Note: I tiptoed in where angels fear to treat and wrote the following piece for Civil Religion on the Sandy Hook tragedy, or rather on how Christians respond.
Let me admit this right up front: I don’t think I can say anything new about Sandy Hook. Not only have countless journalists and bloggers written on this tragedy already, but in the days since the shooting social networking sites have been swamped with prayers, laments, rages and attempts to explain the unexplainable. We all seem to feel obligated to say something, as if silence would mean that what’s happened doesn’t matter. At a time like this I’m reminded of the line from Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid!”
And so, last Friday morning I logged onto Facebook and posted my own immediate response to the reports that were beginning to come out of Newtown:
This is what the LORD says: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.” Jeremiah 31:15
Jeremiah’s prophecy appears again in the gospel of Matthew, applied to a part of the Christmas story we don’t often talk about. There are few carols about this piece of the narrative, when Herod set out to exterminate all the baby boys in the vicinity of Bethlehem. “The Slaughter of the Innocents”, we call it. I thought Friday, and again on Saturday when I heard of the deaths of 9 Afghan girls, that this story keeps happening. We still slaughter the innocents, over and over.
We tried to make sense of it in the usual ways. On Facebook, posts debating gun control showed up almost immediately, as did those calling for prayer in schools. Fingers were pointed at school bullying, mental illness, Asperger’s, even homeschooling. While I thought many of the arguments were misguided, I found myself sympathetic to the motives behind them. We’re so desperate to explain a tragedy like this; so anxious to point to a cause, fix the problem, and prevent it from ever happening again. If we admit that we don’t understand and that there are no absolute safeguards, we’re left feeling like children: helpless, confused and frightened in the face of unspeakable evil. Perhaps a bit like those little ones at Sandy Hook must have felt on Friday.
As I said, I sympathize with the motives behind the arguments because I have those motives myself. There’s a certain solidarity in our sometimes-clumsy desire to respond. But as a Christian, I worry about some of those responses. It’s amazing how quickly God’s name was invoked – not simply in prayers for the victims and their families, but in attempts to explain why twenty-seven innocent people died at Sandy Hook Elementary. I saw this quote on Facebook almost immediately:
Dear God, why is there so much violence in schools? – signed, a concerned student
Dear concerned student, I’m not allowed in school – God
I sighed and scrolled past that sentiment, but it was only the beginning of woefully wrong attempts by Christians to point a finger of blame at our “godless” culture for what happened in Newtown. Mike Huckabee drew ire for saying that “we’ve systematically removed God from our schools” and should perhaps not be surprised that schools “would become a place of carnage.” James Dobson also commented on the tragedy.
Our country really does seem in complete disarray. I’m not talking politically, I’m not talking about the result of the Nov. 6 election. I am saying that something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God,” said Dobson. “I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me, and we have killed 54 million babies, and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too.
And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.
This is what happens far too often when Christians try to explain evil. We wade in confidently and wind up painting God as a monster. Huckabee’s God abandoned us. He left the building when the Supreme Court banned scripted prayers in public school. The God Dobson offers for our worship is angry with us because we allow abortion and same sex marriage – angry enough that he’s using a gunman in an elementary school as an instrument of judgment. Even President Obama, who has for the most part responded admirably, troubled me with the line in Sunday’s memorial service that God had “called” the victims home. Did God somehow select Josephine, Victoria, Noah, and the others for this fate? Was this His plan? I don’t believe that. In the awful minutes when bullets were ending innocent lives this past Friday, it was the will of the shooter that was being carried out, not the will of God.
There is no more complicated theological issue than the problem of evil. I’m pretty sure that any pastor or theologian who says they’ve got it all figured out is selling snake oil. There is an entire book of the Bible devoted to this question, after all, and it ends without giving an answer. So while I certainly can’t tell you why this terrible suffering has occurred, I can tell you about the God I believe in, the God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. That God, my God, did not abandon Sandy Hook Elementary. He was not judging America through the deaths of those women and children. They did not die because we allow abortion or same sex marriage, or don’t allow prayer in school. They died because of the evil act of one young man.
I wish that God had supernaturally intervened in Newtown on Friday, so that lives had not be lost. It takes a monumental amount of faith to look at an event like this and believe that God reigns, that He is loving, and that He will set all things right in the end. Some might suggest what it takes is a monumental amount of self-delusion. But I hold fast to my convictions partly out of sheer stubbornness, the same stubbornness that marked Job’s response to suffering. I am still persuaded that God was not absent on Friday, that the presence of Jesus was in Sandy Hook Elementary before, during and after the shooting. The moments of heroism, sacrifice, and love that day reflect the divine image just as surely as the shooter’s actions show the darkest and most corrupted elements of our humanity. In one especially vivid example, the last act of teacher Anne Marie Murphy’s life was to wrap her arms around six year old Dylan Hockley. God was incarnate in that embrace. He was there, as the crucified God is always there with His suffering and dying children.
As a Christian, I don’t believe that the story ends there. In his earthly ministry Jesus welcomed children, took them in his arms and blessed them. My faith tells me that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). For us as a nation, and particularly for the families and friends of Sandy Hook’s vicims, this tragedy is a nightmare without waking. But I believe that the children who died, and the women who died with them, have awakened from their nightmare to be welcomed, received and blessed by Jesus.
That’s the God I worship: not a vindictive tyrant who will slaughter the innocents to punish a nation, but Jesus, who loves the little children and who went with them through the valley of the shadow of death.
I have no neat conclusion for this post. There is no tidy lesson to be drawn from this tragedy, no moment when we get to close the door on it and say, “Oh, now it all makes sense.” Like a discordant note ringing out at the end of a song, we’ll have our unanswered questions and unresolved sorrow for Sandy Hook with us for as long as we live. I urge my fellow believers to stop trying to explain the unexplainable. When we most need to be able to turn to God, you’ll leave us with a false god who can only be feared, and loathed.