God, Suffering Society and Christian Responsibility: A Few Thoughts and a Challenge in Light of the Sandy Hook Shooting

Friday’s events were about as tragic, senseless and deplorable as anything imaginable.  The only appropriate immediate response is grief, prayer and comforting the afflicted.  What is just as disturbing, however, even if we don’t like to hear it, is how often the needless death and suffering of children occurs everyday — very often as a result of many of the actions taken by people, governments and corporations in the wealthiest and most powerful nations like our own (in the form of “collateral damage” from drone warfare, for instance — the intention might be different, but the outcome is the same).

A thousand miles closer than Connecticut to Texas is the Mexican border, for example, where  the same number of children have died many times over in recent years for similarly belligerent reasons — and that is only the tip of the iceberg.  What if we, the Christian Church in the United States, would come to love and weep for the rest of the world’s children in the way that we love and weep for our own — the children of the Congo, of Syria and of Iraq?

It is usually asked what to make of God in the wake of such events.  As a student and professor of theology, I am obviously interested in this kind of inquiry and could offer a few thoughts on the matter.  Is it not equally appropriate to ask though what to make of those of us who claim to worship and know this God while yet remaining utterly distracted and mostly self-serving in the midst of this kind of suffering — suffering that happens not just last week, but all the time (e.g., severe acute malnutrition, something even more violent, afflicts an estimated 19 million children worldwide).  After all, it is indeed God, Christians maintain, that suffers with the suffering on the cross — as a consequence of our unawakened desire, apathy and discontentment with what we have been given.  I’ve said more about this here.

With regard to this specific incident at the political level, there are public policy concerns to be raised for sure, but I will not take up those issues here.  Speaking as someone who grew up and continues to enjoy hunting, suffice it to say that the dominant conventional positions are naive — the simple call for better gun control on the one hand (though I tend to lean this way at least when it comes to assault rifles, glocks and the like), and the libertarian dictum about how “people [– not guns –] kill people” or “only outlaws will have guns” on the other hand — as if many better preventative systemic safety measures shouldn’t be taken… For a better treatment of this, I recommend senior pastor of FBC-Austin Roger Paynter’s sermon here.

While there are always going to be some seemingly irredeemably pernicious folks who are out to do terrible harm like this, society must take a certain degree of responsibility.  Dismissing the killer as a barbaric monster, lunatic, etc. might make you feel better, but it doesn’t fix anything — nor does blaming Satan, free will or abstract human “fallenness”, however real these things may be.  People are not born ready to kill kindergarteners, even if they are born “sinful,” and it’s no coincidence that this happens as it does in the United States, which is one of the most technologically advanced, virtualized and at the same time hyper-individualist cultures in the world.  By “individualist”, I mean the placement of excessive value on autonomy,  competition, freedom (personal and political) and independence.  These values run quite contrary to the urgent need for Christian values like interdependence/mutuality, community, relationality and accountability.

This week a faith group I’m a part of is taking on the simple but profound challenge of reaching out to one person who is generally regarded as “other” or an “outsider” — someone stigmatized maybe — economically, politically, socially… whatever.  I extend this challenge to anyone: love somebody different this week.  Better still, try to do it every week, and make it a New Years resolution.

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