The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: Newtown

Citizen Gifts – Protection

We’ve all been through enough these past few days to understand what happens when a community that perceived itself to be safe suddenly finds out it isn’t. It’s as John Wyndham says in his, The Day of the Triffids: “It must be, I thought, one of the race’s most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that ‘it can’t happen here’ – that one’s own time and place is beyond cataclysm.” That’s what the people of Newtown, Connecticut must have thought, until that awful day.

Admittedly, it was hard to detect what was about to happen. It most often is, when some imbalanced individual decides to break out of societal norms and wreak havoc. But there are other influences that threaten our communities that can only be dealt with through citizens having one another’s backs. If we remain detached when we should be on alert, our communities might never be the same.

Sometimes human beings rise to remarkable heights in their willingness to risk themselves for the greater good. The people of Denmark, faced with a Nazi occupation, were suddenly being commanded to turn over any Jewish people in their towns and villages. The penalty for refusal was obvious, yet in spite of the danger local citizens, outraged at the inhumanity of it, established their own hidden network of underground railroads. With roughly 8,000 Jews in Denmark the challenge was extreme, the consequences dire.

It wasn’t really until after World War Two that the world discovered that almost all 8,000 were successfully smuggled out of the country and guided to Sweden, where the Danish Jews were given sanctuary. It was to serve as one of the bright moments in what was clearly a darkened age.

Nor was it just the Danes or Swedes who defended humanity at the very time is was required. A distance away, and in circumstances completely independent from what was happening in Denmark, the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, in southern France, devoted themselves to rescuing and protecting Jews and other endangered people. Local citizens did so at great cost and threat to themselves. One of them said after the war, “Saving lives became a hobby of the people of Le Chambon.” It’s rare to find such heroism; rarer still when people make a practice of it.

These were remarkable acts in a time when numerous communities provided passive or active support to efforts at rounding up Jews. There was great collusion, of turning a blind eye, a much larger story in which many Europeans sought to protect themselves and their communities by giving up the innocent to the aggressors. Nevertheless, as British philosopher Richard Swinburne so aptly put it, sometimes communities take it upon themselves to exercise “the divine right of insurrection.”

Regardless of the reality that the Jews were of a different lineage than the Danes, the Swedes or the French, they were still viewed as important members of their respective communities. They filled positions in their communities, contributing to its larger benefit. When the time came to make a decision as to whether they stayed together as a people or separated themselves by their natural divisions, citizens knew they had lived together long enough that differences were transcended by belonging. They were a humanity bound together, and the sheer inhumanity of what they were being asked to do was ultimately beneath their nobility of character and outlook. They were communities and they protected their own, occasionally at the expense of life itself.

In reality, what took place in Newtown happens repeatedly around the world. I have been to African villages where entire populations have been wiped out, or women and children were hauled off into slavery and I couldn’t console myself because of the inhumanity of it. And yet those villages refused to give up; they rebuilt and rebuilt again. Every three seconds a child dies in this world. It’s not here among us and we give it little thought. And then suddenly it happens in a Connecticut town and we feel defenseless and speechless. Our humanity materializes when such things strike nearby, but often remains dormant if travesties happen continents away.

Victoria Solo

Victoria Solo

The carnage at Newtown reminds us that we are human and that we will survive as a species when we look out for one another. Teacher Victoria Soto heard the gunshots and quickly hid her students in cupboards and closets. When the killer entered the classroom she said she had sent them to the gym. He shot her and moved on. Look at her picture. It is the face of a dedicated teacher who did an amazing thing, and in doing so took citizenship to new heights. When a Newtown happens we learn that we, in fact, do possess a deeper humanity, one capable of great exploits to protect others. A test of our humanity will be how we respond to travesties that affect us personally. But the depth of our souls will be measured by how we defend those with whom we have nothing in common.

No community is truly safe until it builds a more noble humanity into its common life, its shared resources, its lofty dreams. A city without security cannot be a community, and a neighbourhood without citizen cooperation can never be a home. Newtown prompted us to hug our kids. Aspirational citizenship will teach us how to embrace each other in building a secure public space.

