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The tragedy of Sandy Hook was stunning in its human face, the faces of first-graders and their teachers. In the aftermath of this tragedy, countless millions flocked to their houses of worship to mourn, to ask how this could have happened, and to seek the inner determination toward the goal of ensuring this would never happen again. Our grief and compassion have united Americans in a way we don’t often see.
One of the privileges and challenges of a religious calling is the opportunity to be by the side of people when they are most in need of comfort. As clergy, we also share the pain and the questions of Americans who watch these tragedies from afar and look for ways in which their faith and their commitment can make a difference. Religious leaders bring the collected experience of many – too many – such human encounters to our own efforts to address gun violence.
It was in this spirit that many of those who have served as members of President Obama’s two Advisory Councils on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, including some of the nation’s most prominent religious leaders, came together as individuals and colleagues early this week in advance of the release of Vice President Biden’s recommendations to craft a statement expressing our sense of urgency that effective action is needed now to curtail gun violence in our nation. The statement is brief, and we recognize, to be sure, that we could not address all of the issues and that each one of us would have individually emphasized some points and added others. For example, the two of us strongly believe that tough restrictions on most semi-automatic weapons and on high capacity clips is a moral urgency – and we sense that this view is held widely across the faith community, among gun owners and non-owners alike. Yet we recognize that some religious leaders in good conscience feel differently. And in the deliberations of those who signed our statement. there were differences on issues. But the content of our discussions was profound in our shared desire to make a contribution to uphold the humanity of all Americans, to protect the innocent, and to do our utmost to ensure that such tragedies do not happen again. We were more than “respectful,” more than “tolerant,” more than “pluralistic.” We were united in the compelling and healing power of faith – and in our determination to call on our elected officials and our own communities to act as assertively as possible to change the status quo.
That status quo, we are coming to understand as people come forward from across the nation with their stories, is much more pervasive, persistent and damaging in our communities than even the horror of these tragedies reveals. As we honor the memory of the victims at this one month anniversary, faith leaders looking out among their congregations are all too keenly reminded of the many victims of gun violence often overlooked in our public debates – those who were wounded in a shooting and their families. These victims and their loved ones, even far greater in number than those tragically killed each year, sustain lifelong physical and emotional trauma. For every shot fired that finds a human target, ripples of suffering will long make their effects felt within entire communities. In many congregations across our nation, especially in our cities, these traumas are endured with a frequency that is hard to fathom and impossible to ignore.
There are other ways that the religious communities of America engage regularly with the issues raised in addressing gun violence. Millions whom we serve and their families suffer the effects of stigmatizing misperceptions regarding mental illness. These stigmas keep many from seeking help and perpetuate a scarcity of programs and resources to address the needs of the mentally ill. We can help counter these tendencies. And in our counseling and in the ongoing life of our congregations, we can often guide those who might pose a danger to themselves or to others toward the intervention and care that they need.
Americans came together to grieve during this past month. The challenge that we now must face is not only political; it is also spiritual. It is the challenge to hold before us the human face of Sandy Hook so that out of our national dialogue, we can enact the changes that ensure this will never happen again.
Rabbi David Saperstein is Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Assembly.