Reflections on Newtown

I write this post with hesitation. My thoughts are half-formed and tentative. Doubtless I will think later of better ways to say things, or other points I wish I would have made, or statements I wish I hadn’t said. In emotional times, it’s all the harder to speak measuredly. Moreover, I don’t want to make a tragedy a means to an end to make some cultural or political point. It’s also important to qualify that these are my thoughts; they don’t necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Crossing, or other pastors.

And yet, despite all that, it’s worth putting something down in light of and response to the massacre at the elementary school in Newtown. Evil and suffering compels us to pray, to mourn, to question, to keep silence (at times), to reflect, and to act. People understandably raise and wrestle with big questions in the face of evil. Not to write and reflect is even more problematic than to do so. Hence, some thoughts.

— There is something gravely sick with us. The pattern of such shootings in the U.S. is astounding. We sometimes say that something has occurred so frequently that it’s mind-numbing, but that’s precisely what shouldn’t happen here. Yes, this incident hits harder because it’s elementary school students, and it seems, the scope of the murders, but that’s a matter of difference in degree, not in kind. We have to take notice that something is very wrong in the pattern.

— But I’m not so sure that what’s wrong is with us as a nation. It’s more widespread than that. I read recently a long Vanity Fair piece about the massacre at Beslan, Russia in 2004 where terrorists took control of a school on the first day of the school year and over 380 people died as a result. Or one looks at news reports of atrocities in African civil wars. Or one reads any decent history book. The problem is deeper and more widespread than the U.S. alone. Rather unsurprisingly, I think the diagnosis has to go to human nature and our propensity for and orientation toward evil.

— Many of our reactions point beyond us to the fact that we still live in a God-haunted world, whether we acknowledge it or not. We feel moral revulsion and outrage. That’s good. That too is part of human nature. But on what basis does someone judge an action wrong? We also cry out for justice, that such evil cannot be ‘gotten away with’. We long for all to be put right. But what assurance do we have that will come to pass? The Christian story makes better sense of our innate outrage and desire for justice.

— ‘How could somebody do this?’ We ask a bewildered, sad question. It seems so alien to most of us that we, or anyone we know, could arm themselves and set out with the intent to kill kindergarten children. So we look for an explanation. And maybe there are mental health issues, or horrible stuff in the family background.

Yet even if there are, we have to resist the temptation to make the killer something totally ‘other’. We want to push him away, to make him something other than human, so that we feel less susceptible or vulnerable. But that’s to ignore history and our own hearts. Do I have this desire for evil in myself to the same extent or in the same way? Hopefully not, but again, it’s probably a difference in degree, not in kind. Sufjan Stevens in his masterful song ‘John Wayne Gacy’, meditating on the mass murderer in Chicago in the 1970’s, closes with this haunting confession:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him.
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

— I have saved any reflection on guns toward the end to show that it’s less important (but I don’t want to give it the last word, which is important). I know this is a heated issue, and there are important points to be made all around. But surely there’s a middle ground, that we seemingly haven’t found yet. As Rany Jazayerli said on Twitter (I follow him as a fellow Royals fan!), the last year in Syria shows what happens to an unarmed population at the mercy of a tyrannical government, and yet ‘no one’s child should have to stare at the end of a .223 caliber rifle’. Granted the difficulties, I can’t help but juxtapose what happened in Newtown with the news also today that there was a mass stabbing in China at an elementary school with 22 injured.

— Finally, I come back to the cross and the resurrection. The God who made us is not separate from and immune to suffering and evil. He took it onto himself and into himself when Jesus died on the cross. God’s response to evil is to suffer it so that it might one day be done away with forever.

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