Parenting, Teaching and Living in a Violent World: A Pacifist's View
When you are the mother of three-year-old and five-year-old boys, a tenured professor, and a popular public speaker, living out the meaning of the word “vacation” is often more dream than reality. Last July, Dr. Grace Yia-Hei Kao was living the dream in the Palm Dessert breeze and watching her boys play in the pool when reality delivered a gut punch.
It started innocently enough: her boys wanted water guns for the pool. The pacifist professor appeased them – and her conscience – by agreeing to buy shark-shaped water shooters. It worked… until children from other vacationing families showed up with AK-47-style water guns. “I discovered that the toy a parent provides in a home cannot defeat or overcome everything else out there, at school, on television, in books, and on play dates,” said Kao, who teaches and researches on issues related to human and nonhuman animal rights and has published on the relationship between religion and violence, and the issue of interreligious cooperation and conflict.
The scene playing out in front of her led Kao to blog about the violence that pervades our world. She was vacationing, after all, in July 2013, at a time when a jury had just acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges in the Trayvon Martin shooting case.
“Then I started thinking about the recent soccer match in Brazil where an angry crowd ended up stoning, drawing and quartering, and decapitating a human being—the referee! With crazy euphoria! I’m sitting with these thoughts and watching my boys, who felt very powerful with these forbidden water toys.”
Kao – an expert on the ethics of war and peace – says whether it is toy guns in the pool or real guns (and chemical weapons) writ large on the world stage, she constantly grapples with the question of the use of lethal violence to achieve certain ends? “Our tendency toward violence, in my judgment, shows how sinful we are,” explains Kao. “I don’t deny that the use of violence can bring about pragmatic ends in some, perhaps many, cases but I do reject the use of lethal force. As a Christian, I’m not permitted to have recourse to that.”
Recently, Kao presented her Christian Ethics class with a case study, entitled “Nonviolence with a Rapist?” regarding one woman’s encounter with a male intruder. In essence, the woman convinced her intruder not to harm her, explaining that any use of violence by him could ruin both of their lives, forever. The man relented and the woman offers to let him to sleep in her home, but in another room. Kao says some students in the class admired the woman’s creative solutions and her ability to diffuse the situation. But, as she expected, many others said the woman “would have been absolutely justified in using lethal force to defend herself.” In other words, it would have been okay for her to kill him.
“There truly is no consensus about the use of force to achieve certain ends, within the Christian community. We saw this in some reactions to the Trayvon Martin case. We see the glorification of tools of violence even among kids wanting to play with water guns. We are now having a serious debate in this country as to whether and when the use of lethal force can be justified,” noted Kao.
In the case of Syria – or any conflict with international ramifications – this familiar question is magnified on the world stage as leaders contemplate whether the good to be achieved through violence outweighs the evil to be done. With respect to contemporary discussions about “humanitarian intervention” in Syria, Kao adds “there are multiple questions of law – International, Syrian, Russian, the United States – and the questions of law do not map neatly on to questions of morality.”
As Kao continues to search for answers, she harkens back to the voice of one of her divinity school professors, the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the Harvard Divinity School, who pointed out in a sermon that while progressives today have a tendency to blame violence on modern influences, “Cain slew Abel long before there were violent shows on TV or in video games. The story is as old as humankind.” In fact, the Bible is only four chapters deep when brother kills brother for the first time out of jealousy. That’s little consolation for a mother of impressionable, happy boys. But she is mulling, finding new perspectives, and examining every angle, which is exactly what one would hope parents – and leaders – everywhere are doing.
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