Friday morning the news sickened me yet again as we learned of another school shooting. Eight students and two teachers dead, over a dozen wounded. Similar profile of many past school shooters: male, angry, perhaps aggrieved by a personal hurt or rejection, easy access to a shotgun and pistol - legally purchased by his father, and racially white as have been most previous school shooters. When will this end? How do we stop it? What/who is to blame for the prevalence of violence and death by guns in our society? More laws, enforce the laws we have? More guns, armed teachers? Less guns, more security officers?
A friend of mine from high school and seminary, a pastor, saddened by the shooting, wrote of a systemic problem in our society that goes beyond gun control. While having a white privileged rosy memory of life from the 1950s-1970s, a better era in his view, he writes, “Several decades ago a minority thought we needed freedom from religion. Since then the Ten Commandments have been removed from courthouses and prayer in public schools has been banned. Some schools no longer say the pledge of allegiance to the flag because the pledge states we are ‘under God.’ Goodness gracious people! How can we hope to have a decent society without the Bible being revered in the home and our Institutions?”
His sadness is real, his diagnosis is simplistic and ignores the real pain that existed in the 1950s-70s. And by the way “under God” was added to the pledge in the 1950s and certainly did not make us a more godly country. We had drills in schools of what to do if Cuba attacked Houston/US with nuclear weapons. Racism was rampant as was lynching. While the Supreme Court had decided Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 ending the legality of “separate but (un)equal” education, Houston Independent School District did not integrate their schools until 1968.
The Vietnam war was robbing a generation of life as over 58,000 would die, President Kennedy and his brother Robert were assassinated as was Dr. King in the 1960s, when many public schools still recited the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of the day after the pledge of allegiance and some courts still posted the Ten Commandments. Race riots occurred all over the country as civil rights legislation became the law of the land.
Not quite the rosy picture my friend remembered from our school years. We are white, Vietnam was winding down and we did not have to worry about the draft. With the exception of different endings to the Lord’s prayer for Catholics and Protestants, the prayer seemed harmless and was a moment to act out because the teachers weren’t looking. Oh, we had Jehovah’s Witness classmates who would go into the hallways during the pledge and prayer over the loud speaker because their faith was different. Posting the Ten Commandments and reciting a prayer Jesus taught was intended to be said in private were ineffective talismans then and longing for their inclusion in the public square today avoids dealing with finding solutions to the epidemic of death and injury by gun violence. There are over 300 million guns in our country owned by private individuals who make up about a third of the population. And they have not made us safer.
In the words that follow I will not provide the solutions to stopping school shootings. What I will do is praise public education and those who every day work in our public schools as another school year ends. Let me address the lie that prayer is banned in public schools. As long as there are tests in public schools, we joke that there will always be prayer in schools (Oh my Lord, what test? help me God!).
Seriously, when I lobbied for the National Education Association, Congressman Ernest Istook from Oklahoma sought to pass a constitutional amendment in 1998 that would require the Lord’s prayer to be recited at the beginning of the school day. Through a coalition of faith groups, education advocates and nonprofit religious liberty advocates, the Istook amendment was defeated. Coming from that effort, we did pass Equal Access legislation that permits students to form student led clubs such as Gay-Straight Alliances and Fellowship of Christian Athletes or Young Life groups. Should these groups want to pray at school during their meetings (before or after school), they are free to do so. Prayer and God have not been barred from public schools, as if either could be.
I responded to my friend that people of faith work in our public schools each and every day. Their call to teach and/or make a difference drives their care and concerns for students. Whether bus drivers, para-professionals, guidance counselors, custodians, food service workers, administrators, substitute teachers or teachers, they give of themselves. They use their own money for supplies and live out their faith through their actions without clinging to another era’s talismans. They also teach in Sunday Schools across the country. And as we have witnessed in every school shooting, they risk and tragically give their lives to protect their students. The founder of our faith calls us to be the light of the world and calls us to shine the light in the darkness of our day and times. Teachers and school employees are a part of that light.
Making public schools safer, guns less accessible to those who would harm themselves and others and overcoming the influence of those who only wish to sell more guns requires light, civic engagement, and working for the common good. Caring for one another, living our faith and praying that all of us together will be the change that we wish to see embraced in our community and world are ways we can continue to shine the light of God’s love and grace. Let’s continue to encourage one another, because the challenges of these days need our resolve, our hope and our voice.
Pray for those who have been scarred for life as a result of shootings at schools, churches, concerts, in neighborhoods and communities. Pray for those who survive loved ones who have chosen to end life through suicide. Pray for our nation and those who serve and lead it that together we might find ways to end the epidemic of death by gun violence. And if you encounter a school employee this week, thank them, her or him!
Grace and peace,