Where is God in a time of tragedy? A religious response to Sandy Hook
by Omid Safi
I have waited for a few days before exhaling, hoping that through the pain and the agony would emerge something more compassionate and more sane.
Yet there is no exhaling.
There are no words to bring any comfort to a wound that opens up from the innermost part of one’s heart. As with most, I have held my own children and kissed them often, even as I mourn along with those who can no longer hold their own loved ones.
Before I am an American, I am a parent. Before I am a person of faith, I am a parent. I no longer remember what life before my children was like. For many of us who are parents, it’s like this. This tragedy has been visceral, a cry of the heart that aches even too much to make a sound, an agony that does not let up.
No, it’s not ok, and it will not be ok. No, for the parents of these beautiful children and the loved ones of these courageous teachers, it will not be ok. These parents and loved ones are going to wake up each day, and their most loved ones are still going to be dead. It will not be ok. Out of respect for these aching souls, I will not give in to platitudes; will not try to insult their pain by saying that God has a mysterious plan, and that things will get easier with the passage of time.
I have seen faith communities who in trying to make sense of this madness keep telling us that the children have ascended to Jesus, and that they are in a better place now. As a person of faith, I stand here today weeping with you, and I say to you and to us that I do not discern God’s plan. These angelic souls have risen to God, but I cannot imagine for the life of me that this violence was God’s will.
No, this action is not God’s will, but the sign of a world gone mad, a society that has become obsessed with violence, abandoned the mentally ill, and flooded the society with killing machines. No, this is not how God would have us live. This is how we are choosing to live, and it has to stop. It has to stop now, now. It had to stop yesterday, and before yesterday.
There are those who keep searching for some meaning in the midst of this pain, and ask where God was in the midst of the shooting. I don’t see God in the deranged shooter, I don’t see God in the bloodshed, but I do see God in this courageous 27-year old Vicki Soto, who confronted the shooter, putting her own soul and her own body between the shooter and the children she loved so. May God bless her soul and sanctify her. God was in her, and with her. That was one of the moments that I could see God’s will, to see someone act out of the mandate of love and run towards danger to protect the innocent.
God was in the other teachers who ran out after they heard the first shots. Many would have thought of their own protection, and no one would have blamed them. Yet they chose differently. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is rising to do what is right through the fear. These teachers put love before fear, and that is divine. I see God in these teachers.
I see God in the children. I see God in their wounds, and I see God seeing there with them in their terrified last few seconds. The compassionate God of the cosmos is with us in the valley of death and on the mountaintop.
We are told in the Bible: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with humanity…. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. Revelation 21:3-4
And we are told in Islam that God tells us: “I am with those whose hearts is broken.” Yes, God is with these children, with these teaches, and with those who mourn them.
Ours is a God that is with the brokenhearted, with the terrified, with the marginalized, with the weak and the innocent. Ours is a God that is with us for the unimaginable suffering, and there on the other side. I will not pretend that this tragedy is God’s will, but I do know that God goes through this with us. We are never alone, never alone.
These tragedies stir out souls, and bring out the most beautiful, the most courageous and the most noble as we saw from the teachers and from the beautiful children who tried to comfort their classmates by assuring them that they knew karate and they would find a way out.
And these tragedies bring out the nastiest and the pettiest. And we have seen this side too. Sometimes the cream rises to the top, sometimes the scum.
We hear this pettiness in the callous words of the NRA and their supporters, who keep telling us in shooting after shooting that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” No, you heartless enablers of mass murder. The blood of these children is also on your hands.
Yes, guns don’t kill people, mentally deranged people with semi-automatic weapons that have no purpose other than killing who walk into classrooms of innocent six-year old children kill people. With even one less gun, there would be more parents still hugging their loved one tonight. How dare you think that your “right” to own killing machines is worth more than the right of our precious children to live?
We see the meanest and the nastiest in those that are using this tragedy to advance their own sense of culture wars. To those like Mike Huckabee who claim that these tragedies are happening because somehow God is punishing us for not having prayed in schools, I say from the depth of my wounded heart on behalf of these grieving parents and family members: Huckabee, go screw yourself. Get down on your knees, repent of this callous arrogance, and beg the parents of these children for forgiveness.
Mr. Huckabee, in all your obsession with the culture wars in this country and “taking God out of the schools”, you have reduced God to a grotesque monstrosity that most of us do not recognize. The God that we know is a loving and compassionate God, not a vengeful, needy, and petulant monster that lashes out at innocent children because He has been ignored for a while or not prayed to at the “right” place. That pathetic, pitiful, and small view of God tells us about your own meanness of spirit, and nothing about the compassionate and loving God of the whole Universe.
I urge us to keep the focus where it belongs, on the 20 beautiful children and the six courageous teachers.
Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeline, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, and Allison.
We as a nation failed you. We ask for your forgiveness. We love you, we will weep for you, and pray for you. You have names and souls. Each of you were loved, All of you are loved. Your lives matter, and you matter. We vow to keep the focus on you.
Thank you President Obama for your support and prayers. Thank you for your eloquent words, and thank you for your tears as a parent. Mr. President, we need more than your prayers. We need your leadership now. In your prayers at the interfaith gathering, you said: In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens, from law enforcement, to mental health professionals, to parents and educators, in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have? We can’t accept events like this as routine.
Mr. President, you can begin by banning all semi-automatic weapons, and allocating necessary resources for free and universal mental health. As you said, these are our neighborhoods, and these are our children. We should not be gathering to mourn our children after yet another mass shooting. Do what it takes to protect our most innocent.
To the people of Newtown, when we think of this tragedy, we will remember you. We will remember your tears, your embrace, your sobbing, your courage, your sacrifice.
In scripture we are promised that “God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” [Psalms 147:3 ] Friends of Newton, we pray for God to heal you, to bring you the comfort that we cannot, even as we vow to stand with you. Your hearts are broken, and God is with you.
“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted.” God was with your children, and with their teachers. God is with your children, and with their teachers. God is with you, and we stand with you. In nearness to you during your brokenness, we weep along with the God of the broken-hearted.
We know where God was during the tragedy. Now comes the difficult part: Where do we stand, for what cause do we stand? What do we protect: the right to bear killing machines, or our children?
Originally published on Omid Safi’s blog on Religion News Service