Suddenly we know that there is a place called Newtown in Connecticut. Semi-automatic weapons have seen to that.
Curious phrase, ‘semi-automatic’. It almost suggests that guns might shoot themselves.
But it’s human beings who do the shooting. It’s always human beings.
The shooter was called Adam. It was Adam the gun-man who was semi-automatic – or became semi-automatic. It was Adam who managed to switch off that bit of brain which says ‘don’t do this’; the bit of brain which says that other people’s suffering matters.
The antidote to Adam lies not in outrage but in compassion. Newtown invites us to switch on the bit of our own brain that feels of the suffering of others, painful though that is.
Whenever I hear of tragic outrages like Newtown my heart goes out to the victims and their loved ones, but also to the police and others who have to get really close to what happened: those who have to look the horror in the face and feel the revulsion against evil welling up inside themselves. I think too of the medics and the morticians and the cleaners.
And then I think of the clergy, the ministers and pastors on the ground. Suddenly they are in an unwanted and unexpected limelight. They have been beamed from the ordinary to the extraordinary in seconds. They can’t be ready for this. To have ever tried to prepare for this would have been an act of un-faith.
When I reflected on a time when my own ministry was in the aftermath of a cruel murder, it occurred to me that the representative role of the minister was perhaps the most important. Pastoral care mattered – but the presence mattered more.
Writing about it in a book called Praying for England, I suggested that in situations like this – when a community is not only shocked but shattered – the public minister becomes a bit of public property.
One of the ironies of representing the church in such challenging circumstances is that precisely as the ministry impinges on you most deeply as a person so you can become, by ministering so publicly, less of a subjective and more of an objective presence, less of a familiar person and more of an archetype.
And yet… the public minister begins to feel less like a representative and much more like a vulnerable human being.
Throughout the experience of [this] ministry … I was aware of considerable anxiety, uncertainty and discomfort. It was so hard to know what to do, what not to do, how to prioritise. The chaos unleashed by an event of this kind… is profoundly disorienting and as one enters into its reality so one is drawn into a very dark place, a very deep struggle.
Ministry in Newtown today will be all about embracing vulnerability in public.
Maybe our prayers could include one for those in front line of ministry there. That they might be sustained in this most hopeless situation and be able to give the kind of leadership that offers not only comfort but hope.
Such leadership will be a world, a universe, away from Adam’s semi-automatic destructiveness. It will be the grace-fuelled, healing attentiveness of those dedicated to love of God and love of neighbour.
Let us pray that those who reach out in love, however tentatively, will be a blessing to others – and will themselves be sustained.