Yesterday morning, roughly 30 students walk out of their classes at our local high school for 17 minutes, just like it happened a month ago against gun violence. This time, it was to object to the violence done to unborn children through abortion. But unlike the previous event, this one did not have any big media presence.
There was no TV station filming. You did not have hundreds, or even dozens of people supporting the students who chose to walk out. There were perhaps 30 supportive adults just off campus property. Some had American flags. Others had what I would call typical pro-life signs. Other simply stood by and watched. Unless I am very much mistaken, I was the only pastor there. There was perhaps one other parent.
We were not allowed on campus, because this was during the school day. We watched from the fringes. Occasionally we saw a student walking out, and gave some cheers or chants about free speech, or life, or against abortion. All this was from the adults, mind you. Mostly it was quiet, with an occasional Our Father or Hail Mary tossed in for seasoning.
I was there because two of our daughters attend the school. Whether they chose to walk out of class was their decision, and their mother and I told them we would support them. I did, however, want to see what would happen. Afterwards, they told me that there were a couple speeches from students, someone played “Amazing Grace” over some speakers, and that was about it. There were also some counter-protest students with “my body, my choice” type shirts on.
I left the event after about 30 minutes with more questions than answers. Here are some of them:
Is it appropriate to use such a serious issue like abortion as a way of testing free speech? That is how it felt. It felt like abortion was a tool being used to determine what the school would do with these students. If you are pro-life, is it more important to show solidarity around the issue, or to disagree with the topic being used in such a way?
How should I encourage my daughters to speak to their friends about abortion? It is not a topic that just comes up over lunch. It is hard for adults to talk about it. What chance do high school students have? On the other hand, maybe they can learn from the mistakes of their parents, and can have both convictions and friends with whom they disagree.
How does our society show mercy and love in the face of the suppression of speech and the exchange of ideas? At the first walkout, one teacher at the high school questioned whether it was appropriate for the school administration to support an act of civil disobedience. The teacher who raised that question was put on administrative leave. She was back after only a few days.
It is hard to avoid the thought that this was a warning: Do not bring up issues the administration doesn’t like. Is there a way of engaging in lively conversation when such talk can lead to administrative reprisals? Our country has a long history of civil disobedience. We have yet to see what that will look like in the coming years.
What does it teach our children when some forms of free speech are endorsed and encouraged by school administration, and others are not? In the case of the gun violence protests a month ago, teachers often made a special point to not make assignments during the time of the walkout. It was announced on campus, and was certainly everywhere in the media.
In the case of this student-led walkout, however, no one mentioned a thing in the classrooms that I could find out about. Students put up posters about it that were torn down. It appeared disorganized and ill-formed. In other words, it looked like it was run by well-intentioned students who did not have school support.
And please do not mis-hear me. I am not saying one of these topics was right and the other was wrong. My point is that when public institutions determine which free speech is worthy of attention, then some free speech becomes more free than others, to paraphrase George Orwell.
As both a pastor and a father, I need to wrestle with these questions. Our children will be debating these issues in the years to come. I want to give them the tools they need to embody the Merciful One who rose from the dead to give life to a dying world. The means holding up the truth of God’s law and the truth of the gospel. The debates will happen, whether we are a part of the conversation or not. Maybe it is time for us to join the conversation, and begin with our own children.