So let my lord go on ahead of his servant, while I move along slowly at the pace of the flocks and herds before me and the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.
Anyone who has walked with young children knows that the going can be slow: adults bend over to grasp tiny hands as journeys start and stop for bathroom breaks or the chance to wonder at a blade of (sometimes at every blade of) grass. Adults might feel encumbered by diaper bags, juice boxes, snacks, and other “just in case” items. Nevertheless, the pace is measured by the lead of our children.
But the going is not always slow. Sometimes adults are scrambling to catch up to the children who have run ahead. In the last few weeks, children and young people have clearly outpaced adults. Nearly a year ago, I submitted a forum piece about protest marches that had sprung up in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. On March 24, 2018, the March for Our Lives took place in cities across the United States (and I am writing again). Young people organized these marches in the aftermath of the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Students had already led “walkouts” in their schools to commemorate the seventeen who lost their lives in that tragedy and to call for reforms that would improve school safety, including reforms to gun control laws. Students who have long felt and/or have been unsafe in their neighborhoods and schools shared the platform with students experiencing the shock of violence for the first time.
The walkouts and the marches have had their detractors. Unsurprisingly, the National Rifle Association claimed “Gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children as part of their plan to DESTROY the Second Amendment.” At the same time, the NRA has exploited the tragedy in a recruiting campaign, “Stand and Fight for Our Kids’ Safety by joining the NRA.” Rick Santorum, former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania, claimed that even as tens of thousands of young people travelled to DC to protest, they were essentially “looking to someone else to solve their problem” and recommended that instead of focusing on gun reform they should do something at the individual level, like learning CPR. He called for solutions that encourage students to focus on being prepared to respond (rather than proactive work on efforts toward prevention), scornfully, he chides further on what their protesting is about: “Oh, someone else needs to pass a law to protect me.”
In addition to illustrating the poles of a debate about the role and limits of the government in securing the common good, these reactions to the peaceful and powerful response of young people also reveal incoherence in how the moral agency of children and young people functions in our communities. Some bemoan a selfie generation hypnotized by media screens and in need of clear and authoritative guidance in virtue on the part of adults. Some critique efforts to secure the rights of children, seeing rights as an abdication of adult responsibility to protect children. Ironically while eschewing agency, this same chorus is now chastising children and young people for taking responsibility, acting bravely and constructively to make “their problem” our own, and publicly demanding the kinds of protection only adults can provide, including perhaps especially adult legislators at that.
Gregory Boyle, SJ, founder of Homeboy Industries and author of Tattoos on the Heart, has recently published a follow-up, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. With Barking, he brings readers deeper into reflection on violence in the communities in which he ministers. According to Boyle, “nothing stops a bullet like a job.” Nothing beats isolation like meaningful participation in the common good; nothing beats stigma like compassion and mercy. As Boyle traces the history and roots of violence in the lives of young men and women at Homeboy Industries, he gives particular thoughtful attention to the role of mental illness. Enhanced support and treatment for persons with mental illnesses are desperately needed to interrupt cycles of trauma and violence. Rightfully, Boyle is equally insistent that, referring to persons with mental illness, there are no “monsters” here. Sadly, as Boyle and others recognize, the historical and continuing rhetoric around mental illness and mass violence relies heavily on the stigmatization of persons with mental illness and what may be the subtle but sure erosion of their civil rights.
Does our society and church need to address bullying in schools, workplaces, and families? Yes. Does our church and society need to address the multivalent challenges faced by people who live with mental illness and those who love, care for, and teach, work, and play with them? Yes. Will these efforts require both interpersonal and structural change? Yes. Forcing choices between gun laws, bullying, and mental illness only sets up false oppositions. The young people marching for their lives –lives characterized paradoxically by fear and courage, noise and silence, powerlessness and power—seem to know that these forced choices are lies … and they are not falling for it. Let’s keep up with their pace as we march in solidarity for justice, peace, and the common good.