‘Remarks by the President at Sandy Hook Interfaith Prayer Vigil’

Describing President Barack Obama’s remarks Sunday at an interfaith prayer vigil in Newtown, Conn., Stephen Prothero says, “It wasn’t a speech. It was a sermon.”

That it was, and a powerful sermon at that.

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Remarks by the President at Sandy Hook Interfaith Prayer Vigil

Newtown High School, Newtown, Conn., Dec. 16, 2012

To all the families, first responders, to the community of Newtown, clergy, guests — Scripture tells us: “…do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away…inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”

We gather here in memory of twenty beautiful children and six remarkable adults. They lost their lives in a school that could have been any school; in a quiet town full of good and decent people that could be any town in America.

Here in Newtown, I come to offer the love and prayers of a nation. I am very mindful that mere words cannot match the depths of your sorrow, nor can they heal your wounded hearts. I can only hope it helps for you to know that you’re not alone in your grief; that our world too has been torn apart; that all across this land of ours, we have wept with you, we’ve pulled our children tight. And you must know that whatever measure of comfort we can provide, we will provide; whatever portion of sadness that we can share with you to ease this heavy load, we will gladly bear it. Newtown — you are not alone.

As these difficult days have unfolded, you’ve also inspired us with stories of strength and resolve and sacrifice. We know that when danger arrived in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary, the school’s staff did not flinch, they did not hesitate. Dawn Hochsprung and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel Davino and Anne Marie Murphy — they responded as we all hope we might respond in such terrifying circumstances — with courage and with love, giving their lives to protect the children in their care.

We know that there were other teachers who barricaded themselves inside classrooms, and kept steady through it all, and reassured their students by saying “wait for the good guys, they’re coming;” “show me your smile.”

And we know that good guys came. The first responders who raced to the scene, helping to guide those in harm’s way to safety, and comfort those in need, holding at bay their own shock and trauma because they had a job to do, and others needed them more.

And then there were the scenes of the schoolchildren, helping one another, holding each other, dutifully following instructions in the way that young children sometimes do; one child even trying to encourage a grown-up by saying, “I know karate. So it’s okay. I’ll lead the way out.”

As a community, you’ve inspired us, Newtown. In the face of indescribable violence, in the face of unconscionable evil, you’ve looked out for each other, and you’ve cared for one another, and you’ve loved one another. This is how Newtown will be remembered. And with time, and God’s grace, that love will see you through.

But we, as a nation, we are left with some hard questions. Someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around. With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves — our child — is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we won’t — that we can’t always be there for them. They’ll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.

And we know we can’t do this by ourselves. It comes as a shock at a certain point where you realize, no matter how much you love these kids, you can’t do it by yourself. That this job of keeping our children safe, and teaching them well, is something we can only do together, with the help of friends and neighbors, the help of a community, and the help of a nation. And in that way, we come to realize that we bear a responsibility for every child because we’re counting on everybody else to help look after ours; that we’re all parents; that they’re all our children.

This is our first task — caring for our children. It’s our first job. If we don’t get that right, we don’t get anything right. That’s how, as a society, we will be judged.

And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we’re doing enough to keep our children — all of them — safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we’re all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose?

I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.

Since I’ve been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by a mass shooting. The fourth time we’ve hugged survivors. The fourth time we’ve consoled the families of victims. And in between, there have been an endless series of deadly shootings across the country, almost daily reports of victims, many of them children, in small towns and big cities all across America — victims whose — much of the time, their only fault was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end. And to end them, we must change. We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true. No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction. Surely, we can do better than this. If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this. Because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine. Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

All the world’s religions — so many of them represented here today — start with a simple question: Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose? We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain; that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it’s wealth or power or fame, or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that no matter how good our intentions, we will all stumble sometimes, in some way. We will make mistakes, we will experience hardships. And even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.

There’s only one thing we can be sure of, and that is the love that we have — for our children, for our families, for each other. The warmth of a small child’s embrace — that is true. The memories we have of them, the joy that they bring, the wonder we see through their eyes, that fierce and boundless love we feel for them, a love that takes us out of ourselves, and binds us to something larger — we know that’s what matters. We know we’re always doing right when we’re taking care of them, when we’re teaching them well, when we’re showing acts of kindness. We don’t go wrong when we do that.

That’s what we can be sure of. And that’s what you, the people of Newtown, have reminded us. That’s how you’ve inspired us. You remind us what matters. And that’s what should drive us forward in everything we do, for as long as God sees fit to keep us on this Earth.

“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “and do not hinder them — for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison.

God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory.

May God bless and keep those we’ve lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort. And may He bless and watch over this community, and the United States of America.

 

  • Jake

    I don’t wish to rain on anyone’s funeral procession, but I think it’s entirely inappropriate for the American president, qua president, to be giving a blatantly Christian sermon.

