What Would Jesus Do about School Violence?

I don’t want to blog about Newtown because it feels too much like I am mining a tragedy for material.  But the fact is that aside from occasional stress-filled forays into pre-Christmas panic, Newtown is pretty much all I am thinking about.  And I don’t believe I am alone.
My posts are mostly written in the quiet of my own thoughts, long before I sit down at the computer.  They are composed out of the random rants, musings, and occasional deep thoughts that wander through my brain as I go about my daily business.  But right now there is no room in my mind for anything but sorrow and questions:  Why did this happen? How can we stop it from happening again?  Why are people saying and writing such stupid and pointless things about it?
Actually, I know the answer to the last question.  We are all searching for answers and wanting to assign blame.  I just don’t happen to agree with some people’s conclusions and many people will not agree with mine.
My topic for today springs from the ubiquitous prayer/God in schools meme, variations of which abound, and which I already gave my opinion on here.
Quite obviously, having God, prayer, and religion available in school is very important to me.  I attended 12 years of Catholic school myself, and among them my kids have racked up an impressive 44 years!  But guess what?  Catholic schools, steeped in religion though they may be, are not immune to school violence.  Here’s just one example.  The most deadly act of school violence this country has ever experienced happened well before prayer was removed from schools.
Putting prayer back in schools might not keep violence out, but neither did taking prayer out of schools keep God out.  God is everywhere; if you believe in Him you believe that already.  But He is also in His servants, and He acts in us and through us.
I have heard about, witnessed, and even been a part of plenty of non-Christian acts in Catholic schools.  I have also heard about plenty of Christian acts taking place in public schools.  Here’s one personal example:  William attends public school.  Last Friday he went on his first field trip.  I sent a $20 bill with him for the gift shop.  He was supposed to spend $10 and bring the change home.  Instead, he bought three plastic snakes, and then gave one to his best friend along with the $10 because his friend did not have any money.
If you are a Christian with a child in a public school, don’t make the excuse that our hands are tied by laws and that our God is in any way prevented from working anywhere in the world that He wants to and where we do His will.  Many school shooters are described as loners.  Boys who kept to themselves.  Who were weird.  Who had no friends.  Here’s an article by a young man who wrote movingly of what it is like to be such an outcast.  You’ve seen these boys.  There was usually one in every class even in the small schools I attended.  Someone the other kids ostracized.  Made fun of.
What if instead, we taught our kids to reach out?  To follow the Golden Rule in every situation?  No law prevents that.  No law prevents Christians from acting like Christians every day, wherever they find themselves, not only in church on Sunday.  God’s law, in fact, commands it.   This story may be apocryphal, but can any Christian deny that we are meant to do God’s work in this world?  What would Jesus do if He were a student in our schools today?  Can we get a clue from what He did when He was here among us?  Whom did He reach out to, whom did He befriend?  Samaritans, tax collectors, adulterers, lepers–the outcasts of His day.
It can be scary to reach out.  There’s a homeless man who often appears in our parish hall after Mass.  He sits alone, drinks a cup of coffee, mutters to himself.  All there he is clearly not.  Last week I approached him and asked him if he would like a blueberry muffin.  He didn’t answer so I asked again.  Finally, struggling hard to get out the words as if unaccustomed to actually having to speak, he said, “I don’t want any disturbance.”  So I went away.  Sometimes wounded kids do the same.  Unused to kindness they may fear it, be suspicious of it.  They have walled themselves off to prevent further hurt.  Your kid can still smile at the outcast.  Can refuse to join in teasing and make sure teachers know about it.  Can use his influence and example to stop his peers from engaging in it.
Whether this would stop some school shootings I cannot say.  But it’s the right thing, the kind thing, the Christian thing.
Christ Without Hands This is a statue of Jesus in a church in Soweto, South Africa. Since public meetings were banned during apartheid, many people met in churches such as this one. During an attack by the police, this statue fell and the hands were detached. Rather than fix the statue, it was left as it was since "we are Christ's hands in the world."

