12/20/2012 03:23 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2013

Healing in the Commons: Church and State Join at Newtown

As church and state came together on Sunday in Newtown, America and the world saw the great New England traditions of moderation, reserve and mutual respect in all their unifying power. Rarely have we witnessed so many varied expressions of faith voiced and heard with such grace. Rarer still are moments when our public officials join us in with such generous, thoughtful and heartfelt words.

The religious leaders and believers who addressed us during the service read from the Quran and the Bible. Rabbi Shaul Praver sang a Hebrew prayer for the dead and John Woodall offered a reading from the Baha'i tradition. Word by word, the men and women who took the stage at Newtown High School answered violence and horror and grief with love and compassion and hope. They ministered in the true sense of the word, offering comfort and drawing us closer together.

When their turns came, the civic leaders at Newtown spoke with rare reverence for the living as well as the dead and were remarkable in their vulnerability. Selectwoman Patricia Llodra insisted, "We are defined by acts of courage, by acts of love, and by our continuing commitment and love for our children and families." Governor Dannel Malloy called us to focus on "what binds us as human beings." President Obama reminded us that "our first task" is "caring for our children." His prayerful recitation of the names of those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School called us to that duty.

In word and gesture, every woman and man who spoke at the service offered caring and tried to heal us. However, they did not skirt difficult issues and questions. They pointed to the violent and dehumanizing aspects of our culture and asked us to face the responsibilities we have shirked to deadly effect. No one who listened closely could have missed hearing that we need to change our ways when it comes to guns, mental health, violence and the divisions in our communities.

But as we consider the sentiments expressed at Newtown High School, I hope that we can also consider the example offered to us in the tone and conduct of the entire service. For a night, Americans refused to argue and judge and did not retreat to their comfortable subcultures. Instead we shared a spiritual "commons" similar to the public spaces established in old New England towns, where respect and goodwill fostered peace and prosperity. After decades of division in the service of ideologies and belief systems, a return to these values by civic and religious leaders alike, would be healing indeed.