I have refrained from commenting on the Newtown horror (“tragedy,” the default term for these events these days, is not nearly weighty enough) for a few reasons. Chief among these is that I remain simply dumbstruck before the face of such evil. I know, evil is not a word with much currency these days. But evil is I think the best thing to describe what happened. The murder of 27 people, 20 of them children under 10 is evil. Beyond that it was an event of horrific evil, I have nothing really to say about it. And in my silence, I hope I am emulating the one thing that Job’s friends did well–stayed quiet. They got in trouble when they opened their mouths.
So, with and for the victims, I will stay silent.
I do want to offer some thoughts on what I think are some of the wrong questions now being asked.
The first wrong question is the religious question: “Where was God?” Were the question left hanging, followed only by the same silence that followed our Lord’s last cry on Good Friday, it would be a fine question. But far too often, it’s not. The question is a mere preamble to the answer. Thus far, I have read only two. In short, one says, God was absent. Having scrubbed God from the public life of America, or North America, or the West (take your pick), we are now left to live with the consequences of our “cleanliness.” God has indeed left and we are left to live with godlessness. I confess to holding this answer in some regard even if it is stupidly and insensitively presented by many. It does conform to the message of many of the Old Testament prophets, not to mention Jesus and St. Paul. A message that boils down to, “the consequence of sin is more sin.” But it is the wrong question and wrong answer for this time.
A second wrong answer to this wrong question affirms just the opposite conclusion as the first: God was present through it all–weeping, perhaps consoling, hastening a departure for heaven. This answer is often given as a response to the more unkind versions of the first answer. And while it does tug at my emotions, I find it wanting, not least because of the emotional response it evokes in me. After the initial pull of sentimentality subsides, I have anger. Were I ever to be in a similar situation, and I pray I never am, I would hope that I have the same courage as the principal and other teachers who died intervening to stop the gunman and to save children. To stand by and cry while observing such a massacre is the definition of cowardice. Not divine love.
Further, it seems to me both answers are wrong because, at the end of the day, they are not actually about God and God’s need to be justified in the face of evil. (Did God ever say he needed us to defend him in this way?) They are wrong because their principal function is to help us reconstruct, at whatever cost to the parents and grandparents of the dead, our own sense of safety. “God is off in his corner. I’m with God and you’re not.” That’s the underbelly of the first answer. “I’m with God. I’ll cry from the sidelines and do nothing, too.” That’s the underbelly of the second. Either way, the answers serve to comfort us by reminding us that we are not the ones who are suffering. That we are somehow different. That we will (hopefully) remain safe from such events happening to us.
There are two secular questions (well there may be more, but I’ll focus on these) that function similarly. They also work to prevent us from entering into the suffering of others, indeed that actually work to insulate us against such an entrance. The first is “Can we talk about gun control now?” The implied answer is yes. Because even if the arguments on either side won’t change, this horrific event will somehow be the harbinger of a sea change in American gun culture. This may well be true. And I confess, as a Canadian, that I don’t quite get why a private citizen should want, let alone need, to own a fully automatic assault rifle with a bayonet lugnut. My problem is that this question and its implied answer both focus on us and our need for safety, our need to be different from the parents of the dead, to be separate from them. And the gun control talk works because it insulates us even as it gives us the comfort of doing something. We can ban all the guns in the world without ever actually having to sit–whether literally or metaphorically–with the survivors as they bear the weight of a grief so immense that I cannot imagine it.
The second question, “Can we talk about mental health now?” suffers from the same weakness. This is not to say, of course, that our treatment and supervision of those suffering from mental illness could not be improved. Of course it can. But while we’re running around saving the mentally ill, we’re not sitting with the survivors.
The secular questions also function to insulate us from the pain borne by the survivors of this horror. Much in the same way, ironically, that the God questions do above. Instead of justifying God, either in his presence or absence, we are now “helping” by banning guns or by working for better care for people with serious mental illness or whatever. And we are salving our consciences by our doing, doing, doing. All the while the one thing we are not doing is sitting with those who suffer.
So, is there a right question to be asking? It seems to me that there is. It is the question that drives Psalm 80–the Psalm for this Sunday’s lectionary: “How long, Lord God Almighty,will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people?” To sit with those who are grieving does indeed involve silence. But not simply silence. There are questions to be asked. But not questions about God, or guns, or mental illness. Rather, the question is to be directed to God. The Psalmist is not afraid to ask–How long O Lord? He goes on to say that his people have eaten enough bread soaked with tears. He tells God it’s time for him to turn his face again to his people and deliver them. He is not afraid to talk to God.
I think many of us are afraid to talk to God about this tragedy and would rather talk about him (Where was God?) or talk about more mundane things instead (gun control; mental health). Talking to God about this horror is risky. To ask, “How long, O Lord?” is to walk the knife-edge of faith that separates believing Alyosha Karamazov from his unbelieving brother Ivan. It forces us to give full consideration to Ivan’s complaint against God–if the blessings of heaven require the suffering of just one child, then he wants none of God’s heaven. And to let that complaint out, to utter it even, is to risk–risk the shallowness of our own faith, risk really entering into the pain of others, risk really looking into the face of evil.
It seems to me, though, that the Gospel–if it really is true–directs our gaze to God and compels us to utter “How Long?” It compels us to speak not on God’s behalf, but to God directly on behalf of others. To pray the psalmist’s angry and desperate question alongside those who suffer, and perhaps in their place when they lose their words. Only then will we begin to frame an answer to Ivan Karamazov’s emotionally charged, and intellectually powerful heart-cry. And we will frame that answer not with words, but with lives. Nothing less will do.