For everything we know about God's Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That's an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out - in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?
Galatians 5:14-15 The Message
They are taking a voyage through a difficult topic. It started with kindness and a visit from the kindness lady. Is kindness contagious? Does kindness take courage? Can random acts of kindness change the environment? I watched their faces and saw their reactions. Handwritten hearts line the hallway outside the classrooms. Hearts written with witnessed acts of kindness - notes of encouragement, helping hands, compliments received - testimony. But these are fifth graders. In the middle of that hormonal period when body parts change, emotions bubble to the surface, adulthood descends. Unskilled adulthood, deer-in-the-headlights adulthood - truly a middle age of uncertainty and chaos. These fifth graders are struggling to understand cause and effect in this world they live in. Can kindness be a cause AND an effect?
The voyage continues. Into a darker theme. What happens when kindness stops? They have studied genocide - they have taken a brief journey into past events. Inhumane events. From a distant lens of time and space, the topic of genocide has entered the classroom. The Pequot massacre - hundreds of Native Americans killed, burned, sold into slavery - the tribe annihilated for their land. Because they were an inconvenience to the settlement of New England by European colonists so very long ago.
In another distant lens of time and space, these fifth graders have looked at Rwanda. They have read how a whole group of people was pushed down and made to feel less-than-human. They have read how another group was built up and given opportunity solely based on their ethnicity - the happy circumstance of their birth into the right tribe. Then they read about revenge. When the first group was raised up to lead, it lashed out at the others. They called them cockroaches. Cockroaches to be exterminated.
These fifth graders, these students, these children-growing-into-adults learned about the numbers. Eight hundred thousand killed while the world stood by. They learned about the words bystander, upstander, and perpetrator. Tough words. Responsible words. Words of choice.
The voyage continues into the Holocaust. The classes of students read a book together. A book that told the story of a young Jewish boy in Germany - in the early years of Hitler's power. In the early, taking-away-rights-little-by-little-discriminating years. The book showed the choices made - the choice of joining the Nazi party in order to support a family because being a member provided opportunity - a job, apartment, food. It showed the choice of participating in mob violence, stirring the blood to boil over into destruction. It showed the very narrow choices left for friendship between two German families - Jewish and not. The book was straightforward - plain language and simple sentences. It was not about the concentration camps. It did not describe the planned extermination of an entire population of people. It did not detail starvation, or incidences of violence. It was not bloody. Disbelief and horror grew in the reading as the students realized how small changes had led to greater changes. Small acts of discrimination led to impossible circumstance for an entire population. The main character died in the end, killed in an air raid because he wasn't allowed into the bomb shelter. He was, after all, a Jew.
"Why didn't the the Jews just leave?" Students asked with incredulous voices. "If he was older, he would have been ok," they said. "If he was older, he would have known how and where to go to get away from the bombs. He would have been faster. He could have run." It was unbelievable, to these students, that there could be situations of no escape. No escape from bombs that fell from the sky. No safe place. No escape from a country that was literally making life impossible. Rules and regulations that took away any option for survival.
The students raised their hands, taking turns, sitting on the carpet, gathered together, discussing this book about these events that happened so long ago and so far away from their experience, from their time, from their lives. They discussed. They made connections to the reading about Rwanda - the reading about the Pequot. On the carpet. In the classroom. Where they could raise their hands and speak their minds. In precious freedom. Where being older was a solution.
Looking through books about the Holocaust, in anticipation of a field trip to the Holocaust Museum, they saw photos of children who had died - old people who had died - couples and families. The voice of humanity spoke through one of the fifth graders. "Children and old people? That's just not right - they weren't going to hurt anyone..."
The voyage isn't over. It is a hard lesson, a difficult idea. Students will soon make a connection that is very real in their lives. Not through a lens of long ago and far away. A connection that happens everyday - even in the classroom - even on the carpet. Students will soon make a connection between kindness, discrimination, genocide, and bullying. Bullying on the playground, in the hallways, on the carpet. The act of bullying - the possible results of bullying. Bullying left unchecked - bullying encouraged - or bullying stopped. They will understand the roles of bystander and upstander. They will know the consequences of their choices. It's a hard lesson, a difficult idea. Precious freedom.
Thank you, God, for our children. For their safety, for their innocence, for their questions, for their humanity. Help them to grow and mature in you. Thank you for precious freedom.