  • P J Evans

     He wasn’t the only speaker, and the President is a Christian.
    (An Imam and a Rabbi also spoke, and spoke well.)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ehcoleman Elizabeth S Coleman

    Dude, it was an Interfaith Prayer Vigil, not an official press conference.

  • Caite

    If he’s speaking at a prayer vigil, I don’t mind that he speaks from his faith’s perspective on such matters. I prefer that he speak from a secular perspective when speaking at secular events, but this was an interfaith gathering. And he didn’t tout his faith over anyone else’s, he made one reference to Jesus taking care of the children, which I suspect is an image that brings him comfort at times like this. 

    His words about a singular male god aren’t as inclusive as they could be, but again, he’s not preaching about why his god let this happen, he’s speaking words of comfort. Even if you don’t believe in his god (I don’t), there are some good messages there about sadness, strength and hope. 

  • LoneWolf343

     Yeah, but there is the whole “Government representative endorsing religious views.”

    I got on Brownback’s case for it, and it would be hypocritical if I don’t get on Obama’s for it.

  • LL

    Eh, as an atheist, I don’t have a problem with a president giving a “sermon.” He’ not an atheist. I don’t think his speech constituted official capacity. His very first statement, maybe, the one where he got a little verklempt (Friday, I guess it was). 

    I don’t expect any president to reject religion just because I do. Nor is he (or her, if that ever comes to pass) required to scrub his public statements of religious references. 

  • Nenya

    I’m agnostic/sometimes-Christian, and I did feel a little weird about the President speaking in sectarian terms. I hope there were other speakers who were able to make those who aren’t Christian, among the survivors, feel included. That’s what matters to me most in this situation, that the families and friends in Newtown be comforted. 

    I also can’t help but think that when Obama does this, he makes it just that much harder for people to slander him by calling him an atheist Muslim or whatever. (Those aren’t bad things to be, but the people who call him them are also inaccurate to say so.)

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Well, all I can say is that there were tears rolling down my cheeks by the time I was halfway through reading it. Partly because of the situation, of course; this isn’t the first time I’ve cried this week. But also partly because of how the President spoke.

    And now I’ve got to write a letter to the White House urging him not to let this horror slip quietly into the past with no action being taken. And more letters to the other appropriate politicians, and followup letters as things develop, or fail to.

  • LoneWolf343

     Yeah, but certain parties can’t appreciate that kind of boundary.

  • Jessica_R

    It was a beautiful speech, but what got me was when the Rabbi sang the Kaddish, I thought I was okay but I started bawling at that. 

  • Laertesweb

    I’ve heard a couple hundred sermons in my life, and I can’t recall one as good as that.  It’s hard to explain exactly what it is, but that man has got the preacher voice.

    Also: This here atheist absolutely loves the way the President preached that there sermon.  It’s just silly to pretend that you can’t tell the difference between Brownback’s ugly, exclusionary, dominionist in-group-vs-other hate speech and Obama’s gentle sermon.  Why force yourself to pretend to believe silly things in order to appease people who refuse to be appeased?

  • Kadh2000

    Crying all over again after reading it.  

  • Amethyst

    I shockingly hadn’t cried over this incident, until I read the line about the kid saying “I know karate.” I don’t know why that line, but now the tears can’t stop.

  • Jessica_R

    It’s the picture of the cops hugging each other and crying that is going to stick with me most. It’s sums up the unspeakable horror of it. 

  • Tapetum

     That line got to me too, though it’s no mystery in my case. I’m a karate teacher, and I can just hear one of my kids saying that.

  • Matri

    (Those aren’t bad things to be, but the people who call him them are also inaccurate to say so.)

    Those people haven’t been anything remotely resembling “accurate” in decades.

  • AnonaMiss

     It was a great sermon. The President has his right to his reaction, and without the allusions it wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful. He and his speechwriters are a great team.

    I am slightly concerned about the breach of ceremonial Deism, but primarily because it was such a powerful speech. This one may be remembered, if this is the turning point on gun control. And once the animus they hold towards the president is half-forgot in time and denial of having ever been on the wrong side of history, the dominionists will cite it, if it is remembered, as one more indication that America is a Christian Country, In God We Trust, Under God, etc.

    But that seems an unnecessary and beside-the-point quibble today. 20 years from now, it may have been inappropriate. On Sunday, it was a great speech.

  • Fusina

     I suspect it is because the kid has empathy to spare and will grow up to be a nurturing and caring soul. And that is what the world needs. And yes, I cried too.

