Isaiahs are in short supply

DIANE WINSTON, Knight chair in media and religion at USC, can be reached at dhwinstongmail.com.

HEATEDLY debating instead of making dinner, my husband and I were surprised by a small voice: "Live violence-free." There was a pause. "I'm hungry."

Our 7-year-old had taken a school lesson to heart. Last week, Isabelle, and everyone else in the Los Angeles Unified School District, received a black wristband inscribed with the words "Live Violence Free." Students discussed how to handle "angry feelings" and pledged to avoid violence.

The campaign, prompted in part by persistent violent behavior in schools, is a modest start. Our kids can see people dead and dying, raped and beaten, starved and mutilated every day. And those who don't watch television or go to the movies can find the real thing on the front pages of newspapers.

Truly reducing violence involves changing hearts and minds. Black-power activist H. Rap Brown said that "violence is as American as cherry pie." Indeed, it's everywhere, from our popular culture to our geopolitics. Challenging our culture's obsession with death and destruction takes swords-into-plowshares leadership, and if you haven't noticed, Isaiahs are in short supply.

Different faiths focus on different aspects of the problem, but few take a holistic approach. Those who do are seldom thanked for it. More than 20 years ago, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin proposed a "consistent ethic of life" and was roundly criticized by many of his coreligionists. Bernardin, who headed the Chicago Archdiocese until his death in 1996, believed that the Catholic moral vision safeguards the sanctity of life from "womb to tomb." In his view, opposition to abortion, the arms race, euthanasia and the death penalty, along with support for human rights and programs for the poor, were all of a piece.

Bernardin knew that people would pick their moral battles. Some would contest abortion, others capital punishment, and still others would oppose war. But he hoped that all would see the commonality of their positions as well as an obligation to translate moral principles into political choices.

The public debate that Bernardin hoped to spark never ignited. His big-tent morality could not accommodate the atomizing political enmities of people passionately committed to saving, say, a fetus but not a murderer. Yet his respect for life and human dignity survives in myriad campaigns.

These concerns inspire the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women. Patti Giggans, the group's executive director, has been on the path of violence prevention her entire life. She helps provide the support and resources that were unavailable to her own mother, a battered woman in the 1960s.

Giggans sees the domestic piece as one aspect of a pervasive culture of violence. The commission hosted a dialogue at a local middle school as part of the "Live Violence Free" campaign.

"[Our participation was] a small gesture," she said. "But I don't think we do enough small, medium and large gestures to promote different ways of thinking about violence." A different way of thinking for Giggans, who was raised as a Catholic, lives in a Jewish household and follows Buddhist precepts, begins with accepting moral complexity.

"The good person today could be the bad person tomorrow; we all have those capacities," she said recently. "So our path at [the commission] is compassion. But that path isn't mushy, wimpy or weak. It's the compassion of warriors."

Giggans studied martial arts in New York, Paris and Vietnam and was among the first American women to achieve a black belt in karate. Before coming to the group, she ran a self-defense school for women. Like many practitioners of Asian martial arts, she experiences the discipline as a form of "moving meditation." That focused mindfulness, along with the Jewish notion of tikkun olam -- repairing a broken world -- form the spiritual foundation of Giggans' work. "We're a faith-based organization," she said. "Staff and volunteers step out of their comfort zones to reach clients of different races, ethnicities and religions."

The good folks at L.A. Unified may have a similar goal in mind, but it's going to take more than black wristbands and compassionate warriors such as Giggans to make American society violence-free. Each of us needs to take a hard look at our lives to see how we participate in the culture of violence and what we could change.

I'm down with that. Just don't ask me to give up "24."

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