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

‘Remarks by the President at Sandy Hook Interfaith Prayer Vigil’ December 17, 2012

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.

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.


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  • Guest

     It’s not that hard to find atheists who were offended by the President’s speech.


    Not all atheists are anti-religious but there’s a good number of them that are, especially online. The stereotype doesn’t come from nowhere. There are even atheists who are offended by ‘Merry Christmas’ because it presumes Christianity.

    Of course, we’re not all like that.

  • Guest

    I think it was beautiful, but what really interests me is that it sounds like a call to action. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but the part about how this has happened too many times, and the part about how parents will do anything for their children and how if you’re guided by the desire to protect them you can’t go wrong- all of that sounds like the beginning of an arguement for better gun control and better mental health provisions. The President must know that he will have an uphill battle getting any new gun laws passed against the wishes of the powerful gun lobby, but he sounds like he’s ready for that fight. Maybe I’m hopelessly deluded. I hope not. One massacre of schoolchildren is too many for any country. Better gun laws won’t fix everything but I’m pretty sure they will reduce the number of times this happens in the future. I really hope Obama will take a stand. He passed a healthcare bill, even if that was like pulling teeth and there’s still no public option. I think he is ready to try something just a radical again.

  • Obama seems like he’s really stiffened his spine now that (a) he’s been re-elected, and (b) he seems to have finally cottoned on that Republicans have jettisoned “compromise” from their lexicon.

    I wonder if this term’s Obama will see him become the FDR people hoped he would be after 2008.

  • PollyAmory

    I’m curious what additional insight into this issue you gain by being an atheist. After all, the comment you responded to wasn’t an attempt to speak for all atheists or any atheists or anyone at all, except the person writing it. They didn’t say “I thought that atheists might find this to be too much when it is delivered by secular authority,” but that was not what the comment said at all. The commenter simply said that *they* were uncomfortable with that much overt religiousity. 

    Unless of course you’re implying that as a group, atheists tend to notice references to Christian beliefs with excessive sensitivity, and since you *as an atheists*  did not think the references to the Christian God to be an issue, there was no issue to be made of it.

    Which only makes me wonder why you would assume that *as an atheist* you would have more of a sensitivity to this than someone of a different religion, or even another Christian or even just the commenter to whom you replied. 

    If that is not the case, than why would you need to append “as an atheist” to a statement that spoke for no one but yourself. 

    “I don’t feel the need to apologize for my atheism by trying to conceal it with minimally descriptive language.”

    How about we assume the best about commenters here and merely that they, like me –by the way a fellow atheist, in case you’re wondering — are not asking you to defend or to conceal your point of view but merely explain how it is relevant in this particular case. 

    ” is clearly relevant when I’m saying that I’m not offended by a president delivering a Christian sermon, don’t you think?”

    I don’t think. But I would very much appreciate any effort you would take to explain how it is.

  • PollyAmory

    Did you? The person never said he or she was an atheist. Merely that they were uncomfortable with the use of Christian imagery. The first person to mention atheism in this thread was Laertesweb.

    ” Because Laertesweb was clearly giving a counterpoint to an atheist who did have a problem with it.”

    Clearly? Time to reconsider some biases perhaps? Perhaps the very biases Castonio is speaking about?

  • Carstonio

     Sure, and my point is that most aren’t like that, just as most Christians and even most evangelicals disagree with hatemongers like James Dobson. The difference is that non-Christians in general have an automatic disadvantage because of their minority status, and the mistaken assumption that the extreme typifies the minority has worse consequences for a minority than it does for a majority.

  • Carstonio

    Unless of course you’re implying that as a group, atheists tend to
    notice references to Christian beliefs with excessive sensitivity, and
    since you *as an atheist*  did not think the references to the Christian
    God to be an issue, there was no issue to be made of it.

    As someone who isn’t religious, my sensitivity isn’t so much to religiosity in general but to religious tribalism and proselytizing. I see the more important question with Obama’s speech as whether it crossed a First Amendment line, but I can understand anyone who belongs to a non-Christian minority being sensitive to Christian religiosity specifically.

    Again, I think the degree to which non-Christian minorities are offended by Christian religiosity has been greatly exaggerated by a vocal minority of Christians, folks who selfishly want their religion to be the norm or default. They treat issues of religious diversity in a passive-aggressive way, slamming the people who raise these issues as whiny and narcissistic. Similar to the silencing tactics used against outspoken women or blacks.

    While I oppose in principle any religion being a norm or default, because it discourages individual religious freedom, public displays of Christian religiosity don’t by themselves normalize Christianity. That would depend on the approach and context.

  • PollyAmory

    I think how valid your complaint about the assumption that anti-religion = atheist and vice-versa, was amply proven by the fact that the person defended Laertesweb’s “as an atheist” construction as justified because he or 
    she was responding to an atheist who thought the content of Obama’s sermon was out of line for a public official. Of course, the person who complained about it, never said that he or she was an atheist at all. So the atheist = anti-religious bias definitely exists and is harbored by at least some commenters here. In short, you are right.

  • AnonaMiss

    …Or, instead of assuming that CLEARLY someone who thought it was inappropriate MUST be an atheist, I simply read my own PoV into the comment. Not like that’s a common human reaction to reading something you agree with or anything.

  • EllieMurasaki

    While I oppose in principle any religion being a norm or default, because it discourages individual religious freedom, public displays of Christian religiosity don’t by themselves normalize Christianity. That would depend on the approach and context.

    Define ‘public’. Because the Nativity in front of the Catholic church on my commute is clearly for public viewing, but it’s on church property. Free exercise of religion, woot. If that same display were several blocks over on property attached to Legislative Hall, we would have a serious establishment-of-religion problem in this town.

  • Carstonio

     Excellent point. I was using “public” to mean visible and not hidden in private, as opposed to publicly owned.

    With such displays, I make a distinction between a courthouse and a public square unattached to any government building. The former is for official government business, so its spaces that are publicly accessible should have no sectarian holiday displays at all.

     But a separate town-owned square could be open to any holiday displays, as long as it’s an open invitation to all religions and as long as the religious groups themselves pay for everything. I would love to see a town square with a Nativity, star and crescent, Buddha, pentacle, star of David, a Hindu aum, and a yin and yang.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Of that list, only the Nativity is a holiday display. The Buddha is a representation of a central religious figure and the rest of your list are the more-or-less standard symbols representing the religion in question as a whole.

    I wonder if Legislative Mall counts as property attached to a government building. Every building adjacent to that space is a state building, but the Mall itself is just a green rectangle with trees and benches and the memorial to state cops who died in the line of duty. And it would be really cool to see displays on the Mall for Bodhi Day, Pancha Ganapati, Kwanzaa, Newtonmas, whatever Muslim holiday is in December that year (which doesn’t seem to be anything this year or next–Ashura’s made its way into November and Mawlid is still in January), and aaaall the winter solstice celebrations (Dongzhi Festival, Soyal, Yalda, Modraniht, Saturnalia, Yule, and I bet Wikipedia’s missed a few), and Christmas.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Shit. Hanukkah. You’d think that’d be the obvious third thought at the latest.

  • Carstonio

    Thanks for the suggestions. Your list of holidays makes the point for religious inclusiveness better than my generic list. One can argue that government acts as a custodian of a town square instead of as an owner. If so, that role means that government must have an all-or-nothing approach, instead of inviting only some religions and excluding others. If some don’t respond to the invitation, that’s not government’s problem.

    Legislative Mall – is that Dover?

  •  Here’s to Hermione, snarling defiance to the end. May her memory be a blessing. All strength and comfort to you, Fusina.