Religious questions from Sandy Hook: How do we make sense of this?

By Ian T. Douglas
Posted Dec 18, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] Editor’s note: This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post’s religion section.

Pulling into the filling station on my way to Newtown in the early afternoon last Friday, the woman at the gas pump next to me asked: “How do we make sense of all of this?” She was a young mother, with tears in her eyes, on her way to our local elementary school to collect her children. She noticed my clerical collar and felt free to engage me about the horror and tragedy at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

My response to the young mother’s question was that there was no way we could make sense of what had happened. No explanation or rationale could assuage our shock, pain and grief. As a religious leader, I knew that my job was not to try and make sense of what had happened. Rather my job was to be there, simply be there, with those who had lost loved ones in the terrible rampage.

And that’s exactly what the Church did last Friday — and continues to do. The rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newtown, the Rev. Kathie Adam-Shepherd, upon learning of the first shots, rushed to the Sandy Hook Elementary School. All day Friday she stayed at the Fire House up the street from the school. Kathie attended the parents who waited for the news — the news that no parent should ever hear — that they would never again see their little ones alive. Waiting, praying and caring for the shocked and bereaved is what she did. It’s what the Church does. And those of us who gathered at Trinity Church, Newtown, Friday evening were held in “the peace of God that passes all understanding” as St. Paul writes to the Philippians. That’s all we had. And that was a lot.

The second question everyone seems to be asking me as a religious leader is: “How could God let this happen?” For me, God is not some distant puppeteer controlling the strings of our lives and actions. No, God is a loving creator who continually offers us the gift of life and love. Our creator God is always with us, accompanying us in the joys and the sorrows of our daily lives. In this season of Advent, the season of waiting and preparing for Christmas, we Christians look forward to the coming of Emmanuel. Emmanuel means God-with-us.

And this God who is with us, the Christ-child, is not a God insulated from the hurt and pain of the world. No, Emmanuel is a God who knows suffering; who was born to a homeless teenage mom and whose birth was attended by barn animals and marginalized sheep tenders. This God-with-us and his parents would then become refugees in Egypt to escape the slaughter of other innocent children at the hand of King Herod. And the same God-with-us, Jesus, would die a torturous death upon the cross as a religious and political revolutionary. We Christians, however, hold onto the truth that three days later Jesus rose from the dead. When confronted with the question “How could God let this happen?” we can proclaim that God is a God who is with us, who suffers with us, and who embodies the promise and reality of new life in the face of death.

The final question is the same inquiry asked of John the Baptist, heard yesterday in the Gospel lesson for the Third Sunday in Advent. As he preached the need for repentance, those who came to John asked: “What then should we do?” What then, what now, should we do?

It is not lost on me that my home state of Connecticut has historically been one of the largest producers of firearms in the world. It was in Connecticut where the first “automatic weapons” of the 19th century were manufactured. The revolver was invented by Samuel Colt in Hartford in 1836 and the repeating rifle by Horace Smith and Daniel B. Wesson in Norwich in the early 1850s. One of our Episcopal Churches, a Colt family legacy, even has revolvers and rifles carved into the brownstone arches adorning the entryways.

It’s time that we religious leaders in Connecticut and beyond stand up, speak out and work with our political and civic leaders for significant change in our nation’s gun laws. The Children’s Defense Fund has documented that in the years 2008-2009, 5,790 children and teens were killed in the United States from gunfire. How much longer should this carnage continue? Our country is crying out for common sense gun legislation, including reinstituting the ban on assault weapons. The time is right. The time is now. “What then should we do?” We should dedicate ourselves to sensible gun control legislation so that we never again witness the horror and tragedy of the slaughter of the innocents inflicted on Newtown last week.

The Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut


Comments (6)

  1. James Shannon says:

    Please give Ian’s message the widest distribution possible as he speaks clearly to the issues surrounding this tragedy. He was on the front lines of this horror as we are no longer bystanders but a people called to action now.

  2. Vicki Gray says:

    Thank you, Ian, for being a good shepherd and for answering that “What then should we do?” by pointing the way forward and calling us to urgent action. The time is, indeed, right and, indeed, now. This is the time for the church to speak forcefully on behalf of sensible, meaningful gun control and to hold the feet of the President and Congress to the fire until it is achieved,

  3. Ron Duckworth says:

    Thank you for the beautiful and moving response to the question of “how do we respond to this?”. However, I believe what we should do is address the cause of the tragedy and work to find solutions. Mental health issues must be addressed so that those in need can find resources for treatment. Violent and dehumanizing videos and movies must be opposed by the Church. More of our resources should be focused on helping families raise their children to be healthy and loving adults.

  4. Kelly Taylor says:

    I appreciate your message, particularly addressing the why God would let this happen part. However, I do not believe that legislation of gun control would have prevented this or any other tragedy when a mentally ill person irrationally sets out to commit a horrific act. I agreet my more with Mr. Duckworth in that mental health issues, violent and repulsive media etc. deserve the bulk of our resources. Thank you again for your message.

  5. Michael Maynard says:

    I agree with Kelly Taylor. Ian Douglas’ editorial, while moving, completely misses the point. Could this nation do more to ensure firearms don’t fall into the worng hands? Of course. No rational person would argue otherwise. But gun control isn’t the answer. If it were then the thousands upon thousands of laws already on the books would have stopped the violence. In almost every mass shooting the perpetrator has been mentally unstable. This nation has refused to treat seriously those who are a danger to themselves and others, year after year taking money from mental health programs. Regardless of any “assault weapons” ban we will continue to see these horrendous acts played out until that funding is restored and the mentally ill are treated in
    the manner they should be.

    1. Fr. Ken Wissler says:

      Indeed, there is no single solution. A holistic approach is indeed needed. However, some of Mr. Maynard’s assumptions need to be addressed: 1) This shooter had no signs that he was a danger to himself or another. So even if we had the ideal approach to “mental health”, this shooter would have gone unnoticed. Furthermore, to say that the shooter was “mentally ill” is an assumption without medical basis at the moment and perhaps never. And even if he were, without an explicit act or statement of intent, current law would make intervention nearly impossible. 2) All current gun regulations are only those vetted by the NRA and the gun lobby, which has a vested economic interest in keeping firearms as deregulated as possible. Therefore such laws as do exist are so weak as to be ineffectual. 3) If guns and more guns made us safe, we ought to be the safest of all people. 4) That not all such acts can be prohibited does not absolve us from taking those actions that minimize the possibility of future acts. 5) Even the current Supreme Court in its most recent ruling has stated that “the right to bear arms” is not absolute and that states do have the authority to regulate firearms. We as a nation must no longer permit the NRA and “big gun business” set the agenda for our discourse on this subject, It’s long past time that our political leaders have the moral courage to put the safety of our weakest and most vulnerable above profit and the gun idolatry.

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