When the gunshots began to ring out in the halls of Sandy Hook Elementary School, 27-year-old teacher Victoria Soto leapt into action. According to one report, she bundled her little students into the closet, and then faced Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old armed madman, informing him that her students had gone to the gym. Another source reports that she was found huddled over her students, protecting them to the last. Either way, we know this: She died protecting her students. Adam Lanza shot her dead, and then killed himself.

This story is not an unfamiliar one. America has been shocked into recognizing the presence of evil on more than one occasion over the last few years, and when the smoke clears and people squint through the haze of grief past the presence of the psychopath who committed the killings, different figures begin to come into focus. Different, because they present such a contrast to the evil being perpetrated. Instead, we see ordinary, everyday people who responded to circumstances beyond their control with utter selflessness and heroism.

Liviu Librescu, a 75-year-old Holocaust survivor, was teaching a class on mechanical engineering on April 16, 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho began to make his way across the campus of Virginia Tech, gunning down whichever student crossed his path. As students began to hear “thunderous” gunshots sounding in the hallway of Norris Hall, they began to run across the classroom to the windows and climb out. As one student, Alex Calhoun, reached the window, he turned to look back. Before he jumped, he saw Professor Librescu courageously using his own body to block the door, attempting to give his students time to escape the killer. He succeeded—but Cho succeeded in killing the beloved professor before he moved on.

And earlier this year, on July 20, 2012, America reacted with horror when a young man named James Holmes opened fire in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado—wounding 71 people and killing 12. Shining through the carnage, however, were three men who used their own bodies to protect their loved ones. Twenty-five-year old Jon Blunk, a navy man, pushed his girlfriend to the ground when the shooting began and covered her with his body—she survived, and Blunk was killed. Alex Teves, twenty-four years old, also used his body to shield his girlfriend—again, she survived, and Teves died in the gunfire. And a third hero, twenty-seven year old Matt McQuinn “threw his body in front of his girlfriend, Samantha Yowler, as the shooting continued,” according to CNN. “Yowler survived with a gunshot wound to the knee; McQuinn’s body absorbed the fatal shots.”

Whether you are Christian or not, I think it would be hard for anyone to deny the truth of the Scriptural passage, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” As we absorb and attempt to come to terms with the horror that was perpetrated against some of the most innocent of Americans last Friday, we can also note that when darkness descends, some people choose to respond by becoming a light in the darkness. We often cannot change the circumstances we find ourselves in—just as Ms. Soto, Professor Librescu, and the heroes of the Aurora shooting could not. What we can control, however, is how we respond to these circumstances.

This, I think, is one lesson we can take away from the tragedy in Newton, Connecticut: No matter what the circumstances, and no matter what walk of life we are currently treading, we always have the ability to address unjust situations with a just response. We may never have to give our lives to do so. But we should seriously ask ourselves, at the very least, what we are willing to give.

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