    For those who are still wondering, Hermione, my very sick kitty, died this morning around 12:30. She ate a little dinner, and around 7PM (or, too late to take her to the vet) stopped being able to walk and was very upset about that. She met death with a snarl on her face–a cute snarl, but then everything about her was cute. One of her nicknames was Hermia, as in “though she be small, yet is she fierce” Hermia from Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the snarl goes a long way to prove it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Николай-Крутиков/100002311958508 Николай Крутиков

    Obama – so very amazing!
    Let’s all praise that wonderful guy!
    His masterful, great speechwriters
    Ensure that he never will lie!

    Some people insist that Obama
    Is no more new, no more fresh,
    Just more of the same, like all others,
    The usual ruling class trash.

    Who may condemn killing of children
    In proper contextual clime,
    But who still considers his bombings
    Of children to not be a crime.

    But not Slacktivist! They believe in
    Obama, who rules over all!
    Obama! So fresh, so inspiring!
    He still finds all proper words!

  • Jim Roberts

    . . . Because a speech in Newtown, CT is a good time to open up dialogue about drone bombings in Pakistan? I, and others, have been quite critical of Obama for drone bombings and it was discussed at length as one of the reasons why it was agony to have to vote for him by more than a few here. Please, let us mourn with those who mourn, and take comfort from those things that comfort us.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Николай-Крутиков/100002311958508 Николай Крутиков

    I usually highly dislike the “United $naKKKeSS of AmeriKKKa” rhetoric (in my country it’s usually used by people who just envy the USA for being a better empire then their own), but Fred Clark’s constant uncritical cheering for Obama wakes up the shallow anti-Americanism in me. 

  • JustoneK

    Constant uncritical cheering for Obama.  OKAY.  Clearly you are a longtime reader and not a random troll bringing up horrible things UNCONNECTED to a recent highly publicized tragedy.  I totally believe you’re not an asshole bringing up your totally unbiased hatred of Obama.

  • Carstonio

    Obama didn’t endorse sectarian religion but he did step close to the line. I wasn’t put off by this, not just because of the subject and circumstances, but also because of his generally good record of respecting that line.

    Also, I don’t like the approach of “I’m an atheist, but…” It sounds like an apology for not being religious, and it implicitly endorses the straw man of atheism as hostile to religion. Perhaps I’m still resentful of theocrats who commingle atheism and secularism, as if it weren’t possible to be a devout believer and still value the principle of government neutrality among competing religions.

  • vsm

    Obama’s drone strikes have killed over a hundred children, yet he’s allowed to comfort the victims of someone with a much smaller body count. Millions of people see nothing perverse about this. I believe that would be the connection Nikolai is thinking of.

  • JustoneK

    If that were the case, all the people I’ve contributed to killing and/or added to the suffering of would also disallow me from offering comfort.

  • vsm

    Are you talking about things like buying clothes produced by sweatshop labor and other things that are nearly impossible to avoid in our economy? I don’t think that’s quite morally comparable to a head of state escalating an illegal war you know will result in lots of dead civilians.

  • JustoneK

    What war doesn’t result in lots of dead civilians?  What actions can any of us take that do not indirectly contribute to them, now or in the near future?

    I’m not just talking slave labor, but that’s part of it, yes.

    The drone strikes are pretty profoundly stupid.  But the President is not the only one that makes them go.

  • JustoneK

    And for me, this also begs the question:  what’s the appropriate response, particularly when you’re in a position of power, to a tragedy you have directly created?  Is it not attempting to comfort and change the situation?

  • vsm

    What mass murder at an elementary school doesn’t result in lots of dead children? The drone strikes are not ‘stupid’. They are war crimes for which Obama should answer before an international court of law, along with his predecessor.

  • DStecks

    Obama has every right to be openly religious, and thus far in his presidency has exercised this right with taste and discretion, and this speech is no exception. He was speaking at an interfaith vigil, where representatives of other religions also spoke; it was arguably his obligation to speak as a Christian.

    We should know enough that a secular state does not equal an atheist state; while government officials are prohibited from using religion to justify legislation and positions, they are not prohibited from religious belief and exercise. Barack Obama is a Christian, and has no obligation to hide or deny this when speaking in his capacity as an individual.

  • JustoneK

    So a mass murder at an elementary school is not a war crime for which we, as a country, should answer for?

  • vsm

    I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at. A private person shooting up a school is obviously not a war crime, since it doesn’t involve the military in any way. I don’t really know how an abstract concept like “country” could answer for anything. In Obama and Bush’s case, I was referring to a criminal prosecution.

  • DStecks

    vsm, shut the fuck up. We can discuss drone strikes another day. Children have been murdered in a school, get off your soapbox and show some damn respect.

  • JustoneK

    We’re getting into some technicalities here, it sounds like.

    From where I’m sitting, it really sounds like shifting the blame entirely onto the President, who’s a favorite for racist and general hating shmucks, and not also onto the entire structure that’s fighting him whenever he DOES try to pass good legislation.

    And we are, all of us, culpable when a citizen decides to murder just one other citizen. 

