“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
John 1: 1-5, New Revised Standard Version
According to my father, this was one of the texts read at the Stratford Clergy Association’s interfaith prayer service tonight at the First Congregational Church of Stratford, Connecticut where he works. It’s just a half hour drive from Newtown, now known as the site of the second most devastating mass shooting in American history (after Virginia Tech). It was his job to read the names from a list that included the age of each victim. He didn’t read their ages aloud, but saw them as he worked through the list; a majority of the children were just six.
One of the women who was killed, a first grade teacher named Victoria Soto (27), came from Stratford. She had put herself in front of her students. Her corpse was found huddled with them.
My dad said the Clergy Association had a contingency plan – if at any point someone started to cry, they had decided who would take over from there. He said he’d been alerted by another clergy member in the area that Westboro Baptist Church would be picketing the children’s funerals during the upcoming week.
“Because of gay marriage in Connecticut?” I wondered.
“Is that why?” He hadn’t really had a chance to think about it yet. “That church is evil.”
Connecticut is such a small state, he pointed out, that you’re less than an hour from Newtown from almost anywhere in the state. And all of the little, tight-knit towns of Connecticut had their prayer services and vigils tonight. Everyone is stunned. Nearly everyone he’s spoken to in the last 24 hours has been crying.
Many of the people who attended tonight’s service in Stratford were teachers.
And it’s not just Westboro that has responded to the tragedy with inhuman callousness. Right wing hate radio host Steve Deace wrote on his public Facebook page:
If you’re willing to agree with me upfront that asking kids to write suicide notes in schools, teaching them there is no God and thus no real purpose to our lives, letting children see movies glorifying the occult and gory violence, and that allowing and subsidizing parents killing at least 4,000 of their own children each day contributes to this culture of death, then maybe – just maybe –we can have a conversation about guns.
When I criticized him for his cruel statement, he invited me to be on his radio program. I politely told him I would have to pass.
Meanwhile, Bryan Fischer of SPLC-designated hate group the American Family Association announced that God might have protected the victims, but chose not to because he is a “gentleman” and “is not going to go where he is not wanted.”
Later former Arkansas Governor turned Fox News host Mike Huckabee said:
Well, you know, it’s an interesting thing. When we ask why there is violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools have become a place for carnage because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, responsibility, accountability? That we’re not just going to have to be accountable to the police, if they catch us. But one day, we will stand in judgment before God. If we don’t believe that, we don’t fear that.
I remember hearing conservative Christians whine about removing god from public schools during the 1990s. It was always a strange thing to hear, given just how entrenched my culture was with god. Small groups of students met daily for prayer meetings. Many students knew each other from church. Evangelicals held a yearly See You at the Pole event that involved standing around the flagpole in the morning to pray. We didn’t hold organized prayers in the middle of class, of course, but it was much harder to get away from god in the schools of my childhood than it was to practice Christianity at school.
My parents remember prayer in schools during the 1960s and 1970s. My dad, the preacher, always told me it was a bland, rote experience.
In the aftermath of a community tragedy when I was in high school in 1995, I do remember one official moment of silence. I’m pretty sure it was in response to the brutal murder of our assistant principal, and I don’t remember that minute of prayer having any impact on the healing of my community whatsoever.
My mother is a fifth grade teacher at an elementary school in Raleigh, North Carolina. I think about her every time someone shoots up a school these days. I know that she has to go outside the classroom and lock the door from the outside when her school goes on lockdown. Then she has to move all of her students away from the windows so they can’t be seen.
When she was a student, there was rote prayer, and there were bomb drills. Then, in a moment of U.S. world hegemony and confidence at home, I grew up in a school system with just tornado and fire drills. I remember a bomb scare once in high school, but we all just walked outside. And of course, that was all it was – a scare, not a bomb. I graduated from high school in 1998, and the Columbine shootings took place in 1999. Now students have lockdown drills to practice for mass shootings.
Human tragedy cuts us all in different ways.
Yesterday, I wondered about my dad, at least until I was able to speak to him on the phone. What kinds of connections did he have to the victims? Had he ever met the young Stratford teacher before? Was there news media present at the prayer service? Had he been called about performing any of the funerals?
For someone who works in a profession that frequently requires one to come into close contact with death, my dad has always had a hard time with it. His father died when he was thirteen years old, just in his early forties. I have trouble imagining my father conducting funeral service with a child-sized coffin at the front of the sanctuary.
And of course I also thought about my mom, and about how she is a career teacher in a new world in which teachers can lose their lives in the process of protecting students.
I am appalled and disgusted by the magnitude of teacher scapegoating that takes place in my culture nowadays. What kind of person do you have to be to quibble over the crumbs teachers receive as wages?
There is so much to discuss now: Gun control polices. The gutting of mental healthcare in this country. The impulse for people to declare that the mentally ill should never own guns, even though well over half of Americans take anti-depressants. The culture of violence news anchors keep mentioning. The NRA’s kept officials. The religious cult that has taken root in the Republican Party – and that holds us hostage from taking real, substantive action to curb gun violence. The endless parade of public officials announcing they are “stunned” and “saddened” when neither of these has ever been enough.
And then of course there are the sins perpetuated by the media: The unethical interviews with traumatized children in the immediate aftermath of the killings. The refusal of the national media to refer to a white American terrorist as a terrorist at all. The push to blame the gunman’s mother for her death because she owned guns. The rush to either humanize the soft-spoken victim – or pathologize his introversion. The narrow boundaries drawn around what is considered possible in the realm of public policy.
Faith is one of those standbys in times of intense trauma. It can be a community institution that allows people to come together to grieve, which is what I would like to think took place in the many small towns of Connecticut tonight. It can allow for collective expressions of grief that become a crucial part of the healing process.
And it can be a destructive and abusive force that minimizes human loss for its own self-aggrandizement. The many fundamentalists who shouted yesterday about the “culture of death” and the need for “repentance” in American society are too self-satisfied to weep with those who weep. At minimum, perhaps we can start honoring the victims by shielding their families and loved ones from the callous pronouncements of the religiously smug.
Human tragedy cuts us all in different ways. So, we mourn. Then we figure out a better way to live.
Front page photo by Matt Riggott, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.