Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Where is God in all of this tragedy?: One pastor's response to a parishioner about Sandy Hook

Parishioner: I hope you're doing well. My wife and I both appreciated your words on Sunday -- we're both finding it difficult to enjoy the holidays in the wake of Sandy Hook. My parents and I have a very good and close relationship, except in the arenas of church and politics. My family's embraced the Huckabeean stance on Sandy Hook -- that it's no surprise to see this kind of carnage when schools and a nation have, in their view, shut out God. In my Mom's words:

"If you look at Biblical history you would understand that when a nation continues to shut God out and defy Him, there is a price to pay. God did not turn His back on those children but have we as a nation turned our backs on God and as a result suffered the consequences, and I don't think we've seen the end of it."

I don't even know what to do with that. That logic, in my view, portrays -- at best -- a picture of a disturbingly ambivolent God. I'm so sick about this whole thing, the thought of going home in a few days to this is, well, not something I'm really looking forward to. If you have a minute or two, I'd love to hear some rational perspective on this kind of fatalism, even if it's just in the form of a few good verses where you've sought solace this week.


Jesus with the children
Pastor: I'm honored you've asked for insight, a "rational perspective." My best response is probably something like this. First, if you can avoid talking about it with your family, do so. I've found over the years, that most families do much better together over the holidays if they avoid the hot button issues. It's simply not worth the time. Spend the precious moments you have on those things close to your hearts that you share in common.

So avoid the topic altogether if you can. And inasmuch as you can, be a non-anxious presence when your family says stuff that bothers you. That's hard, but worthwhile.

As for a biblical insight, all I can say is that the Huckabee stance is, to put it in the clearest possible terms, hogwash. It's a bunch of theological drivel masquerading as piety.

First of all, our nation is clearly and manifestly religious, so to say that we have turned our backs on God is simply odd. He is claiming we only invoke God as a culture in times of tragedy. Nevermind that God is invoked every day people say the pledge, every game where the National Anthem is sung, every morning when congress opens session, God's name is printed on every dollar, and the president has throughout history always signed off with "God bless the…" in the State of the Union address.

You could, if you wished, probably make the opposite argument, that God lets tragedy happen in our nation because we too frequently (and blithely) invoke God's name. But that would equally be theological drivel.

It is pretty clear that you are on dangerous ground when you start interpreting the suffering of others as proof of their or our collective sin. Two example suffice: when the Pharisees ask Jesus who sinned that the blind man was born blind (John 9:2). Jesus' answer was, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned." Luke 13 has a similar story, again where Jesus is unwilling to directly connect specific suffering and death to specific levels of sinfulness. Certainly Jesus calls all to repentance, but he never makes connections between specific suffering, and specific cultural sins. That would be callous and unhelpful in a way Jesus never is.

If I understand what Mike Huckabee and others are saying on this correctly, they are saying that increased violence in our culture is a direct result of increasing godlessness in our culture. He then wants to be prophetic, and say that those children dying in that way is an outcome we should anticipate, even if it is not directly a cause-effect relationship.

That is "Christian prophecy" gone terribly awry. The prophets warned Israel of tragedies that might happen to them as a result of their sin and faithlessness. That's true. But the prophets were only collected in Scripture as Scripture after the words of the prophets were tested and found true.

The decisive point for all of this, and what I want to say, and what I tried to say in my sermon on Sunday--that in Christ we see the sufferings of others in a new light. Instead of dispassionately using the horrific deaths of children as a tool in the culture wars, an opportunity to prove a theological point, our responsibility as Christians is, now, to sit with those who suffer in the way Jesus Christ came to be with the suffering world.

Christ came and lived and suffered in the flesh. He didn't sit far off and mutter, "See, this is what you get for all your godlessness." Instead, Christ came into the world, into the flesh, to bring God in the flesh, that God might know pain, and suffering, and loss, and grief, and even death, right alongside us (see Hebrews 2:18 and 4:15).

Which means the proper Christian response (and Mike Huckabee ought to know this, maybe some other part of him that isn't on television all of the time actually does) is to say, in light of this situation, "I am so sorry. We are going to be here with you, Newtown. We will sit with you. We suffer and weep with you. You are not alone. And God goes with us in this time, and weeps for these children with us. God grieves. God hurts. This is not God's plan. This is not God's desire. This is terrible and tragic."

Not only that, but God is the God of justice, reconciliation, the God who seeks to restore that which is broken and make it whole. So if you want to know where God is now in all of this, don't look to interpretations on how God is punishing children for the godlessness of a culture. Look instead to all the small movements where people are actively trying to make the way for peace, turning swords into ploughshares, making a safe place for children, watching over and shepherding and keeping them. If you want to know where God is, God is with the teachers who went to school today to teach when they were scared, the police officers stationed by schools who so desperately want to make neighborhoods safe. God is with all of those trying to establish policies that won't let the demagogue of violence and retribution win the day.

God isn't judging the culture and exacting vengeance on innocent children. God certainly isn't available as a bludgeon in the culture war. God is far too free for that.

No, God is weeping with those parents, loving those children, and working for the peace and shalom of a hurting world. Our job is to figure out how best to join God in that work. I for one don't think the best place to start is giving any indication to those now mourning that their children died because our nation has lost its supposedly "Christian" moorings. The best place to start is together, in solidarity with the families, suffering with them, and joining in the very hard work that will make for true peace and safe schools for our children.

That was probably a much longer response than you had hoped for. Thank you for the question and opportunity to respond, and God's blessings as you travel and spend time with your family this Christmas.

Peace in Christ, and Christmas blessings.

ParishionerThanks so much for your time and these words. I really do appreciate it. In addition to being just sick over these events, I'm also dismayed that to a non-believer, the Church's response, at least the one portrayed in the press, is the one portrayed by Huckabee and the like. This is not a message people will flock to. They lament a godless country but paradoxically promote a theology of exclusion and division.

It's sage advice to simply try to avoid these topics altogether while home.

Please do put this in a blog post. I'm sure I'm not the only one struggling with these things.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you so much for this!

  3. Thanks for the response. I wholeheartedly agree with you, but I do have one question: Do you think that Jesus' diatribes in Luke 10:13-16 and its Matthean parallel might be one place where people claim Jesus sits off the side and does this "Woe to you" stuff? Do you think Huckabee and his like are trying to place their criticisms in that vein? And why doesn't it work?

  4. God is either not all good; or he is not omnipotent. -Voltaire

    God has set the natural order, and such includes natural disasters. Men do not consider it wrath; unless it brings destruction and/or death.