Thursday, April 19, 2007

Responding to Tragedy

I sent out this post yesterday in our weekly eNewsletter. For those email addresses I don't have and for those who haven't yet subscribed to our eNewsletter, I am posting the article again for your convenience.


Dear Members and Friends,

This past week has revealed to us a great tragedy. Watching the television news with sadness, we have learned that a gunman has murdered 33 students on the campus of Virginia Tech. All of the murdered were young men and women, some of them on the verge of graduation. All of the slain were innocent victims of the rampage of a crazed student—armed with an automatic pistol, shooting victims without a purpose.

As I watch television or surf the Internet, I am awash with information. One can hardly escape it unless one turns off the information boxes and sits alone in his darkened room. Even going outside, people are talking and asking, “How could something so hideous have happened? What have we become that something like this could happen? It seems there are more than a few people who are already starting to point their fingers of blame. Tragedy does that to some folks: there has to be someone to blame. If you can’t find a reason for the tragedy, then someone else made it happen.

For a few of us though, this tragedy brings overwhelming sadness. And anger. This past week, I could not help but feel both. Just thinking about the tragedy, all I could do was weep. And not the light and teary kind but the sort that convulses hard … the sort that makes you angry after you do it—angry at the loss, angry at God, angry at everything in the world that would allow such a thing to happen. And then the questions, the questions that inevitably make it back to God. How does one look at this tragedy and not ultimately think about God?

Normally, I have discovered that not everything that happens must be explained to the “inth” detail. However, this event is an unusual happening. Surely, there must be a reason for such a bad thing to happen, right? When thinking of the horrendous murders, I cannot help but wonder if there is supposed to be a reason for everything—or, at least the roots of my Calvinism seem to beckon for such reconciliation. Attempting such reconciliation, however, may be the cause of my current consternation.

Why did all those kids have to die? As I look for meaning in such tragedy, I am left with emptiness. This emptiness makes my heart hurt and even causes me to look to God in frustration and ask even the maker of heaven and earth, “God, why did you even allow this to happen?” Sitting in silence, all I am left with is the reality that I can never know.

But how can I even blame God to begin with? When everything is going good, my understanding of God isn’t one where God is responsible for everything good or everything bad that necessarily happens. I don’t think I am insulating myself against unanswerable questions—honestly, I seldom think about God this way. Except when tragedy occurs—it’s during tragedy that I look for meaning. Life is messy. And it is unpredictable—it goes this way and that way, sometimes without any indication that it is even plotting a course.

Over the past few days, I’ve looked to see how others have responded to tragedy. I have been surprised by what I’ve read. Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman spoke about tragedy and suffering. He said that when tragedy strikes it is because of something negative a person has done in a past life. It’s a causality by which we evolve—over and over again, until we get things right. So those who died did so because they caused it to themselves? Blaming the victim is a cruel answer. I find this response appalling.

A few people, who respond to tragedy, have retold the story in the Old Testament, where Job asks God why he experienced so much personal tragedy. God responded to Job that it wasn’t any of his concern and who does he think he is to even question why God does what God does in the first place. Everyone who mentions this story seems to leave out a main part of the story. As I read it, while Job doesn’t know what’s going on, the reader is privy to why God did as God did: the devil and God had an inside bet going on to see if Job would cave in and curse God. Job didn’t—so I guess that means God won the bet. Is this crass for me to say?

And there are others who look at tragedy through the lens of, “This is God’s will.” To me, I cannot accept that—that God has an ultimate purpose for such tragedy. This response is cold-hearted because it can never be proved outside of theological proof-texting. It is an argument of theology and, since we cannot know the mind of God, the answer removes us from the tragedy—turning the suffering into a theological justification rather than seeing the suffering for what it is.

For all that I cannot accept in all that I have read and heard, my reaction… the reaction itself… seems to be the only thing that seems to make sense to me. Realizing there is a story within the stories of those who died and the families who are living in their suffering, the more I find something that is beneath it all.

Take away the questions… take away the frustrations… and what am I left with? All I can see is the disaster itself. To me, the tragedy that happened simply “is.” Author, poet, and scholar of Jewish-Buddhist dialogue Rodger Kamenetz, explains what I have discovered as the belief in what “is.” Because I cannot reconcile God with the tragedy, what I am left with is this: Without adding any meaning to tragedy, what happened is simply what “is.” There is no God in the massacre. The massacre simply “is”. I need to abide with it and feel it instead of seeking an answer for it because the answers just make me complacent and take me away from the students in the classrooms and the mothers and fathers grieving over the loss of their children on the cusp of their adulthood.

The tragedy is not for the good, it is not for the bad. It just is.

It is not a blessing, it is not a curse, it just is. An emotionally unstable and reckless youth bought a gun, walked into a classroom, shot innocent people, and took with him many lives.

It isn’t a blessing, it isn’t a curse, it isn’t good, it isn’t bad. It just is.

And yet there IS something more.

God is in the response. God is in the hearts of those who are feeling and responding to this tragedy. God is in the families and the neighbors of the victims, and the rest of us, the bystanders too. The whole country is feeling it, even the world. In only a few days, people from all over the world are expressing their sadness, offering their prayers, and stopping their own personal strife to offer a moment of support.

In our faith tradition, when we look at that which we cannot explain, we often find a peace that exists beyond our questions. When we cannot fully explain why, we still find in our response, a kind of special grace that sustains us. In the resurrection story of Jesus, we may not understand Jesus’ murder but we find in his resurrection the confirmation that after all is said and done, everything is alright. God is both in the answer and the answer itself. In some way, God is probably more in the response than in the questions that shake our faith during times of tragedy.

Looking to Job, who obviously got a raw deal, he learned that God felt compassion on him and everything he had was restored. Take away the weird dialogue between God and the Tempter, and take away the mystery Job felt and we discover what Job learned, that his actions do not warrant God’s rewards or punishments: he learned simply that what happens simply happens. Job lost much and received much—to him there was no meaning in his loss in spite of whatever his wife and friends had to say.

The student who burst into the classrooms shooting wildly has no meaning. The blood that flowed, the lives that were extinguished, the destruction simply “is.” However, the response that is spreading through our hearts does have meaning. This response is affecting us and it is confronting many more.

The outpouring of love and support from people all over the world has meaning. The compassion that started with tears and cries of injustice has turned to caring—and in it, there is meaning. Let us remember all who live through and in tragedy, that in spite of the evil that confronts them, their lives have meaning with God and that God touches us all when we are faced with such senseless tragedy. I open my heart to it and feel it. The place it touches in me, touches God. The place it touches in you, touches God. Amen.

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