Christmas in Connecticut

child umbrellaWhat would Christmas be without a child? Would it fill us with such wonder, such pathos, such hope? Doubtful. According to the ancient scriptures, the moment God chose to take the form of a child humanity and God both took on new meaning. Divinity was approachable; humanity was suddenly capable of great elevation. The child is what makes Christmas, pure and simple.

Would the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut carry such deep pain within us if so many children hadn’t been killed? Would parents in Canada have rushed to school at the end of the day to usher their kids home with such a sense of intensity? Again, doubtful.

If author Carl Sandburg is correct, that a child, “is God’s opinion that the world should go on,” what happens to those parents as over 20 children’s voices go silent this weekend? How will they go on?

It remains one of the great ironies of humanity that people represent the best and the worst of it – its greatest hope and its ultimate danger. For the next few days thousands of Canadians will attempt to find some way of reaching out to a devastated community, either through prayer or through some gift of kindness. But in the end their ultimate motivation will be the overwhelming emotion of the loss of children. As they die, that portion of us still capable of a sense of wonder dies along with them. Children see magic because they look for it; we only rediscover it as we follow them. This is what Jesus meant when he reminded a generation that “even a child” would lead them in hope and faith.

In the famous movie Christmas in Connecticut, a well-known food writer, though single, attempts to convince others that she has children and leads a perfect kind of life. The movie is about how that falsehood is exposed but how she discovers love in the process. It’s a charming piece of cinema. Well, this Christmas in Connecticut, men and women who were real parents and who, like most of us, dedicated their lives for the betterment of their kids, have massive holes where their hearts used to be. Who of us can imagine the unbelievable sadness of it all – the unfilled stockings, the unopened presents, the lack of wonder on the faces on Christmas morning, the lack of joy at grandma and grandpa’s?

What transpired in Newtown will cause untold words to be written and said about why it happened. Gun control will be the big issue and it will be hotly debated. But this is life we are talking about here, not policy. Did the senseless murders constitute a deeper policy failure? Was there something more that could be done? This is not the time for such questions, though it will surely come. This is the time for humanity – the sheer depravity and nobility of it all. We must cry until we are spent, pray until we are wordless, give until we are poor. In the very season where we celebrate a child in a manger we have a community that has lost many of its children. The irony of this will drive us to despair, to question, to doubt.

But then we will look at our children and a spark will be kindled once more. There are parts in each of our beings that we had no idea existed until a child entered our lives. This is more true of mothers than anyone else, for they carried such life long before it became visible. And yet we all understand it. A tragedy that emptied our souls over the loss of so many young lives is somehow overcome, in time, through the very reality we feared we had lost – children. It’s just as Fyodor Dostoyevsky reminded us: “The soul is healed by being with children.”

As we have reached year’s end, we hear increasingly of the Mayan prophecy of the end of the world. The majority of us don’t buy it, of course, but right now, in Connecticut, the world just ended for loving families who are struggling to imagine how they can go on. How do you even wash the lost child’s bedding, pack away their toys, open a heart to their memories? This will be a long journey, a dark night of the soul that appears not to end.

But it will, through faith, endurance, community, love, support, and the need to get on with living. Above all, healing will return through children themselves. We must live with them, through them, and for them. We must come together as communities and acknowledge that more children are growing hungry than ever, that their economic futures are being robbed by the present, that their dreams now lie farther beyond their reach, that their world is more dangerous. Who knows, perhaps our children can lead us to the paths of equity where all are of equal importance, regardless of their differences, and we can obliterate the gap between rich and poor. Maybe we will learn our children never did fully belong to our present, but to a future calling out for itself. Maybe by allowing ourselves to be filled with wonder, as they are, we can heal ourselves.

But not right now. This is the moment of grief for some dear families in what was a peaceful town in Connecticut. We mourn with them, but we will pray that what they have lost this week will be recaptured through the presence in this world of those who yet possess the potential to bring us to a better day – the children.

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