Lambs Among Wolves: Diffusing Violence with Empathy

I want to tell you a story. It’s a story contained in the pages of one of our children’s favorite picture books. It’s a true story. It goes something like this:

Once upon a time (c. 1200 A.D.) in a land far, far away (Italy) there was a town called Gubbio that was plagued by a ravenous wolf. The wolf attacked and devoured not only the animals residing in the town, but also the humans. The people of Gubbio lived in constant fear of the beast and all of their attempts to catch or kill it resulted in more villagers succumbing to the insatiable and terrible jaws of the wolf. One day Francis (St. Francis to you and me), a man renowned for his holiness and kindness, came to stay in the town. He saw that the villagers were held captive within Gubbio’s walls for fear of the wolf. Filled with compassion for them, Francis set out to find the wolf.

The good people of Gubbio begged and pleaded with the friar to stay safe within the walls of the village, but he set out on his way. As Francis left the safety of the village the wolf came bounding out of the forest toward him, his jaws open wide to devour the holy man. Francis reached out his arm to make the Sign of the Cross at the approaching beast. He addressed the fearsome wolf as “Brother.” He spoke to him calmly of God’s love, of friendship, of forgiveness, of a chance to make things right with the people of Gubbio. The wolf lay down at Francis’ feet, offering his giant paw as a sign of his assent. The meek friar and the mighty wolf walked side by side into the village of Gubbio. From that day forward the wolf and villagers lived in friendship. The people fed the wolf and invited him into their homes. He lived in the village for the rest of his days and was much loved by the citizens of Gubbio.

Here’s another story. This one is also true:

Once upon a time (last Tuesday, August 20) in a land not so far away (Decatur, Georgia) a young man entered an elementary school with a loaded AK-47 and nearly 500 rounds of ammunition intending to kill as many people as possible. Upon entering the building, he encountered Antoinette Tuff, the school bookkeeper, a woman of faith, compassion, and courage. Although she was filled with fear for her own life and the lives of the 870 children inside the school building, she spoke with love and gentleness to the young man. Antoinette listened to him. She told him about tragedies that she had endured. She told him that his life had value, that it didn’t have to end that day, that he could make things right. In the time she had taken to speak with the gunman, other faculty and staff were able to evacuate all of the children from the building. Taken hostage by the young man along with several other staff members, Antionette learned his name and eventually convinced him to put down his weapon and surrender. The tape of her 911 call during the ordeal recorded Antoinette assuring her 20-year old captor, “We’re not gonna hate you, baby. It’s a good thing that you’re giving up.” Although the young man exchanged fire with police officers, no one was hurt.

Jesus teaches us that we are to be like lambs among wolves — to imitate his powerful meekness and radical goodness in the face of evil. Like St. Francis speaking gentle words of hope and kindness to the wolf, Antoinette Tuff spoke gentle words to the young man holding her hostage. I heard it suggested last week by a psychologist on TV news that one reason we are witnessing a staggering rise in violence perpetrated by young people is that our culture is one that rewards those who lack empathy. We are a culture fascinated with “wolves.” We see countless hours of news coverage devoted to those who lack even a shred of empathy … those who kill, rape, and abduct without remorse. But what about the “lambs?” What about the Antoinette Tufts of the world who are willing to master their own fear in order to offer empathy and compassion to someone desperately in need of hope? Why is this story relegated to the human interest pages of our newspapers? Why is saving hundreds of lives less newsworthy than taking life?

Here is what I’m asking of you (yes, YOU): Tell someone about Antoinette Tuff this week. Share her story on your Facebook page. Tweet it. Blog about it. If you have little ones for whom Antoinette’s story could be too frightening, tell them the story of St. Francis and the wolf. Let’s give acclaim to the “lambs” — to those whose fierce gentleness and goodness change the world every day. When we honor them we make it clear that we reject wolvery in all its manifestations. When we honor them we make it clear that we value courage and empathy. When we honor them we give glory to our Lord, the Lamb of God, who is all paradigm-shattering meekness and gentleness and goodness forever and ever. Amen.