Newtown: Reflections in the Wake of a Tragedy

My son Elijah was born on September 27, 2005. This morning, Grandma Nancy, my wife’s mother, walked him to school. It’s Jammy Day in his second-grade class, and they’re planning to close out the last school day before winter recess by hanging out in their PJs and watching a movie together. Grandma is in town for Christmas, and she volunteered to walk Elijah to school.

Daniel Barden was born two days before Elijah, September 25, 2005. He had cousins who were NYC firefighters, and he wanted to grow up and become a firefighter himself. He was murdered last Friday in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and buried this past Wednesday. Over 100 firefighters showed up for Daniel’s funeral.

No more Jammy Days for Daniel. No more walks with Grandma. No more holidays. No future as a firefighter. No future at all.

Needless to say, the shootings at Sandy Hook elementary strike close to home and have made me think more than I care to about what it would mean to have one of my children gunned down like some faceless terrorist in a videogame session of Call of Duty. In the midst of the great sadness I’ve felt for the families of the victims, I’ve also felt myself hemmed in by two powerful and famous assertions about the importance of speaking or remaining silent in the face of fundamental questions. Neither of these assertions was addressed to people reacting to tragedy, but both seem to contain wisdom for a time like this. The first is Wittgenstein’s closing proposition from the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

The second is from Augustine’s Confessions:

Woe betide those who fail to speak while the chatterboxes go on saying nothing.

The claims appear to contradict one another, yet I find it more interesting to think through what it might mean for them to be rooted in a deeper compatibility. What if Wittgenstein’s proposition casts light on Augustine’s warning? That is to say, what if the only way to say something that doesn’t re-produce the nothing of the chatterbox—Wittgenstein’s “speech on a holiday” transposed into a moral key—is to remain silent in the face of grave evils about which we simply cannot speak with confidence and clarity? Speak we must, but all speech is punctuated by silence, and so Augustine’s insistence that we not fail to say something gains a certain clarity when coupled with Wittgenstein’s austerity. Still, the combined wisdom of Augustine and Wittgenstein is daunting: say something, but don’t add to the background noise that threatens to overwhelm every useful thought.

When it comes to the murders at Sandy Hook, I’ve been largely silent. Being neither an Augustine nor a Wittgenstein, I have elected to err on the side of “failing to speak,” rather than on the side of “contributing to the meaningless chatter.” At the same time, I have developed a certain respect for those who have had the courage to speak. The tragedy at Sandy Hook cries out for interpretation, as we humans are sense-making creatures. The sheer senselessness of the mayhem stands out as a bleak negation of the meaning and nature of being human. The avalanche of meaningless chatter that has ensued is lamentable in many particulars, but it surely flows from the fact that humans refuse to accept “meaningless” as an explanation. Why did 20 children die? “For no reason” is not an acceptable reply.

I have no explanation, but I do have a few thoughts about some of the commentary that has crept up in response to the shootings. I offer them here in list form, to accentuate the fact that I see them as only the tiniest and most scattered of contributions to meaningful speech in the wake of Sandy Hook, if they are even that.

  1. Understandably, many have reflected on the deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School under the rubric of the “slaughter of the innocents.” The murder of elementary-aged children has clearly struck a particularly deep nerve in this mass shooting, and many have been reminded of the passage in Matthew’s Gospel that recounts Herod’s order to kill all boys under 2 in and around Bethlehem. Yet I doubt that it’s the “innocence” of children that makes this tragedy so hard to bear. After all, the adults who were murdered were no less innocent, no more deserving of death—than the children were. I think it’s not the innocence of children but the way they uniquely represent the openness and promise of the future that makes their murders so unbearable. It was, in a word, hope that was manifested in the exuberant and expectant lives of the Daniel Bardens of Sandy Hook, and it was hope that was put to death for so many on a Friday morning in Newtown, Connecticut. Children concentrate hope, and their loss thus concentrates grief.
  2. Christian tradition has reckoned the “Holy Innocents” murdered by King Herod as the first Christian martyrs. In thinking about what happened in Sandy Hook, however, the deaths that strike me as most “Christ-like” and thus most shaped as “witnesses” to the truth of the Gospel have been those of the adult women, who voluntarily and unarmed died in the service of the most vulnerable among us.
  3. Much has been said about American gun culture in response to Sandy Hook. One of the more troubling responses has been the recommendation that we arm teachers. The logic seems to be that we will be the most safe when guns are most ubiquitous. Yet if you reverse this logic, we would be the most threatened when guns were completely absent. Of course, the truth is that we really don’t fear the total absence of guns. We fear bad people having them while we don’t. We stave off our fear of the wrong people having guns by telling ourselves that more of the right people having them is the only solution. But this goes to show that the gun culture is utterly reactive to and parasitic on the evil it seeks to oppose. Christians have a contribution to make at precisely this point: perfect love casts out fear. Being better armed is not casting out fear by embracing perfect love, but rather attempting to channel fear in one’s favor.
  4. Christians are not bearing light unto the nations when they sound pathetically contradictory and utterly conformist before the watching world. Unfortunately, an example of this sort of “hide-it-under-a-bushel” practice is ready to hand. It was given Wednesday, the same day Daniel Barden was buried, by Richard Land in an interview on NPR with Rober Siegel. When asked by Siegel, “What’s the New Testament justification for owning firearms?,” Land responded by saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Love your neighbor as yourself. If you see your neighbor being attacked, if you see your neighbor in danger, you have an obligation and a responsibility to do what you can to protect them.” Yet in response to Siegel’s next question, “Do you have an obligation to turn the other cheek?” Land replied, “I think I do personally.” Note to Richard Land: the Golden Rule is meant to extend what “you would do personally” to your neighbor! If you don’t plan violently to defend yourself personally, you should not, by the logic of the Golden Rule, want a neighbor violently to defend you.

One Response to Newtown: Reflections in the Wake of a Tragedy

  1. Some raw thoughts come to mind about Mr. Land’s answer you correctly questioned:

    Children and grandchildren have support obligations to their aged, widowed matriarchs, “”to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family,” I Timothy 5:4, which I don’t see as limited in scope. During jury selection voire dire for a criminal trial, I once answered that force might be appropriate in defense of a defenseless third party and still believe that to be valid, scripturally as well.

    For a single disciple with no family obligations, “turning the other cheek” remains an option.

    Still, Romans 13:4 suggests that a disciple might also opt to “bear the sword” as “an agent of wrath to bring punishment to the wrongdoer,” not as freelancing, independent avenger, but with deputized authority from the secular ruler. That appears consistent with how some understand America’s Second Amendment militia provision.

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