Column: Faith Tells Us There’s Nothing Inevitable About Mass Killings
The tragic events at Newtown are almost beyond belief, and we struggle to imagine how such a thing might happen. All of our hearts goes out to the families of those who have lost loved ones. At such a time, words seem so frail and helpless. Who can possibly speak of the enormous pain of bereavement? And who can understand the immense trauma of being a survivor? In the face of such awful, senseless loss, the first and most important response of all of us has to be to hold those most affected in our thoughts and prayers.
The events of Friday are particularly poign-
ant for us here in Hanover, a town not dissimilar in size, geography or sociology, and during a season when we are surrounded by children at one of the most cherished times of year in a child’s life. While we grieve for the terrible loss of others, it is also natural to ponder and ask why such a thing could happen and whether it could happen again. I do not have the answer to any of those questions. But I do have some theological reflections.
First, it strikes me that faith matters most of all right now. It matters to be able to trust and hope that despite the horrific events of Friday that somehow God is present in this. While I understand and sympathize with those who believe that Friday shows that God could not possibly exist, I also believe that Friday reveals our need for God. Faith does not offer a solution to the problem of evil. But faith does offer a way of naming evil and holding on to the possibility that evil will not triumph. It also matters that we remember that the faith of others who do not hold the same beliefs is just as important as our faith. We are all humans first and foremost.
Second, as we learn more about what happened it is likely that we will discover a familiar pattern of social isolation, mental health problems and breakdown in relationships. From a theological perspective, what matters most is not that anyone could have seen what was coming. No one can predict such horrific events. But all of us are asked to remember that these human acts of evil have their origins in things that are familiar and everyday. Newtown was not a supernatural act. It was an act of human beings. And human beings can and will want to do their level best to prevent it from happening again.
Third, it seems to me that this country is facing a crisis that is a theological crisis, not a political crisis. Much talk in the coming days and months will be about gun control, the Constitution and politics. But as people of faith we need to remember that the issues are much deeper than that. The real issue it seems to me is whether we believe in a Manichaean universe, an evil world in which we have to arm ourselves to defend ourselves. Or do we live in a good world that God has created? Christians rightly reject the Manichaean response. God tells us our world is good. God also tells us that we have stewardship of our world. There is nothing inevitable about mass killings.
The other side of the theological crisis facing us is whether we can ever escape the fundamentalism that starts with the Bible and gets transposed onto the Constitution. The Constitution was written before the invention of semiautomatic weapons, and at a time when biblical literalism was increasingly seductive. Christians have since stopped justifying slavery on the basis of a literal reading of the Bible. It is also time to stop justifying almost unfettered gun ownership on the basis of a literal reading of the Constitution.
Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation. Taking its name from the Greek messenger god Hermes who delivered letters to the other gods, hermeneutics is the study of how we make meaning. It remains remarkable that while we have managed to make our society more just by overturning the exclusions of the 18th century, we remain hostage to that same century in our relationship to guns. Hermeneutics reminds us that texts have certain desires. It is time to remember the constitutional desire is “to establish Justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to Posterity.” No right-thinking person could argue that protecting innocent children is a breach of the Constitution. But if it is our intention to protect our children and communities better, our laws will need to change.
Recently I read the story of Lucky Hans with my four-year-old. It is one of the Brothers Grimm stories, in which Hans, having worked hard for seven years, is rewarded with a large sack of silver. On his way home, he has a series of encounters, and each time makes a disastrous business decision. But while he makes a decision that makes awful financial sense, each time he is absolutely thrilled with what he has done. He trades down from the silver to a horse, from a horse to a cow, from a cow to a pig, from a pig to a goose, and eventually all he has is a stone. The story ends with him dropping the stone into a pond and declaring how much better it is not to be encumbered by it. He returns home with absolutely nothing to show for his seven years of labor.
The story of Lucky Hans reminds us that trading down, letting go and giving things up does not have to be a negative experience. Letting go of things we value does not always have to be hard. It can also be profoundly liberating.
Hans gives up what he does not need. And while one would not want Hans managing one’s retirement funds, one would want Hans as a friend. He shows us that true security is not in things we possess. And it is certainly not to be found in weaponry. True security is found in trusting the love of God rather than the things of this world.
God’s love asks us to do difficult and hard things. Love calls us to action: to care for the homeless, the hungry, the prisoners and the lonely. Love asks us to pursue truth and justice. Love even asks us to give up that which is precious in order that we can be truly free.
The Rev. Guy Collins is rector of St. Thomas Church and the Episcopal college chaplain at Dartmouth. This was adapted from his sermon on Sunday.