In Response to the Newtown Shooting
As I steadily heard more and more about the shooting in Connecticut a few days ago, I went through a rollercoaster of emotions and thoughts. For reasons that will become clear I decided to wait a few days to share my various thoughts but I now wanted to share what the shooting as well as the reactions of others around me have made me think about.
My first reaction was depression. That’s usually my first reaction in tough situations. I tend toward that more than to anger or fear. I felt like there was no hope, which is a strange feeling in contradiction to my very hope-filled theology. It was ultimately that theology that helped me get out of the immediate emotional rut I was placed in, but I continued to be fighting off tears every time I thought about these events. I came pretty close to the reaction expressed here by satirical newspaper The Onion: “F*** Everything.”
The Inadequacy of Theology (On Its Own)
After this, my next reaction was to realize that my tendency toward theological reflection is not nearly enough. At the end of the day, we are called to be disciples, not theologians. There is value to thinking about and discussing theology – such as restoring my hope fairly quickly in this case – and I’m not announcing that I’m suddenly going to stop blogging here. But theology is not the end goal. Even our personal relationship with Jesus is not the end goal. Discipleship is the end goal. We must strive to be more and more like Jesus in our day-to-day lives, following even his toughest commandments like loving even those who shoot children. My work here may play a role in that, but I like everybody else who professes Jesus as Lord must first and foremost be stepping into the suffering of others in order to work for healing. Discussing the answers to suffering pales in comparison to doing something about it. I believe in a God who didn’t dictate to us why suffering was necessary. I believe in a God who took on flesh in order to suffer with us and for us so that we may be saved. As a disciple, I must seek to follow Jesus into helping those who are suffering even if I get hurt or killed in the process.
This made it all the more frustrating as I began to hear other Christian theologians offer up their explanations for why such a tragedy happened. Some Reformed theologians showed their usual tendency of simultaneously telling us we cannot understand the mind of God while telling us the mind of God in this particular situation. It was simply to show us that God is in control of all life and there’s nothing we can do about it, they say. I have to wonder: would these theologians say things like this if it was their child who was killed? Or would they realize how incredibly insensitive it is and just shut up? I’m not debating Reformed theology (right now); I’m just saying that you’re missing the point if you use a tragedy to promote your theology instead of to help the people suffering from it.
Of course there was one other big answer in two variations: the Reformed version that God killed these kids because he wasn’t allowed into the schools, or the softer Arminian version, God allowed these kids to be killed because he wasn’t allowed into the schools. This is ridiculous on so many levels. First, it isn’t actually true that children aren’t allowed to pray in schools. Schools aren’t allowed to sponsor prayer or other religious events so kids aren’t being forced to pray, but if kids aren’t praying in school, that’s ultimately their choice. If your kids are choosing not to pray when they’re not being forced, maybe you should be working as a parent to present them a compelling-enough vision of Jesus that they would want to instead of trying to force it on all kids. On top of that even if it were true, by suggesting that God can’t go where he isn’t invited suggests an incredibly weak god. I suspect most people presenting this reason are too busy fighting over politics and didn’t bother to follow it to this logical conclusion.It makes complete sense
Then there’s Westboro Baptist. As usual, it’s the fault of those damned gays (and I mean damned literally in their opinion)! They’re a hate group, plain and simple. When they protest funerals of mass-murdered children to proclaim that it was the fault of teh gayz even though there was nothing about LGBT issues involved in the shooting, that’s a hate group. When the KKK protests you, you know there’s something wrong. Like some of the other theologians I hinted about above (but much more frequently and more offensively), they just like to hijack tragedies to draw attention to themselves, actively looking for ways to hate one particular group of people as well as anybody who thinks that those people are indeed people who should be treated with basic human dignity.
The Priority of Americans
My third stage of reaction was one I’ve often held soon after major disasters: I questioned why we don’t care about suffering every other day of our lives. Thousands of children die every day from preventable causes. On the same day as the CT shooting was a stabbing of 22 children in China but it barely got any media coverage. Unfortunately I must offer the critique that it seems like we don’t really accept that an Asian or an African child is worth as much as an American child. If we really thought all children are equally worth our emotional investment, we should be as upset over those dying from malnutrition, from AIDS, and from lack of clean water as we are over a school shooting in the world’s richest country. Yet aside from major disaster, we prefer to mostly ignore the plight of the majority of the world.
Here’s what I would love to see: make your pain over the shooting Friday productive. The pain has already probably started to fade away and you are returning to normal life without thinking about the problems of the world. It’s a good defense mechanism; I get it. Even better than a defense mechanism, though, would be channeling that pain and that anger into something way better: compassion. If you’re upset that children died, play your part in having less children die today and tomorrow and continuing for as long as you live.
The Inadequacy of Politics (On Its Own)
Most people did wait a few hours before starting to turn the tragedy into a banner for their political issue of choice. The biggest one to emerge right away was gun control. The next one to emerge quickly was the mental health debate as it was quickly learned that the killer was not well. Both are very important political issues. Please don’t get me wrong on that. Yet in the same way that theologizing about it is inadequate, I think politicizing about it is also inadequate. We will now spend thousands of hours and thousands of dollars arguing about the best approach while millions continue to be hurt by it.
Lastly, I want to speak to those who like me think of themselves as pacifists. This tweet from @toddgrotenhuis said my point brilliantly:
Pacifists: if you want people with guns to enforce a restriction or confiscation in order to advance a goal, that’s not actually pacifism.
Pacifism is by definition acting to pacify a situation. If your solution to the violence in America (and elsewhere, but as I said above that gets ignored) is to make people with guns take away guns from others, that isn’t pacifism. I’m not saying it isn’t good politics – I’d be inclined to think it is – but that isn’t pacifism. It isn’t pacifying the situation. It is just switching who holds the threat of violence from the individuals to the state. I may be ok with that switch, but that’s Just War Theory, not pacifism. The majority of people after the Newtown shooting will escalate their violence in the name of defending themselves. I’ve heard many say that this proves why they must keep their right to bear arms: if the teachers had guns, they could have defended the kids. The American violence epidemic is only going to get worse; taking away guns may limit things or force them to be more creative, but it won’t change anybody’s hearts. Politics could limit the damage or change who is exercising power over others but it is still the same paradigm of using violence to stop violence which will by definition never stop violence.Victoria Soto, Hero of the CT Shooting
I’ll end this post with what I think is the bright spot of the whole story and an example of real pacifism. One of the teachers at the school, Victoria Soto, upon hearing that there was a shooter in the school hid her kids in the cupboards. When the shooter came into the room and asked where the kids were, she said they were in the gym. He shot her and then left. I believe that this is how we can really change things,; we need to model a radical self-sacrifice. Contrary to the power-over political approach, which may have its place but it is not a Kingdom of God mentality, some will see the sacrifice of this teacher just as some will see the sacrifice of Jesus and decide to live in a better way.
That is the call to the church: be radical disciples who love our enemies and neighbours alike. That radical love will destroy our definitions of worth with some nations’ children more important than others. That radical love is higher than politics and even is higher than theology. While we are tempted to settle for one or more of these lesser things, we must not allow ourselves to be anything less than the disciples of our Lord.