The horrible massacre in Newtown, Connecticut of 20 first-grade children and six teachers and other staff– and a mother and her son—has deeply moved the hearts of people across America. Many have come together, especially in interfaith services, to express their sorrow for and empathy with the victims, and to seek closeness with each other and comfort and answers. With an outpouring of compassionate statements by religious and political leaders nationwide and worldwide. One, Pope Benedict XVI, expressing “his heartfelt grief and the assurance of his closeness in prayer to the victims and their families, and to all those affected by the shocking event.” (“World leaders express sadness, pain,” By Cassandra Vinograd, Associated Press, Boston Sunday Globe, Dec. 16, 2012) Another, United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, writing, “May the God of love and truth surround this community of Newtown, and help us all find our way to making the world a place of peace and safety for all of God’s children.” (New England Conference, The United Methodist Church, Dec. 14, 2012)
And in a prayer vigil in Newtown, President Obama saying that “this job of keeping our children safe and teaching them well is something we can only do together.” That “we bear responsibility for every child.” That “there’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace, that is true.” That “’let the little children come to me,’ Jesus said, ‘and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’” (“President Obama’s speech at prayer vigil for Newtown shooting victims (Full transcript),” By Washington Post staff, The Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2012)
But, In the face of global reality, whose children actually do “we bear responsibility for?” Whose “God of love and truth” is really being called on to “make the world a place of peace and safety?” Where do “our children” end and the children of the other begin? Where does compassion run out and indifference set in?
The uncontrollable sobbing and shaking of mourning Newtown mothers and fathers thrusts open the door of our common humanity. Such traumatic humanizing can radicalize the human heart, and even lead one’s god to become loving of the other and more truth-filled. The horror and humanness of Newtown can transform and empower the human heart not to care just for “our children and our families,” but for all children and their families. Newtown unleashes the power of the human heart to care and act– if it is informed of, or otherwise dares to understand and visualize for itself, the terrible suffering and shared humanness of other people.
Like the estimated 500,000 Iraqi children, most under age 5, who died between 1990 and 1996 as a result of US-controlled UN sanctions. So many Iraqi mothers and fathers wept at their dying children’s bedsides because the sanctions prevented them from obtaining adequate medicine and food and sanitation. And later, the UN-condemned, unnecessary US pre-emptive war against Iraq, resulting in the deaths of possibly over one million Iraqi civilians. A war creating over 700,000 Iraqi widows and orphans begging on the streets. (“Iraq’s War Widows Face Dire Need With Little Aid,” By Timothy Williams, The New York Times, Feb. 22, 2009) And severe sectarian violence continuing to this day, in the wake of Iraq’s “liberation” by the military of “the greatest nation on the face of the earth.” With no alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction found, which was the pretense for the criminal war. And, now, a repeat performance against Iran, with its alleged secret creation of a nuclear weapon, and sanctions that create shortages of medicine and other necessary items and the strangulation of the health of Iranian children.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq was a war crime against humanity, launched just two weeks after a United Methodist-professing president said, “I pray daily. I pray for wisdom and guidance and strength. . . . I pray for peace. I pray for peace.” (The New York Times, Mar. 7, 2003) Which “God of love and truth” was former president George W. Bush praying to? Evidently to an American and United Methodist god. Instead of being put on trial, along with his god, for international war crimes, The United Methodist Church has erected a monument to him at Southern Methodist University: ‘HOME OF THE GEORGE W, BUSH PRESIDENTIAL CENTER.’
It is not just about many United Methodists. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People found that “80% of evangelical white Protestants support” going to war against Iraq, “the highest tally of any group measured.” (“Pope’s Emissary Meets with Bush, Calls war ‘Unjust,’” by Johanna Neuman, Los Angeles Times, Mar. 6, 2003) (For an analysis of the positions of religious groups on the war against Iraq, see Alberts, “Mainstream Religious Leaders in Bushtime: Guardians of the Status Quo,” Counterpunch, Sept. 19, 2005.
To hear each other’s laughter and see each other‘s tears, allows the heart to experience each other’s humanness. Awareness of our shared humanness can “make the world a place of peace and safety for all of God’s children.” Like the children of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Gaza and the West Bank.
