God, Schools, and Tragedy: Part 1

In the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School last week, my Facebook and Twitter feeds became something of a war zone: so many thoughts and emotions swelled and exploded in the sky, raining us with posts, pictures, and tweets about the tragedy. One thought in particular caught my eye. I saw it as early as Friday and watched it gain steam through the weekend. The thought, expressed in several different ways, goes something like this:

"Question: Why did this tragedy happen? Answer: Because God has been 'kicked out' of public schools."

First of all, I want to say that there are several people that have shared this or posted this thought whom I know well, and whom I love, respect, and believe are good, kind-hearted, sincere Christians. I also know people who fall on the other side of the fence, those who are deeply hurt, shocked, or frustrated with this thought.

Some people who have posted the thought believe and support it passionately. Several others have posted it without much thought behind its implications. Either way, the words carry great weight and significance whether we meant them to or not. If anything, I hope those who read this can at least walk away with a sense of that weight and our responsibility to it.

It's a seemingly innocent statement, this “God-school-tragedy” bit, but in my opinion, does great harm and reflects very poor, very wrong theology, doesn't hold up logically or biblically, and works against the message and mission of the gospel.

This post is split into two parts: the second part addresses what I believe is the real issue that underlies the statement in question. The real issue is not that there is a war on God in our schools that we must fight. If you're convinced there's a war on God, or perhaps your point is that all the related issues combined point to a stepping away from God as a whole, fine. This post will focus on the implication that God allowed the shooting to happen/didn't stop the shooting from happening because we have kicked Him out of our schools.

Let's tackle the logic behind the issue. If I say that this evil has come upon the schools because they've turned from God (debatable—wait for Part 2!), then follow the logic: A judge or an administrator makes a decision that schools will not be allowed to pray publicly or teach explicitly Christian values, therefore innocent children are shot as a result? Someone will have to explain that to me. Someone will also have to explain why, then, are there no crazed gunmen walking into strip clubs, into porn conventions, into atheist gatherings to kill large masses of people? Surely these are places Christians would agree have completely abandoned God or Christian values, places against which God surely must carry out his judgment? According to the logic, anyway.

And then there is another, more troubling problem. What do we do with places like West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County, in which a gunman shot ten students, killing five--a school with strong faith-based values? What had they done to incur the wrath of God? Or take, for example, the six people shot when a gunman opened fire at New Life Church in Colorado Springs? How can we apply the same logic to that situation?

I could go and on, couldn't I? What about some Amish girls who were attacked just last week apparently because of their faith? What do we do with that? What do we with St. Rita’s Catholic Church in Nigeria, which was victim to a suicide bombing this past October that killed seven and wounded one hundred? Who in that church or church system bears the responsibility for the evil that day? Or what about my grandfather who had a stroke two years ago? What had he done to bring that stroke upon himself? Anyone feel confident enough to explain that to him?

Here is the problem with statements like "God didn't stop the shooting, or evil came upon that school, because they kicked God out," and I can't emphasize this enough:

We have absolutely no clue why any tragedies like the one in Newtown happen, and to speak on God's behalf and claim to know the reason is at best misguided and at its worst, grossly wrong and irresponsible.

There is a reason why most anyone with a head still firmly on their shoulders basically disregards 99% of what Pat Robertson says anymore: he has, errantly, tried to speak for God after one too many tragedies, citing the victims’ or the victims’ nation’s sins as the cause.

We see this mistake very clearly in scripture. There is a man named Job who God describes as a “blameless and upright” man. For reasons truly beyond my own understanding, God allows him to withstand a series of terrible calamities. When Job loses his house, his children, and his health, his friend Eliphaz assumes that sin must be at the root of Job's troubles. To be honest, he was right in a sense--sin, darkness, evil was at the root of the problem. But Eliphaz accused Job of not doing enough right, of angering God in some way. We find out later that God rebukes Eliphaz, and He's pretty upset about being misrepresented. Job had, in fact, done nothing wrong to bring this disaster upon himself. The bottom line--God was doing something else that none of them could understand.

And that's it, isn't it? That God is often moving in ways we can't possibly understand. God indeed allowed that tragedy to happen. I think that is very clear. Instead of wrestling with that truth, it’s much easier to assign blame to an enemy, isn’t it? Just as it was easy for Eliphaz to assign blame where explanations were hard to come by. Sometimes we need to find the humility to say, “I don’t know. I may never know.”

It's also easy to make a statement on Facebook or Twitter, when we face little to no accountability for the weight of our words. I would be interested to know how many people would still stand behind their statement enough to even step foot into Connecticut and say those words to someone’s face.

I also have to wonder how out of touch we are with the hearts of people around us to make statements like the one in question. I can't reconcile this with the message of the gospel. Every single non-Christian I've spoken to in the last couple of days about this issue is absolutely floored that anyone could say something that implies these children died because we can't pray publicly in a school. They're shocked by the lack of tact and heart as much as the lack of logic.

That should make us think. That should make us pause. Our words matter. They reflect what's in our hearts. If we make a decision to put words out for hundreds of people to see, we must bear the responsibility that comes with that. Unfortunately, we forget about the wisdom of restraint when it's so easy to type a few words, hit enter, and wait for the "likes" to roll in.

It's wrong to use the confidence we have in our faith in God to justify the lack of thoughtfulness, consideration, discernment, and evaluation of our words. Too often we throw out cliches or easy sayings in blind assumption that they must be true because I heard it on Christian TV or from a pastor, or that it doesn't matter if the words are appropriate for the given context because "Hey, it's the truth."

For all of the verses in scripture about the power of the tongue, for all of the proverbs that indicate wisdom is found in restraining and carefully considering our words, and for all of the admonishment to not be swayed by culture, Christians have fallen victim to this cultural tide of fast quotes, sharing posts, and re-tweeting with blinding speed and with little discernment.

What people need now is not bad theology assigning blame to the tragedy. They have no use for empty cliches or easy quotes to retweet. They need prayers for comfort, for peace. They need compassion, and they need strength to pick themselves up and try to move on from that terrible day. They need a source of hope to trust for those dark nights that will surely come, the nights where they will ask God through their tears why this happened. And the rest of the world needs to see a better, more thoughtful response from Christians in the wake of tragedies like this. I hope we can move toward that.


What to look for in Part 2: What to do about the “war on God” in schools.