Today, I woke up to this headline, “26 killed after gunman opens fire inside church.” My friends, here we are speechless again in the wake of another horrific act of violence. Once again, we add another name to the list of cities and towns shattered by planned violence: Sutherland Springs, New York, Las Vegas, London, Berlin, Barcelona, Columbine, Charleston, Boston, Orlando, Paris . . . the list goes on and on.
Here we are again seeing a count of the dead. Stories begin to emerge as reporters arrive on site. We hear many testimonies of lives tragically cut short. We wonder what could cause a person to commit such violent, evil acts. We weep and we lament. Over time, the tally of the dead becomes almost a mantra, a symbol, a short-hand stand-in for all that we have lost.
We tell the story again every time we repeat the count. At Ground Zero, the names of “the men, women, and children” who died on September 11th, 2001, and February 26,1993, are engraved on the bronze parapets surrounding the twin Memorial pools . In Newtown, Connecticut, the church bells toll 26 times to commemorate the lives of the 20 children and 6 adults who were fatally shot by Adam Lanza. 58 people were killed on Sunday, Oct. 1, as Stephen Paddock opened fire upon concert-goers at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival.
The numbers are repeated in the news, on websites, and in somber anniversary commemorations. But, the death counts are often not completely accurate. Nineteen names are not inscribed on the bronze parapets of the 9/11 Memorial pools. Two names are not commemorated in Newtown when the bells ring. One name is left out of the count of 58 killed in Las Vegas. One life is not counted in the 26 killed in Sutherland Springs.
Can you guess who is not included in those counts? The 9/11 hijackers. Adam Lanza and his mother. Stephen Paddock. And now Devin Patrick Kelley.
You might be okay with those omissions. They are made with the kindest of intentions, I am sure. Indeed we must tread carefully on ground that has been stained with the blood of men, women, and children simply going to work, going to school, going to a concert, riding bikes, and worshiping in church. I honor the grief of parents who lost children, children who lost parents, sisters who lost brothers, brothers who lost sisters, and lovers who lost their beloveds in acts of unspeakable horror. I wish to hold the collective grief of our nation tenderly and reverently.
At the same time, I wonder about the way we count. I wonder why our litanies of numbers leave out men, women, and children who were perpetrators–yes–of heinous crimes, but, who were also parents and children and siblings and beloved.
Do we ring the bell 26 times rather than 28 so that we can distance ourselves from the violence that lurks within each one of us? Is it not telling that one of the first human acts, according to the Biblical narrative, is the murder of Abel by his brother Cain?
Many years ago, I regularly visited an inmate in Central Prison in Raleigh. “Bobby” had received the death penalty for the commission of a felony in the act of another felony. Bobby had been convicted of raping and murdering a woman whom he says was his girlfriend. Bobby had grown up black, poor, and developmentally delayed in eastern North Carolina. He had the intellectual level of about third grade. Bobby had two daughters.
Bobby was also a follower of Jesus Christ. He ushered regularly for the chapel service in the prison. His favorite verse was 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Bobby prayed for me and I prayed for him.
I believe that Bobby’s life mattered just as much to God as my life and the life of Bobby’s victim. Don’t the lives of the 9/11 hijackers matter as much to God as the lives of all the other men, women, and children who have died due to the events of September 11, 2001? Has God not grieved as hard for the deaths of Adam Lanza and his mother as God has grieved for the deaths of the 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary? Can God not have compassion for the deformed mind of Stephen Paddock just as God has showered compassion upon the victims, families, and first responders in Las Vegas? Does everyone count?
I believe in a God who leaves no one out of the count. Not even Devin Patrick Kelley. Not even me. May God have mercy on us all.