I began the week of December 10 with the horrible news that one of my former students, Brandon Woodward, had been gunned down on the streets of New York City. I ended the week with even more unbelievable news: that 20 children, six teachers, and their shooter were dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Between those deaths, another shooter killed two people at an Oregon shopping mall.
There are no words for the horror parents must have felt yesterday, especially parents in Newtown. To bury a child is the worst fate imaginable. To bury anyone you love is an awful, soul-gutting task. When that death comes at the point of a gun, the last thing grieving parents and the loved ones of the deceased need to hear are clergy members and religious pundits prattling on with a false moral equivalence that goes like this: if God and guns are allowed back in our schools, tragedies like Sandy Hook will not happen again.
Who would say such a thing? For a start, the American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, Fox News’ Mike Huckabee, and David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s The Brody File. Since yesterday’s awful news, each has claimed that God’s absence from our schools and the lack of concealed gun carry permits for teachers and school administrators allowed this carnage to happen. I am sure there will be others who decide to preach sermons along this line from pulpits around the country this Sunday.
In their quest to give pat answers, these men and others once again blame tragedy on what they perceive as the absence of God in public places. In their attempt to provide a remedy, they suggest that the very tool of destruction used in this massacre—guns—be allowed into the classroom alongside God, as a deterrent (no matter that the gunman’s weapons belonged to his mother). Their logical fallacy is stunning, and reveals the absoluteness of their punitive—and puny—belief.
One of my Twitter followers, Brent Sirota, said it best: “The louder and more vituperative the theism invoked at any given social or political problem, the emptier the conservative prescription.”
If there was any moment where God must have been present, it would have been in a classroom of young children, some just five years old, who were probably praying and crying for their parents as a disturbed young man took aim at them with a gun.
The time has come to confront, without reservation and unceasingly, the type of theological evil that emerges from figures like Mike Huckabee and Bryan Fischer—who after yesterday seem little different from the Westboro hatemongers. It is not about “reaping and sowing,” David Brody. The nation reaped this whirlwind not because of God’s absence, but because of an absence of limits on the power of the NRA and its particular interpretation of the Second Amendment. That group and its ideology have become an omnipotent force that holds a gun, fixing its sights on all of us as a nation. God is not lobbying on Capitol Hill about guns. God isn’t making state laws more lenient for concealed carry. God is not selling assault rifles at gun shows without so much as a three-day waiting period.
God did not give David an AK-47 to tackle Goliath, but a slingshot.
Listen up, evangelicals and conservative Christians. You can’t say that because God isn’t in a classroom, that we as a nation have reaped what we’ve sown—and then ask for guns in schools at the same time. Those children and teachers were innocent. You can’t compare this to abortion. It’s a false equivalence. If you continue to allow these theological hacks to speak for you, or if you as clergy repeat this asinine excuse to your congregation this Advent season, you lead your people astray, and you have blood on your hands as well.
I don’t currently identify as an evangelical, but in my time at Fuller Seminary I learned some great theology from people I still respect. In one of my classes, theology professor Ray Anderson said something very simple yet very profound that I have carried with me since. Even in the most horrible moments, he said, God is present with us. God is not absent. It’s a statement that flies in the face of the kind of theology that Mike Huckabee is peddling: a presupposition that we must give homage to a god that wants fake sacrifices and piety to appease his divine wrath. What Anderson taught me is the kind of belief that can sustain people through terrible tragedies.
In times like these, I find more in common with the atheist, agnostic, and the seeker. They either don’t care for god in any shape, name or form, or have the good sense to leave god out if it.
People, mentally ill or not, are responsible for their actions. Actions have consequences. We must be willing to address the fact that as a nation we are sick. We are hopped up, angry, ready for a fight every day, and we live in an apocalyptic aura of fear that makes all of us uneasy and unstable. Our moral core, our American Exceptionalism is not about freedom—it’s about violence. We’ve anointed the Second Amendment as sacred scripture and a charter of freedom: the right to bear arms, so that we can kill. We are a vicious, violent nation. And these days it’s our violence most of all that makes us stand out.
Americans must begin to assess our humanity, and view each other as human beings, rather than target practice. Violence and promoting a violent Christian God does not solve the nation’s problems. It creates more of them.
For those like Brody, Huckabee, and Fischer who see tragedy and want to prescribe more violence and proclaim the glories of a violent, punitive God, please do us all a favor: shut up. Let us grieve these children and their teachers’ lost lives in peace. Now is not the time for your brutal apocalyptic beliefs.