It was horrible. The shooting of those children at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut, was horrible. In many ways, that is the most important thing, almost the only thing, to say about Sandy Hook. We’ve seen the newscasts and read the articles, all of which only add to the anguish and anger we feel. With an event as malignant as this, little that is truly constructive can be added to the ongoing conversation, certainly nothing that will bring back those children and those adults.
Still, we as human beings are unique among creatures in our wish to reflect upon and explore tragedy. Wrestling with what’s unfathomable helps us to come to grips with what has been lost. For whatever they might be worth, here are a couple of thoughts related to this recent massacre.
Simply and chiefly, we grieve with those that grieve. Not that I’m alone in this regard, but as a pastor, I’ve sat with scores of people just after they’ve experienced great loss. The older I get, the less I say in those situations. It’s better just to sit there, be with them, and weep with them. (The biblical book of Job gives us an object lesson in “right truth, wrong time.”) If anything, in tragic situations I affirm to fellow sufferers how bad things are; we can free each other to recognize that terribly hard things really are terribly hard.
And we grieve together, not alone. For all of the miles that separate us from Connecticut, on December 14 we gathered friends and loved ones around us more closely, whether in person or via talking, email, text, or facebook. I believe that in grieving together we discover our better selves. On a larger scale, although the sense of unity and commonality was all too brief, the aftermath of 9/11 over ten years ago recalled to us that we can and should transcend our differences and disagreements. (The good folks at Westboro Baptist Church have missed this truth is a crucial way; they’ll be surprised that they themselves will receive the God they’re asking for.) So, I don’t consider tweets and posts on 12/14 about holding your kids a little tighter and telling your friends you love them as digital ephemera akin to something like the e-emoting about Michael Jackson’s death. Sandy Hook was heavy stuff, and it reminds us that we’re all in this together. We may die alone, but we shouldn’t stare into that abyss apart.
At the same time, we’re also alone on the earth in asking the why and how questions. Ants don’t shake a fist toward the sky when a neighboring colony gets stomped on, but when we lose our own, we do. For Newtown, we wonder, Why do we allow so many guns in our culture? Was the school lax in its security? How could Adam Lanza have done it, and could we have stopped him? On one level, though, I think these how’s and why’s may be a little misguided, even though I can understand their necessity. To use a trivial analogy that I don’t in any way intend to trivialize Sandy Hook, three years ago I made the mistake of impersonating an athlete in a city basketball league, and I blew out my knee. After the successful installation of my spiffy new ACL—thank you, Mr. Cadaver!—the surgeon gave me some “before” photos from the inside of my damaged joint. I could clearly see one on one side of the inner knee cavity the severed end of my ligament, and miles away on the opposite knee shore was the other stump of my ex-ACL, with nary a gristly thread between. Those pictures showed me exactly why and how my knee became so badly injured, but what they didn’t do was take away the pain or lessen the grueling months of recovery. In the same way, if we scour Lanza’s life for clues, identify exactly how the school could have been made safer, or finger the gun control law that was too wide, we would at best gain information (and much of it valuable) but not real understanding or comprehension. Everything would still hurt just as much.
It might be better to view these how’s and why’s as what they may truly be: as laments. We don’t need to know the why, but the why. How could our world be this way? What kind of an existence is this, where shootings can occur and first graders one minute are smiling, and then are not? This is unavoidably theological territory.
I’m a Christian Protestant pastor, so let me offer some Christian reflections at this point. By doing so, however, I don’t want to imply that these are the only positions a thoughtful person can hold, or that those that don’t agree with me are worthless or dumb. I have plenty of friends that would take different views of these things, and I honor those opinions as well as seek dialogue. Nevertheless, here goes one Springsteen fan’s take on some hopefully pertinent issues.
We could very easily say, as many do, that something like Sandy Hook proves that there can’t be any God, classic “problem of evil” stuff. I can of course see why one would believe this, and I feel it often myself, even as a pastor. But what makes me a theist is that I believe our laments tell us something profound about who we are. When tragedy strikes us, either individually or collectively, doesn’t our anger register as focused and not diffuse? Don’t we direct our anguish to a higher being? I recognize that this reasoning isn’t strictly “logical”—although I’d submit that none of us are strictly logical beings anyway—but in an ironic way, that we want to blame God when bad things happen may actually be a confirmation that we naturally intuit a God to be there in the first place.
