God, Schools, and Tragedy: Part 2

Every morning, at about 7:50, I hear a loud tone ring out over a speaker. A voice comes on and asks us all to stand for the pledge of allegiance. We all face the large American flag that hangs over the white board at the front of my room. It's covered in dust and the fabric is worn. I never bothered to buy my own flag; rather, I inherited the current one from my friend Ryan, who used to teach in the room I have now. The voice starts us off: "I pledge allegiance, to the flag..." and then cuts off, allowing us to continue to recite the rest on our own. My kids and I piece together a stumbling, droning performance, half of us still waking up the muscles in our mouths or still waking our brains. We near the end: "...and to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation..."

What comes next? Say it with me:

"...under God..."

Under who? From what I've heard on Facebook, Twitter, and certain news outlets since Friday, we've been entrenched in a war on that guy, and we've kicked him out of our schools. As a result, he has abandoned us and left our children defenseless.

Friends, I'd like to offer my perspective: The war on God that has kicked God out of our schools is a myth, an exaggerated rallying cry that indicates the condition of a large segment of American Christianity today.

Perspective is everything. If we believe that there is a war on God and that it is our task to raise the flags and sound the horns, then we begin to perceive every minute occurrence (such as a ruling to cease publicly led prayer) as an act of war, and magnify and exaggerate its impact.

God hasn't been kicked out of our schools. Publicly-led prayer has been kicked out of our schools. Teaching directly from the Bible has been kicked out of our schools. Anyone who abides by and enjoys the rights of the Constitution should understand this. I'm curious to know if the people that want to see prayer and the Bible back in schools would be okay if we had publicly-led Muslim prayers. Or taught from the Koran. Or had articulate displays of Buddha or Shiva lining the hallways or waiting in the lobby for students as they enter the buildings.

My gut tells me the answer is no. My gut tells me there would be people freaking out if any one of those things happened. My gut tells me what some people are asking for is not freedom of religion, but a theocracy. God hasn't been kicked out of our schools. Our schools have simply not met our expectations of a theocratic school system. And for the record, I'm not sure if I know of a single adult who doesn't work for a church that leads his or her colleagues in public prayer, or stands up in his or her cubicle and reads passages of scripture to the rest of the office. And yet, God hasn't been kicked out of our workplaces.

But back to my point: God hasn't been kicked out of our schools. In fact, I ran into him earlier this morning in my room. A student Christian group meets there every Wednesday. They share and talk about passages of scripture. They end with prayer. They have not been arrested or questioned by authorities yet, to my knowledge.

I run into God pretty frequently at school, actually. He's there when my eyelids hang heavy after a light night of sleep and I know I have to be the first, best thing my kids see in the hallway in the morning (God help me, and them). He's there every time I'm standing outside my room to talk to a troubled student and I need grace I simply don't have on my own. He's there every time I make a mistake and my students offer me grace they don't have on their own. He's there. He's just not there in the way some of us want Him to be.

Ultimately, God hasn't been kicked out of our schools because we couldn't kick him out if we tried.

I'm reminded of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he died. As a group of men try to arrest Jesus, Peter, his disciple, drew a sword. He wanted to defend his mentor, his rabbi, his Lord. Springing into action, he swung his sword and struck a man in the ear. In response, Jesus told him to sheath the sword and, to Peter's shock, surrendered himself to the hands of his enemies.

Had Peter had his way, he would have struck down each man that had come to arrest Jesus, and Jesus never would have gone to the cross, never would have died, never would have taken on our sins and shame, and never would have conquered death. Fortunately, Jesus went through with his plan, not Peter's.

We easily forget that God is, well, God. There is no man, woman, ruling, law, or government that can hinder Him or hold Him hostage. We easily forget that God has moved most powerfully in some of the most dire and dark situations. He set the nation of  Israel into motion with Joseph, who was sold by his brothers into slavery. He raised up one of Israel's greatest leaders in the midst of genocide and slavery--Moses. In the midst of a sinful city, God found a prostitute to aid the nation of Israel. Over half of the books in the Old Testament were written during or borne out of civil war and oppression. And let's not forget Jesus, born on the run from a king looking to kill him.

In this "war on God," we have convinced ourselves that we need to fight for God when, in fact, God has no need for us to defend Him. We have spent far too much time and energy being alarmed, frightened, and agitated over events we interpret as hindrances to God and His gospel. As Peter found out, God often works in mysterious ways we can't understand. Rather than expend our time, energy, and resources defending God, I suggest we turn our focus to what He actually called us to do: defend the defenseless, free the oppressed, heal the brokenhearted, feed the hungry, provide for the needy.

Unfortunately, there is a mindset in our country that has confused Christianity with the American Dream. It has led us to believe that any perceived infringement on our "rights" is a declaration of war on our faith. It has led us to believe that we're entitled to certain rights, and that in order to maximize our impact as Christians, we must have those rights. It has led us to play victim, to cry foul, to take an us-vs.-them view of the world.

Truth be told, there is hardly anyone outside of American Christian circles who sympathizes with our "struggles." Certainly not Americans who don't consider themselves Christians--not allowing public prayer in schools doesn't seem quite the struggle when compared with racism, sexual abuse and harassment, poverty, and a laundry list of legitimate problems. And certainly, there is little sympathy from Christians in other countries around the world--they are too busy meeting in underground churches, fearing for their families' lives, or simply scratching to find any money or resources to have a place to meet at all.

In America, we have convinced ourselves that God is like water, that He seeks the path of least resistance in order to accomplish His goals. When I look at the scriptures, at history, or even at my own life, I know this isn't the way God works.

There is good news for us to remember in the wake of this most recent tragedy: Despite our best efforts, God has not been kicked out of our schools. God is not limited by our rules or laws. God is not limited by our expectations of Him.

God is moving now more than ever.


For a much more eloquent expression of a similar thought, you can read this post, "God can't be kept out," from Rachel Held Evans.

There is also this open letter to Mike Huckabee by Kimberly Burkett.

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.