Antoinette’s Babies: Radical Empathy, Radical Grace

 

Religion in practice is always more beautiful than religion in words. In fact, from my study of Rob Bell, it has become clear to me that religion only becomes true in action. And there is no more beautiful example of this than what Antoinette Tuff did for Michael Hill. She loved him into lying down on the ground and giving himself up. Antoinette saved her “800 babies” by making Michael another one of her “babies.”

The story of Michael Hill’s storming into an Atlanta-area elementary school armed with an AK-47-type assault rifle and about 500 rounds of ammunition is now well known. Antoinette Tuff is quickly becoming a national hero by coolly talking Michael into putting down his gun and emptying his pockets of ammunition and lying down on the ground. Piers Morgan made her his “hero,” and had a psychologist on to “explain” what had happened. He said that Antoinette “intuitively” did the right thing, appealing to Hill’s experience.

But was it really “intuitive” behavior on her part? I would say no. This was learned behavior based, by her own witness, on the teachings of her pastor on how to “anchor on the Lord in tough times,” and how to “consult people in their pain.”

What’s fascinating is how cool she was during this entire experience. The 911 call is a textbook dialogue in hostage management and pastoral care. But it didn’t come out of a book but from the depths of this woman’s personal experience and a rich and deep faith, a Christian faith. We all seem to avoid pointing this out. But let’s see where this comes from and what it means and why it works.

The psychologist put her ability to care for Michael in instrumental language: Antoinette had the right “strategy” and “negotiating style.” But what’s critical here is that it wasn’t instrumental. She wasn’t using a strategy at all. She, in fact, was loving this man back into being; treating him not as an object to be manipulated, but as a soul to be healed and saved.

Why did Michael listen to her? One can imagine that he has heard every single type of psychological language used on him to deal with his mental illness. He knew the script by heart. But with Antoinette this again was no script, it was the language of love in action. Antoinette recalled the pain of her own life—her severely disabled son, her recent divorce, her despair and attempted suicide. She too had seen the dark side of life. And yet, in the midst of it her pastor had taught her, to “anchor” in the Lord.

This idea is a spiritual one—it appeals to a type of consciousness in which one focuses on a source of power and love, “the Lord,” who opens up space in a person, both psychological and spiritual, so that grace, or unconditional favor, can flow through. You can see in her courage in the midst of this intense relationship with Michael that she is calling on a strength not based on fear, but knowing that there is an anchor of love that she can depend upon no matter what happens, not only in this situation, but in her family’s situation.

Antoinette has experienced a radical sense of grace that gives her space to survive tragedy, and this in turn makes her able to speak and love Michael with a deep and radical sort of empathy. She loves this lost soul because her soul has been loved.

Antoinette recalled in a stunning interview: “He was a hurting young man; I started praying for him. I shared my life story, my struggles, and let him know that he could give himself up.” Michael said to her, “No, it’s over, I’m going to die today.” And she said with a deep sense of grace, “No, it’s not over; you’re going to be okay.”

This kind of love can’t be manufactured. It’s either there or it isn’t. And we see it in Antoinette, a space for radical empathy and radical grace, pouring through her like an avalanche of peace, courage and surety. It is beautiful to behold.

Asked how she did it, she explained, “I give it all to God. I’m not the hero. Only through his grace and mercy, I give it all to him. This is all for the babies, to give back to the babies, so that they can bless the next person.”

And Antoinette includes everyone as her babies, even Michael: “I explained to him that I loved him.” And she showed that she loved him, making sure he laid on the floor, so that the police saw her first and that she was standing, so they wouldn’t think he had hurt her. She passed on his apology to the school and to the police.

You can’t fake love. And strategies and gimmicks don’t cut it in these circumstances, but love truly does conquer all things, and in this case it is a the love of a woman of faith, taught by her pastor, but lived out in the most incredible circumstances. Radical grace and empathy—faith made true in action.

 

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  • Leland Seese

    Thank you, Jim, for a clear, cogent affirmation of the power of faith. Just today a Washington Post columnist struggled to explain Tuff’s “faith made true in action” in terms of the practice of leadership. When our plane of consciousness is bound to the human mind, will, and flesh, we cannot see Christ alive in one another.

    • https://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman James Wellman

      Thanks, Leland. Loved her story, and in the interview, in the whole experience she is praying for him, its really a sacramental moment–in her deepest distress she is sacralizing this moment, and loving her enemy, quite literally.

  • Laurel Kashinn

    Absolutely, Jim. Antoinette Tuff is a true spiritual warrior. She faced the darkness armed with weapons of light, and prevailed. All of us need to learn these techniques.

    • https://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman James Wellman

      amen.


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