December 2012

Why…and Why Not? Questions about the Sandy Hook Shooting

The peace, joy and celebrations of Christmas and the holiday season have been shattered by despicable violence. In many parts of the country, people have been physically sickened and have shed tears, some uncontrollably. The first question, the Why, is not an attempt to seek and understand an explanation for the massacre. Rather, it queries the reason so many in our country care what happened.

Certainly for the families and friends who lost loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the pain and sorrow are obvious and understandable. Families have been ripped apart, literally, as they lay the bodies of their little ones to rest. Sadly, neither our President, nor local politicians, nor our teachers, nor even our pastors can craft adequate words of consolation. Darkness hangs over the city of Newton; an oppressive darkness that obscures even the light of Christmas. On a basic and intuitive level we understand the concern and care of each of the families and of their friends.

But why should the rest of the country care? Most of us did not know these little children or their families. Could it be that the wanton murder of twenty little first graders creates an existential disruption in our own lives? After all, for most of us, the massacre was, and remains, incomprehensible. Our own sense of order has been distorted and thrown into chaos. Or could it be that we have become afraid? Afraid for ourselves and our own children? Or maybe it is that the massacre of innocent six and seven-year-olds is simply too unsettling to fathom, compounded by the fact that their little bodies were riddled with close-range bullets. Could it be our own repugnance at the terror they must have felt as their bodies were pierced and life ripped from their tiny frames? There are many legitimate and humane reasons to care. And as a nation, we care deeply.

But we are challenged by the second question:
Why Not? Why do we not demonstrate the same outrage and grief for the innocent children killed in Pakistan and Yemen? I don’t mean children who are victims of floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters, or even children who die of starvation or disease. I am not speaking of children caught in the crossfire of soldiers’ rifles in the midst of war. No. I mean the 178 children killed by drone attacks ordered by our own government, the United States of America. That is nearly nine times the number killed in Newton!

The children at Sandy Hook faced a madman. Children living in Pakistan and Yemen faced unmanned drones. Is their terror any less because they cannot see their killer? Are they any less innocent? Are their futures filled with any less promise? Are their dreams of being teachers or doctors, scientists or musicians any less deserving? Why don’t we rise up in anger and protest? Why don’t we care?

Could it be that they are not massacred together in a single violent act? Could it be that the media doesn’t deem these deaths worthy of news coverage? Could it be that we do not see their faces or know their names? Could it be that we consider them the “other” because they are not us? Could it simply be that they are different?

We try to justify our drone attacks by saying we are pursuing an enemy. We are hunting the “bad guys.” Well, little children are not the bad guys—no matter what country they live in. The fear that overwhelms them as they hear a drone humming in the sky above is just as real as the fear of children who hear gunfire in the next classroom. And it is just as evil.

This is not a lecture, and I do not have the answer. I have only the question:
Why don’t we care?
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The Messiah?

Every belief system requires a certain leap of faith. By its very definition, faith is not something that can be proved. At the same time, it must be reasonable. Karl Marx remains famous for calling religion the opiate of the people. And Nietzsche may be most remembered for his statement that God is dead.

This may seem an odd beginning for a Christmas blog. But it is precisely because so many people get lost in the romanticism of Christmas, that it becomes an escape, rather than a time of reflection, thus given some credence to the remarks of Marx and Nietzsche.

Whether or not faith can be proved, a pre-requisite for religious belief should be its rationality and whether or not it holds up to investigation. For example, Jews believe that Moses parted the Red (or Reed) Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. Christians believe that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Mormons believe that Jesus appeared in ancient America.

Let’s dismiss the most silly of these claims. There are no serious scholars, even among Mormons, who accept the belief that Jesus appeared in ancient America. One reason for discounting that tenet is that there is absolutely no archeological evidence of such an event. It would be irrational to continue to hold to that belief, thus raising echoes of Marx.

The Jewish belief (also shared by Christians and Muslims) in the parting of the sea is also subject to investigation. There are a number of scenarios whereby the land beneath the sea was, indeed, dry enough to cross. It was a periodic occurrence. So subsequently, the waters that had receded returned, thus miring Pharaoh and his army in the mud. There remains a reasonable miracle here, in that God intervened to assure the timing of the event. The art of storytelling simply embellishes the crossing with the image of water walling up on the right and the left.

Whether or not Jesus is the Messiah is a little more complex. There is no question that Jesus existed as a real person. His life and death are not the invention of sacred writing. They are also mentioned in non-biblical documents. But is he the Messiah?

The Old Testament writers left us numerous ways to identify the Messiah upon his arrival. One of the principle Messianic promises was peace. So, how does this fit in with the story of Jesus?

The Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church includes a Proclamation of the Birth of Christ. In very brief and poetic language, it traces the passage of time from the creation and biblical events, through Greek and Roman civilization, to the arrival. Of particular significance is the situating of Jesus’ birth in real time:

“The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus; the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ…was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.”

Setting aside the fact that the phrase “the whole world” is a touch Judeo-Roman-centric, the real issue is the question of peace. Since Christians already believed that Jesus was the Messiah at the time of its composition, it is understandable that an observation of peace would find its way into the Christmas Proclamation.

It is also true that at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire was not engaged in an ongoing war. Still, Rome was a foreign power that controlled ancient Palestine. Since peace is not just the absence of war, it would take a Rowlingesque imagination to observe occupying forces patrolling the streets and deem that reality as peace.

It is understandable that many in ancient Israel, as well as many today, find it difficult to recognize Jesus as Messiah. Peace was not only absent at the time of his birth. Christianity, itself, has been darkened with war and other forms of violence throughout much of its history.

It might be too simplistic to reject Jesus due to the absence of one Messianic promise, even if that promise is as significant as peace. At the same time, that very absence might serve as motivation for those who really do believe in Jesus.

At the core of the Gospels and of authentic Christian Faith, is a peace that is rooted in forgiveness and love. The absence of peaces is not just a historical issue surrounding Jesus’ birth. It is an existential issue that questions the authenticity of believers today.

If the Christian Faith is to circumvent the condemnation of Marx and not serve as a collective drug; if it is to counter the declaration of Nietzsche and keep God alive and present in our world today, then “Peace on Earth” cannot be just decorative phrasing on a holiday card or sentimental lyrics in a Christmas song. Peace must drive who and what we are. War is not only
not the answer, it cannot even be part of the discussion.

Maybe peace really is that important. I, like millions of others, believe in Jesus. However, until peace defines the followers of Jesus, there is not sufficient reason to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.
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