Working from home a week ago, Wade mentioned he had received a CNN news flash on his phone that there had been another mass shooting. Busy finishing up the duties of my online course on sexuality and Christianity, I acknowledged this latest shooting with an “uh-huh” and continued working.
Only toward the end of the day did I learn the victims were children and the site an elementary school. I lost it. Tears immediately came to my eyes. First graders, six- and seven-year-olds, are particularly precious innocents to me. “Thy childish essence was from God,” Charles Dickens wrote of another such child. I lost it again when it was reported that wails could be heard coming from inside the fire station when their parents learned their fate. And the educators—principal, teachers, teacher’s aide—who lost their lives, trying to protect “their kids”: OMG, OMG, OMG.
Moments of silence are being observed the day I write this, one week later, in memory of those so brutalized. Silence is good; it reminds us that there is nothing to be said adequate to this occasion. It gives us a chance to catch our breath and remember theirs. It gives a chance to reflect. But I’ve needed more than a moment. I’ve needed a week, which is why this wasn’t last week’s post. And even now it seems presumptuous, even dangerous to venture thoughts on the incomprehensible tragedy. I felt sorry for all those pastors and rabbis and imams who had to preach that weekend.
In his public reflections, President Barack Obama said of us Americans, “We must change.” Having both worked and volunteered in congregations, on campuses, and in community organizations, I have learned that those are the three most challenging and most resisted words. “We must change.”
Psychologist M. Scott Peck defined evil as “the unquestioned self,” which he saw at work both in institutions and individuals, an inability even to imagine one’s self or one’s group being wrong. I have used it to describe the church’s resistance to gay people. Whereas gay people, like all outsiders, usually grew up questioning ourselves, the church resisted questioning its prejudice and exclusion.
“We must change” is predicated on questioning ourselves and our institutions and overcoming our inertia, something we are reluctant to do. For Christians, this means also considering how Jesus would view us.
On departure from the presidency, Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned of the “military-industrial complex,” which he had earlier warned would take food from the hungry. But his original draft warned of the “military-industrial-congressional complex.” He was persuaded to take “congressional” out, but how needful the warning is today, as we witness congressional impasse and collusion with weapons manufacturers, other major corporations, and the National Rifle Association. (See the New York Times editorial explaining that the NRA actually represents gun manufacturers, not gun owners. Btw, in my view, the NRA’s proposal of a guard in every school is the solution of a third-grader [apologies to third-graders] that would only add to the body count and further burden insufficiently-funded schools.)
When the Virginia Tech mass shooting occurred years ago, I led a prayer for that campus during a regularly scheduled prayer service of a church I was serving in another part of the country. I was stunned to have another progressive Christian offer what amounted to a “rebuttal” prayer, deriding our horror at that violence when things like that happened all the time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course we frequently prayed for Iraq and Afghanistan in that service. But that night, I felt particularly close to those on the Virginia Tech campus because I had spoken there, made friends there, one of whom I called to see how everyone was coping and if any I knew were among the casualties.
Similarly, I felt close to those on the campus of Sandy Hook Elementary School because my mother spent her entire professional life teaching first-graders, and I remember every day after school seeing how those innocents hung affectionately on my mother, even when they had moved to upper grades, because they loved her so and she loved them so. I could see her also putting her body between the shooter and those innocents.
At the same time, I am mindful of the ten Afghanistan schoolgirls, all under 12 years of age, killed in the blast of a Soviet-era landmine as they collected firewood for their homes on the Monday following the Newtown shootings.
“We must change.” That means me, and you, this nation and the world.