Learning to Love

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The events at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston this summer reverberated throughout South Carolina and across America. A young man entered the church, sat quietly through prayer and Bible study, and after an hour of sharing the warm welcome of the worshipers, shot nine of them dead. It was a shocking event, but no more shocking than what has happened in other places across America. From Columbine, to Tucson, to a theater in Colorado, to Sandy Hook Elementary, we have seen and experienced the shock of sudden, mass killings. This time, America was once again left to ponder what it is in our society that leads to these events. Of course, the left responds with the answer that we have too many guns, and the right answers that it wasn’t the guns but the disturbed individuals who wielded them.

What sets Charleston apart from the other mass shootings was not the gun or the disturbed shooter, but what happened after the gunfire stopped. The families of the victims, when allowed to address the shooter, did not respond out of anger or rage. They approached him with love and forgiveness. It was an act characterized by President Obama in his stirring eulogy of the church’s pastor as a moment of grace. In fact, the President ended his message by singing “Amazing Grace,” a song written, ironically enough, in Charleston by a slave trader who had been visited with a moment of grace and came to see his evil deeds. As the song goes, he was blind, but now [he sees].

This moment of grace offered by the families led to a deeper soul-searching by many others in South Carolina and across America. Since the young man who allegedly perpetrated this hideous act was not driven by unseen voices in his head or by other hallucinatory phantoms, but by the hatred in his heart for others who were not like him, the soul-searching centered on his racism and the Confederate flag he waved to show his solidarity with a cause that the writer of “Amazing Grace” came to understand was heinous.

With stunning rapidity there emerged a movement to begin removing the Confederate flag from public buildings, most notably the State Capitol of South Carolina-a building where one of the shooting victims served as a state senator. Certainly, the Confederate flag did not shoot the gun. It is just a piece of cloth. However, for centuries people have fought and died defending various pieces of cloth because they stood for a deeper value system. The Confederate flag, as viewed by partisans of the southern cause, is a symbol of long-lost valor. Many others view it as a symbol of hate and oppression.

Slavery has been called the original sin of America, but there isn’t anything original about it. Man has been enslaving man since history began. The question emerges as to what we are to do about our original sin.

Nelson Mandela, a man who knew a lot about oppression, observed that No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart then its opposite. So there it is. Racism and classism aren’t something we are burdened with because of our history. They are renewed with each generation. As Mandela implies, if it can be taught, it can be untaught and replaced with love.

That brings us to our role as educators. What, exactly, is our responsibility to the next generation? Is our job merely to teach children reading, writing, and arithmetic? Is it to teach them to understand history so they can avoid repeating it, or is our job something much more profound? Shouldn’t we be teaching our students who they are and who those around them are? Shouldn’t we be teaching them that those who seem different are the same, in fundamental ways, as they are? Shouldn’t we be helping them widen their circles so they can include a broader range of people?

I have had numerous experiences with those who spout racist comments. What I have found so striking is that they have no real idea what they are saying or how hurtful it can be. The purported shooter in South Carolina surrounded himself with those who carried many of the same fears and prejudices he had. It is sad that his world wasn’t made large enough to expose him to different perspectives.

Education, at its core, is about helping children understand that while they are unique and special, so is everyone else.

Pablo Casals, the great cellist, once said, Each second we live is a unique moment in the universe-a moment that will never be again. And what do we teach our children? We teach them two and two make four and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we teach them what they are? We should say to each of them. ‘Do you know what you are? You’re a marvel. You’re unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel?’ You must work; we must all work to make the world worthy of its children. That is how we begin to teach love, instead of hate. That is how we begin to carry out our mission.