Monday, October 27, 2014

My two theological reactions about the shooting tragedy at Marysville-Pilchuck High School

I used to live in Marysville, Washington and led a church youth group there.  Knowing the town and the school makes the pain of this horrific, yet sadly familiar, event a bit sharper.  It is difficult to not feel overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness when atrocities like this occur, especially when they happen in a community you know well.  We seek for answers to try to ameliorate the angst and keep the encroaching hopelessness at bay.  In this sense we are like the characters in the biblical book of Job (an allegorical drama about the national tragedy that had befallen the nation of Judah during the Babylonian conquest and exile).  Job and his companions wrestle with the question of why horrible and seemingly random things happen to good people.  By the end of the tale, after all the discussion and rumination (and an awe-inspiring appearance by God), the question remains unanswered.  There is no easy answer. 

After the media and the public-at-large moves on to the next tragedy, many people in Marysville, Smokey Point, Arlington and the adjacent Tulalip tribal land will continue to suffer for years to come--if not for the rest of their lives--and unanswered questions will linger in the air like ghosts.

As part of my own processing of this awful event, I want to offer two theological reactions which apply to this shooting and to other similar tragedies.

1.  This was not God's will.  This is not part of God's plan.  The theological view that God is utterly sovereign and that everything occurs according to God's predetermined plan proves to be not only insufficient in the face of a tragedy such as this but also grossly mischaracterizes God.  God is not the author of evil and horror and this event was certainly evil and horrible.  What happened to these teens was not pre-scripted before the beginning of time by a distant and immutable deity.  Rather, God is near--journeying with us and closer than our own breath, feeling the sorrow we feel (with infinitely greater intensity).  God is present and calls to us and woos us and tugs us towards God's good and loving and life-giving and beautiful intentions for a future that is open with possibilities.  In the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians call the "Old Testament") the word used over and over to describe God's nature is chesed--which means "loving-kindness."  The Gospel of John states simply, "God is love."  God is continuously nudging us towards shalom (peace, well-being).  But, like any relationship based on love, it is a cooperative venture.  We have a modicum of truly free will (moderated, of course, by factors such as our history and past choices, our socio-economic position, the wounds others have inflicted upon us, etc.).  We have the opportunity, continuously, to respond to God, in big ways and small.  In this way, the trajectory of our lives gradually unfolds.  But that trajectory can be changed--for better or worse--through our choices and the choices of others.  At the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses challenges the gathered Israelites: "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live..."  Young Jaylen Fryberg made a series of choices which culminated in his aiming a handgun and pulling the trigger--at least six times.  God did not do this.  An angry young man with access to a handgun did.

2.  I pray for the survivors--for the parents and the family members and the friends and the students and the teachers and the entire community affected by this.  But merely praying is not enough.  As James, the brother of Jesus, wrote, "Faith without action is dead. ... Show me your faith without actions, and I will show you my faith by what I do."  If we pray (and we should) for those affected by this tragedy, but we do nothing practical to prevent further tragedies like it, then we are deluding ourselves.  As long as we refuse to implement sane gun control legislation in our communities and nation, we will continue to see innocent people cut down--sacrifices laid on the altar to our idols of selfishness and paranoia.  The free will given us by God comes with an obligation to take responsibility.  And so, we should pray.  But we must also remember those words spoken by God through Moses: "I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live..."  What will we choose?


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