Violence 4: Children Are (Not) Resilient

As it often does, the most recent neighborhood education meeting I attend each month featured a representative from Chicago Public Schools.  This man spoke for about twenty minutes and took a number of questions from the participants. It was a normal presentation aside from the subject matter: helping students cope with the upcoming school closings.  A long, anxiety-producing process throughout the winter culminated in the announcement last month that 49 schools will be closed at the end of this academic calendar.

Photo credit: Chicago Public Media (C.C.).
Photo credit: Chicago Public Media (C.C.).

Displaced children and their families are now trying to understand their options and considering the consequences of their eventual decisions.  How much farther will a child’s new school be from home? How welcomed will she be? What invisible lines now have to be crossed?

A few months back I attended a breakfast with other clergy from the South Side and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.  Dr. Byrd-Bennett is clearly an intelligent woman and very capable as the CEO; she said much during our breakfast that I appreciated.  But there was this one thing… “Don’t forget,” she stated while discussing the upcoming school closings, “children are resilient!”  Her point was simple: It’s unfortunate that we have to close these schools, but kids are tough and they will be just fine.

The representative at our neighborhood meeting said much the same thing even as he ran through a massive list of programs, initiatives, and strategies to help school children who are experiencing crisis.  Crises like the school closings.

So which is it?  Resilient or vulnerable and in need of systems and support during crisis?

Probably it’s both, though if we get clearer with our language we might be slower to talk about a young child’s resiliency.  The more than 31,000 displaced students (8% of these are currently homeless) are experiencing the violence of the system in which they find themselves.  Dr. Bryd-Bennett, Mayor Emmanuel, and the Chicago School Board would dispute it, but theirs are violent decisions.  That they aren’t talked about as such only indicates the extent to which violence is normal, the currency of the powerful.

Of course, we can all sleep easier if we believe  soothing truisms about the resiliency of the powerless.

Violence 3: We, The Violent

So far, in these meditations on violence, I’ve not actually defined the word.  We probably imagine a violent act to be one done intentionally, likely by a person with power who willfully injures or destroys one with less power.  How much more specific can we be?  Consider whether violence can ever be just.  Is a destructive act against another technically violent if done in self-defense or at the command of a military superior?  We Christians have our own histories to contend with when it comes to understanding the place of violence within our story: I recently heard a theologian differentiate between the terrible-seeming acts commanded by God in the Old Testament and actual violence; the latter, asserted the theologian, is something God never participates in.  (Whether or not he’s correct isn’t the point.  I mean simply to acknowledge the difficulty of this word, a difficulty that isn’t easily simplified by Christianity.)

Coretta Scott King during the Poor People's Campaign. (Jack Rottier Collection.)
Coretta Scott King during the Poor People’s Campaign. (Jack Rottier Collection.)

I wonder if the slipperiness of the word makes my earlier point that violence is less a moment in time and more the ground on which we walk.  On June 19, 1968 Coretta Scott King addressed the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington DC and described the pervasiveness of violence.

Poverty can produce a most deadly kind of violence. In this society violence against poor people and minority groups is routine. I remind you that starving a child is violence; suppressing a culture is violence; neglecting schoolchildren is violence; discrimination against a working man is violence; ghetto housing is violence; ignoring medical needs is violence; contempt for equality is violence; even a lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.

Context always matters, no more so than in the case of Mrs. King’s remarks.  Less than three months earlier her husband, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., had been assassinated in Memphis.  His was an especially violent death, captured in images and eye-witnesses accounts that still register in our national consciousness.  Yet, when describing the toll of violence, Mrs. King pointed not to her husband’s spectacular and undeniably violent death but to the millions of accepted and overlooked acts that take place every day.

Making the shift toward Mrs. King’s view of violence leaves us with a dilemma far more significant than a murky definition: such a view implicates not a few violent actors but most of us, most of the time.

Violence

I’ve been thinking about violence recently and mean to consider it here from a few different angles.  Here’s the first:

Last week I sat at a table at our public radio station’s South Side bureau with a diverse collection of people from around the city.  Our conversation topics – expertly led by one of my neighbors, a teacher, and one of his high school students – were violence and peace.  By way of introductions we were to give our names, neighborhoods, and a word to describe those neighborhoods.  We adults around the table chose mostly benign adjectives for our neighborhoods while the students – the co-facilitator and two of her peers from different neighborhoods – were less delicate: tension and dangerous were their chosen descriptors.

Die Rauferei by Adriaen Brouwer, 1640 (CC.)
Die Rauferei by Adriaen Brouwer, 1640 (CC.)

These young people don’t live in areas that are more dangerous than the adults do; a mother and her child share the same home but used noticeably different words to represent their neighborhood.  Perhaps we who are older were simply more careful with our words, wanting to paint with a finer brush to create a more accurate representation of the activities that characterize our place in the city.  Neighborhoods may be dangerous but they are never only dangerous.  They may be filled with tension but also with other emotions and experiences.

Or maybe these high schools students were speaking from more recent experiences, growing into the inevitable realization that the world is not a safe place. Of course, the adults have known this for a while but steered away from outlining violence with the same preciseness as did the students.

Violence – the word itself – conjures words, emotions, and memories I prefer to avoid. We Americans may welcome scenes of violence on our television screens but we prefer to think of our real lives as  largely absent of that terrible word. When we do think about it, most of us think about violence as something that happens occasionally. It’s an act, something done within a moment of time to someone.  However horrific it is, the violent moment passes and we return to normal as quickly as possible.

Or do we?  One way to interpret the student’s blunt adjectives at the radio station is that they know that violence is not incidental but pervasive.  It is less the frightening moment that happens to us and more the ground we walk on.