Today, in the small, previously unnoticed community of Newtown in Connecticut, there were more funerals. Following the unthinkable acts of Friday, December 14, 2012, families, indeed, a nation is still sorting out personal feelings. Underneath Christmas trees lie presents that will never be unwrapped, at least, as intended. Small plots of ground will now bind families to the previously unknown hamlet of New Town in unpardonable ways. For decades, no – forever, the day will be rehearsed in the memories of survivors, parents and teachers. Children will grieve over lost friends, parents over lost children. Some will flee Newtown in an attempt to escape the haunting memory. Others will now never be able to leave. Some will find their own marriage and fundamental assumptions about life severely shaken, including their faith. Others, may for the first time, find faith.
When tragedy occurs, our minds spin and questions arise like combatants – resisting the initial news. Who? What? When? Where? With every layer we are relieved or more emotionally embroiled. Who? – “Well it wasn’t my child.” When? – “Couldn’t have been!” Slowly the pixels of information form a picture in our mind which informs a conclusion. More facts fill in the missing pieces, but the original image, the reality of the tragedy, the sting of the shocking truth has its major impact with the first wave of unsavory facts. We may recycle through the questions, but our ship is already, for the moment, on some reef. Life is frozen, like a still picture. We are wounded. We feel the pain. It is as if we had died, a part of us is gone. That is the nature of grief.
And then, after a deep breath, comes another reflexive question – the long unanswerable question: Why?
Why this? Why now? Why this way? Why my child, my wife, my friend? Why, why, why? And then the ultimate why – ‘Why did God allow this to happen? Where was He? Why did He not prevent it? Why did He allow this man to do this? At a school? To children? To innocents? Why, why, why?’ The ‘God’ question is usually lost after the first few days. At this writing, less than a week after the tragedy, we have already moved on to other questions, more pragmatic – ‘What if? How do we prevent this again?’ Unresolved anger drives the dialogue.
What we never grasp in such a moment is first, that God is among the victims! His son died too! Didn’t you hear? He was at fire house identifying His boy. His son was also innocent, also the senseless target of blind rage. His son’s death was as brutal and cruel as the death of your child and mine. His son should never have died, as your child should not have died – what possible reason could the killer have had? Against your child? Against His son? What motive? It was a senseless slaughter, an unthinkable execution-style killing.
You see, God is weeping too. We attempt to rescue God from this position of ‘victim.’ It is uncomfortable for us to see Him here. It is a contradiction to our belief in His Sovereignty. But He must remain here. He needs to weep with us. He wants to be with us. It is in this moment that he is ‘touched with the feelings’ that mark us as humans in a world of physical pain and infirmities. This is what makes the Christian God so unique – he is transcendent, and simultaneously incarnate, compassionate and empathetic. He was wounded, bruised. It is here that he feels with us – the sting and the loss of death, the senselessness, the tragedy, along with the disconnect and separation.
The death of Jesus is always in one sense timeless. Historical, yes – it happened 2000 years ago; and yet it belongs to eternity, it is lifted in and out of time. It is a then/now, there/here portal. Because the senseless crucifixion of the innocent happens over and over again, and every time it does, we revisit Calvary; and the God of Calvary comes to sit with us. Here we find a God who knows our pain. He knows what it is like to visit the grave of His son. He is a victim. He is the parent, the father of a child that was senselessly killed.
Truth is rarely single-dimensional. It is multi-layered. Quick fixes rarely work. Easy answers usually turn out to be cliche’s. God is a victim, but He is not powerless. He could act, yes – in vengeful ways. He could get even. He could go after those who crucified his son. But instead, he has chosen to exercise restraint and forgiveness, to display love and grace. And yes, he could have acted to save his son! And that is the great breaking point, the ultimate mystery, the mind-bending notion, the unacceptable point at which we depart from such a God. If He could have acted to save his son, but did not, He is easily rejected by single-dimensional thinking.
Here is the second thing we fail to grasp. Not only is God a victim! Those were His children at Sandy Hook, but so was Adam Lanza – in the sense that all of us are created in the image of God. Certainly, Adam did not act in a way that revealed himself as a Biblical Christian. Quite the opposite – mental illness aside, he was a ruthless killer, and simultaneously a victim as well.
It has been interesting to listen to politicians and media initially use the word ‘evil’ in characterizing the incident in Newtown, and then to see others, particularly mental health professionals not only retreat from the word, obviously, because they see it as adding to the misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness, as they see it; but also as defamatory and libelous, as scientifically unfounded. Mental illness, for many mental health professionals, is never a matter of evil, but of genetics, culture, psyche sickness, social engineering, better science and psychology, better medicine and treatment modalities. We are watching the transfer of soul-care from spiritual notions to purely psycho-genic ones, from clergy to mental health professionals, from a Biblical world-view to a Freudian-Darwinistic model. But deep in our hearts, we wonder if science can explain it all, fix it all – if there is not something else working, beyond us, at times bigger than us. Evil!
When the first Adam sinned, he acted in a way that wounded all of creation – but God then acted in a redemptive way toward him. Because, He recognized that while Adam was complicit, he had not acted without the inducement of ‘Evil.’ He was both guilty and the victim. God could have stopped him – cold in his tracks. Dead! And the human race would have ended – then and there. And God could have stopped Newtown’s ‘Adam Lanza’ in his tracks – as he could all killers and oppressors. As he could you and me, when we act in aggressive and less than restrained ways. But that too would end the race of men as we know it. Adam Lanza did not act alone; and it was not a mere ‘mental-emotional’ disorder at work. Adam had helpers, from video-violence producers and manufacturers to his gothic companions, whether they were electronic connections or real friends; from enablers to the demons to which he opened the door of his already violent and disturbed heart. All of us help with the culture that allows an Adam to quietly exist and then explode. We are our neighbor’s keeper. Already the drums are beating for single-dimensional solutions. Ban the guns. Go from house to house and collect them. Station a police officer at every school. Every solution is offered but the root cause – evil; and the ultimate solution which is evil’s only antidote, is a holy God, recognized as our true Father.
God has given us ‘dominion.’ We have chosen to exercise that dominion apart from Him. Apart from his claim to the earth as Creator and Redeemer. We have told ourselves that we are the descendants of animals, and when someone acts like an animal, we are shocked. We then retreat to holy mantras – ‘We are all God’s children! How can this be?’ We are reaping what we have sown. We have ignored the cross – which demands that we all face God as guilty. It is far too easy, in such moments, to see Adam Lanza as the villain, the exception; and in contrast, the families and the children as innocents while we fail to see our own complicity as a culture in accommodating the evil that nurtured Adam and perhaps ten-thousand more like him. And that is because we have continually chosen to exercise our dominion and exercise our freedom apart from moral restrain and the moral principles of Scripture, to create religion-free zones; to champion free, but irresponsible speech, liberty as license, the death of absolute truth, but simultaneously plea for a culture that is characterized by love – without the truth from which love springs and is kept whole. We want God’s intervention in a limited manner – he is to stop all consequences of wickedness, but not to prevent the festering seed-bed of evil from fermenting and exploding onto the culture. He is to be sovereign over this, but not that; protective, but not controlling. He is to allow sin – without death; unbridled fire and passion without anyone being burned; divorce without any child feeling hurt and rejected; angry musical lyrics and media violence without anyone acting it out. We should be allowed to keep ‘evil’ as a cute pet, a movie, a private habit, a saucy relationship, a fetish; and of course, rename it, label it in palatable ways – without it biting us or causing us real harm.
Everyone reasonable knows such a world is impossible.