A long time ago, a fellow teacher at a rural Georgia high school gave me a little booklet entitled “Pocket Prayers for Teachers.” I thumbed through the pages of platitudes of encouragement and exhortations to perseverance. One of the prayers caught my eye and has stayed with me to this day: A teacher sees the brutal ostracism of a child by his peers on the playground. She sees the pain in the child’s expression. Her prayer is that God will keep her from intervening, that she can accept his will in this situation. She acknowledges that everything in her urges her to stop the cruelty, but she knows that God has plans for that child, and perhaps the recurring experience of rejection is part of his plan. She prays for the strength not to interfere.
I’ve told a few persons about that prayer and they were shocked. Without exception, they felt that the teacher had a moral responsibility to correct the behavior. That was my initial reaction too. Now I see things differently.
At the time, I hadn’t yet read about René Girard’s theory of mimesis and scapegoating among primitive societies, about the sacred function of the innocent victim of collective hostility, though certainly any Christian would see Calvary re-enacted within this group of children. Nor is this kind of hateful cruelty confined to children, and certainly not to “primitive” societies. The truth is, we never lose our primitiveness, evolution notwithstanding; we just add layers of civilization, good manners and proper social behavior, etc., over a core of violence and cruelty underneath.
What could be the “will of God” that the prayer suggests in this little book? The malice of the group is blatant, overt, and demands correction by the teacher, though the group is unaware of itself, as each member in the group unreflectingly participates from the safety of individual anonymity.
The will of God will meet, perhaps at some distant future date, the free will of the victim. The victim may take an automatic weapon to a school and shock the nation by shooting many students and teachers. The nation’s politicians will demand gun control, its expert social commentators will admonish people to beware of anyone who is a “loner,” anyone who is not part of the collective (thereby perpetuating the same event ad infinitum).
Or perhaps the victim will learn through his repeated pain that he can do another thing instead: he can forgive. If he does that, he will eventually be able to understand that “they know not what they do,” and learn to love as God loves. It’s the only way I know of to learn that.