  • vsm

    As you wish.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Fusina: :(

  • Carstonio

    http://live.washingtonpost.com/gene-weingarten-121218.html

    An excellent analogy. I wish Weingarten had expanded his point to note that racist fears were a major reason that even non-slaveowners defended slavery, and these are arguably the main motivation for opponents of gun control.

    Slavery had been declared repugnant and outlawed in most of Europe for at least a quarter century by then.  Mexico, too.  To those societies we were bizarre — posturing and bargaining as though slavery were an issue with two valid sides…

    One reason we are blind to the absurdity of our debate is that guns, like slavery, are so entrenched in who we are that the pain and hassle involved in confronting the issue head-on, in all its ugliness, is too great.  We’d rather look away, or tinker with the mechanics on the periphery, than really address the problem.  It’s exactly what slavery really was: An addiction.  We are an addict trying to bargain with himself, just to get through another day without taking the hard, cold look at how bad things really are…

    Call me nuts, but I do not see these as parallel arguments, worthy of equal consideration.    This second argument is Missouri and Maine.    And the only reason we don’t see this clearly, the way Piers Morgan does, is that we are drowning in the addiction.   Other countries have shown that easy access to weaponry is not an essential element of a free society.  It is a peculiar, corrosive element of a particular free society that has lost its sense of proportion.

  • Tricksterson

    Doesn’t matter.  Someone is going to say that he didn’t mention God, which is silly since if you look at the transcript he clearly mentions Jesus and then bursts into flames.

  • Tricksterson

    I am very sorry.  She is (or so I prefer to believe) in Bast’s Heaven now, chasing dogs up trees.

  • Tricksterson

    The majority opinion here, which tends to be substatially to his left, seems to be that he’s more the least of the available evils.  If you paid attention you would know that.

  • Tricksterson

    I now want to belong to, or if necessary found, an organization called the United Snakes of America.  Thank you.

  • Laertesweb

    “I’m an atheist, but…” is clearly relevant when I’m saying that I’m not offended by a president delivering a Christian sermon, don’t you think?  I suppose I could have said “I’m not a Christian” but, well, I don’t feel the need to apologize for my atheism by trying to conceal it with minimally descriptive language.

  • AlexJarr

    Eh, why not? I’m sure Obama and his apologists could construct an elaborate argument for why escalating the war against terrorism is just as necessary as you using technology, wearing clothing, and eating food that more than likely was produced using slave labor, child labor, and other human rights violations. That doesn’t make your criticisms of him invalid by any means, but the whole, “it’s nearly impossible to avoid it” argument cuts both ways.

  • Carstonio

    One doesn’t have to be a Christian to appreciate a president delivering a Christian sermon, and one doesn’t have to be an atheist to recognize a president maintaining a balance between personal faith and public secular responsibility. I’m arguing against the straw men of atheists being hostile to religion.

  • Fusina

    Nah. She did like watching birds, but the one time she got out she stood on the other side of the door in a snit, waiting for someone to open the blasted door so she could get back in. Now if she was in Bast’s heaven, snoozing in a warm patch of sunlight on a comfy soft blanket which was draped over a nice cushy sofa–then you’d be talking. And someone to handrub some catnip at regular intervals over the blanket. I took a picture of her post mortem as she totally did not go gentle in that good night, and if I were death, I’d be a little worried right about now. She looks quite fierce and ready to take on anything.

  • everstar

    Maybe she’ll get to chase the Death of Rats around Bast’s Heaven.

    She sounds wonderful.  I’m sorry she’s gone.

  • Laertesweb

    I just don’t see a way to step around you that won’t offend you.  Your tail seems to cover every inch of floor in the room.

    It’s really simple: As a not-Christian, if anyone’s ox is gored when a President delivers a Christian sermon, it’s mine.  So the fact that I’m an atheist is worth mentioning when I say that I wasn’t even a tiny bit offended by his beautiful, warm, loving sermon.

    If that offends you, tough.  You need a thicker skin.

  • Carstonio

     I didn’t say anything about being offended.

    As an analogy, I say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, but not because I want to avoid offending people of other religions. I make that choice because I want to show respect for other’s religious freedom by refusing to make assumptions about their beliefs. I’ve never encountered a non-Christian who was offended by being wished Merry Christmas. But I’ve encountered and heard about Christians who act huffy at being wished Happy Holidays, as if it’s a sign of disrespect.

    My point is that you shouldn’t have to point out that you weren’t offended. Only the type of Christian who insists on privilege for his or her religion would automatically assume that non-Christians would be offended by Obama’s sermon.

  • AnonaMiss

     …Did you read the rest of the comments thread? Because Laertesweb was clearly giving a counterpoint to an atheist who did have a problem with it.

  • Tricksterson

    I bow to your superior knowledge of your former owner.


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