What is this world coming to? How could this possibly happen? What can we do to insure this never happens again? These are the questions filling the minds of many Americans today. It’s these questions that have been rattling around in my head since I learned of the horrific incidents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last Friday. How does someone look into the faces of innocence and be so blinded by rage, or illness, or whatever it was that drove Adam Lanza’s finger to the trigger a few days ago, and cut down children and teachers in the prime of their lives? The truth is we will probably never really know. That is a terrifying truth and it is so discomfiting that most of us simply cannot accept it. So we begin the blame game. The news and my facebook feed are replete with examples. We blame gun laws, bad parenting, health care, and most recently a lack of God in the schools. As I read and watched the influx of blame I shook my head, yes gun laws must be reformed. Yes, parents with troubled kids should think long and hard before stockpiling an arsenal of weapons in their home. Yes, parity of care for the mentally ill is long overdue. It’s when I got to the God in schools posts that I began to pause. Which version of God? Whose God? Which doctrine? Whose dogma? That, for me, is where the answer gets a bit tricky. Not all my students are Christian so who am I to say which version of God we ought to bring through the doors of the building? As I pondered this I realized something, God is already in the every school in America, and it’s the dogma we close the doors to. We don’t preach a religion, though our students are free to, but God, he’s there daily.
How do I know? Actions. I was raised Christian, more specifically Catholic, and for me the Golden rule has always carried quite a bit of weight. I believe strongly in the concept of ‘doing unto others as you’d have done to you’ and there is no shortage of that lesson in public schools. How? This week alone students at my school have gathered coats for the cold, food for the hungry, and relief items for those devastated by Superstorm Sandy. This year they’ve brought supplies to the homeless in a local tent city, they are planning yet another fundraiser for cancer victims, in the spring teachers will organize a dress donation closet so their students who may not be able to afford a prom dress can get one for free. Maybe we never use the scripture verse “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me” or mention the Quran’s call to give alms to the poor, or the Hindu principle of unity of existence through love , but all those ‘religious’ and humanistic truths are at work in American education every day. They simply aren’t labeled as such.
After events like what took place in Connecticut it is tempting to look for an easy solution but there simply isn’t one and that, more than an absence of religion, is at the heart of the problem. Students know that every school in America establishes a disciplinary system meant to insure their safety. Adults must accept that no system of rules or procedures is foolproof. A crazy person with a gun can shoot through security and no form of religious doctrine will ever be able to stop that. If you look around the planet right now there is no shortage of evil committed in the name of God and we do not (generally) blame belief for the wars and violence perpetrated by believers. Is it God that flew those planes into the World Trade Center, is it God raining bombs back and forth over the Gaza strip? No, it’s people. People do horrific things, even when they practice religion daily.
So what of letting God back in school? Again, he’s there. Every school in America has an established system of rules meant to keep students safe and these rules find their origins in various religions. Injunctions against violence, theft, cruelty, as well as a bevy of other precepts stem from Judeo-Christian commandments like those received by Moses all those years ago. They reflect Hindu disciplines like Satya (truth), Ahimsa (non-violence), and Asteya (no desire to possess or steal). The fundamental concepts of the world’s religions are the basis of the rules and ideologies that schools use to mold student behaviors. What schools do not, and in my opinion, should not do is advocate one specific form of religion over another. America was founded by people fleeing religious oppression, what they wanted (if the ideas expressed in the Constitution are to be trusted) is a home that did not dictate dogma and doctrine but instead embodied it. They were clear about the separation of church and state. Why? Because they, far more than we, understood the dangers of theocracy. They lived in countries that actively imposed one religion over the other and they, unlike us, knew the dangers of that kind of power in the hands of one group of people who believed they had cornered truth.
How can the same news anchors who condemn Sharia law with so much vitriol not see the hypocrisy of their calls to impose Christian sensibilities and practices on those whose ideas are not in keeping with ours? Therein lies the problem. Whose God do we usher through the front doors? Which prayers and traditions must be enacted in order to say God is in the building? Why, when the American student life is so replete with examples of the concepts embraced by the world’s religions, must we choose just one doctrine and elevate it to ‘best’? Why do so many of us want to stake our flag in the American school system as if we, more than any other religion, owned the truth. As if we, more than any other philosophy, had all the right answers to complex problems.
We will never know if a lack of religion that drove Adam Lanza through the doors of Sandy Hook elementary school three days ago. We can be sure, however, that it wasn’t a lack of dogma that afforded him entry. Adam Lanza is that thing we fear the most, enigma. If the ability to openly pray in a building were all it took to keep out evil no priest would ever have molested a child, no terrorist plot would ever have been hatched in a mosque; no rabbi would ever have murdered his wife in their home. No, it isn’t the ostensible acts of faith that shield us. It isn’t that simple. The problems in American society aren’t that simple. Neither, I’m afraid, are the answers.