A Lesson for Children

On the Monday holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., my two older daughters and I have for some years participated in a march for peace and signed a “Women for Peace” petition. It is a small rite of passage. Those daughters, now in college, signed their way through their formative years against the death penalty, against nuclear weapons, against abortion. One of them mounted her own campaign against animal euthanasia when she found out at the age of eight what goes on at the pound. She made a large sign that said “SAVE THE CATS!”, nailed it to a stick and demonstrated in the driveway.


My two younger daughters signed their first petition tonight.

When I told them that we were going to a peace march, they looked uneasy. “I mean, I support it and everything, but I don’t want to go,” said my 14-year-old. She had a change of heart when we arrived at the gathering place and a young man about her age asked if we were there for the march. “Yes,” she admitted hesitantly, to which he replied “Sweet!” Suddenly she was holding a flickering candle.

My youngest, whom I still think of as my darling baby even though she has turned 11, showed a disturbing streak of cynicism. “It won’t matter if I go or not,” she said. “There will still be a war.”

As it happened, we were passing a church with one of those lighted signs with catchy phrases, evangelism on the fly. This one said, “Home is the first school: what do you teach?” And I realized how much there was to teach her. So we talked about how a democracy works, how people with diverse opinions can build a society together and how each voice is necessary to the whole. Then we talked about repressive governments, as in Iraq, where we would be arrested and possibly “disappear” if we attended a rally like this one, or even for writing about it, as her mom has an annoying habit of doing. “You could be killed just for writing in the paper?” she asked incredulously, having been growing these 11 years in a home and a nation where everything and everyone are fair game for commentary.

She signed the petition, dotting her ‘i’ with a heart.

My daughters were surprised that anyone besides their fossilized parents knew the words to “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Imagine.” Some of the marchers read stirring words by Martin Luther King Jr. that “war is a poor chisel for carving out a peaceful tomorrow.” I doubt that this powerful image affected my girls as it did me, but I know it was important for them to see that we are not, in our largely conservative community, the only oddballs who oppose war.

The evening was a who’s who of our minuscule left. The sentiments were strong, the motives were lofty, and the feelings ran hot. We were among friends, wearing our gloves and hats against the cold, exercising our American right to peaceful protest.

But I couldn’t squelch my discomfort when the speeches turned from the merits of peace to the deficiencies of President Bush. Not that I voted for him, or care to defend his indefensible decisions; but when the talk turned mean, indeed demonizing, it occurred to me that speech can make war, too. That words can be violent and inflammatory. That the insinuations and aspersions were negating both the power and the dream of peace. And that true peace cannot coexist with such angry grinding axes.

And yet I find myself marching for peace, while within my own family, war looms on the horizon. A brother is behaving badly, and the rest of us want to punish him. We are angry with him. The family war council is meeting by phone, ready to declare the opening of hostilities, unwilling to forgive. He must pay, we pontificate, ignoring the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who abuse you” (Lk 6:27-8). Here at the march, I expect Iraqis and Americans, Israelis and Palestinians, to settle their enormous differences peacefully, but I am unable to manage a truce among a handful of people who are bound by blood. It is, as usual, easier to apply the impossible words of Jesus to others than to myself. Well, if Jesus knew my brother...but of course he does. And he loves him.

My youngest daughter pointed out one of the marchers’ signs, which read, “WWBD: What Would Buddha Do?” “Buddha?” she demanded. “What’s wrong with Jesus?” Therein lurks another issue, even for a small, local protest march. Apologies to Buddha, but what is wrong with Jesus? “WWJD” has become associated with the fundamentalist Christian right, which is in turn linked to antifeminism and homophobia and now militarism; and somehow Jesus, a nonviolent revolutionary, has become anathema to many peaceniks on the left. We have muddied Jesus’ essential message. Nobody was coming forward to read from the Gospel of Luke. Strangely enough, the Beatles stood in for Christ, preaching that “all you need is love.”

Love is all we need.

If peace is the presence of justice, then we must be careful with our diction. If we believe that we shall overcome, then we must educate as we act. We must model compassion and mercy, beginning with our own families. We must do away with all that dehumanizes our fellow human beings, even those with whom we disagree. We must, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, speak a language of life and love.

If nothing else sank in tonight, I pray my daughters learned that lesson.

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