In our communities, thousands of children and youth are growing up in a world filled with hatred; a world keen on seizing their insecurities and harnessing them for terrible purposes. But we can protect them (and ourselves) through education.
It’s becoming impossible to ignore that violence and hatred have infected individuals in our communities, causing deaths and trauma in schools, churches, synagogues, and public spaces. This disease of violent hatred spreads rapidly, and it’s easy to feel impotent in the face of its unpredictability.
Man is even as steel, the essence of which is hidden: through admonition and explanation, good counsel and education, that essence will be brought to light. If, however, he be allowed to remain in his original condition, the corrosion of lusts and appetites will effectively destroy him. – Baha’u’llah, A Compilation on Baha’i Education, p. 3.
The Baha’i Faith considers education in all its forms a tool that reveals the potential inherent in every person. And as Baha’u’llah stated, education does far more than equip us with material skills: it also gives us spiritual skills that can protect us from the “corrosion” of selfishness.
In the aftermath of recent mass shootings, we have tackled the issue of terrorism by addressing shooters’ mental health issues, pointing out dysfunctions in their families, and the bullying they might have suffered in their formative years. But there are many people who suffer from mental health issues, or have had family problems, or been ruthlessly bullied… and the vast majority have not even come close to hurting others because of it.
The individuals responsible for these atrocities came from all walks of life—but all were equally radicalized by hateful rhetoric. They learned to hate others so fiercely that they taught themselves the violent behaviors that ultimately led to the death and pain of so many around them. What was the common denominator among them?
Perhaps we can say that it was a terrible gap in their spiritual education, where they would have learned to have love, compassion and respect towards everyone, regardless of differences. Fear of punishment cannot hold back all violence. But a spiritual education can.
Therefore must the individual be trained from his infancy in such a way that he will never undertake to commit a crime, will, rather, direct all his energies to the acquisition of excellence, and will look upon the very commission of an evil deed as in itself the harshest of all punishments, considering the sinful act itself to be far more grievous than any prison sentence. For it is possible so to train the individual that, although crime may not be completely done away with, still it will become very rare. – Abdu’l-Baha, A Compilation on Baha’i Education, pp. 15-16.
A lack of spiritual education makes people vulnerable to the disease of prejudice, in all its forms. Only a proper education can eradicate it from the Earth—an education not only based on science and arts, but also on spirituality, nurturing love for others, a sense of responsibility, and an awareness of the oneness of humanity in every person.
In my experience as a teacher and animator for the Baha’i spiritual empowerment programs for children and junior youth, I have seen first-hand the effect that learning spiritual values in a group has on young people. Not only do these groups provide an education based on spiritual values such as respect, compassion and critical thinking, but they also provide a supportive space to develop life skills through community service. Youth learn to recognize what they have in common with others, and when faced with misfortune, not assign blame, but channel their energies into constructive action.
And they then become sources of wisdom and comfort for their friends—many of whom are dealing with difficult issues, and to whom a wise, compassionate and helpful peer is extremely valuable when making life choices, especially in moments of frustration, anger, pain and sadness.
The root cause of wrongdoing is ignorance, and we must therefore hold fast to the tools of perception and knowledge. Good character must be taught. Light must be spread afar, so that, in the school of humanity, all may acquire the heavenly characteristics of the spirit, and see for themselves beyond any doubt that there is no fiercer Hell, no more fiery abyss, than to possess a character that is evil and unsound; no more darksome pit nor loathsome torment than to show forth qualities which deserve to be condemned. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 136
We can teach young boys to deal with rejection and anger in healthy ways, rather than lash out with violence. We can treat isolation and sadness with healthy habits and service to the community. We can explore sensitive topics in a guided and safe space, so that youth can develop their own opinions in a healthy context. And we can empower youth to see themselves as agents of change through love, rather than violence.
We can help children learn to love everyone around them to a degree that they would never even consider hurting a person.
How many of the domestic terrorists responsible for crimes in the news could have been saved from the degradation of hatred if they had had a safe space to explore their ideas about the world, guidance when identifying what is right and the wrong, and help to channel their energies alongside others into making the world a better place?
How many could we save by saving them?
Bend your minds and wills to the education of the peoples and kindreds of the earth, that haply the dissensions that divide it may, through the power of the Most Great Name, be blotted out from its face, and all mankind become the upholders of one Order, and the inhabitants of one City… – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 333.