In the Liberian version of the Christmas story, “Every Man Heart Lay Down,” retold by author Lorenz Graham, God is frustrated.
He says, “The people no hear My Word, The people no walk my way, Nev mind. I going break the world and lose the people, I going make the day dark and the night I going make hot… And I going make a new country and make a new people.”
God’s son, “his one small boy,” hears his father and grieves for the people. He begs his father, “Don’t break the world what you done make. Don’t lose the people what you done care for. I beg you make it I go, I talk with people, Bye-m-by they savvy the way.” God’s son holds his father’s foot and God’s “heart be soft again.”
God tells his son, “Men will hate you and they will flog you and bye-m-bye they will kill you and I no going put my hand there.”
God’s “one small boy” says, “I agree!”
I woke up in the middle of the night weeping, remembering this retelling of the Christmas story and thinking of the children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and all of the children for whom I grieve this year.
I grieve for Emilie Alice Parker who died at Sandy Hook, whose gentle father said, “I was so blessed to be her dad.” He expressed sympathy for Adam Lanza’s family, "I can't imagine how hard this experience must be for you.” I was moved by the story of the teacher who hid her students in the bathroom and broke protocol to tell each of them she loved them.
I grieve for the children—whose names I may never know—affected by the bombings in Gaza just before Thanksgiving. There was one image of a boy about my son’s age, holding his toddler brother, whose head was bandaged. They had just lost both of their parents and the expression on the older boy’s face was heartrending.
I grieve for Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old who was shot in the gated community at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Fla., by George Zimmerman in February. Trayvon joined the thousands of African-American boys that are victims of gun violence each year. In Philadelphia alone there have already been 322 homicides this year.
I grieve for the children of a woman in Burundi that Dr. Alexia, the director of the Friends Women’s Association clinic, told me about. The woman was in her home when Hutus came and killed her children. Because it wasn’t safe to leave her house, she stayed inside with her murdered children for a week.
I grieve for the 178 children who have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, whose deaths are often not covered in the news. I grieve for the drone pilot Brandon Bryant who operated the drones from New Mexico and “who had to quit because he could no longer cope with the huge amount of civilian deaths he was witnessing and helping to cause,” according to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald.
I grieve for all the children lost to or affected by violence or war in Newtown, Aurora, Oak Creek, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, west Philadelphia, east Oakland, Chicago, Kenya, and so many places around the world.
Grief for these children compels me, like so many mothers, to go home and hug my son. I remember bringing Simon home after he was born, how amazingly vulnerable he was and how big and noisy the world seemed.
A love broke open in me that day, a big love that was for me the closest to what I imagine God’s love might be like. That love has called me to transformation, to work to overcome my habits of anger and hurt and to understand that loving him isn’t enough, that I am called to love other people’s children and try, often haltingly, to do what that love requires of me.
A friend recently posted a video with excerpts from the diary of Paul Le Jeune, a 17th century Jesuit missionary from France who struggled to make the Montagnais-Naskapi people of Canada “understand the sanctity of obeying masters, suppressing women, and beating children,” according to Maria Kvilhaug.
Le Jeune was puzzled by the lack of hierarchy among the Montagnais-Naskapi, who “only obey their chief through good will towards him, therefore they never kill each other to acquire these honors,” he observed. “Also, as they are contented with a mere living, not one of them gives himself to the devil to acquire wealth.” One member of the tribe said to Le Jeune, “Thou hast no sense. You French people love only your own children, but we love all the children of the tribe.”
In his diary, he recounts an incident when a teacher takes a child outside to be beaten at the Jesuit school. The Montagnais-Naskapi adults object, and one lays himself over the child and offers himself to be beaten instead: “Strike me if thou wilt, but thou shalt not strike him.”
This story illustrates that violence has to be taught, and that there is another way to live.
Disarming our hearts
When will we stop creating hell and begin to love one another in the way God’s child does? When will we decide that it’s no longer okay for any of God’s children to be flogged or murdered? I, too, get frustrated at our seeming inability to learn, but I believe that we are redeemable and can learn God's way.
We can’t recover what’s been lost, we can’t change what’s happened, but we can begin to heal and renounce a way of life that catches so many children in the crossfire.
Certainly gun control and care for mental illness are very important, but the problem is deeper than this.
It is true disarmament and healing that is required of us. If we don’t staunch our grief too soon or get frustrated and write off our ability to change, maybe we can begin to heal.
It is time to soften and disarm our hearts and build on the way we care for one another in such a time of crisis to create a culture of peace.
We must lay down the guns, open our hearts, and remember that safety doesn’t come from heightened security, but from grace and from being willing to say and mean “I love you” (even when it’s against protocol) to those in our homes, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, across town, and on the other side of the world.