I’m old enough to remember JFK’s assassination, the Texas clock tower sniper, Son of Sam, Jonestown, 911, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, and probably other horrors that are not now coming to mind. With the exceptions of a presidential murder and a terrorist attack on our largest city and our capital, I can’t recall the national attention being galvanized the way it has been in the wake of Friday’s killings at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. How can those who profess Christian faith account for this, or otherwise put it into some meaningful context?
The reason this incident ranks so high on the horror scale is probably because most of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooter were children, and rather young children at that. Anyone who is a parent or grandparent, or can imagine being a parent or grandparent, is pretty much turned into a mass of quivering jelly by the mere thought of what happened in Newtown. It is essentially the sum of all our fears. But that’s not the real horror. The real horror is this: Yes, on December 14, 28 innocent people (and I include the shooter in the number, who was an innocent victim of his own mental illness) lost their lives suddenly and violently at Sandy Hook School. But I’m quite certain that at least 28 others, and probably many times over, also lost their lives suddenly and violently on the same day, just in our own country, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Each of those lives was equally precious as the lives lost in Newtown. Each of those victims have people who love them, and whose hearts are broken today. And there will be more tomorrow, and the day after that. Our attention is arrested when such events are aggregated, when they happen in one place and at one time. But they happen every day, and that is the real tragedy.
Human beings live under the power of sin and death. Life is nasty, brutish, and short for a great majority of people in this world. That is a fundamental data point of our experience. And delivering us from this power is precisely what we mean by salvation, when we say that God saves us. God’s project, as it were, is to bring forth a new creation, one in which perfect love reigns supreme (which itself obviates any need for justice or peace), and every tear is wiped away.
So when the world asks us, as Christian believers, “Where was God at Sandy Hook School?”, there (almost literally) are no words–or, at least, not very many. The best thing we can do is point–as always, pointing to Jesus. We point to Jesus, lying in a feeding trough in a barn as an innocent newborn infant–completely vulnerable, completely exposed–and say simply, “There is God.” And there is no truer statement we could make, because there is God; indeed, God with us. We then point to the cross, to a naked and bleeding Jesus dying there, still as innocent as the day he was born, and we say, “There is God.” And there is no truer statement we could make, because there is God; indeed, God for us.
The only other word we can then speak–or, perhaps, not speak at all, but sing–is an ancient hymn that is preserved in the Eastern liturgies, but some westerners know: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” When used liturgically, this hymn is sung over and over again, at increasing tempo and increasing volume. It is worth singing over and over, at increasing tempo and increasing volume. It is precisely what we can say when the horror we confront is untellable. It is what we must say. While the wound is fresh, we cannot say very much more, and we ought not to say anything less.