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Another way of life is possible: Reflections on the shootings in Newtown, Conn.

Acting in Faith  |  By Max Carter, Dec 18, 2012
The Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks at the National Gallery

"The Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks at the National Gallery

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Note: I sent Max Carter a note about an unrelated matter and he sent me these reflections about the recent mass shootings in Newtown, Conn., which he posted on the Guilford College Friends Center Facebook page yesterday.  - Lucy

"For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called 'Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.'"  Isaiah 9:5-6

This familiar passage, central to Handel's "Messiah" and oft-repeated at this time the world calls Christmas, takes on poignant meaning in the wake of the recent Newtown, Conn., school tragedy. Indeed, garments have been rolled in blood, and our eternal hope is that the day is coming when little children will not be victims of senseless violence but heirs to a joyous future.

Shortly after another terrible loss of young life, the October 2006 West Nickel Mines, Pa., Amish school shootings, I was with one of my Guilford College classes on a fieldtrip to an Amish community in southern Virginia. As luck would have it, a former student of mine who graduated in the mid-1990s, David Fleig, was living in the community at the time, and he gave us a tour. 

When we got to the schoolhouse, I mentioned to him that following the Amish school killings there had been a public outcry for arming teachers. "So, David," I asked jokingly, "Are the teachers here going to start packing heat?"

David laughed and replied, "Well, winter is coming on, and last week I did move the woodstove into the classroom! I guess we will be packing heat!"

Instead of arming themselves after "their 9/11" (as one Amish minister called it) or expressing anger and indignation, the Amish community forgave the family of the killer and reiterated their Christian conviction that when Jesus said "love your enemy," he probably didn't mean "kill them."

Shocked and grieving citizens of Newtown have likewise displayed amazing love and concern thus far, and even some expressions from unlikely sources have been heard about taking gun violence seriously and looking at our laws. We can certainly hope that love, concern, and rational behavior will win the day.

But unfortunately the evidence is quite scant that the day of Isaiah's hope is dawning.

Such horror as the Newtown killings of innocents gets our shocked attention, but dozens more of innocent children were killed recently in Gaza; children by the thousands are dying of starvation, disease, poverty, and war. They don't rivet our attention because, sadly, it is all-too-common. And, it is all-too-common because they are "strangers," marginalized and othered for the wrong skin color, religion, or nationality.

Later in Isaiah's writing, the familiar image of "the peaceable kingdom" is expressed:  the lion, lamb, wolf, bear, ox, and lion will all lie down in peace (but, as comedian Woody Allen has opined, "the lamb won't get much sleep!"), and a little child shall lead them.

Quaker artist Edward Hicks painted more than 60 renditions of this scene in his lifetime, the expression of his own peace testimony and his grief over the violence of the schisms that tore his beloved Religious Society of Friends apart in the early 1800s. In the background of the familiar vision of Isaiah in each painting is a little clump of Quakers and Indians, modeled itself on a 1700s painting of "Penn's Treaty" by Benjamin West.

The combination of the foreground "hope" and the background "reality" articulates a noted expression by the late Quaker economist and poet Kenneth Boulding: "If it's possible!"

Oddly and humorously obvious, the expression is brought to life in Hicks' paintings.  Many believe that the hope of Isaiah's "peaceable kingdom" is a vain one—such intractable enemies can never lie down in peace and unafraid.

But in the background is evidence of that possibility: supposedly bitter enemies, Indians and European triumphalists, meeting together out of mutual respect to agree on how they will live together. That is my hope and my confidence.

While the reality of tragedies such as the recent gun violence and death tolls from war and the violence of poverty, disease, and intolerance is what seems to be our fate, I know that another way of life is possible—and that this season is one in which that reality "is made flesh." I hope we can all, in our own ways, embody that reality.

Today in the Hut (the campus ministry center), we will have a meeting for worship in the manner of Friends to hold in the Light all those who have been affected by the recent shootings and other tragedies.

We will gather under a Hicks "Peaceable Kingdom" painting and in front of blazing logs in the fireplace.   That will be the only heat we'll be packing on campus; and we'll gather with the hope that "if it's possible!"


About the Author

Max Carter just completed a long tenure as director of Friends Center at Guilford College. Max is a recorded Friends minister with interests in the Middle East, the Amish, conscientious objection, and Quaker history. His graduate studies at the Earlham School of Religion and Temple University were in campus ministry and American religious history.

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Lucy Duncan works with other AFSC staff to foster strong relationships between AFSC and Quakers.

Lucy is AFSC’s Director of Friends Relations. She has been a storyteller for 20 years and has worked with Quaker meetings on telling stories for racial justice and of spiritual experience. She attends Green Street Friends Meeting (PhYM) and lives with her son and partner in a Quaker cemetery.

Sophia is the Friends Relations Fellow this year who works closely with Lucy. She is a recent graduate of Guilford College where she majored in Sustainable Food Systems and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies.