The Newtown Tragedy and the Prophetic Case for Immediate Action

The horrific tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, has left all of us speechless, from the President, to the brave police officers who are handling events on the ground, to the clergy in this quaint village. Only those who have experienced this type of event personally can know what the parents are feeling tonight. The senseless killing of small children knows no parallel in the scope of acts that humans are capable of committing, and many have turned to Scripture for solace: "I lift up my eyes to the hills-- from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:1-2).

We also discuss the causes and possible solutions to prevent future episodes. On the Internet and in conversations everywhere today, a frequent refrain has been that it is highly inappropriate to "politicize" this tragedy for partisan gain, because we need time for healing before addressing the root causes of the problem. Talking about better mental health services or the ease of obtaining semiautomatic weapons might be appropriate "down the road," but not now.

Yet as Ezra Klein noted in a Washington Post blog post earlier today, "That is code, essentially, for 'don't talk about reforming our gun control laws.'" By postponing a conversation about these issues, we run the risk of losing any momentum for honest debate. These mass shootings have happened so regularly and in so many places that numbness sets in, and we return to our busy lives. This pattern is precisely what many who support the status quo are counting on.

There is another important reason for pressing ahead now with a national conversation. For the millions of Americans who turn to the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity in times of tragedy, we find prophets who insist on social action. Perhaps the greatest legacy that these figures left us is their pursuit of immediate justice (Hebrew mishpat). Prophets like Amos, Micah, and Isaiah did not refrain from critiquing systemic problems in their society. They sprang into action in the midst of tragedy, not after it.

The prophet Micah witnessed injustice in the society, including physical violence, and he raised a loud cry against it, declaring that the Lord will judge all peoples, and "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Micah 4:3). For Micah, violence sprung from social decay is reprehensible to the Lord. He declared that the task of humanity is to respond to God and each other with humility and love, but also to right wrongs in the society: "What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8).

These prophets were restless figures. They did not suffer a status quo that perpetuated violence or unfairness, especially to the least fortunate in the society, such as widows and children. Jesus modeled his ministry in many respects on these earlier prophets, and the Gospels are replete with a call for immediate action to redress wrongs and act swiftly in the service of justice. Jesus' special concern for those with mental illness, as evidenced by the many healing stories in the New Testament, is a noteworthy example for us today.

No one today can match the timeless eloquence of these voices, but we can follow their lead in seeking a just and safe society for all persons, particularly the most vulnerable among us. A national conversation is in order on our gun control laws and why our annual homicide rate is so much higher than other industrialized countries with similar demographics. A renewed focus on mental health services might allow us to catch wayward souls before they perpetrate unspeakable acts.

The signs outside churches in Newtown today said, "Prayer vigil, please come in." We join with the families of the victims and residents of this place in their solidarity and grief. Yet if we turn to the prophets, we cannot use this tragedy as an excuse for inaction. We are long overdue for an honest, national conversation on the gun violence plaguing our culture and how we can reduce it. People with all perspectives on this issue should be welcome to the conversation table. Today we acknowledge a tipping point. We honor the memory of the deceased more by action than inaction. In the tradition of the ancient prophets, we seek the same type of justice that they did, and we acknowledge that inaction and obfuscation keep us from their vision, that "justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).