The mass shooting carried out last Sunday at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs presents a deep challenge to faith in a God who is good and loving and kind. The mass shooting also presents a deep challenge to the American public to act toward a world where an atrocity like this is not the norm.
First, the theological challenge.
I've been thinking. Where was God on that Sunday morning when a small community of believers in Jesus was assaulted by the force of evil embodied in that young man in his black tactical gear brandishing a weapon designed to kill as many people as possible?
That thought took me back to May 21, 1998, which in the calendar of the church is Ascension Day. That day began in a routine fashion in my church office at Church of the Resurrection, Eugene. That changed suddenly when I heard news of a shooting at Thurston High School in neighboring Springfield. In short order I received a telephone call from a parishioner in distress. She was in the teacher's lounge at Springfield High School in Springfield, Oregon.
Debbie, a Spanish teacher, reported that her teaching partner, Faith Kinkel, was dead, shot by her own son Kip. She told me that Kip was the shooter responsible for death and mayhem at neighboring Thurston High, where he was a student. Debbie wanted me to come to be with her and the other teachers. I got in my car and drove to be with them.
Of that visit I can remember little of what I said, but I said little. The teachers were in shock, hugging one another, some numb, some weeping openly. The grief was just beginning to settle in. I walked in with my dog collar on, and I did what one can do in those situations. Mostly, I sat quietly in mourning and vigil, offering such signs of condolence as seemed welcome. I can remember without a lot of specificity one male teacher who stared at me with penetrating eyes, and I cannot be sure, but it may be that he challenged me with these words: "Where was God when all this was happening?" If he didn't actually say that, that was the message I received as he saw before him a man wearing a black clergy shirt with a white band around his neck.
I can't honestly remember what I said back to him, if I said anything at all. But I do remember that this question was resonating in my heart and demanded some kind of response.
As the news unfolded, we all found out the terrible toll of that day. At the Kinkel home, Bill Kinkel, a Spanish teacher at Thurston and Faith Kinkel, a Spanish teacher at Springfield High, were dead, shot by their own son. At Thurston High, 16-year-old Ben Walker and 17-year-old Mikeal Nicholauson were dead. 24 students were wounded. A whole community was seared with psychological and spiritual pain.
Later that afternoon I was to preach at an Ascension Day Eucharist at Eugene's Central Lutheran Church in the company of Lutheran and Episcopal clergy. You can be sure that I scrapped whatever it was that I had prepared for that day, and went to the pulpit with fear and trembling and a few scratched out notes on paper.
My message was my response to the question that came to me earlier in the day. "Where was God in all this?"
My message affirmed that God was not in the violence. God was not in the killing. God had no part in willing what happened that day.
God was that day in the actions that displayed love, concern, and active help. God was present in the teachers and school staff who sought to safeguard their students. God was present in the first-responders who risked themselves as they arrived on the scene. God was present in all those who wailed and wept and embraced one another and shed tears.
God is love. God was present wherever love was being shown that day.
Later I would hear of the example set by Kristen Kinkel, Kip's older sister, who would overcome her grief and shock and the unspeakable offense against her perpetrated by her brother to reach out to him in compassion in the midst of his suffering, demonstrate lasting support and love for Kip, who is imprisoned for life.
God does allow a world in which humanity has great freedom for good or ill. On that day in May of 1998, as on many days in many places throughout time, the evil of which humanity is capable erupted in violence and inflicted unspeakable pain and suffering.
This is a very difficult thing to accept. Some cannot accept it, and refuse to believe in anything other than blind chance and purely materialistic explanations for life as we know it. I honestly sympathize with those who cannot trust in God being good and because they find the problem of such evil too great to overcome.
It's easier for me to sympathize with them, after all, than with so-called spiritual authority figures who blithely tell us that God sends hurricanes and other disasters to punish the people they wish they had the power to punish. I don't need to tell you who these people are; they get press enough from time to time. May God have mercy on them and turn their hearts from such foolishness.
The revelation of God in the face of Jesus Christ is that of one who suffers the violence of crucifixion, after all. That crucifixion came at the hands of human beings whose hearts were closed to compassion, whose values flew in the face of Jesus' Beatitudes. God in Christ, to me, is the God who is present in the excruciatingly painful places of life, the lost places. God in Christ, as the ancient creed says, descended to the dead and preaches liberty to those held captive.
As Kristin Kinkel would go on to demonstrate, God loves even the worst sinner. She found a way to love someone whose actions devastated her life, whose actions deeply offended her and a whole community. She found life in the midst of death and laid hold of it, for the sake of her brother, in whose tortured countenance she could still apparently see the person that God loved.
Where was God that day at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs? God was in those who wept, who embraced, who rescued, who cared, who helped, who offered themselves to the grieving and the wounded. God is in the faithful remnant who this coming Sunday will meet for worship as First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, defiant against the forces of evil that invaded them.
My hope is in God, present in the pit of hell, having embraced fully the human condition out of compassion for us and having suffered a violent death at our hands.
So much for my theological ruminations. Now, for my musings on our ethical responsibility before God.
Where is God in us? Are we to be counted on to be with God in the way God is with us in suffering? Are we to be counted on to be with the suffering in justifiable anger at their suffering and with insistence that justice be done? I raise here the question of human moral agency. We are created by God with the ability to act for a better world.
Can we be counted on to raise our voices against the madness of our times, in which the slaughter of elementary school students at Sandy Hook so clearly demonstrated our national propensity to shrug our shoulders and claim to have no power in the situation?
Can we be counted on to come together in serious deliberation toward actions that stem the tide of violence, which is only growing worse and worse?
Can we be counted on to put our actions behind our voices in asking for commonsense restrictions on the availability of guns? Can we stand up to those who seek to prevent us from even studying gun violence as a threat to public health? I grew up in rural Oregon among hunters, and family members own and use guns for hunting. I'm not against that at all. But can we not object to the wide availability of guns that are based on military designs intended for rapid killing of human beings? Must we treat our interpretations of the Second Amendment to the Constitution with seemingly more reverence than we treat the New Testament's Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount?
God is patient. God is kind. God is waiting for us to exercise the moral agency God has given us.
Where is God? Our crucified God is with the outcasts, the sinners, the grieving, the offended-against, the suffering. Our God in the person of Jesus Christ stepped out into the void where humans put him, and lives to redeem us from our bondage to violence and fear.
Where are we?