My heart has been heavy the last couple of days. I took some time to read about the most recent police shootings (both those by the police and the attack on the police). It’s hard to read, to listen, and to think about these things. I would much rather continue living my life as if these things were not happening in my nation. I choose silence so often when it comes to hard things. But these things that are happening in my world also intersect with my own life, things in my own household, worrying things that my silence only allows to continue.
I wish that it was a simple matter of not spreading words of hate and prejudice and violence to my kids. I wish that I could remain in silence and that they would just naturally fall into the way of love. But it doesn’t happen that way. The culture we live in is steeped in violence. The messages they receive, even if they aren’t purposefully so, are filled with us vs. them ideology. The movies they watch, the stories they hear, the toys they use all come from a system of heroism based on violence, on good guys vs. bad guys. I see it in their play, I hear it in their words. I never purposefully taught my kids these concepts, and yet they are so obviously there, ingrained in their minds. When my son comes home from school saying that he doesn’t want to play with a certain kid because his skin is brown, I know that racism still exists. I know that it isn’t enough to NOT teach racism, but that I also must actively counteract it. When my kids continue to put guns into their play even when we’ve strongly discouraged it, I realize that it isn’t enough to remove the guns, but that we have to replace it with something else.
I realize that some of the issue stems from me, as the parent. I realize that until recently I used corporal punishment in my home, believing the popular opinion that this was an effective and non-harmful mode of discipline. My choice to use violence to try to control my children ingrained in them the habit of responding to frustration, hurt, and violence done to them with more violence. It accomplished nothing positive in our household, and I strongly believe it added to the violence that is often present in their disagreements. When the kids were younger I was conflicted about the use of guns in play. But it seemed liked everyone told me that it didn’t matter if they had guns or not, it was just ingrained in males to use weapons and that they would just make a stick into a gun. So what was the big deal? Though I do believe that violence is ingrained in our human consciousness, I no longer believe we should just accept that and live with it. I believe that we need to counteract this. I believe that the glorification of violence often comes from our culture, not from our soul. I believe that we can learn a different way, a way of peace, the way of Christ.
But it is hard. As I have started to pay attention to the influences on my kids’ lives (and on mine), I realize how pervasive this ideology of violence is. The movies I loved to watch as a kid and am excited to share with my kids almost all teach this idea. It is subtle sometimes, but it is almost always there. I use to say it was ok, because the movies were just portraying this battle between good and evil. But is it beneficial when the “good” is represented by a small band of people who have to use violence to survive, and the “bad” are represented by another usually larger group of people whose choices have made them in some way irredeemable? We learn from these stories that violence is ok if it is aimed at the “bad guys.” But life isn’t that simple. The world is not divided into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Everyone thinks they are the good guy and everyone makes both right and wrong choices. “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us,” to quote J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
I’ve started to try to explain this to my kids. I had started a conversation with one of my boys a few days ago about guns. We’ve really tried to explain to my kids the dangers of guns, but in their minds it really only applied to real guns, something to worry about when they are older. In an attempt to broaden their understanding a little, I shared with one of them about the danger of having a pretend gun that is mistaken for a real gun. The danger of them being shot because someone, even a police officer, might mistake the gun they carried as a threat. The only thing this really seemed to accomplish though was fill my son with fear. I really don’t want him to be afraid of police officers, but I also want to be honest with my kids, to help them understand that everyone is capable of making a choice that harms others. As I tucked my son into bed and tried to assure him that the scenario I shared with him was unlikely to happen to him, I stopped short of adding in the race issue. I knew that because he is white, there is a much less likely chance that it would happen to him, but I didn’t say that. I’m not sure why I didn’t say it, I think part of me felt that it was wrong to give him assurance in this way since it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair that I don’t really have to worry about that happening to him while other parents legitimately do need to worry about it only because their children have a different color skin.
But then yesterday I realized that I need to share that part of the story with my kids. Not because I want them to be reassured, but because it ISN’T fair. And they need to know it isn’t fair. They need to see the injustice of it, so that they can choose a different way in their interactions with those around them. And so I told them. I told them about the things that have been happening, and the troubling number of black people who have been shot by white policemen. And rather than relief my son’s eyes were again filled with fear, but this time the fear was for others. He has friends who are black and he has friends who are hispanic and he was scared for them.
When I asked both my bigger boys what they thought we could do to help, they both answered immediately with: “We can pray.” And I inwardly cringed. Because this is another message that I hear from Christians all the time, and too often it is an excuse to do nothing. I do believe in prayer, don’t get me wrong. We need to pray, probably mostly because prayer changes us. We need to pray for ourselves, we need to pray for those who are hurting, we need to pray for those who have hurt, and we need to pray for those we are afraid of. I absolutely think we need to pray. But we can’t JUST pray. Prayer should spur us to action. And so I answered my boys, “Yes, we can pray, but we also need to treat everyone with respect, no matter what their skin color and we need to step in and stand up for people when they are being treated with disrespect.” And I think we possibly need to do more than that, but I’m still sorting out what that is and wrestling against my desire to take the easy way out yet again.
And so begins the hard job of retraining, both my mind and my children’s mind. It will be a long process. The conversation I shared above was just yesterday and today as John and I sat watching and listening to the kids play on the playground we noticed that yet again they were pretending to use guns. It was ok though, because they were shooting the “bad guys,” the pirates. And so today there was another conversation about how the world is not divided into good guys and bad guys. How everyone deserves to be treated with respect. And this time instead of stopping at the negative directive: “Don’t play with guns.” I went one step further and tried to replace their story with another one. Instead of a ship captain who was going after pirates, Seth became a ship captain searching the sea for refugees in rafts that he could save. I will try to continue to fill our minds with narratives of heroes who make changes in this world without the use of violence. And hopefully in this process we will begin to notice the injustice, the violence, the inequality around us and try to change it. Hopefully we will no longer choose silence, but rather love. Love that speaks up and emboldens us to act.