More than that, our outrage at Sandy Hook affirms that our broken world is worth lamenting. To me, our laments beg the question, “Why do we lament? What story forms the substructure of our tears?” The biblical narrative suggests that we lament because we, as made in the image of a good creator, inhabit a good world marred by evil. In that same connection, I suspect that modernism (not to mention its post-y successors) in its ongoing quest to find “deeper” causes and roots to our personhood (psychological, developmental, economic, social, genetic, etc.), for all of the genuine fruits of its inquiries, has also done us a disservice in its assertion that we are no more than the sum of our biological parts. Our laments, we might say, are merely the tips of imbedded icebergs of larger, impersonal forces. For example, I might learn that my deep desire not to go gently into that good night is merely genetic programming to further the survival of my species; but it doesn’t feel that way. That’s not what my mind and spirit are telling me. Author Marilynne Robinson has recently written, “Even as our capacity to describe the fabric of reality and the dimensions of it has undergone an astonishing deepening and expansion, we have turned away from the ancient intuition that we are a part of it all.” We are part of it all, which whispers to us that there must be an author to all of it.
As I go into the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, it is striking that so many laments are included within the sacred texts. This tells me that a) God’s story at the very least accounts for the occurrence of horrible things, yet b) we’re nevertheless encouraged to complain to God about them. I find each of these propositions more comforting and more likely to be true than either of their contraries. Furthermore, one can’t be real without the other.
It’s not unusual for me to field questions from people asking what the Christian “answer” to suffering, injustice, evil, and natural disaster is. I don’t think there is one, per se, but I actually find that reality satisfying. Do we really need the answer, after all? In fact, I’d hold any “answers” to a tragedy like Sandy Hook suspect. Surely it is an inhumane (and likewise unbiblical) prescription that we should just suck it up in the face of horrible things because that’s just the way of the world. Stoic-types, both ancient and modern, believe this, but they aren’t much fun at parties. Similarly, can it really be the case that evil is just an illusion? To say that the Connecticut shooting is merely a material reality to be transcended by the more mature belittles human dignity and loss.
Interestingly, the Bible doesn’t offer a divine answer to human suffering, but it does narrate a divine action in response to it. I’m not sure that the typical formulation of the problem of evil deeply wrestles with the Christian story. It isn’t only that God is good and powerful; the church’s Scriptures also contend that God himself has entered into his own story and suffered on our behalf. There are of course many that would reject this narrative, but I’d hope that we all could recognize that if God has personally entered into our bitter world in order to experience it and ultimately make it better, we’re not dealing simply with a bare, God-up-there kind of theism. We may think that this story is true or untrue, but wouldn’t we agree that it’s unique and possibly intriguing?
Years after the Holocaust, a German writer named Guenter Rutenborn wrote a play that sought to plumb the horrors of what Hitler had done. In it, God is put on trial. How could such evil and injustice be allowed to occur upon the earth? By the end of the drama, God is found guilty of crimes against humanity, and his sentence is death. God would have to live the in the world as a Jew, to know what it is to lose a son, to suffer in great agony, and to die. The essence of that play rescues for me my belief in God, because I believe this is precisely what God has done. I would be an atheist if it weren’t for this part of the Christian story. The cross satisfies our need for justice, shows that the divine being himself is angered by the things that we are angered by, and suffered himself to birth a world of forgiveness, joy, life and peace that has only just begun.
I have a first grade son, and he is the most sensitive of all of my children. Emily and I knew that within our family, he would be the most shaken and terrified by the news of Newtown. We weren’t wrong in our assessment. That children the same age as he were killed made his fear even more visceral. Over that weekend in December, he asked me, “Dad, is it safe for me to go to school on Monday?” I paused, took a breath, said a silent prayer, and replied, “My son, we love you, your teachers love you, your police officers love you, this borough loves you, and God loves you. You are surrounded by love. I’m sure that you’ll be safe on Monday.” My boy: “But do you know for sure for sure?” I: “I’m sorry, but I don’t know for sure, for sure.” He: “Then why do we trust in God at all?” As I kissed goodnight my child whom I love beyond any measure or rationality, I told him, “Because Jesus shows us that even though the world isn’t safe today, one day it will be.”