The Common Good

Forgetting the Children of Sandy Hook: How We’ve Become the Friends of Job

*If you have not read the Book of Job, this pastor recommends it as a must-read during this time of national crisis. There is much to digest; it requires no theological confession (only a sincere concern for humanity); and it reminds us of how little we know, how much we speak.*

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
A photo of Caroline Previdi, one of the Newtown shooting victims. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

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The Book of Job provides a helpful but not fully welcome commentary on how we might read and understand the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Because that’s what we want right? Understanding? Things happen and we want to know WHY, so as to file them in our Rolodex of infinite human wisdom. Except … Job could do nothing to prevent the tragedies that befell him, and as he sat in the silence of his grief – having just lost his 10 children, his possessions, and his health – all he had was his three friends who came to sit with him. Except … sitting was not enough for them. They had to talk. They had to explain WHY this happened to Job. And in the process they forgot about Job. 

Tragedies are always the occasion for extraordinary public debate: New Orleans moved from the victims to the state of FEMA in 2005; Columbine rushed us from victims to gun control; and Darfur moved from victims to foreign policy, as does Israeli-Palestinian conversation today push us away from the exiles themselves. Newtown, Conn., is no different, where a major cable news outlet was waiting in the parking lot to talk to children (not care for children, but talk to them about what was going on inside, focusing on their eyes and ears, but not their hearts). As if a 6 year old can wax eloquent on the horror they’ve witnessed. Sensationally irresponsible: some of the worst journalistic ethics I’ve seen in … well … let’s not go there.

Meanwhile, proponents of gun control have been immediate in their spam email campaigns and political bolstering, almost as if this tragedy was the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. The death of 20 children has become the “perfect opportunity” to talk about assault rifles and how the state grants access to guns, as if humans have not been taking their pain out on one another for thousands of years WITHOUT guns. No, you have turned the children into items of your political agenda. And we cannot care for children when they are spearheading our political agenda. 

In tragedy, I have learned that it is always at the moment we begin to talk that the people who need our care the most are forgotten. In other words, I fear we have become the friends of Job, trying to explain away and advocate without fully caring for the man in sackcloth and ashes. 

What the friends were supposed to do was sit with Job, give him the space to speak (or not), embrace him, and remind him that there is still love in this world – that light is yet penetrating this thick darkness. Instead of providing this unique perspective in this moment of national grief, one pastor in Chicago laid 20 children on the altar during worship to make an argument about gun control. What matters most here?

We are trying to figure out WHY – a basic, human urge – and the result thus far has been a harvest of irresponsible, manipulative, and nauseating rhetoric, directed at everyone but the children. We can never know why, but we can know that God is sovereign, and that love always prevails. I know that’s not the answer to, “How could this happen?” but it is the beginning of, “Where do we go from here?” Our children do not serve our purpose: we serve them. (Matthew 18; Deuteronomy 10). 

No, the most important conversation we can have is, “How can we do better at loving our children? If nothing changed about our world, how would each of us love better? This moment reminds us of the fragility of life – how every moment requires our greatest effort. How then do we assess our own efforts as ministers and congregations at creating the kind of world where Adam Lanza could exist in beloved community? How many congregations sorely need to improve their ministries to adolescents, and how many emerging adults seek solace in faith and community? You’ve seen the statistics on church participation among the millennials: what have we done to create this environment? How do we reach out to lonely, alienated youth who live within the margins of society? How are WE the Church creating the services that are needed in zones of crisis to help individuals and entire communities process the trauma they’ve experienced? What is true about the Christian gospel that we can share to prevent young people in trauma from becoming adults in trauma – the fertile ground for genocides of this caliber?

These are the questions faithful people must begin with. Maybe then, we talk about gun control. And maybe we’ll also talk about the state of mental health care in this country as well, since a sick man has done this.

There are plenty of questions and more debates to come. Now is not the time for lobbying and sensational interviews. Now is the time to pause, to embrace the Jobs of this world and be a true friend. It is time for us to shut up and sit. And when we begin pointing the finger, begin with ourselves. 

I applaud the President for his urging us of the need to love one another during this time. If we cannot first cross this threshold, what we do about guns will mean nothing. It is a hard word in a world that sorely needs justice, but we must never forget to love the people we fight for. This is how they keep their dignity, and those children are losing it right now. We have become the friends of Job. We must do better. 

Julian DeShazier has served as the Senior Minister of University Church in Chicago. A native of the city, he graduated from Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Prior to his current position, Julian served as Teen Pastor at Covenant United Church of Christ, and has also worked with the Coca-Cola Leadership Program and Fund for Theological Education. He is also an award-winning musician and songwriter, known to many as “J.Kwest.”

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