It has been almost a full week since the tragedy occurred in Newtown, CT. Admittedly, all I knew of Newtown prior to last week’s events was that I had driven through it a few times during my random excursions as a college student looking for an escape from the bubble that is Yale. Like many of you, I was stunned when I heard about the deaths of those 20 children who were all young enough to be my own (provided I had chosen to start a family instead of attending graduate school). I was also very encouraged by the way the teachers and administrators gave their lives in order to protect their students. However, I was highly disturbed by the way that so many people used the publicity of this tragedy as a means of voicing their own opinions on issues that are barely relevant to the healing of this shattered community.
Within seconds of the news of tragedy, people had already started portraying it as a gun control issue. Some stated that guns like the one used by Adam Lanza had no business being on the streets while others like Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested that things would have been different if those teachers had been armed. I even remember some pro-lifers trying to compare the deaths of these children to abortion. Needless to say, I was annoyed. I didn’t understand how people could be so callus and felt it was too soon to distill this tragedy down to political issues. Then I went to church.
A few of you are probably aware that last Sunday was my birthday. I ended up attending two church services because I have been helping a friend with his praise and worship sets. The first service was a prayer breakfast held in conjunction with Mothers In Charge—an organization for women who have had children die in acts of violence. I knew that the Newtown tragedy would likely make an appearance in the service given the subject matter of the event. Unfortunately, I wasn’t ready for how it appeared. A pastor whose name I will not use because I actually have respect for her was in the middle of her otherwise powerful address when she said the following:
“I began to research Connecticut and the Lord told me to Google demonic activity. We need to understand how that place was started. There was a lot of witchcraft. Did you know that people are actually fighting to this day to have some of those witches pardoned?”
I could barely believe what I was hearing. She had somehow connected the tragedy in Newtown to the witch trials of the Puritan era. Most people familiar with the history of New England understand that in many instances, these witch trials were a means of persecuting usually single women who did not fit into the preconceived notions of Puritan society. Many times, these accusations were unfounded. I don’t fault the pastor for attempting to make this connection between Connecticut’s history of witchcraft and the deaths in Newtown. I had the chance to interact with her before her message and she seemed like the kind of person who would not say something if she didn’t believe it with all her heart. Still, it was like she had indicted the people of Connecticut—a state that I had called home for seven years—because of the past actions of a few people who may or may not have been witches. At this point in my life, I have learned that disagreeing with points in sermons is a natural part of church life. Of course, many people—especially in the African American religious context—are not well versed in history and believe that their pastor’s words are infallible. As a result, I am confident that some people left that place really believing that the tragedy in Newtown was a direct result of past witchcraft in Connecticut. That bothered me.
I soon realized that these sorts of judgments were not limited to the church. As I listened to the radio, I heard a woman try to suggest that the tragedy in Newtown happened because a pro-gun organization was located nearby. I have also heard plenty of people try to condemn Nancy Lanza even though she also lost her life at the hands of her son Adam and is in no position to defend herself. Some referred to her as a “gun nut” because of her collection of assault rifles. Others tried to wrongly imply that she and her ex-husband were wealthy people who did not spend enough time with their children even though it was documented that Nancy was actually a homemaker who spent a lot of time with her son autistic son Adam and even attempted to homeschool him for a little while when he was having too much difficulty relating to other kids his age.
It became clear to me that people are just judgmental. I wish we could put our judgments aside and rally around the Newtown community. Several families will never be the same. These families do not need the rest of us turning their tragedy into political or theological talking points. They do not need us to use their tragedy to push our own political or theological agendas or to perpetuate our own theological biases about people with socioeconomic statuses higher than ours. Truth be told, a lot of that same kind of judgment has been placed on members of the African American community and many of us have expressed our outrage about these erroneous assumptions. It’s disturbing how easily we fall into that same trap of pointing the finger at others during times of tragedy and forgetting how easily we could find ourselves dealing with similar issues.