Approaching Newtown: Strengthening Our Universalist Impulse

Soon our nation marks the one-year anniversary of the tragedy of the Newtown shootings.

The media frenzy attention has begun.  Huffington Post recently published this piece, highlighting President Obama’s “secret” (I think they mean private) encounters with each of the families whose loved ones were murdered that day at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  It describes solemn, authentic engagement by a president who knows the power of spiritual witness and sees it as one of his duties as leader of this nation in the presence of so many grieving family members.

Yet I am concerned that the author of this piece, Joshua Dubois, as spiritual advisor to the president, focuses solely on those more easily seen as victims: the 26 people who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Dubois accompanied Obama while he met with these families and the piece does focus on these encounters that took place on the school grounds.

Yet Sandy Hook Elementary School is not the only place in Newtown that day where gunshots of violence rang out.  Yes, 26 people were murdered that day at the school.  And the shooter, Adam Lanza, took his own life.  And before arriving at the school, Adam Lanza took his mother’s life in the home that they shared.

28 tragic deaths, not 26.

It’s too messy to include Nancy Lanza, whose supply of guns made the massacre possible.  This would bring the murders that day to 27.  It’s too morally confusing to include Adam Lanza, a clearly troubled soul, who deliberately and cruelly ended innocent lives.  This would brings the number of senseless deaths to 28.


It is disappointing when the Governor of Connecticut asks for houses of worship to peal bells in honor of those who lost their lives that day…asking for 26 peals.  Was Nancy Lanza not a resident of Connecticut?  Was her murder not worthy of remembrance?  Her memorial service took place a half year after the shootings in the New Hampshire town where she grew up.

It is lamentable when religious leaders cannot see past the ready-serve, media-made, secular versions of who is worthy of being remembered and who is not.  A half year after the massacre, in writing a paper for a class at my seminary, I made reference to the lives lost on that tragic day in Newtown.  My professor, a compassionate, deeply religious man, corrected my writing.


I had deliberately written 28.  The professor wrote and circled “26.” His was not a theological statement – his intention was not to damn both the first victim or the shooter, and yet when we use the number 26 in reference to that day, this is the impact of our actions.

It is unacceptable when those houses of worship, particularly those that preach capital “L” love, chose to ring the bell just for the school-based victims.  We must expect more of our faith communities.

This was not true everywhere.  At Newtown United Methodist church, right in Newtown itself, bravely chose to ring their bell 28 times.

A succession of four church leaders rang the bell 28 times in quick succession. Twenty chimes were for the children who died; six were for the adult staff members; one was for Nancy Lanza, whose son shot her in her bed; and one was for the troubled 20-year-old who unleashed violence on his community.

Numerous memorials in Newtown and surrounding areas honor 26 victims, leaving out the shooter and his mother, owner of the guns used in the rampage, but church leaders here wanted to remember them too.

“We are all God’s children, and God loves everyone,” said Jay Thomas, who lived in McMurray, Pa., until 1993, when he moved to Newtown and became a member of church leadership here.

This church was not the only congregation to choose this way of responding to the violence.  The United Church of Christ, in encouraging their churches to take part in the bell tolling, explicitly asked that 28 bells be tolled.  There have been others, communities and individuals, who choose – despite the very persuasive pull not to – to honor the worth and dignity of every individual – all those who died that day, even the one who committed the atrocity.  Reverend Erik Walker Wikstrom wrote just a few weeks after the shootings:

Many of my Unitarian Universalist colleagues, whose steeples have bells, joined in that collective remembrance back in December and many of them rang their bells twenty-eight times.

Somewhere it seems that a decision was made to focus our national attention on the twenty-six people who were tragically murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  But before he took his guns to the school, Adam Lanza turned them on his mother, Nancy, making a total of twenty-seven people murdered that day.  Why has she been so easily forgotten?  Because the guns were hers?  Because people have judged her as at least partially responsible for the killings?

And then there’s Adam Lanza himself.  Twenty-eight people died that day; twenty-eight lives ended.  I, and many of my colleagues, are Universalist enough in our Unitarian Universalism to wish that no soul goes unremembered.

Most powerful for me was a letter, written by a man who grew up in Newtown nearly two decades before Adam Lanza.  Now a Buddhist monk, Brother Phap-Luu (Douglas Bachmann) of Thich Nhat Hahn’s Plum Village Community, wrote in an open letter:

Dear Adam,

Let me start by saying that I wish for you to find peace. It would be easy just to call you a monster and condemn you for evermore, but I don’t think that would help either of us. Given what you have done, I realize that peace may not be easy to find. In a fit of rage, delusion and fear—yes, above all else, I think, fear—you thought that killing was a way out. It was clearly a powerful emotion that drove you from your mother’s dead body to massacre children and staff of Sandy Hook School and to turn the gun in the end on yourself. You decided that the game was over.

But the game is not over, though you are dead. You didn’t find a way out of your anger and loneliness. You live on in other forms, in the torn families and their despair, in the violation of their trust, in the gaping wound in a community, and in the countless articles and news reports spilling across the country and the world—yes, you live on even in me. I was also a young boy who grew up in Newtown. Now I am a Zen Buddhist monk. I see you quite clearly in me now, continued in the legacy of your actions, and I see that in death you have not become free….

Holding Adam accountable for his actions and responsible for not seeking the help he so desperately needed, Brother Phap-Luu continued

But we needed your help too, Adam. You needed to let us know that you were suffering, and that is not easy to do. It means overcoming pride, and that takes courage and humility. Because you were unable to do this, you have left a heavy legacy for generations to come. If we cannot learn how to connect with you and understand the loneliness, rage and despair you felt—which also lie deep and sometimes hidden within each one of us—not by connecting through Facebook or Twitter or email or telephone, but by really sitting with you and opening our hearts to you, your rage will manifest again in yet unforeseen forms….

Now we know you are there. You are not random, or an aberration. Let your action move us to find a path out of the loneliness within each one of us. I have learned to use awareness of my breath to recognize and transform these overwhelming emotions, but I hope that every man, woman or child does not need to go halfway across the world to become a monk to learn how to do this. As a community we need to sit down and learn how to cherish life, not with gun-checks and security, but by being fully present for one another, by being truly there for one another. For me, this is the way to restore harmony to our communion.

As we move into the anniversary of the Newtown shootings, let us be humbled by the recognition that the spark of violence lives within us all, using this knowledge as cause for compassion and motivation to be truly present to each others’ suffering, as well as to work even harder to bring to an end all forms of violence.

Let us be pay attention when the media, or co-workers, or friends and family use the number “26,” and then let us be brave and stand up for the lives that number erases and the violence it makes invisible.

Let us strengthen that Universalist impulse within ourselves, taking as inspiration the words of Nelba Marquez-Greene and Jimmy Greene, who lost their six-year old daughter, Ana, that day:

Love Wins.


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