Dear Thoughtful Pastor: I have a question about the response to the mass shootings specifically and to the role of religion in our society in general. I have several family members and friends who seem to feel 'putting God back in our schools' will solve the gun violence problem.
What is a reasonable way to respond to this? This seems simplistic at best, since it ignores the assaults on the churches in Charleston and South Texas. And how does one 'put God back' when we are a nation of various faiths (or non-beliefs)? Our schools do not compare with those of other countries in terms of math, science, or history as it is. I feel we should focus on making them better and safer and leave the rest to the families and churches.
The Thoughtful Pastor: With many others, I'm horrified by what happened in Florida and terrified by what might happen tomorrow when yet another disturbed and angry (likely young white) male, armed to the teeth, goes after those who he thinks have tormented or bested him in some way. If I thought we could solve this by "putting God back in our schools," I'd be on the front lines of the demand.
Unfortunately, angry young males have been taking out their wrath on the unfairness of life on unarmed innocents for a long time — certainly from before the beginning of recorded history. Remember Cain and Abel?
What they didn't have until recently were military-style, rapid-fire weapons that have no other purpose than killing other human beings as efficiently as possible.
And what would it look like to "put God back in our schools?" I'm old enough to remember filing into the lunch room at my elementary school, having a teacher ring the triangle chime and either leading us in a sung grace or being silent when someone would offer a prayer.
In my lily-white, upper-middle-class part of Dallas, there was one Jewish student, no Muslim students, a few Roman Catholics and the rest stolidly main-line Protestants attending our Baptist, Methodist, Disciples, Presbyterian, Episcopalian and Community churches each Sunday. Everyone had a religious affiliation of some sort.
We spoke the same religious language (except, of course, for our Jewish classmate, whom we routinely excluded). We also tormented, bullied, insulted, got into fights with and systematically made one another miserable in the myriad ways only pre-teens and teens can do.
What we didn't have were military-style, rapid-fire weapons that have no other purpose than killing other human beings as efficiently as possible.
But back to my upbringing, I wonder how many religiously segregated public schools like that there are left in the U.S? And that being the case, how dare we mandate a shared religious experience on them?
And, even with that religious commonality, I had no sense of "God being present" in school. Prayer was just something we did, kind of like saying the Pledge of Allegiance. I also vividly remember nuclear strike drills, heading into the hallways, getting on our knees in front of the lockers, putting our arms over our heads, feeling very, very afraid.
Providing our kids with honest, nurturing, religious instruction is one of best things parents can do. Forcing religion in the name of the state has never, ever been a good option. I have yet, in all my reading of history, to see a positive outcome when one nation or one group of people conquers another in the name of "God" or some stated religious purpose.
Let's look at the purpose of the public school system. Why do the most advanced nations generously support universal education for its citizens? Because an educated populace is necessary for healthy self-governance to thrive.
Democratic governance, as opposed to rigid autocracy, demands an informed population making reasoned decisions about laws and policies. For this, we need universal literacy and an ability to think critically.
Furthermore, countries that will continue to prosper economically must have people who can compete in the world of artificial intelligence, robotically staffed factories, international finance, all with intricate cultural distinctions. Without talented instructors focused firmly on their tasks, we cannot achieve these goals.
Yes, we need God in school and everywhere else. How, without coercion? Parents must step up and recognize their primary responsibility to make sure they and their children have healthy spiritual lives. That's their job. Then they carry into the schools — and everywhere else — the Holy Presence well-integrated into their lives.
And we need to eliminate from private hands military-style, rapid-fire weapons that have no other purpose than killing other human beings as efficiently as possible. Having God in our lives does not dispense with the need for common-sense laws for public protection.
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