It deeply saddens me to write this. I have tried to be self-controlled in my response to the tragedy in Newtown. First, I did not want to contribute to the madness of current debates, though I am not sure the church can always avoid weighing in on such things. Secondly, I think Job’s friends had it right when they waited 7 days to say anything because “they saw how great was his suffering.” Thirdly, I think silence and prayer are undervalued, perhaps even hated, in our culture – I wanted to give some time to both.
I spent some time Sunday, December 16th, scrolling through my social feeds: News Outlets, Twitter, Facebook, etc. I wasn’t looking for answers, fortunately for me. I was looking to see the variety of responses in order that I might develop something meaningful to say about how Christians respond to tragedy. This is my attempt at naming why we fail, in the face of tragedy, to bring meaningfulness (whether in our language or actions). I have broken my thoughts down into “observations,” and then a “recommendation” for better ways forward.
Observation #1: Christians in America think they know everything. I probably suffer from this affliction as much as anyone. In fact, this post probably stems from this very affliction. But it is something we desperately need to be saved from. To be blunt: We need to learn when to shut up. I think a good exercise in the interest of knowing when to speak and when to be silent would be to imagine we are speaking in the presence of those that are suffering. If I am a parent of a child who has just been slaughtered by a semi-automatic weapon, do I need to hear you go on a gun-rant? No. If my child has just been slain by madness and evil, do I need to hear your political arrogance about gun-laws? Oh you know how to control evil? You can stop it, right? No one has ever been able to stop evil and tragic things from happening, but you somehow have the key? If we want to help, perhaps the best way to do so is for us to just shut up.
Observation #2: Some things are so horrible, nothing helps. Marilyn McCord Adams, in her book “Christ & Horrors” says that while a lot of things in this world are awful, some are so overwhelmingly awful that participation in such events (whether the perpetrator or the victim) means that possibility for meaningful life afterward is lost. The shooting in Newtown, CT is indeed a horror. Searching for words to describe it is futile. And Christians would do well to recognize horrors when we see them, if for no other reason, than for this: to comprehend that whatever “actions” or “words” we think will “help” by our performance of them, does no good. Only suffering presence is of value in horrors – and prayers of lament.
Recommendation: Christians should be actively silent. I think we Christians in America, well-intentioned as we may be, suffer from severe anxiety and a debilitating case of low self-esteem about what we believe. Because of this, when we feel like stakes are high and rhetoric is tense, we have to speak fitfully to “win”, whatever “winning” might be. We are an over-anxious people. We cannot sit-still. We are undisciplined. We have little use for such commandments as “Be still and know that I am God.” We may not even care to know what that means, much less obey it. Furthermore, we have no confidence in our faith. Often-times, when scrolling through my Facebook news-feed I get the hint that most of my Christian friends don’t even get it that faith means precisely that we don’t always understand everything, yet we trust God in spite of that fact. Because of these two brutal afflictions in American Christianity, we do not possess the ability to know when or how to be actively silent.
As I worked through the mostly tragic attempts at Christian responses on my social networks, I was keenly aware of these two afflictions – and my heart is deeply troubled at my Christian siblings on both the political right and the political left. I want to offer what I think is a better response – active silence. Another term might be – suffering presence. In their book “Living Without Enemies”, Sam Wells and Marcia Owen have this to say about the Christian action of silence (yes, it is an action, or at least, it is active):
“Silence has three dimensions. The first is solidarity: enjoying the wordless presence of another person as a stronghold in times of despair, distress and fear. It means believing that being present is more important than well-chosen words or sensitive service.
The second dimension is listening: the giving of permission for those in distress to discover things they didn’t already know by articulating them in their own time and in their own way without judgment or interruption. Those who are present in the silence of listening are there not as experts who know what to do but as witnesses to share discovery of hope. This dimension of silence recognizes that there are sighs too deep for words.
The third dimension is the silence of prayer. The first dimension (solidarity) says “This is about us, together. We’re with you in this.” The second dimension (listening) says “I realize this is really about you. I’m hear to listen to your experience and the wisdom you are discovering in the pain.” The third dimension (prayer) says, “This whole experience was and is always about God. Let’s watch and listen to what God is showing and telling us in these events.””
As I read through the wisdom of these three silences, I cannot shake the instinct that tells me that American Christianity has missed yet another opportunity to be light in the darkness as we performed what is basically the opposite of these three graceful, active silences.
First, rather than be in solidarity with the suffering in Newtown, we struck out on our own political agendas. Pointing fingers at who started it is naive and childish. My point is that I saw Christians everywhere (and continue to see it today) engaged in the garbage-heap of self-indulging and hate-filled political rhetoric. Left and Right. Right or Wrong – it is beyond tragic. It not only misses the point, but adds to the horror of the entire event. If we cannot see how or why this is true, it is because we suffer from the same blinding afflictions of Job’s friends.
Second, rather than listening, we quite clearly cannot keep our mouths shut. I should just add a link to your Facebook news-feed at this point. We do not want to listen. Listening means relinquishing control. It means uncomfortable questions arise that we cannot answer. It means entering the real pain – the sort of pain that trite, mundane and quite frankly, heretical theological niceties cannot resolve. Listening seems to be the last thing American Christians want to do, despite the fact that our Savior spent 30 years of his life, leading up to his public career, doing just that – he listened.
Thirdly, and perhaps most unnerving of all, we have not, in my estimation, lamented with God in prayer. We seem to be occupied with defending our right to have guns (the right), or hellbent on legislating evil (the left). I would like to know, in the mind of God, what the sum-total of time Christians have spent (including my pitiful self) wrapped up in debate vs. time spent in prayer. I have good cause to imagine it would be worse than shocking.
That is the most theologically appropriate, and rhetorically complicated way I know of to rebuke us all (again, myself included) and say to us American Christians… for the sake of God and the sake of the suffering ones… shut up.
“If you have played the fool and exalted your own agenda, or if you are complicit in the madness, put your hand over your mouth! For as churning milk produces butter, and as twisting the nose produces blood, so stirring up anger produces chaos and bloodshed….” Proverbs 30:33