June 09, 2022

He found himself guarding the door at his daughter's elementary school graduation.

Parenting as a Catholic pacifist in an era of mass shootings

Jon M. Sweeney, 9 June 2022, in the magazine, “America: The Jesuit Review”

Only two days after the horrific killing of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Tex., I filed into an auditorium to watch my daughter’s elementary school graduation ceremony.

She attends Golda Meir, a public school in downtown Milwaukee, Wis., and the 85 children finishing fifth grade were participating in a “bridging ceremony,” celebrating their move next year across the street to the middle school campus.

Some time before the speeches and the video presentation that paired a contemporary photo of each child’s face beside one of each as toddlers, I found myself lingering near the front door.

In some ways it was just like any other school function throughout the year. Students and parents arrived, masked, and sat down in the auditorium. The latest school shooting was everywhere in the news, but I didn’t hear a word of fear nor a mention of the gun violence in the quiet conversation of people near me. But as we gathered to celebrate this group of school children, those children who died in Texas, who would never make it to their own graduations, were at the forefront of my mind. Surely others felt the same.

My wife and I had arrived early, and from our seats near the front, I kept looking back toward the entrance we had walked through. It occurred to me, Should there be a guard here? And then, Is anyone watching the front door? So I got up and did that.

Admittedly, this is an unusual move for someone who considers himself a pacifist. When I turned 18 and had to register with Selective Service, I did so by writing “Conscientious Objector” on the form. Since then, I have called myself a peacemaker. I have never held a gun and never want to. But I am also a father. So on this day, I found myself leaving my seat to stand near the entrance and eye every guy who walked through the door.

If I’d seen someone with a weapon, I’d have thrown my 195 pounds at him as best I could.

I often feel that it's inevitable: Someday I'll be throwing myself in front of a stream of bullets. Maybe I won’t be called on to throw myself in front of a stream of bullets, but I will need to be ready to do so. The thought occurs to me at synagogue, too, since not only is the tally of mass shootings going up, but so is the hate that fuels them.

I’m a Catholic married to a rabbi, and I see how anti-Semitism is growing. At the synagogue, I keep an eye on the door while services are going on and make a mental note about which metal chair I might pick up to throw at a gun-toting intruder, or from what angle I might rush at him if he has come to get the rabbi.

Ever since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, schools have created safety drills and discussion and training sessions for teachers, staff and students to prepare them to respond to crisis situations involving guns. “Active shooter” has become a phrase known to all. My oldest child was only 6 when the Columbine shooting happened. Our family has grown up in this world.

There is no question that mass shootings are more common at public schools than private ones. I have not read much analysis as to why. And I am not eager to. But the other day I asked a friend whose children attend one of our Milwaukee Catholic schools if he thinks his kids are safer there. He said he thought the small size of the school, along with practical safety measures, created what he felt was a relatively safe environment for his children. His answer spoke to the importance of community in keeping children safe, the vigilance we owe one another at every school.

As a Christian I am told not to fear, and as a pacifist I am told not to defend myself. Just look at the exchange between Jesus and Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26). When the soldiers come to take Jesus away, Peter strikes at one of them with his sword. Clearly, Peter is armed. But Jesus rebukes his friend, the first pope. Put your sword away, Jesus tells him. Do you really believe that is how the will of God is accomplished? The church allows for self-defense. But attacking someone, even someone threatening violence, is not what I have been taught to do as a follower of Jesus and a pacifist. But these commands are getting harder to follow.

A Christian is called to be a martyr, a word that means “witness,” and the examples given by Jesus of martyr-witnesses are those whom we have come to understand as saints. They are people who, when faced with danger or violence, are willing to sacrifice their lives without harming others, even those who try to hurt them. Even from the cross, with violence all around him, Jesus did not fight back. Instead he said, “Father, forgive them.” I want to show forgiveness. I want to respond peacefully. But I also want to keep my eye on the auditorium door.

My wife, the congregational rabbi, is not a Jesus-follower, but she shares my feelings of not wanting guns in religious services, despite the risks religious people face by gathering together. Our local Jewish federation recently provided funding for every synagogue to have an armed guard at high holiday services each fall. My wife accepted the offer but now feels uneasy about it.

There is now a worldly reality that may require armed guards under certain circumstances. In St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, for instance. At the Western Wall in Jerusalem. But the presence of weapons fundamentally changes a space. The result of this capitulation, for me anyway, is that I cannot really pray in those places. Can you really promote a sense of peace by surrounding a place with guns? Does an armed guard make prayer possible, or does an armed guard make a place unholy?

Everyone walking through the door at my daughter’s fifth grade graduation turned out to be a parent, grandparent, sibling or friend. I returned to my seat before the presentations began, and the door to the auditorium remained open. It felt like a risk, but what was I to do, really? Every day at school is now a day when our children are at risk. I will not be there to protect my children 99 percent of the time. But I also know that if I am there, I will not hesitate to lead the charge against an attacker.

As that video presentation rolled, showing the beautiful grinning faces of my daughter and her classmates, I wept quietly in my seat, thinking of those parents who, on that same day, were burying their children in the hot sun.