The Common Good
September-October 1998

Escalating Love

by James McGinnis, Anne Marie Hansen | September-October 1998

Jesus' words as he wept over Jerusalem are probably more compelling today than ever: "If this day you only knew the ways that make for peace..." (Luke 19:42).

Jesus' words as he wept over Jerusalem are probably more compelling today than ever: "If this day you only knew the ways that make for peace..." (Luke 19:42). Surely Jesus weeps today as he did then. He weeps over Jonesboro, Arkansas; over Pearl, Mississippi; over Paducah, Kentucky; over Springfield, Oregon; and every other school and playground where children are killed, especially by other children.

The circle of safety, love, and peace that once surrounded most children in this society has been broken. Children are no longer as safe at school, on the way to and from school, in their neighborhoods, and even at home. Jesus who so loved the children of his own time continues to love and mourn the children of our time. And he does so in a special way through parents, teachers, and all others who nurture children. While he needs our tears of mourning, he needs us even more to teach and live the ways that make for peace.

These shocking events should be a national wake-up call; they should serve as teachable moments to help young people cope with increasing social violence. The first level of response is within our own hearts and touches the hearts of our children. Its guiding principle reads: "In the face of escalating violence, escalate love." We can embrace our children, grandchildren, neighbors, and friends with unconditional love and respect. We can reach out to those kids who have been marginalized in any way, pull them in to the center of our homes and our schools, and let them know that they, too, are a gift from God. We can seek out mentors who can serve as their guardian angels.

There are many times when we cannot prevent violence from happening, but we can offset its negative impact on a community by escalating nonviolent behaviors. If some young people react violently because they are not being listened to, then we can work harder at being good listeners. If some young people are being cruel or mean, we can become more gentle and kind. If some young people turn to gangs or cliques to feel superior to others, we can reach out to others who are different from us and create more of a sense of community where we live, go to school, work, or play.

A second level of response is to redouble our efforts to teach children the kind of skills they need to deal with violence. We can encourage them to participate in peer mediation programs in their schools and advocate for such programs where they don't yet exist. We can teach children how to express their feelings constructively, especially negative ones like rage, fear, humiliation. We can encourage them to talk out these feelings, maybe write about them as well, and find appropriate physical outlets for their anger. We can teach them how to solve problems and negotiate their differences. We can reinforce basic rules of safety, such as reporting to adults rumors of fights and the presence of weapons. And we can use these negative events to repeat our lectures on the craziness of having weapons to make you feel more secure.

Many parents, teachers, and pastors have begun to offer young people these skills as part of a nonviolent way of living that is embodied in the Pledge of Nonviolence for families and schools. As the Pledge continues to spread through every community in this country and be translated into every language spoken in this country, we can be encouraged by this sense that we are not in it alone, that there is a concerted effort to live differently.

THIS SENSE OF HOPE is reinforced by the third level of response to societal violence. This is the element of communitywide involvement and direct action. Communitywide involvement includes assessing community assets available to our children that keep them "off the streets" and involved in local arts, culture, sports, recreation, and outreach programs. Businesses, social service and health care agencies, and local government can form partnerships with schools and thus with families, to find ways to improve and expand upon existing assets in order to ensure our children a safe, caring community.

Just as psychologists emphasized in the midst of children's fears of nuclear weapons at the height of the Cold War, young people are most hopeful and less afraid when they see the significant adults in their lives taking action on what is frightening them. In the face of escalating gun violence, people are escalating their efforts for gun safety and gun control. In the face of escalating media violence, people are escalating their efforts to challenge networks and sponsors to provide less violent programming. In the face of escalating school violence, people are escalating their efforts to integrate conflict resolution skills and peer mediation programs in their local schools.

Many families and faith communities are doing this as part of the Families Against Violence Advocacy Network, whose Family Pledge of Nonviolence and School Pledge of Nonviolence are coupled with an advocacy agenda that brings the efforts of groups such as the Children's Defense Fund, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, the National Coalition on TV Violence, and other advocacy organizations to families, schools, faith communities, health care providers, and many other community agencies.

Young people and adults alike with whom we are working feel less frightened and powerless because of this alternative agenda for our individual lives and for public policy at the local, state, and national levels. We don't have to be passive victims of violence. We can be and must be God's active instruments of peace.

JAMES McGINNIS and ANNE MARIE HANSEN are national leaders in the Families Against Violence Advocacy Network. For more information, contact (314) 533-4445; e-mail: ppjn@aol.com; Website: http://members.aol.com/ppjn

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