WASHINGTON, DC, December 25, 2012 — Christmas is one of the saddest times of year. The bells, the lights, the parties, the joy and the joyful noise are a reminder to many that they’re alone, or a reminder of those they’ve lost. The grief of Newtown is especially poignant now, but it isn’t unique.
In 1865, the United States had been through over four years of civil war. Death came on a scale never before and never since seen in America, in the course of a fratricidal war that set father against son and brother against brother. It split communities, sundered friendships, and traded love and affection for bitterness and hate.
In the wake of this war, Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address. Less well-known that his Gettysburg Address, it contains one of the best known passages of American political oratory:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
So many widows and orphans in the Union had reason to hate the defeated Confederacy (and vice versa), yet Lincoln reminded them that this was a time to bind wounds, not inflict them. It was a time to forgive. A month later Lincoln was assassinated, and a nation that needed to forgive instead turned itself over to revenge, Reconstruction, and a hundred wasted resentful years.
The outpouring of support and affection for the people of Newtown has been tremendous. They aren’t alone. The families of the 26 dead grieve, and they’ll grieve for years, but they won’t grieve alone.
But 26 dead? There were 28. We deliberately exclude Adam Lanza and his mom, Nancy Lanza. She was the first to die in her son’s rampage, and he was the last.
While internet letter writers pour out sympathy and support for the 26, they’ve heaped loathing on the other two. It would be hard to say that Adam doesn’t deserve it. If, as so many assert, he did what he did out of pure evil, then he deserves the hate; even God hates evil. Yet we have ample evidence that Adam wasn’t just a soulless killer. He was a little boy once, bright and withdrawn, who withdrew further into himself as he grew older. For years he was quiet and inoffensive, an alien to all who knew him.
We have little sympathy in this country for the mentally ill; many of us are convinced that mental illness is only an excuse, not a diagnosis. Indeed, if Adam Lanza was mentally ill, it isn’t an excuse for what he did, but it is an explanation.
Nancy Lanza has been widely disparaged as cold, a drunk, a mother who did too much for her son or who did too little. There’s a lot of speculation. What we know is that she was a single mom, trying hard to do what was best for her son, not succeeding. We know her lack of success with perfect hindsight. If Adam hadn’t exploded that day, her community would continue to admire her dedication to her son. It’s only now that people wonder what more she should have done, what she could have done differently. Only now does her failure damn her as a bad mother.
Some columnists have eloquently explained why it’s appropriate to hate Adam Lanza and why we should never forgive. But Adam Lanza doesn’t need forgiveness. He’s gone, either gone completely or gone to the hands of a much more competent judge than we are. Forgiveness is for our good, not his.
Like torture and murder, hatred victimizes its source more profoundly than its targets. It makes us less human in the ways that humans are good. It feels good to hate, and hating Adam Lanza and his mom probably makes some people feel virtuous, a badge that says, “I’m not like them.”
But we are like them. As a parent, I do the best I can with my children, but they are ultimately who they make of themselves, and there’s no guarantee that it will be good. Insanity can strike anyone, and I can’t honestly say that I’d be faster than Nancy Lanza was to institutionalize my little boy.
And anyone can become a killer. Life hasn’t found the lever and the fulcrum for most of us, but we lie to ourselves if we say it isn’t there. If we learned nothing from the 20th century’s genocides and terrors, it should be that ordinary, decent men and women, loving parents and good citizens, these are the instruments of death and terror in the world. We should hate the hateful things that people do, but hating the people who do them doesn’t insulate us from being like them.
Adam and Nancy Lanza leave behind people who grieve, just as the parents of the Sandy Hook Elementary children grieve. Christmas will be empty for them, too. They don’t deserve on top of that to be objects of resentment or loathing.
Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the son of God, the Prince of Peace. Christians believe he atoned for their sins in an infinite atonement, an act of selfless love for a world that tortured and killed Christ himself. If a man believes that, how can he love Adam Lanza any less than God does, who sent His Son to die for him? If a woman believes that Christ forgave those who killed him, how can she not forgive Adam Lanza, and feel anything but compassion for his mom?
God will forgive whom He will forgive; of us He requires that we forgive all men and women. This Christmas season, and all year long, let us remember the people who grieve and not ask whether they deserve it or not, but only ask how we can make the grief a little less. And for our own sake, let us forgive Adam Lanza, and remember to save some tears for his mom.
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