Because Friends believe that faith requires action in the world, the schools emphasize the development of a caring community, peaceful resolution of conflict, and service to others, especially those less fortunate. Friends have a long tradition of putting love into action, and the Quaker testimonies of equality, community, harmony, and simplicity are reflected in the life of the school. Students grow into compassionate and responsible adults who recognize their interconnectedness with the larger human family.
–“What Does a Friends School Have to Offer?” Friends Council on Education, Sidwell Friends School Website
“We found the dead bodies. Some of the dead bodies were really badly chopped up by the rockets…The head of a child was missing. Others were missing limbs. We tried to find the body pieces and put them together. As it was getting late, we brought down the bodies in a rope bed. We buried them in the village’s cemetery. The children were all from poor families.”
— Ashabuddin, a shopkeeper from Manogai, a nearby village, whose nephew Khalid was among nine boys, ages 7 to 14, killed while collecting firewoood by Nato helicopter gunners. New York Times, March 2, 2011
Kids are returning to school and President Obama’s daughters Malia and Sasha, like the children of many of the political elite in Washington DC, will soon begin classes at Sidwell Friends. Sidwell is a Quaker school self described as an educational community inspired by the values of the Religious Society of Friends and guided by the Quaker belief in “that of God” in each person. According to Irene McHenry, the Executive Director of the Friends Council on Education, the Obamas chose Sidwell school because “students learn that all of life is sacred, learn to resolve conflict non-violently through thoughtful listening and active engagement with different perspectives…”
What is it like to be raised with a Christian commitment to non-violence, a commitment to peaceful conflict resolution, a belief that every human being is sacred, while knowing that your parents, your government, your country is committed to violent intervention in 60 percent of the world’s countries? What kind of confusion is created in a young person who is told to admire and emulate Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other spiritual activists committed to non-violence when you know that in the real world problems are solved by bombs, by guns, by assassination, by secret acts of violence and torture?
How could any young person trust Christianity as a viable way of life when it is so blatantly and obviously ignored by the commitments and actions of adults? How do our children integrate the knowledge that our country (whose leaders proclaim their commitment to Jesus, see here and here) is responsible for thousands and thousands of innocent deaths? How do Malia and Sasha and all the other children of powerful political leaders reconcile the knowledge that their parents are committed to violence as a way of solving problems? What damage is done to the souls of Malia and Sasha and all the other young people formed by Christian values when they see the images of dead Afghan children killed by Christian soldiers with the support of Christian political leaders and a country that claims to follow Jesus?
What happens, I want to suggest, is that the spiritual yearnings within these young people are smothered. Christian morality and the life of Jesus become dispensed to the world of fairy tale. The spiritual truths passed onto our children become so blatantly disregarded that a young person learns to reduce the Christian faith to a sort of “rules of etiquette for the socially mobile.”
I remember reading a story in the San Francisco Chronicle by Matthew Stannard entitled The War Within. The article profiles Blake James Miller, a U.S. soldier who was dubbed “The Marlboro Man” after an iconic photo taken of Miller’s dirt and blood smeared face was reprinted in over 150 newspapers in 2004. The photo made Miller a “poster-boy” of the Iraq war and garnered gifts and attention from people across the United States including President George Bush who sent him a box of cigars. In 2006, however, Miller returned from Iraq and suffered severe post-traumatic stress which led to psychotic breakdowns, alcoholism, and ultimately the dissolution of his marriage. Miller was raised a Christian and at one time wanted to be a pastor. In preparing for battle he brought his comrades together for prayer and encouragement, often quoting scripture from memory. In trying to understand the nature of Miller’s suffering his adopted grandmother, Mildred Childers, believes it is a spiritual suffering, a crisis of faith, that destroyed Miller’s sense of self. Stannard writes:
She [Childers] still remembers Miller’s call just before the assault on Fallujah, and his terrible question: “How can people go to church and be a Christian and kill people in Iraq?”
“He was raised where that’s one of the Ten Commandments, do not kill,” she said. “I think it’s hard for a soldier to go to war and have that embedded in them from small children up, and you go over there and you’ve got to do it to stay alive.”
How much of the post-traumatic stress that returning soldiers undergo is due to the impossibility of reconciling our country’s reliance and celebration of murder alongside God’s command to refrain from killing? What kind of cruelty are we inflicting on our youth and children when we teach them in Sunday school, youth groups, and schools like Sidewell to “love your neighbor” and further, “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you” and then expect them to become patriotic supporters of a country that regularly kills civilians?
If our young people are going to be formed in Christian faith with Christian values, if they are to be encouraged to follow the non-violent Jesus, then shouldn’t our churches, our pastors, the adult communities that surround our young people become actively committed to non-violence, to supporting leaders committed to ending the wars? If we choose to raise our children in schools and religious communities that practice peaceful conflict resolution, why can’t we choose leaders who uphold these same values and practices?
If we can’t find leaders committed to “that of God” in everyone, then maybe the kindest thing we can do is to stop sending our kids to schools and churches that indoctrinate children in Christian principles. Maybe the best thing we can do for our children is to stop the hypocrisy and start forming schools and religious communities that embody the beliefs and practices that we actually trust. Rather than teaching Malia and Sasha conflict resolution, Sidwell should teach preemptive violence against kids suspected of future wrongdoing. Instead of promoting “thoughtful listening” with people from “different perspectives,” Sidwell should train students to identify and eliminate the “bad guys.” Why not raise Malia, and Sasha, and other young people in schools and churches that allow teachers to chain, isolate, and water-board groups who harbor or interact with students suspected of terrorizing other students? Why not create schools and churches that reflect our real beliefs, our real faith, so that Malai and Sasha and all the other children growing up in a country committed to multiple wars, won’t have to suffer the hypocrisy and humiliation of being sent to a school of make-believe, a school out of touch with adult problem-solving, a school whose commitments are as silly and impractical as the life of Jesus?
[For training and resources in non-violent resistance and conflict resolution go to http://www.paceebene.org].