I don’t know much about Antoinette Tuff, but I am sitting here in tears listening to her recorded phone conversation with a police dispatcher while being held at gunpoint at a Georgia elementary school Tuesday. Yet her words with the dispatcher are not nearly as moving as her exchange with 20-year-old gunman Michael Hill.
There was no groveling for mercy. No whining that her life be spared. Even though he had invaded an elementary school, struck terror into the hearts of children and fired shots in the direction of police officers, she assures him that everything will be alright. She explains that this incident doesn’t have to end in death, that she loves him and that she too has struggled in life and has considered suicide.
What is more amazing, Antoinette exhibits the courage to lobby on his behalf to the police, taking up his cause as her own, even to the point of walking outside with him. She was poised enough to humanize the situation by giving details about her own family - her disabled son and her husband who recently left her after 33 years of marriage. As she shares her story, the gunman is moved to contact his own family and to talk with them amid this crisis.
Antoinette’s disarmingly kind words reshape the entire situation. This was no longer a terrorist threat against innocent civilians, but a broken man speaking with a broken woman about common hurts and pains. Michael Hill puts down his gun, lays face down on the ground, hands behind his head. The police are able to move in quickly and peacefully apprehend him. No one is harmed.
We learn what was going through Antoinette’s mind from an interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer. When asked where she got the courage, she boldly professed, “I was sitting there just praying.” But these weren’t last-ditch, “Hail Mary” efforts. Her prayers were informed by regular teaching she had received from her pastor at church. “It is bigger than me,” she proclaimed. “He is a hurting young man.” “I’m not the hero,” she clarified, “I give it all to God.” Though absolutely terrified and truly suspecting that Michael would take her life along with his, God helped Antoinette keep it together, in her words, “through His grace and mercy.”
I’ve taught lessons about all humans being made in God’s image and how God causes the sun to shine on the good and the evil alike. I’ve delivered lectures about the power of love and the deceptive security of violent retaliation. I’ve ranted about gun control and decried shallow answers to “What would you do?” scenarios, which proceed as if God does not act in history on behalf of His people and beckon humans to rely on their own strength and marksmanship.
But all those speeches seem hollow now. This woman’s testimony is so simple yet eloquent, so effortlessly intuitive yet genuinely heroic, an example of Romans 12:21 in action. Her witness is sorely needed as many other educational institutions send the exact opposite message. Competing with Antoinette’s Christ-like witness is a private Christian school that recently made a splash for posting a sign that reads, “Staff is armed and trained. Any attempt to harm children will be met with deadly force.” Looming over the threatening words is the silhouette of a man aiming a gun.
Christians sure are sending mixed messages. Should we be so bold as to follow Antoinette as she follows Christ? Do we truly believe that God has called his people to conquer sin and death not with a superior show of force, but with the superior force of love? Antoinette went to work armed with prayer, empathy and regular sermons on trust in God alone. How will you be armed?
Her witness is sorely needed as many other educational institutions send the exact opposite message.