This Friday I will attend the Peace in Education Summit in Newark, New Jersey, and as one local journalist described it, now is “a curious time to talk about peace.”
Nonetheless, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and like-minded Nobel laureates will join poets, educators, other peacemakers in their fields, a few thousand attendees and most importantly, 1,000 of Newark’s students to discuss what it will take to get to peace and, I hope, to get started in making it happen.
That sounds like a nice and fluffy way to spend time. But we’re busy people. Why should we care?
Rewind ten years. Where were you when you saw the towers fall?
On September 11, 2001 I was with a class of ninth graders in a Washington, DC high school, and the image I still see today was not one I saw on TV. It is the face of a fourteen year-old boy, and the face is a question. He is looking at me, and he expects answers.
He had faith that we adults could provide the answers as we could for any question of the week—questions about thesis statements, short story structure, new vocabulary words. But that month, other questions intercepted, without regard for the topic of the lesson or my focus at any given time.
“Ms. Murphy, why did they want to kill us?”
“Miss Murphy, will the terrorists go to Hell?”
“I don’t understand,” he asked when he saw photos of crowds applauding the news of the towers falling. “How can they be happy that people died?”
Fast forward to last Sunday night, and the exuberant cheering among Americans at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death.
I agree it is a stretch to equate the cheering we saw in 2001 at the news of American suffering and the cheering that erupted last week. Proud of our armed forces and grateful for their sacrifices, American crowds cheered that justice was done toward someone who chose to destroy instead of live. Many were glad for the clear message sent to others who would use their lives for similar horrible influence: you cannot take our lives with impunity. The celebration was a screaming sigh of relief celebrating freedom from a man who had cast incalculable pain over too many lives to count.
But as we know now, there was something more too, an unseemly side to victory in our cheering crowds, laced with still-anger spinning slightly on its head in the collective relishing of revenge exacted.
“Burn in Hell OBL!”
“I wish I could have been the one to shoot you in the eyes.”
Religious leaders and others came out quickly to rebuke. Good people aren’t supposed to feel that way at the news of someone’s death. Or at least, those who do should keep it to themselves.
“Not our finest moment,” said a campus minister to NPR.
Yet almost ten years ago, even the most monkish among us were surprised by the dark rage they confronted in themselves at the sight of the gleeful annihilation of thousands. Even peacemakers were awakened to aggression they hadn’t seen in themselves in a long time, and many fought with their own moments of wanting this man to feel the kind of pain he had inflicted on others.
My anger in 2001 was compounded by the sight of my students’ faces, upon which world events were depositing cynicism by the week. Childhoods would be shorter now, and in ways that would only begin to become apparent in the next ten years.
By the end of that year my student’s question-of-a-face on 9/11 had become a succinct, I-know-the-drill, nothing-surprises-me-anymore period.
Last week images were re-released connecting the crowds cheering bin Laden’s death with crowds flooding the streets of New York, Chicago, Paris and cities across the world at the end of World War II – a war rooted in the powerful influence of a man with a similar grip on our national conscience, and Adolf Hitler was confirmed dead 66 years to the day before Osama bin Laden was.
But creepy as this connection is, the streets filled in 1945 to celebrate peace, and one scan of the headlines shows we are far from that. When will we get that kind of peace to celebrate?
With summit-goers on their way to Newark this weekend to seek peace through education, our reactions last weekend may be the most promising start to bringing this peace about.
We have to ask, can we be patriots and peacemakers?
We need better answers to the ninth grade questions than those we have given children since September 11, 2001. Anyone who has ever had a teacher who is weak in his or her content area knows how hard it is to teach something to children that we haven’t learned ourselves.
No matter what faith we follow, it looks like we all have the same job to do, and from what I can tell, it’s not going to be fun. We don’t have to re-invent the wheel, and religious leaders and peacemakers have some good suggestions, though most of us dismissed them as too ethereal or irrelevant to actually try doing over the past ten years.
But if we take their answers seriously this time around, instead of being the (secretly scared) cool kids who laugh and point at them until they shut up, their outrageous ideas just might give us the celebrations of peace we are craving.
