Jeff Benedict: Witnessing grief and compassion in Newtown

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 18 2012 12:40 p.m. MST

"What happened in Newtown is unthinkable," Checketts said. "But little children are alive in Christ. Though the nature of the crime is the essence of evil, our faith tells us that these children burst into the presence of God and are safe in his arms."

Grief, while heartbreaking, can also give rise to powerful acts of compassion. By the time Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, the American Civil War had claimed roughly 750,000 lives, resulting in 37,000 widows and 90,000 orphans.

Why did God allow such devastation? It was a question Lincoln had pondered. Plus, there were many in Washington who wanted to punish the Confederates for all the carnage. Against that backdrop, Lincoln said:

"With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations."

One month later, Lincoln was assassinated. But those words — "with malice toward none" — live on.

It reminds me of the story of Kenneth Brown, a U.S. Marine serving in Japan after the atomic bomb. It was just before Christmas when Brown encountered a Japanese professor of music who introduced himself as a Christian. He said he had a small children's choir and asked if they could perform a concert for the American soldiers.

Brown belonged to a unit of hardened fighters that had spent four years away from home, battling the Japanese from Saipan to Iwo Jima. The concert took place on Christmas Eve in a bombed-out theater. The closing number was a solo from "The Messiah" by a girl who sung with the conviction of one who knew that Jesus was indeed the Savior of mankind. The soldiers cried.

Afterward, Brown asked the Japanese music professor: "How did your group manage to survive the bomb?"

"This is only half my group," he said softly.

"And what of the families of these?"

"They nearly all lost one or more members. Some are orphans."

"What about the soloist? She must have the soul of an angel the way she sang."

"Her mother, two of her brothers were taken. Yes, she did sing well. I am so proud of her. She is my daughter."

Brown was moved to tears.

"We had caused them the greatest grief," Brown later wrote. "Yet we were their Christian brothers and as such they were willing to forget their grief and unite with us in singing 'Peace on earth, goodwill to all men.' That day I knew there was a greater power on earth than the atomic bomb."

Jeff Benedict is a special features contributor for Sports Illustrated and the author of 11 books. His website is www.jeffbenedict.com.

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