Teen Violence a Reflection of Our Own

“Look at the example you’re setting for us!  How are you going to tell us to love our neighbors when you’re fighting with them? You can’t make excuses like, ‘ Well, they bombed us first’ because then we can make up dumb excuses like, ‘Well, he hit me first’ or even, ‘He shot me first.’ Don’t preach peace when you’re doing the exact opposite and bombing other countries.”

      Erin, age 15

 “We watch everything you do.  Anyone can talk; show us the way.”

         Delia, age 14

Last week the bombing of Afghanistan intensified and four fights broke out within a two-day period at the high school where I teach. Coincidence? The words of Delia, one of my sophomore students, haunt me: “We watch everything you do.”  Indeed.

We adults would do well to consider Jesus’ warning to those who would mislead these young people through the violent and hypocritical example that we set. It would be better that a millstone be placed around your neck than that you lead one of these little ones astray.

Until this nation is willing to confess its misplaced faith in the works of war and its sinful reliance upon weapons to resolve problems, any effort to alleviate youth violence will be in vain.

Our children are begging for bread and we are giving them stones. And guns. And missiles.

We mock their ideals and their very futures when we admonish them to turn the other cheek in the hallways and on the playground while we export weapons and wars around the globe.

Do we really think that young people will buy violence prevention programs offered by adults who justify the use of “grown-up” violence as necessary for survival in the “real” world?

Like the Pharisees, we lay heavy burdens on young people that we are unwilling to shoulder ourselves.

As the President orders a new round of bombing in Afghanistan and prepares to expand the war on terror across the far reaches of the globe, educators actually spend time and money investigating the causes behind Johnny’s adolescent aggression.

God forgive us our blindness.

The same schools that pride themselves on their “zero-tolerance” policy toward school violence do not see the incongruity of welcoming ROTC programs and military recruiters to campus.

Unfortunately, the militarization of our secondary schools is especially evident in urban schools where students are shamelessly courted by military recruiters who paint a bleak and, frankly, realistic picture of limited civilian options for youth growing up in the city. My heart breaks when I see ROTC students walking stiffly down Vernor Avenue in their pressed military garb, victims of society’s lack of imagination as much as anything else.

As a teacher, it has become clear to me that teen violence is not an adolescent problem at all, but rather, an adult problem.

By their fruits ye shall know them, and the fruit that this nation is producing has been tainted by the dual legacy of violence and greed inherited from elders who have planted and watered the deadly seeds of warmaking and consumerism.

If our students are cynical, it is only because we have truncated their imaginations and spirits in our efforts to  mold them into servants of the system. Their violence is simple a reflection of our own.

Our kids deserve better, and they know it.


Our Catholic schools, especially, must take it upon themselves to confront the hypocrisy of a nation that cries ‘peace, peace’ but does not do the things that make for peace. Catholic schools should be places that are deeply rooted in the bold and radical nonviolent teachings of Jesus and explicit in calling students to the challenges and joys of discipleship.

In my experience, adolescents loathe equivocation and excuses.

It is not they who seek the easy road – the path of least resistance – it is the adults who fear that the spiritual dynamite Peter Maurin writes of may really ignite in the hands of these young ones . . . and then what?!?

They may really decide to beat our nation’s swords into plowshares and God only knows what that would do to the economy?

The combination of Word, sacrament, and tradition that we are sitting on in our Catholic schools has the power to transform the world if only we would risk incarnation.

This would necessitate cutting the dubious cord that binds Catholic schools to the state by reclaiming our catholicity in a culture that confuses Christianity and Americanism.

imageIf we are really serious about educating nonviolent children, we must first ask why our Catholic schools recite the Pledge of Allegiance rather than the prayer of St. Francis.

We must ask how Catholic schools can juxtapose the U.S. flag and the crucifix on our classroom walls, and why political rhetoric from the Hill is often taken more seriously than the Sermon on the Mount.

We must ask why bombing for the sake of physical security is considered prudent and “justifiable” while loving one’s enemies for the sake of spiritual security is considered naïve if not downright subversive.

We must reclaim our roots and steep our students in a vision that is wildly different from the one that we currently offer them.  Our young people are hungry for service, yet we offer them career planning.

Our schools should be places where we cultivate saints not soldiers.

Dorothy Day offered a similar analysis in 1935 when she wrote:

. . . young people have a hunger for the heroic, and too long have been told: ‘Be moderate, be prudent.’ Too long have we had moderation and prudence.

In my experience, students do indeed thirst for the heroic although we are doing little to nourish this instinct. When they respond to violence with violence they are simply mimicking the adults around them who dismiss the nonviolent Gospel as impractical.

They are watching us, as Delia says, and waiting for us to show them the way.