We may never fully understand how it was that Antoinette Tuff persuaded an emotionally troubled young man, who appeared at her elementary school outside of Atlanta armed with an assault rifle and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, to lay down his weapon and surrender to police. Her remarkable story of courage, however, has generated numerous "lessons" for America. We are hearing about the importance of emergency training in hostile situations, the easy availability of guns, the vulnerability of our schools to violent intruders, the gaps in our health care system for those struggling with mental illness -- the list goes on.
Yet the mainstream media is mostly mute about the palpable force in Antoinette Tuff's life that, by her own reckoning, helped protect the lives of hundreds of school children and preserve their families from an ocean of grief.
"How did you know what to say to him?" asked Anderson Cooper in a CNN interview last week. "How did you know the right things to say?"
Tuff answered with a frankness that makes many of us uneasy. "Well, to be honest with you, I didn't," she said. "I was just praying... in the inside of myself and saying 'God, what do I say now? What do I do now?' I just kept saying that on the inside because I knew that I had no words to say." Tuff later confessed to the 911 dispatcher at the end of the stand-off: "I've never been so scared in all the days of my life. Oh, Jesus."
To his great credit, Anderson Cooper did not try to evade the religious aspects of this story. He pressed her:
Cooper: I've heard you say that your pastor had talked about being 'anchored in the Lord.' Is that something that got you through?
Tuff: Yes. He had just started this actual series that Sunday on being anchored. And I had told myself Monday morning that I was going to get up and start studying that morning.
Cooper: That was good timing of that sermon.
Tuff: Very good timing.
Here is the singular fact that confronts every thinking person in the wake of this story: A Christian woman, who had been meditating on her Bible in the morning, says she turned to Jesus at the crisis point of her life and asked for help.
This is the quiet and honest faith of the Christian pilgrim through the centuries. It is the mysterious, intimate relationship of a human soul to her Creator and Savior. It is a faith that does not require a systematic theology, or a magisterium, or papal encyclicals, or elaborate creeds. It demands instead a humble heart, a mind "anchored," as Tuff puts it, in the Word of God and prayer. This is the ancient faith of the followers of the Nazarene, the men and women throughout history who put their trust supremely in him, regardless of the costs and dangers, and stood in the breach against the dark forces of this world.
Martin Luther, who launched the Protestant Reformation in an effort to recover this understanding of Christianity, wrote of "the courage which faith gives a man when trials oppress him." Authentic faith, Luther explained, strengthens and impels the believer to imitate Jesus and his sacrificial death for sinners as she encounters neighbors -- or enemies -- in need. "I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me," he wrote. "I will do nothing in this life except what I see is necessary, profitable, and salutary to my neighbor, since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ."
That sounds like a pretty good description of Antoinette Tuff at her school last week. I found myself feeling ashamed as I listened to her voice on the 911 dispatch tape addressing the alleged gunman, 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill. She spoke of the difficulties in her own life and empathized with his struggles. She offered to become his human shield, to walk outside the school with him so police wouldn't open fire. I think I would have been content to let the cops bring him down in a hail of bullets.
But Antoinette Tuff, in her walk of faith, has learned a few things about mercy. "It's going to be all right, sweetie," she told the man as he put down his weapon. "I just want you to know that I love you, though, Okay?"
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King's College in New York City and the author of The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt (Thomas Nelson, 2012).