US drones alone, controlled by CIA operatives, have indiscriminately killed more than 200 children in these countries—children of the other, whose deaths are covered up by secrecy and silence. As reported, In Afghanistan, “President Hamid Kaizai . . . criticized NATO for not being able to provide an explanation for the vans piled with bodies of women and children that villagers displayed to reporters.” (“Commander Apologizes for Afghan Airstrike,” By Alicia J. Rubin,The New York Times, June 9, 2012) No names of the women and children were given. No photographs of their mangled bodies. No devastated and outraged loved ones were pictured or heard. Why not? To actually see “vans piled with the bodies of women and children,” would sicken and wrench and, perhaps, enlarge the heart. In an instant, we would be struck by the murder and grief of people who look and think and feel like us—human beings murdered in our name.
Politicians, corporate profiteers, their guardian media and chaplains of the status quo keep war at a distance, far from the human heart. Political explanations about US exceptionalism, “terrorists who hate our freedom” and keeping America safe box in the mind so that it does not go to the imperialistic heart of the matter. Political leaders and their corporate masters and media watchdogs are about hardening the heart, not enlightening its mind’s eye. The sacrificing of young American lives in imperialistic wars depends on the use of patriotism and sectarian Christianity to make other human beings out to be heartless– the other, when, in fact, he and she and their children are just like us.
Journalist George Monbiot puts his finger on the human heart in a piece called, “In the US, mass child killings are tragedies. In Pakistan, mere bug splats.” The subtitle makes the point: “Barack Obama’s tears for the children of Newtown are in stark contrast to his silence over the children murdered by his drones.” Monbiot cites a report that indicates 64 children were among the 297 to 569 civilians killed in north-west Pakistan during President Obama’s first three years in office. He writes, “Most of the world’s media, which has rightly commemorated the children of Newtown, either ignores Obama’s murders or accepts the official version that all those killed are ‘militants.’ The children of north-west Pakistan, it seems,” he continues, are not like our children.” He concludes, “The have no names, no pictures, no memorials of candles and flowers and teddy bears . . . no grieving relatives, no minute analysis of what happened and why. . . . They belong to the other: to the non-human world of bugs and grass and tissue.” (the Guardian, Dec. 17, 2012)
When Rap Brown said that “violence is as American as cherry pie,” he was referring to the pervasive hardening of the human heart. The use of “American exceptionalism” and Christocentric exclusiveness to wage wars against the mothers and fathers and children of the other. Maintaining over 700 military bases throughout the world, and being the biggest exporter of weapons to other countries. The continuing wealth-controlled hierarchy of access to economic and political and legal and religious power in America, still oppressing people of color, and now more and more white persons. The 1% and their pocket-lined political servants now manufacturing a “fiscal cliff” to steal earned entitlements and needed services from America’s older and younger citizens alike. The daily diet of violence provided by television shows, movies and video games. The senseless Newtown killings that occur daily on the streets of America: young people especially, with no concrete educational and career hopes, killing each other, with guns as easy to obtain as “cherry pie.”
The human heart holds the key to how big our world is and can become. It is about allowing ourselves to see the whole human picture. Like the birth of Jesus.
It is not just the story about the prophesized birth of a baby in a manger, who would become a messiah and set his Jewish people free from Roman domination and bring “Peace on Earth.” It was about a “troubled” King Herod ordering the massacre of all the Jewish children “two years old and under” in the region of Bethlehem to do away with any threat to his power. It was especially about “Rachel weeping for her children; she could not be consoled because they are no more.” (Matthew 2: 1-18) Christmas is about the human heart responding to Rachel and her children. It is about “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Vincent Harding spoke to all of us about the technology of the heart in writing, “What we want is a new transformed society, not equal opportunity in a dehumanized one.” (There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, Vintage Books, 1983) The technology of the earth is used to fashion weapons of destruction. Christmas reveals the transforming technology of the heart to “beat swords into plowshares . . . and study war no more . . . and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4: 3-4)
The humanizing power of a child. From Bethlehem to Connecticut to Pakistan. It’s a small world for big hearts.
Mel King is a long-time Boston community activist, organizer, educator, author and political leader, who, in 1983, was the first Black candidate to make it to the finals in Boston’s mayoral campaign. He is author of Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development, South End Press, 1981, co-author with James Jennings of From Access to Power: Black Politics in Boston, Schenkman Books, 1986, and author of Streets, a Poem Book published by Hugs Press, Boston, 2006. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His recently published book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, is available on Amazon.com His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.