Every so often something happens that makes a mockery of the deep desire of all those school systems, leaders and (especially) teachers who long to teach their children in innocence and freedom. The malevolent spirits of the demonic realm rise up gleefully and find some witless individual to do their bidding, their deep desire to destroy the beauty that God has made and is committed to reforming. Something not far from this has happened on Friday morning in Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut. In deep honour and, from the few details that are emerging already, no little heroism, adults charged with the care and protection of small children gave their own lives in the discharge of that sacred duty.
Protection against what, exactly? This is harder, and whilst as a Christian I know and understand the wild fury of the spiritual forces of evil to steal goodness from all that God has lovingly created, the political debates are never going to be about spiritual warfare. They will be rooted in the hand-wringing of a genuinely affected president who has too little power to do the one thing that perhaps he needs to do – enact some serious legislation controlling the possession and carrying of firearms. This of course, will not stop anything happening at all. These horrible events are not common enough to protect against, nor is there any practical way of disarming the existing US population of their weaponry, even if they considered this. There is a reasonably thoughtful piece by Paul Barrett in Businessweek that sums up the problems facing Americans who want to do something about gun control at this juncture. His practical solutions are not ones that bear much thinking about in the UK – posting armed security guards at the gate of every elementary school, as they do in Israel; identifying and medicating the seriously mentally ill before they get their hands on weaponry. The point is, of course, that in terms of everything we know about small and homely communities, this one was as safe as it gets. That is why it is so hard to understand the action, and so difficult to know what to do.
And the reason it was safe was because it was open, free, democratic, relying on the goodness of the world, its community and the people in it, rather than planning for the evil that may never come, and once it comes a first time, will almost certainly never come again. We are not in the eastern Congo, where this sort of thing happens routinely to children, women, and armed soldiers in the midst of an anarchy we cannot even imagine, often perpertrated by children barely into puberty.
So, what practical measures did Paul Barrett omit? Three spring to mind. One – and this will be contested by all sorts of folk – is sustained, believing prayer for protection of our school communities and children and families. Because it is largely unseen, this is already happening in countless schools in the UK and US, and is, I believe, one of the main reasons we have an ordered society with resepct for human life and appropriate controls brought to bear on human behaviour. But this is dwindling, if only for the reasons that Christians look far more to the political world for social solutions than they rely on their Father for his bountiful protection. We forget to pray. And as we do less of it, we ascribe less and less power to the God who sustains us. God has a clear purpose for an ordered, safe, kindly, communal society in every culture where people in it care for each other and protect the vulnerable. This we need to pray for – for leaders, local and national, for communities and families – for all who have responsibility in whatever way to enact the grace of God in their society.
The second measure we might usefully consider is how to teach our teachers to love and protect their children in a sacrificial way, to hone their training and instincts to protect children more fully than we do at the moment. This might involve teaching children routines for self-protection, more fully than we do now, and it might involve helping teachers over the hurdles imposed by the burdens of curriculum overload genuinely to learn to know their children, to spend time with them, to walk and talk with them. It might mean developing whole school routines that maximise the likelihood of survival. The teacher Victoria Soto, shot whilst shielding her children on Friday morning, understood this deeply, and gave her life for it.
Thirdly, and this takes its inspiration from several Norwegians who spoke out after the Utoya massacre of July 2011, we can articulate what it is we believe our society and schools believe in and what actions will follow from this, what kind of society we want our children to grow up in and therefore how we will model our schools and our behaviour in them. As one girl commented to CNN after the Utoya incident:
‘If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.’
Is this pie in the sky? I don’t think so. Love is a learned set of actions which convert to feelings, not the other way round. We learn to love through the things we do; it has to be active and directive towards a person, brought to life through other people. In a school, it has to be the central purpose around which we gather – before learning and growing we must love. It has to be communal, and it has to embrace as many as we can of the parent population who are often suspicious of the purpose of school. In that respect, the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 that we love to say on our wedding day and then put aside, is possibly the most practical piece of teaching in the entire scriptures. And, wonderfully, it casts out fear, once embraced fully. Love is an intent, not a by-product, and we should intentionally demonstrate it where we can, in schools.