Our faith calls us to more. Following Christ means more than blithely attending service every Sunday, staying out of trouble, and paying our taxes. Jesus didn’t keep to himself and converse in niceties. He sought out real, palpable contact with people. He stooped to reach those who couldn’t meet his eyes. He leaned toward the broken and feeble. He saw demons within people, and with heaven’s love surging through him, he confronted them head-on. Jesus’s love is never complacent; it is radical and accountable. And loving our neighbors springs not from sentiment, but from a motivation to act for their good.
Let us temporarily put aside the smartphones and be a neighboring church, seeking to reach the people God has placed into our lives.
To follow Jesus is to invest in the welfare of our neighbors face to face (2 John 12). It means sacrificing the privacy we prize in order to engage. It means risking offense and awkwardness in order to know and love our neighbors as Jesus loved us. We’re called not to mind our own business, but to seek the good of those God has placed into our circle (1 Cor. 10:24). And we’re called to defend those who can’t protect themselves, even when we fear repercussions.
As we pray for the Turpin children, let us examine our own hearts. Let us ask how fervently we keep this second-greatest commandment. Let us temporarily put aside the smartphones and be a neighboring church, seeking to reach the people God has placed into our lives—not with platitudes, but with a love that risks, that speaks, that buoys the afflicted through stormy seas and turns hearts toward him.