To the students who walked out of class Wednesday, for your love, for your courage, for your compassion, for your perseverance, for the hope that you embody, thank you. Thank you for raising your voices in defense of yourself, your classmates, and future generations against violence and greed. Thank you for your exercising your right to speak up and speak out. Thank you for the risks you have taken to wake up and shake up our society, to snatch us out of our complacency with an unacceptable status quo that has become desensitized to deaths of children.
To the students who regularly choose to walk up and those who have been recently inspired to do so, to those who take the time to speak to someone sitting alone, to those who invite new students to lunch, to those who offer smiles or hugs to someone grieving or upset, to those whose presence is a steady source of compassion, thank you. The changing of laws alone is incomplete without the opening of hearts. If you live a life of kindness and strive to choose compassion even when tempted as we all are by convenience or ego toward self-interest that may cause another person harm, you are also manifesting the love that will heal this broken world.
We need students – and everyone else – walking up and out. We need mass movements and moment-to-moment choices of kindness to transform the violence of our schools and our societies.
The problem with #walkupnotout isn’t the word “up,” it’s the word “not.” It’s the idea that there is any contradiction between bold acts of resistance to the proliferation of instruments of death and humble acts of compassion toward people. The spirit of courage and the spirit of compassion are one and the same. That spirit – the Spirit of Love – manifests in voices raised in defiance to apathy and inaction and voices hushed to listen to the needs of the suffering.
I have read several commentaries denouncing #walkupnotout as deflection and victim-blaming, and because of the deceptive use of the word “not,” I agree with them. Using what should be a call to kindness as a deterrent from action is disingenuous and dangerous. It belies the spirit of Love that guides these walk outs and protests, a spirit of Love that emboldens the declaration of truth and the pursuit of justice. The truth is that the preponderance of weapons and the ease of their accessibility in a nation plagued by hatred and fear is a recipe for death that has already killed thousands, and proclaiming this truth is a service to us all.
The same students who chose to walk out are almost certainly the students who choose to walk up over and over and over. I agree with every commentary that has said it is too much of a burden to place on children to imply that if only they had been more loving, more friendly, more generous, they could have prevented a shooting. Yet kindness does make a real difference in dispelling the climate of fear and hostility that leads to the building up of arms and the occasional pulling of triggers. We cannot know how many lives we will reach when we extend our hand to one person, but we can know that doing so will make a difference in our own lives. Compassion is a muscle; the more we exercise it, the stronger our hearts become. This does not mean we should remain in abusive relationships or think it is our responsibility to change someone’s behavior. It simply means that we must unlock the love within ourselves by sharing it with others in order to nurture an environment of love in which we can all thrive. Our relationships are the building blocks that compose the character of our societies. We can nurture respect and love or hostility and dehumanization by the way we treat one another. Encouraging students to walk up to one another and treat each other with kindness is good and right. What is wrong is failing to see that taking an active, vocal stand against gun violence is an act of kindness and love in itself.
In walking up and walking out, students are taking an active role in shaping the schools in which they spend so many of their waking hours. By walking out of school, students are shaping the character of the environment that is meant to shape their own character. They are rejecting the lie that deadly violence is inevitable or only preventable by the threat of more deadly violence. In doing so, they are taking a stand for their own lives and dignity and for the lives and dignity of their fellow students and teachers. And they are working not only to make their schools safer, but more loving as well by showing that love is vibrant and active in the face of violence and death.
The proposed alternatives by those who oppose gun control are unacceptable. Beyond promoting the dangerous false dichotomy between acts of kindness and movements for justice, those who do not want restrictions on guns effectively endorse a status quo of unregulated weapons in a nation in a state of permanent war, a growing wealth divide, and increasing polarization and hostility. And some propose going a step further and arming teachers. I believe that many who want this have the safety of the students at heart, but this “solution” will only exacerbate the problem.
Beyond the risk of accidental shooting which has already manifested with tragic results, and beyond the greater risks to students belonging to racial and religious minorities and those with learning disabilities (topics deserving attention beyond the scope of this article), arming teachers undermines the loving environment we want our schools to be. Our schools should be places that nurture compassion, thoughtfulness, nonviolent conflict resolution, and faith in the unconditional value of every human being. Arming teachers with weapons of death encourages faith in the ultimate necessity of violence and discourages the creative thinking that can lead to dissent and alternative solutions. It teaches the value of protecting one’s self over and against others rather than recognizing the truth that our safety and fulfillment is found in building each other up and acknowledging the interconnection of our destinies. It deepens a climate of hostility and othering. Students who survive such an environment will go on to live in a nation more divided, more fearful, less trusting, and less prepared to address the problems of our nation and our world with the ingenuity and empathy we so desperately need.
Sadly, it is not surprising that “more guns” should be the answer some favor in a nation that has prioritized weapons of death over social programs that enhance life for so long. But it is a triumph of hope and love that our children are rejecting that pseudo-solution and saying #Enough!
In the way of peace, the way of hope, the way of love, it is prophetic that our children should lead us. Transforming the violence into peace is an adult responsibility, and yet our children are leading us, and we have a responsibility to follow their lead. We have a responsibility to recognize the that the change we need for our schools is the change we need for our communities, our nation, and our world. We must show that we value one another more than we value guns, and we must recognize that the proliferation of guns exacerbates a climate of fear and enmity that undermines everyone’s safety.
Advocating for gun control alone is not enough. As long as the Constitution is interpreted as giving individuals the right to own guns, our nation will continue to be heavily armed. So while it is important to raise our voices for some laws that can make a difference, as our students are doing, it is essential that we dispel the racism, heterosexism, religious intolerance, violent nationalism and other forms of bigotry that keep so many people armed and afraid. We must also consider the wealth gap that keeps so many poor and insecure. We must look at all the manifestations of violence that plague our society and see how they feed into the lie that our own livelihoods may have to come at the expense of others.
And then we must walk up and out. Walk up to the mother wearing hijab as we wait on the blacktop to pick our children up from school, and say “Hello” (or better yet, “Assalaamu Alaikum”). Walk up to the members of our churches who attend the Spanish-language service and greet them. Walk up to an MCC (LGBTQ) church and listen to a service. Step up and make friendships across racial, national, and religious barriers. And walk out into the streets with Black Lives Matter and movements against violence. Walk out to raise our voices for bringing our military home and transferring our resources to peacemaking here and abroad. And we can also walk in… to our local voting booths and our community board meetings, city councils, wherever the message of peace we carry on behalf of our children may lead us.
Our children are walking the walk of peacemaking. We must thank them… and follow.