For those who look to the life of Jesus Christ as a model, it doesn’t take a religious scholar to see Osama bin Laden in the Roman soldiers who showed no regard for individual lives, but whom Christ forgave anyway while they gleefully and brutally tortured him.
Christians speak of Jesus as the one who gave us a shot at Heaven by dying on the cross. As a child learning this doctrine, I was always puzzled by the explanation.
They said: God gave his only son for your salvation.
I heard: God charged me his son's murder as the cover price for my ticket into
I thought: 1. Sorry, Jesus.
2. God, that’s kind of sick.
Nobody mentioned it was no ticket at all but the mere example that we needed, because it would be freakishly hard for us to forgive the lesser crimes that would occur against us in our own lives, and we needed the teacher who could model it to give us some clue about how this forgiveness thing can work.
It didn’t hit me until adulthood that the rest was up to us, that if we forgive and—crap—love??—Osama bin Laden and those like him, we wouldn’t have to move to Heaven later because it would move to us, now.
Christians aren’t the only ones on the hook. For those who look to the Prophet Muhammad as their example, the Qu’ran advises that we “restrain anger and pardon men.” (3: 133). “Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord,” (3: 133) and “show forgiveness…” (7: 199) it reads.
No religion teacher will ever have to explain to me again why Christ’s love was considered so radical and threatening to the status quo. The idea of forgiving Osama bin Laden still sounds as ludicrous to many of us as it must have sounded to audiences of Christ and Muhammad when they first piped up with the idea in meetings and were met with awkward silences before anyone was really listening.
In Jewish law, the prayers of someone withholding forgiveness at Yom Kippur can be rejected.
For Buddhists, His Holiness the Dalai Lama urged compassion toward the man whose death was a just consequence for his actions.
In Hinduism you can refuse forgiveness all you want, as long as you don’t mind the same shut down being directed at you later and when you need forgiveness the most.
I don’t even think the atheists and agnostics have wiggle room here. Not only does every religious tradition say forgiving this enemy and those who still follow him is what’s good for us, but religion cannot claim compassion for its followers alone. Plus, Harvard, the Mayo Clinic and other sources give the same advice, through medical research on the impact of forgiveness on physical healing and emotional well being.
To effectively confront our deepest personal losses and violations against our dignity, forgiveness seems to be the only thing that lightens grief enough to carry it while we live the rest of our lives.
What better place to start than Osama bin Laden, arguably the least forgivable person that this particular country would want to forgive?
Ugh, so the next step to global peace is in our messy, angry, moving-too-fast-to-even-feel-them-beating hearts?
Can’t we just leave it to the military, police and state department folks who already signed on for this? They’re paid to preserve the peace.
But how can they preserve a peace we haven't offered to be preserved?
What I love about the Newark Peace in Education Summit is that as lofty as the list of speakers and panelists, there are no ivory towers here. I love that it will be led and attended by the young men and women of Newark who want peace in their communities. I love that it is a city that is arguably one of the most ripe for peace in the country.
Yet even the most powerful hope for peace we have in education amounts to no more than a shaky voice in a noisy crowd unless we as adults get this right first.
As for me, I am excited to attend a workshop led by Marianne Williamson, whose books have helped me with my personal obstacles to peace over the years. I also hope to hear Edward Norton, whose portrayal of a man transformed from isolation to love in The Painted Veil was so convincing it was the only reason I kept believing in someone I thought might be beyond the reach of love.
With childhoods narrowing and violence increasing in the Middle East, Newark and in road-raged, angry hearts, this weekend we need viable answers to teach the children whose faces are still question marks.
We can look to centuries-old traditions for these answers and to their leaders and scholars to translate them--not as scolding voices shaking their fingers at the way we respond in an emotional moment, but as teachers who have been through worse than what we have and can model the way out.
I am hopeful that last week’s responses to the end of a life will provide the jolt we need toward healing the rage we still feel over what we’ve lost, shifting it gradually into peace, and in the next ten years, being qualified enough to show children how it's done.