“Let the little children come to me, Jesus said, and do not hinder them -- for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison. God has called them all home."
That is how President Obama closed his remarks to the family of the murdered children in Newtown, Connecticut. He read their names one by one as the evening news flashed photographs of the children. It was too much for me. It made me cry, and it made me angry. I shouted at the television, “What does God have to do with this?!”
I confess to you that I am having a difficult time with this tragedy, even though I knew none of the victims or their families personally. Perhaps it was the proximity of the shooting to Christmas. Perhaps it was the name Noah in the list, which made me think of my little grandson, who is thankfully safe and sound.
It brought back powerful memories of a triple funeral I performed in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1995. Three children of my church there were murdered in much the same fashion. A fourth child – a girl - was saved when her brother jumped in front of her and took multiple bullets. I will never forget the three open caskets in front of my church or having to physically restrain the grieving mother from climbing into the grave at the cemetery.
The Gospel of Matthew records the Epiphany story of “the slaughter of the innocents.” The visit of the Magi to the Christ child in Bethlehem was followed by a killing spree as brutal as that at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Seeking to kill the child Jesus, King Herod ordered his soldiers to murder every child in Bethlehem age two and under. Yet God warned Jesus’ family to escape to Egypt. Why did God warn only that family?
This tragedy in Newtown came on the heels of our church’s five week study of the Jewish Holocaust. There were moving presentations by eyewitnesses to the events. Many of the stories focused on the children saved and the children who were not saved. This had already got me struggling anew with the problem that theologians call theodicy: how can God allow such evil to happen to so many innocent children?
On the Sunday after the shooting I stood in the pulpit and shared my thoughts and feelings. I told the congregation that I did not have the answers. All I knew to do was to pray and grieve. After worship I had a long discussion with a friend who is a student at Fuller Theological Seminary. He had sung “Be Not Afraid” in church that morning; in my living room that afternoon we debated this age-old problem of evil and suffering.
I wish I had pulpit-worthy answers to proclaim that make sense of this terrible event. I wish I understood why these children had to die. I wish I knew why God chose not to intervene. Why did he not jam the killer’s guns, or cause his car to refuse to start, or have a police cruiser drive by the school as the killer arrived that morning? These would be such small things for Omnipotence to arrange, and they would have saved these innocent lives.
I know that pastors are supposed to have the answers. But this pastor has more questions than answers when it comes to the slaughter of innocents. For years I have studied the theological answers to this issue. To be honest, most of them make me cringe. I would never repeat any of them to anyone in grief or pain. It is better just to remain silent and suffer with them. That is the literal meaning of the word compassion.
“Suffer the little children to come unto me,” is the traditional wording of the verse quoted by the president in his address. My answer to that is “Amen.”