A church member noted this week that I seemed particularly affected by the shootings in Newtown, CT. She was right. The news of 20 children and 6 teachers and staff gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School is terrible enough to affect anyone. I felt the pain of the news on many levels: as a fellow human being, as a Christian, as a father of two boys near to the ages of most of the child victims, as a UCC minister in the same denomination as many who were killed, and so on. I think, however, that I felt most viscerally connected to the shootings in Connecticut, because I know firsthand what life will be like for that community.
When I heard horrific news of the massacre in Newtown, it brought back memories of life on Long Island after 9-11. The two events have many differences-most notably that on 9-11 the killers were terrorists and the dead did not include any children. Yet, there are many similarities: sudden violent deaths on a large scale on an ordinary day where the victims felt safe, first responders helpless before those already dead, the world watching a community mourn, small towns where everyone knows the victims.
I arrived at work at my UCC church on the North Shore of Long Island (just across Long Island Sound) from Newtown two weeks after 9-11. I did not know any of those who died, but I got to know their spouses and children. Two men in our church died in the World Trade Center and at least 25 more from our church's town (a Wall Street bedroom community) also died along with many more in neighboring towns. Although I was just the associate minister charged with keeping the church program going while my senior minister did much of the heavy lifting of grief work, there was plenty of grief and trauma to go around.
Early on, the UCC helped Church World Service bring in a social worker who had experienced the Oklahoma City bombing, and she explained that grief from a community-wide mass killing would unfold over years. She charted out how at one year, two years, three years. . . rates of suicide, bankruptcy, divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse and more occurred in Oklahoma City. Her words were prophetic, because things unfolded just as she said they would. I guess that's why the pain of Newtown hit me so hard, because I know that their nightmare will not end when the TV cameras and reporters leave town; then it is only just beginning.
I also fear for our culture. The grief of 9-11 did not lead our culture to self-reflection. We gave little or no thought to the inadequacy of responding to violence with violence. We chose to deal with our fear by making others more afraid. Two wars and hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded later, we still give little thought to a better way to respond when we are attacked. The grief of 9-11 led to the grief of thousands of families of military service members and thousands of more families around the world.
Newtown is a different event than 9-11, but we have evolved with an instinct to protect our young when they are threatened. I think everyone who loves children saw in the faces of the Newtown children a connection to children they love. At some level we all felt attacked, so how will we respond to this attack and to this fear?
Searching for theological perspective on the Newtown shootings, I read a review of America and Its Guns: A Theological Expose by Jim Atwood. The review was by a Lutheran minister who was a first responder at Columbine named Rick Barger. As someone who experienced the trauma of mass violence, Barger knows that how we frame a violent event matters. He praises Atwood's book and writes, "Atwood reminds us that when President Bush addressed the community at Virginia Tech, he said that the victims happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Actually, they were in the right place at the correct time. They were doing what college students do-going to class. The students were shot because of the "Empire" and the "principalities and powers" (cf. Ephesians 6:12) created by America's love affair with violence, guns, and power. This obsession has created in our minds enemies we have to fear, cemented a God-given calling to arm ourselves, and raised weapons that kill to idolatrous levels. The result is a culture in which guns-even weapons that have no purpose other than to kill-are readily available to anyone."
America's love of violence permeates our culture and language, and it has replaced our religion, so that Christianity (as it has done throughout its history) becomes a justification of violence rather than a protest against it. Barger writes, "So religious is our faith in power defined by weapons and the ability to use them that we coined the term, 'redemptive violence.' Redemptive violence is a way of justifying the use of force if we believe that we are threatened. The creed of the gun religion is 'Guns do not kill. People do.' This creed has resulted in a constant escalation of weaponry and guns and laws that protect gun owners and manufacturers more than the public. This reality is built upon the lie that the more people are armed the less likely there is to be violence."
So how do we respond to Newtown? It seems to me that the worst thing we can do is shrug and turn away shaking our heads only to forget about the children killed once the media spotlight is off of them. What does it mean for our church? A few miles away from our building a 4 year-old was killed by bullets fired into the car he was sitting in. A few blocks away from our building residents are protesting a pawn shop which sells guns, including an assault rifle recently stolen from the store that is now somewhere on our streets. What should a "Peace with Justice" church like ours do? Do we really believe in a religion that declares self-protection is not the greatest good or do we in truth cling to an idolatry of violence that declares anything is justifiable as long as you label it "self defense?"
I have no easy answers to such questions, but as your minister I invite you to search for answers along with me. There will be more events like Newtown and how we respond matters.
Grace and Peace,