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Body Armor on the Playground

“What is your only comfort in life and in death?”  When this first question from the Heidelberg Catechism was published in Germany in 1563, life was a perilous undertaking at best.  Deadly illnesses and gruesome accidents were an ever-present reality, threats respecting neither social status nor age.  Poverty was the condition of most, the fine line between hunger and starvation easily crossed by the whims of weather or the scavenging of armies provisioning themselves with peasants’ annual harvests.  Religious differences were not dining table conversations but brutally adjudicated disputes, the losers often either maimed or killed.  And warfare was as indiscriminate in its victims then as it is now, Geneva Conventions notwithstanding.  There was good reason to be preoccupied with security.

So what is your only comfort?  This most existential of questions carries just as much importance today as it did in the 16th century.  And events like the Newtown shootings prompt all manner of lunatic or self-serving responses.  I thought the NRA’s proposal to arm teachers was about as misguided as one could get, but a recent article about armored children’s wear beat even the know nothing rants of the gun lobby.  The article was about Miguel Caballero, a Bogota, Colombia designer known as “the Armani of bulletproof clothing.” He is expanding his product line to include back-packs, vests, and t-shirts for children that will stop bullets fired from some, though not all high powered automatic weapons.  “The rest of the countries in the world try to disarm, but in the United States they say, ‘Let’s protect ourselves.’  So in that light that’s a business opportunity.”

The gaily colored back packs function fully as book bags, but also provide back protection and are fire retardant.  They retail for about $300.  Vests, available in flowered patterns, provide front and back protection and can include bullet proof side panels.  At $1,040 a pop (so to speak) the company is marketing these to school districts who would presumably stock classrooms with a supply so that when a shooter is detected, the children would be suited up while waiting for the SWAT team.  Even flush school districts might have to choose between iPads and vests for each of their students.  Armored t-shirts cost about $2,000 and can be worn under other clothes.  In addition to children’s sizes, Caballero’s company makes adult t-shirts, perfect, his marketing people suggest, for teachers to wear.

There are challenges with the MC Kids products.  Children can’t handle the weight of armor necessary to stop bullets from all weapons.  So compromises have to be weighed. The plates in the MC Kids wear will stop slugs from a Glock semi-automatic handgun, but not a Bushmaster automatic rifle like the one Adam Lanza used in Newtown.  Already competitors are entering the market – Bullet Blocker in Massachusetts and Amendment II in Salt Lake City.  Perhaps innovation born of competition will solve these problems. 

Imagine the conversations this will elicit at back to school time.  “Sweetheart, Mommy and Daddy love you so much that we bought you this beautiful new bulletin proof vest which we want you to wear, even during gym class, in case some deranged kid comes into your school trying to blow you all away.”  This should certainly be comforting for a child.  Or this:  “Well junior, even though your Mommy and Daddy love you, we can’t afford to buy you the bullet proof t-shirts the kids on the north shore are all wearing along with the bullet proof back packs to carry their new iPads.”  Is this what it comes to for a country that can’t even pass modest background check legislation to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill?

What is your only comfort in life and in death?  “That I belong, both body and soul, and in life and in death not to myself but to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.”  In the face of a world where marketing bullet proof clothing to children apparently makes sense to some people, this centuries old response not only begins to look faithful, it also starts to look sane in the same way that freezing the proliferation of nuclear weapons decades ago started to look saner than teaching me and my classmates to crouch under a desk in the event of a nuclear attack.

For four hundred and fifty years parents have taught their children the lesson of the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism.  They have known that armor and bullets can never lead to our ultimate security, our only comfort.  If it isn’t a shooter, it will be a tornado, or a rare cancer, or a drunk driver or even an abusive parent who will threaten our precious ones.  Sending our kids to summer camp or school with the understanding that God is the ultimate source of security in their lives will serve them far better over the years than an armored back pack and a pastel colored bullet proof vest.  And it will be a powerful counter message to a culture gone mad by the fear of weapons we are simultaneously afraid to ban.

John H. Thomas
July 13, 2013

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