[Episcopal News Service] Schools are places of order. Like courthouses and churches, we consider them to be oases of order in a disordered world. In our schools our sense of how the world should be is set up and put in place for the benefit of each generation, and in them for the benefit of society at large.
I am writing the morning after the choking violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School in southwestern Connecticut. I am writing within a school, the Mercer School of Theology of the Diocese of Long Island. Down the corridor adults, men and women who desire to serve the church and world as deacons are in class, learning the beauty of Scripture, the gift of theological thought, the history that precedes this day.
It is quiet here. It is ordered.
But the Dec.14 event is an horrific reminder that the order we forge, the tidiness that we work at creating can in a moment be overrun by the primordial disorder, the “formless void and darkness” named in the second verse of the Hebrew Scriptures. That void itself takes shape in the society of our nation with deeply disturbing regularity. This Advent weekend it has left behind families robbed of light, emptied classrooms, broken hearts, and photos of human sorrow the very viewing of which widens that circle of grieving hearts.
After Christmas each year Christians remember the Holy Innocents, those children who were killed in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus by a ruler overwhelmed by fear. This year the Holy Innocents have lost their lives before we recall the coming of God among us in Christ. Things are out of order. Completely.
Face to face with chaos of this magnitude, with a turmoil that boils over from a single human mind to claim life after life, what should we do?
First, we must take the time to mourn. Far beyond the borders of Newtown, families, parents, loving individuals and communities must not allow the onward rush of this lurching world too soon to move us beyond the fundamental human loss here. These lives lost, from the youngest to the oldest, are worthy of our tears. Of a river of tears.
Secondly, we can allow our confrontation with the inward and outward anarchy of these hours to place us in solidarity with suffering around the planet. A bereft Connecticut community suffers along with Syrian towns where incendiary ‘barrel bombs’ tumble from the sky today and take the lives of children. Families who have lost loved ones are held in the prayers today of those whose dear ones died in prior days at Aurora, Colorado, at the Amish country West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, at Columbine High School, and at almost innumerable other sites where the formless void has erupted among us. Again and again.
Thirdly, we can marshal the tools needed to take a step back and assess our society and our culture. This society and culture are not alien to us. They are us. And so we have the responsibility to ask: why do these crimes of mass murder afflict this nation like a plague? The by-now usual suspects will be rounded up as this national discussion is, for the moment at least, renewed. And they must be. There will always be mental illness in our population, suffered by individuals and if not taken seriously, potentially bringing suffering to many beyond the ill individuals and their families. There will always be violence among us, though statistically violence has decreased worldwide. But will there always be as many firearms among us? Will they always be as available as they are? Will the weapons in the hands of the enraged, the out-of-control, the ill, always be those capable of creating the bloodiest carnage? Will we ever possess the heart, the character, the strength as a people to struggle through a shared conversation on this constellation of grievous topics until we reach a conclusion which, if not shared by all, we can at least live with, rather than die by suddenly and helplessly?
The voices of twenty children, and those of adults who cared and loved and educated them, were stilled yesterday at Sandy Hook. Our voices are not. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Living, able to speak, we are responsible to insist that a national conversation on more-than-adequate mental healthcare for all, and on firearm violence among us, begins now and does not cease until we as a people are satisfied and at peace.
Disorder will continue to afflict our world. But we are responsible nonetheless, in the sight of God, to bring order out of chaos. As often as we must.
— The Very Rev. Canon John P. McGinty is dean of the George Mercer School of Theology in Garden City, New York, in the Diocese of Long Island and as the diocese’s canon for formation.