By now you may be overwhelmed by the media coverage, preponderance of talking heads, tweets, twits (?), and a vast realm of deep and even conflicting emotions and thoughts related to the brutal killings in Newtown, Connecticut this past Friday. I hope you will indulge me in a bit of time and a few more words. I write them in the hope that they may be of use to you in your journey. Writing them is of use to me in mine.
There is no phrase, no combinations of words, that exists in any language to express our grief, brokenheartedness, anger, shock, disbelief, confusion or desire to do something to make the hurt go away in us, in the families of the victims, in the community. Scripture anticipates this limitation of words and the need to express ourselves beyond them. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray … that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
There is no way to turn back time, and thereby preempt this event. Time at the moment can be both an enemy and a friend. The Psalmist recognized this, I think, in the observation that “weeping spends the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). It will be a very long night, a very long collection of nights, for very many people, and the emerging light of a new morning’s dawn will come far too slowly. But, with a profound and sustained outpouring of love in all its forms, good counseling and care, medical attentiveness, and bowls of tears, it can come. With all the healing power that God can bring to bear, it can come.
The Scriptures of the Christian tradition, including the Scriptures we share with our Hebrew forebearers, are cognizant of such tragedy and grief. One only has to look as far as Rachel’s inconsolable grief in the writings of the prophet Jeremiah. Jacob’s heartbreak when he is told that Joseph is dead. The Scriptures do not pretend this to be heaven, and recognize the anguish that exists in a broken and difficult world. Whether we want to hear it or not, we are told that in this earthly time life-giving rains fall on both the just and the unjust. Jesus reflects on the collapse of the tower at Siloam and the righteousness of those who died tragically.
We do well not to forget that the Holy Writings of Christianity make intimately clear the vulnerability with which God enters into the world. Even as we prepare for, and celebrate, that Incarnation, we find it juxtaposed with the chilling remembrance of the Holy Innocents, the children, killed on Herod’s order. Our Heavenly Father, as Jesus knew our Divine Creator, is equally and intimately understanding of the death of an only child to brutal violence. Perhaps this is what stands behind the words of Paul Claudel when he wrote, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with his presence.”
I am often visual in my prayers, seeing images that I am hard pressed to later describe in words. A vivid image of this tragedy has been one of Our Lord wrapping himself around each person under attack in Sandy Hook School, each round passing through him first. In my acceptance of human bodies as finite and transitional vessels of our true being, I recognize that ultimately healing comes not in any earthly fashion, but rather in a place where pain and suffering are no more, neither sighing but life everlasting. At times that comforts me. At times I wish to bury my head in Aslan’s mane sobbing in grief and anger, because I am, as are others, still in the darkest hours of the night; it is not yet morning. (Aslan is a lion and the Christ figure in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.)
Now I must speak of something unfashionable in this conversation: the role of evil. I am certain that evil is real. Our tradition of Christianity believes it too. We renounce cosmic evil, societal evil and individual evil every time we prepare to baptize. I do believe that evil came to Newtown and Sandy Hook School on December 14th, in fact I am certain of it. In what form is another question.
There is no doubt in my mind or heart that the Evil One preys on vulnerability. It never dresses in a red suit with pointy horns and a pointy red tail. That would be too easy. Could Evil have convinced a twenty year old, in what may have been an immeasurable amount of mental anguish, that the actions we have seen would stop the pain? Of course. Far more pervasive, and I believe greater pervasiveness is a desire of the Evil One, is the possibility that it is Evil that has convinced a society that insufficient attention to mental health care is a cost we can live with. Put another way, it is Evil that convinces us to close mental health hospitals, marginally fund, if at all, treatment via health care coverages, claim that there is not enough money to fund group homes where individuals who function at high levels, but with complex problems, can cared for and have their wellbeing monitored.
There is no doubt that Evil causes us to believe that we have some sort of “right” to possess assault rifles and other devices with faster, more immediate, killing power than an RPG (rock propelled grenade). The crafters of our nation’s Bill of Rights never anticipated such weaponry. Musket ball (hear single shot) rifles and pistols were the norm. Rifling was not commonplace until the nineteenth century, Colt’s multi-shot revolver in 1835 and the shotgun in 1850.
I grew up in a household where one of my father’s greatest joys was passing on to me the 22 (short) caliber rifle that his father had given to him. I could field dress (disassemble, clean and reassemble) a German Luger with my eyes closed at the age of 10. I have carried a sidearm, the rounds of ammunition in it having been custom loaded by me or my father, when hunting in the Carolina woods and swamps. The snakes there do not have early warning systems. I am not a “teetotaler” with respect to this issue. I still enjoy the challenge and skill of an occasional round of shooting skeet. But there is no deer so fierce as to need to be hunted with an AK-47. There is no snake that requires a Glock with a forty round magazine. It is time to put away the automatic and semi-automatic handguns, and all forms of assault rifles and weaponry. Every state has a well ordered militia. It is called the National Guard.
Christians in the Episcopal tradition vow before God to persevere in resisting evil, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self, and to strive for justice and peace, and to respect the dignity of every human being. We renew these vows as a part of every service of Holy Baptism. Does that mean that we sometimes have to put aside self-serving wants masking as pseudo-rights for the benefit of others? Absolutely!
In the wake of similar tragedies in Dunblane, Scotland (1996) and in Australia (1996), both nations took actions limiting the possession of handguns. Both of these nations continue a culture where hunting and various shooting sports are integral and accessible. The evidence of the effectiveness of these actions is remarkable. Let us also note, however, that, while not “outstanding,” there is in place a concurrent accessible level of mental health care as well.
In the Great Litany (Book of Common Prayer p. 148ff) we again bury our head in Aslan’s mane and pray, “From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice; and from all want of charity, Good Lord, deliver us.” It is time to remove the blinders and confront our hypocrisy. The Great Litany continues, “From all inordinate and sinful affections; from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.” The time is now to put down our inordinate affection, it is time to put down the guns and take up the cross and walk with Aslan.
We all have an individual and collective responsibility to help heal Newtown, and by the removal of threat and increased commitment to health and wholeness, heal our neighbor and our nation.
God’s peace, shalom and salaam,