A woman puts a photo of a child on a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook village of Newtown, Conn., as the town mourns victims killed in a school shooting on Dec. 17, 2012.
What is most needed in the wake of the Newtown massacre? How do we explain what happened, to ourselves and to our children? Where was God when 20 children and six adults were being gunned down? How should we react as a nation in light of these horrific events?
These and similar questions are the ones I have been asked almost nonstop for the past 48 hours, and they are ones I will respond to here, sort of. That we have such questions is natural. That they are the ones to which we must immediately and most directly respond is less obvious, to me at least.
The nature and scope of the events in Newtown are, as so many people keep saying and writing, incomprehensible. I think that is correct, and if it is, then we should not imagine or pretend to have satisfactory answers to the questions listed above. In fact, among the most important things to have at such moments is the discipline to withhold simplistic answers and knee-jerk responses to what is anything but simple.
We grasp for such answers the way a drowning person grasps onto anything at hand, even when in doing so, they may actually endanger both themselves and the person who could otherwise save them. That the drowning person behaves that way is totally understandable. It is also something to be resisted.
Many of us feel that we are drowning in pain and confusion about Friday’s events, and that is why we lose sight of what is really most needed at this moment.
This moment demands compassion and love more than it does analysis and explanation. In fact, anyone who claims to understand what has happened in the last 48 hours, or why it has happened, either has no heart or no brain. Like the drowning person, they are grabbing for whatever might restore their sense of normalcy, but like that drowning person, they probably need a more durable solution, even if it takes a bit longer to work out.
The task now is not to explain or moralize. It is not the time to decry the proliferation of guns in our society, as some already are, or the moral decline of our nation as others are doing. The task now is to offer the love and compassion that will make the incomprehensible, at least bearable.
I believe that we can take God’s lead as described in Psalms, whether we actually believe in God or not, and pledge to be there for each other in our time of suffering. We can assure our kids and each other that this horror is not all of life, and that we will be there to make sure that the good days outnumber the bad days ahead.
We need to reassure our kids and ourselves that this is not all of life, and that we have it within us to deal with whatever comes our way. We need to insist that while we may never understand what happened in Connecticut, we can all help assure that it never happen again.
We can promise our kids and each other the same unconditional love and presence promised in the Book of Psalms, even when there are no other satisfying answers. In fact that promise is the only real answer I know in the immediate aftermath of so much human suffering.
Of course, some people actually feel that all of this is part of some divine plan, and will take comfort from that, and can comfort others by sharing that view. Personally, that doesn’t work for me, so I don’t say it. What I believe is that God is with us, and a part of every moment, including the worst ones.
That is my approach to this tragedy, but actually I think that almost any response can work, as long as A, it is offered in love, B, experienced as a loving response by those to whom it is offered, C, appreciates that what works for some will not work for all, and D, is the answer that reflects what the one sharing it most deeply believes, and not simply what they think is “supposed״ to be said.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a great mystic sage and poet theologian of the previous century, taught that the best response to senseless hatred was senseless love – the kind of logic-defying love which bypasses the head and travels directly to the broken hearts of those around us. Never have such words felt more needed or true.
Related content on On Faith:
* Graham: Why the shock and awe?
* Pace: Comfort the grieving
* Stanley: In tragedy we grieve; in God, we hope
* Quinn: Where was God?
* Thistlethwaite:God weeps: 27 children, staff killed in Conn. school shooting