Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jumbled Thoughts About Newtown

On Friday, many people watched in horror as the news came in fits & spurts from a small town in Connecticut... and we once again witnessed a tragedy inside a school - but this time the majority of the victims were 6 or 7 years old.

I've worked & prayed for a couple of days, trying to figure out how to write something that is both pastoral and profound; something that gives hope without denying the reality of the pain & grief & anger. So far, my attempts have been an abject failure.

It's not that I don't have things to say... it's that they are all jumbled in my head and end up spilling out in fragments & disconnected thoughts. I guess that's the way they'll have to come out today. Bear with me.


Our current information-soaked culture can fool us into thinking we know more than we do about situations like this. The ease with which I can pull up video reports and read newspaper stories combines with the relentless 24 hour news cycle and the need of TV networks and websites to create new content... and what all too often happens is that conjecture and opinion become conflated with facts in an attempt to explain, assess blame & assign meaning to a massacre like this.

The reality is that we don't know very much right now - and not just because the police are being careful about releasing information. It's important to remember the lessons of Columbine:
We have learned that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not goths. They weren’t loners. They weren’t in the “Trenchcoat Mafia.” They were not disaffected video gamers. They hadn’t been bullied. The supposed “enemies” on their list had already graduated a year earlier. They weren’t on anti-depressant medication. They didn’t target jocks, blacks or Christians.
They just wanted to kill. 

Two seemingly normal, well-scrubbed high school boys went to their school in a prosperous suburban subdivision with the goal to kill thousands. Their bombs didn’t work, so they proceeded to kill 13 classmates, and wound another 24. (from "The Answer is Evil" - referenced below)

So much of what we heard in the days following the 1999 attack on Columbine High School turned out to be speculation... and wrong. It's likely that some (or a great deal) of what we're hearing right now about motivations and upbringing regarding Newtown, CT, will turn out to be rumors & myths as well.


Our tendency is to want to fix things... to jump in and find a solution so that something like this can never happen again. We're already seeing this with calls for gun control and mental health reform in response to the tragedy.

I'm not particularly interested in debating either of these subjects - primarily because I think that focusing our energies on legal solutions in the immediate aftermath of a horrific event like what happened in Newtown has more to do with making ourselves feel better/safter/like we're doing something and less to do with what is really needed.

These discussions are important discussions... but when they are conducted under the white hot spotlight of the media circus while we are awash in grief, they tend to become polarized battles where individuals and groups lob verbal grenades at each other. And the shrapnel from those battles is most likely to injure the people most directly affected by the tragedy.

What is really needed? Mourning. The time for action will come - and yes, I understand that it can take a horrible situation like this to get legislators to accomplish meaningful reform - but we ignore the Biblical injunction to "mourn with those who mourn" at our own peril. Our rush to fix does not give us the space to grieve in meaningful ways... and we can make laws & policies based on rumors & myths.


Our tendency is to want to fix things... to jump in and find a solution to all of the pain & hurt & grief.

Wait a minute! That sentence sounds suspiciously like the beginning to the last entry...

Yes, yes it does. That's because we as followers of Jesus Christ suffer from the same tendencies as everyone else - a desire to fix things. Some of us get pulled into the debates about governmental solutions, but it's more likely that we Christians will want to fix the hurt we see in the faces of the family members by attempting to explain why this mass shooting happened... or use our words to nudge the grieving process along.

It's at moments like this that we need to pay attention to Job & his friends:
Now when Job’s three friends—Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite—heard about all this adversity that had happened to him, each of them came from his home. They met together to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they looked from a distance, they could barely recognize him. They wept aloud, and each man tore his robe and threw dust into the air and on his head. Then they sat on the ground with him seven days and nights, but no one spoke a word to him because they saw that his suffering was very intense. (Job 2:11-13, HCSB)

These guys have the right idea... rather than jump into long-winded discussions about theodicy (the theology of evil) or give Job some quick-fix answers ("at least your kids are with God now"), they simply sit with him in silence. They are present.

Of course, the moment they start talking they downshift into saying one dumb thing after another - blame, philosophical discussion, theological musings, etc.

In the midst of the tragedy in Newtown, we need to work more at being present, of allowing people to mourn & grieve. And we need to work hard to keep our arms open to those in tears and our mouths closed unless God gives us words to speak.


A number of wise people have written about the tragedy... and while they don't all agree with each other, I'd suggest that you take the time to read what they have to say.

Joel J. Miller - The Face of the devil & the mercy of God 

In his book The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart writes that we should see in the death of child, not “the face of God but the face of his enemy.” We believe in Providence, yes, but we should be free to say that evil had its way. In a letter to a couple who had lost their child, Basil the Great is upfront with this fact: “[S]uddenly, through the malice of the devil, all that happiness of home and that gladness of heart has been swept away. . . .”

James Emery White - The Answer is Evil 

It brings to mind Jean Bethke Elshtain’s experience on the first Sunday following the attacks of 9/11. She went to a Methodist church in Nashville. The minister, which she describes as having a kind of frozen smile on his face, said “I know it has been a terrible week.” Then, after a pause, he continued, “But that’s no reason for us to give up our personal dreams.” 
She thought, “Good grief! Shouldn’t you say something about what happened and how Christians are to think about it?” But then she realized that if one has lost the term evil from his or her theological vocabulary, then it is not easy to talk about such a thing.
I hope you will forgive my honesty, but I do not understand the shock. The grief I understand. The speechlessness, the staggering, the profound sorrow, the overwhelming sense of violation—these I understand. We are reeling from yet another assault of darkness. But our shock reveals something else altogether, something even more dangerous than armed violence.

I am describing a naiveté about the world that Christians, at least, should not be toying with.


Jason said...

Thanks for the thoughts. Yes, it is difficult to talk about. Great point in regards to sharing/supporting grief as the passage from Job attests. I also agree with John Eldredge.

The government can enact all kinds of laws. We can create plans, and train, and be observant to prevent some of these tragedies and/or minimize their extent. But we'll never completely prevent them. And Christians should know why these tragedies - and many other kinds - happen: sin.

Whether this man was in his right mind and sanely evil - or whether he had some chemical imbalance in his brain - doesn't matter. Both are wrought from the deterioration that sin has brought into this world. All creation groans (Rom. 8:22).

And it saddened me to hear that many of the Newtown citizens removed their Christmas decorations because they feared it would be inappropriate to show "joy" after this. I cannot pretend to feel what they feel, but - I wonder rather if they need the message of hope and future restoration which Christmas gives, now more than ever (Acts 3:21)?

Jeffrey Allers said...

I completely agree that the existence of evil cannot be ignored. I also think, however, that many avoid using the term because of the way it has been abused in labeling others for political purposes. Interesting, for example, how both sides of World War I tried to demonize their enemies.
Of course, one must always be careful not to go to the opposite extreme. Evil is real--it manifests itself in terrible tragedies, as well as in more subtle ways-even in our inner, unseen struggles.
The celebration of the birth of Christ is often far removed from this, but that is why it has lost so much of its meaning. If we fail to acknowledge the dark presence of sin in the world, we fail to acknowledge the need for a Savior as well.
If the citizens of Newtown took down their plastic lighted Santa Claus and Rudoph lawn decorations, and looked at the nativity with fresh eyes, seeing it as the scandalous event that it was, than that is not a bad thing.
For as Ken Gire writes: "On that starlit night in Bethlehem, God came to earth to do the one thing he could not do in heaven.