Some Things Don't Make Sense

Terrible things evoke many responses:  tears; prayers; the urge to hide, to sleep, not to read or look or hear any more, or even to obsessively read and watch and learn everything about what happened; and, for writers, to write.  You wonder if maybe you shouldn’t.  You wonder if people will think you are capitalizing on a tragedy in order to get page views.  You wonder if anyone will care what you have to say, and why it matters anyway, what difference you can possibility make.  But in the end, you write because you have to, just like so many people on Facebook (almost EVERYONE) were drawn to post something, ANYTHING, yesterday to express their shock and horror and empathy.
We want to talk about it, we want to write about it, we want to share about it, because we crave community at a time like this.  And we crave answers.  We want to make some kind of sense of something that doesn’t make any kind of sense, and won’t, no matter how hard we try to make it.
So we talk about gun control.  People say that if we do that we are politicizing what happened.  But there shouldn’t BE anything political about doing something about gun violence in our society.  People say guns don’t kill people, people kill people, and that’s partly true, but two crazy men attacked school children yesterday, one in America with guns and one in China with a knife.  The kids in America are dead.  The kids in China will live.  Guns extend the reach and capacity for violence of those bent on doing harm to others.
The problem is that no laws that have been or will be proposed will go far enough.  I would ban all handguns and all semi-automatic weapons.  That’s never going to happen.  And that means they are going to be around where crazy people will get hold of them.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to pass what laws we can.  It’s not politicizing the deaths of these little children to try to do that now; it is RESPECTING them.
Then we talk about more help for those with mental illness.  I know from experience how hard it can be to find affordable assistance in this area, and also how time consuming and difficult it can be to get the right diagnosis and the right medication.  Again, would better mental health care have helped in this situation?  It’s too soon to tell without knowing more of this guy’s story.  Was he mentally ill?  Well, he pretty much had to be, didn’t he?
Which brings us to the problem of evil.  We aren’t going to solve this one today.  Or ever, not before we enter eternity.  My oldest child asked me, “Are people who do things like that mentally ill, or are they evil?”  I said (and I believe) that ANYONE who intentionally sets out to kill innocent people is by definition mentally ill.  I asked her which way she would prefer it to be.  She said, “I guess evil, so I could hate them.  But that would be too easy, so it probably isn’t the answer, is it?”
The gunman’s actions were evil.  Was HE evil?  Is mental illness itself an evil?  Does being severely mentally ill open people up to infestation of evil?  I’ve heard people describe certain criminals as monsters, not human beings.  But they are human beings, and at some point they were innocent babies.  And we don’t want to think about that because we don’t want to acknowledge our own potential for evil, or think about what it would be like if one or our own kids somehow turned out horribly, terribly wrong.  We want to stress the “otherness” of a person who could do something like that, because human beings don’t treat each other like that. Right?
Has the world turned evil, and have we done something to make it that way?  God created the world, and all that He made was good.  Yet can we deny that there is some sort of sickness in the core of our society?  But then, hasn’t it always been there?  Haven’t men been killing each other since the Fall, and it’s just that they now have both the ability to be more efficient and effective at doing it, and the media to publicize it for them?
And what about God anyway?  Many, many people who I am sure mean well have been posting Facebook memes about how of course things like this are going to happen since we kicked God out of our public schools.  Let me tell you what, no one kicked God out of anywhere.  He was THERE yesterday at that school.  He was in that principal who went bravely out into the hallway to confront the gunman and in the teachers who hid their kids and in the bathroom with the children hiding and their teacher telling them she loved them.  There was prayer in that school and there was prayer outside of it.  I read once that prayers are retroactive, outside time the way God is, so we can still pray that those children didn’t suffer and that they knew they would be going to God.  Whether the posters mean to imply it or not, those memes suggest that God punished us for outlawing school prayer by letting first graders die and that is just BULLSHIT.
So we can say a lot of things, and ask a lot of questions, and do whatever we can think of to try to stop something like this from EVER happening again, and we should (I predict universal metal detectors next).  But we all need to acknowledge the truth:  that ultimately there is only so much we can do.
Right after I heard about this yesterday I was scheduled to be the “mystery reader” in the my baby girl’s second grade classroom.  I had the surreal experience of being buzzed in, signing in and putting on my visitor badge (all the time thinking how ineffective such measures would be in the face of someone truly determined to kill).  I walked down the halls and into the classroom and gave my daughter a big hug, saw all the smiling faces, spent half an hour reading Christmas stories to 20 kids who had every expectation of being safe in their school, just like the first graders of Sandy Hook did.
But there is no truly place safe anywhere; that’s part of the human condition.  You could decide to homeschool your kids and they could die in a car wreck, or a home invasion, or a fire, or in their sleep of carbon monoxide poisoning, or of cancer.  If you have kids, if you love anyone, you are opening yourself up to the possibility of loss and pain. (And if you don’t, you are suffering a different kind of loss and pain.)
We can’t live in fear forever, so we will go on.  And in a few days, unless you are one of the people whose children were murdered, the numbness will wear off, like it did after Aurora, after 9-11, after Columbine, and so many more.  We will all go back to thinking about Christmas and worrying about our personal problems which right now seem so petty, so unimportant.
And if we can continue to hold the dead and the grieving up in prayer, and be a little kinder and more loving to those around us, it’s okay.  We have to live in this world, flawed though it is and though we are, at least for now.
O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.  May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace.  Amen.