“We know that no matter how good our intentions, we will all stumble sometimes, in some way. We will make mistakes, we will experience hardships. And even when we’re trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.”
This was how President Obama addressed the people of Newtown, CT this past Sunday at an interfaith service for the victims of the shooting at Sandy Hook school. I’ll get to the appropriateness in a minute. (Hint: I’m not thrilled.)
As expected, the Christian pundits have been plying their trade, trying to remind people why they still matter. As Adam Sutler screams at his peons in the movie V for Vendetta: “I want this country to realize that we stand on the edge of oblivion. I want everyone to remember why they need us!” If you listen closely, you can hear the growing note of desperation in their voices.
Bryan Fischer of the Southern Poverty Law Center-certified hate group American Family Association was one of the first to sound off, going on his radio show to say that the shooting happened because we kicked God out of schools — meaning that the U.S. still isn’t a theocracy.
Mike Huckabee posted a diatribe on his website, blaming Liberals, gays, atheists, and feminists.
Focus on the Family founder James Dobson gave us his “honest opinion” on Monday: “Millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me and we have killed fifty-four million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. . . we have turned our back on the Scripture and God Almighty . . . has allowed judgment to fall upon us.”
Yes, Dobson just blamed me for the deaths of 26 innocent people. Classy guy.
But it was Obama’s speech on Sunday that caught my notice. He was the first President to ever acknowledge nonbelievers in a way that didn’t amount to, “Atheist scum!” and I was impressed that he met privately with each of the families of the victims before giving the address. He spoke honestly to parents, not just as the leader of our country but as a parent.
Yet the text of the speech itself was disappointing, and even a little disturbing. Whether he was quoting from 2 Corinthians, talking about the grace of [the Christian] God, or referencing the ineffability of the Divine plan, it was entirely too religiously partisan for many.
Everyone’s favorite atheist PZ Myers thought the speech was a “slap in the face” to the parents of the murdered children. Atheist blogger Vjack of Atheist Revolution wondered if it even occurred to Obama “how [the Christianspeak in his speech] might be perceived by those who do not share his particular superstitions.” Blogger Staks Rosch was also offended, writing that “twenty kids and six adults were just murdered and the President is talking about how God is lonely and wants some company.” Of course, that’s not what Obama meant, but still, that ought to have occurred to him.
Sarah Vowell wrote: “… in September [of 2001], atheism was a lonely creed. Not because atheists have no god to turn to, but because everyone else forgot about us.” It felt like that on Sunday. Just because atheists don’t believe in life after death doesn’t mean we have nothing to contribute to the nation’s grieving process. Ron Lindsay of the Center For Inquiry wrote on their blog:
Losing a child is tragic, but that tragic loss should be recognized and not obscured. In recognizing the depth of this loss we also recognize the inestimable worth and value of the child, his or her uniqueness as an individual — not as a small part of some vast, cosmic, incomprehensible plan.
Maybe instead of giving us a mini-sermon, the President could have left religion out of his remarks and addressed the community and the nation as a parent, and as a human being. In fact, I wish he could have said something like this, which is the most moving statement I’ve read concerning the shooting. It comes from a Buddhist, Susan Piver:
Nothing can make this okay. There is no explanation that helps. Blaming lack of gun control, insufficient guns, or inadequate mental health care may be entirely reasonable and valid, but it doesn’t matter. No matter how right you are (or aren’t), it doesn’t change the grief, rage, or numbness. Using ideas to treat or metabolize feelings doesn’t work. Then what? I’m afraid that there is not much we can do other than to be absolutely, irredeemably heartbroken. It turns out that this is helpful.
The normal human response to tragedy like this is to try to fix it and make everything as it was. I think this stems from childhood, when we look to Mommy or Daddy to put things right. Our parents are our first gods and goddesses, all-powerful and capable of no wrong. We adore them. But at some point we grow up and see them for who and what they are: ordinary human beings, just like us. And that scares us. It scares some people so much they they go out and do horrible things.
Piver got it right. More gun control laws won’t bring anyone back, nor will it stop some lunatic from getting their hands on more guns, or a different weapon entirely, and killing more people. Until we understand that peace doesn’t come from legislation but from learning to let go, there will be no peace.
So maybe the answer to Newtown isn’t to rush out and try to find an answer – because in these cases there usually isn’t one, especially when the gunman robs us of a rationale – or to demand more laws before the bodies are even in the ground. Maybe it’s to do the counter-intuitive thing, to stop trying to find someone to blame, and just be sad. Because, ironically, that’s how the healing begins.