Here we are, only days past Hanukkah, less than a week until Christmas, and the spot on the yearly religious calendar when many of us proclaim peace on Earth and goodwill to man.
Yet here we are watching from afar as 20 young students and six adults from their Connecticut school are buried, all because a young man who showed signs of mental illness went berserk with a deadly weapon, killing even his own mother, the woman who gave birth to him.
Mass slayings are nearly impossible to imagine, largely because they strike a discordant tone with the rest of American life. We turn on the news and hear about murders in, say, Aurora, Colo., and still must go about our routines of work, family and community.
But the slayings in Newtown are especially jarring because they occurred amid these annual religious celebrations. What are we to make of this contrast? This is a period when we hear about transformation of the world, yet we are waking up to this inconceivable horror.
Two weeks ago, well before most of us had even heard of Newtown, I asked panelists of the Dallas Morning News’ Texas Faith blog whether it was really possible to heal the world. The discussion centered on an essay this month by Rabbi Michael Lerner in the journal Tikkun. Lerner described Hanukkah as “the holiday celebrating the triumph of hope over fear, light over darkness, the powerless over the powerful.”
Only a week later, I was asking the same panel of theologians, academics and laypeople how they would draw upon their traditions to counsel those grieving in Newtown. The empirical evidence in those classrooms would lead you to conclude that fear won out over hope last Friday, that darkness triumphed over light there. At the very least, it leaves you wondering how to reconcile the deaths of young children with religious proclamations about remaking the world.
To the credit of the Texas Faith panelists, they each counseled listening to the unfathomable grief of the families caught up in this tragedy. Be with them. Sit still. Listen quietly.
Some of us, however, will wonder, where was God? I have no answer. But my theology does teach that God is with us amid hell, amid carnage, amid suffering.
For Christians, that is why we trek to Christmas Eve services, year after year. We go because of the Word made flesh, as John declares.
The Word-in-the-flesh is about a child for whom there was no room at the inn. But after a life of identifying with the suffering, He rose to “bring life on the other side of death, employing a power beyond human capacity.”
That’s how my Presbyterian minister, Joe Clifford, put it on the Texas Faith blog after the slayings. And this is how he concluded it:
“This story informs my understanding of God’s presence and our comfort in the midst of inexplicable tragedy. I can’t imagine the horror those children and teachers faced in the final moments of their lives, but God can. I can’t imagine the grief of those whose loved ones were taken by the mania of a madman, but God can. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child, but God can. I can’t imagine new life on the other side of such tragic death, but God can. For people of faith, that is our only comfort in life and in death.”
None of that leads to an instant healing of the world. Nor does it prevent us from working for a better tomorrow, including creating a safer world for our children, as the president implored us to do. But it does lead to this conclusion: God is the one who delivers us from evil.
So, yes, these twin events can occur simultaneously. The deaths in Newtown actually make the proclamations of hope and renewal even more important.
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