What I Learned from Antoinette Tuff, Ordinary Peacemaker

I’ve thought about it more than once, how I’d react on the bad end of a gun.

Jesus said you never know when The Moment will come and it’ll all be over, and that seems truer than ever these days. The shooting that really got me was the one in a shopping center not so far from me, where people dropped the Christmas presents they’d just bought and dropped to the ground and prayed for their lives. A girl I know came to work the next day deeply shaken, telling us how she’d been locked down for what seemed like a lifetime in Bath and Body Works. I told my loved ones that I was okay, that I’d been nowhere near it, knowing next time I might be.

I wasn’t even sure what I’d want to do, what I could do in such a moment. It’s hard to know what to say to someone to whom life itself has become meaningless. Many who’ve tried to be instruments of peace haven’t lived to talk about it. That’s the thing: real peacemaking involves risk, at least as much risk as joining the fray. Turning the other cheek feels more frightening than either fight or flight, and that’s why examples tend to be few.

I’m so glad to have an example in Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper who averted a potential school shooting this week by convincing an armed young man to surrender himself to police before a single person was harmed. Listening to the full interview she gave shortly afterward, I realized that although her actions in that life-threatening situation were extraordinary, she is really just an ordinary person who developed her faith, compassion, and love of enemies into weapons that protected the innocent children at her school and helped a man who could have killed her. If she can do it, I can learn to do it too. Here are the practical tips for peacemakers I took away from her interview:

She used her everyday suffering to identify, sympathize, and build trust with her attacker. When he told her he had nothing to live for, she recognized the pain she felt and connected it to her own. She told him about the breakdown of her marriage, the struggles she went through with raising her kids, and how she’d wanted to end it all too. She did so with respect for the pain he was experiencing as well. As she chose to enter the space of his pain with him, she practiced true compassion.

She offered him a different vision of himself and his future. Ms. Tuff saw herself and her family in this suffering young man, and she desired the best possible future for him. She told him that despite all she’d suffered, she had turned her story around, and he could too. She used her vision for him to help negotiate his surrender, telling him he had not yet harmed anyone and could still save himself from the worst consequences, even offering to leave the building with him to show police he hadn’t hurt her. When he finally did surrender, she told him, “I want you to know I love you and I’m proud of you. It’s a good thing you’re just giving up. Don’t worry about it.  We all go through something in life.”

Finally, and most importantly, she kept peaceful herself by turning to God. Tuff told interviewers that through her fears, she kept calm by practicing a technique her pastor taught her in a sermon series which she called “anchoring in God.” My first thought was, I want to go to her church, meet her pastor, learn whatever that thing is! But then I realized what she was referring to wasn’t some new or exotic technique. It’s right there in John 15, one of my favorite Bible passages: remaining in God’s love. For me, living in the sure knowledge of God’s love is hard even on a normal day with all its minor disappointments and distractions, much less in a situation where I’m fearing for my life. Yet Ms. Tuff credits all her accomplishments on that day to staying connected with God. Clearly pursuing a closer and closer relationship with God throughout my life would benefit not only me, but the world as well.

Antoinette Tuff says she’s not a hero, and I want to believe her. Extraordinary as her response to this crisis was, it could be ordinary – if people like you and me rejected the choice between violence or victimhood and embraced the way of peacemaking. I am deeply grateful that I, my nation, and my world can learn from her and people like her.

What are your thoughts on how these events played out? Do you have any resources for aspiring peacemakers?

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