Contemporary culture seems pretty confused about children. We seem to be torn between a naive sentimentality that views childhood as the very picture of Eden-like innocence and a more realistic, Freudian account that views children as unbridled id-impulses (or, virtual proof of the inheritance of original sin for those more inclined to Christian interpretation). Ironically, we may owe some of this confusion to that same Christian tradition.
Jesus is remembered to have remarked once that “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17, though Matthew 19:14 seems a bit more ambivalent about this claim).
By contrast, Paul recalls that “when I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I put away childish things” (I Corinthians 13:11).
Which is it then? Is the kingdom of God reserved for the child-like, or for those who have put away their childishness? I would like to use this ambivalent cultural and religious vision as a way to reflect upon the quasi-eulogy President Obama delivered in Tucson on January 10, 2011.
To be sure, the speech hit rhetorical high notes we haven’t heard since this president took the oath of office two years ago. And there is little doubt but that it has had the altogether salutary effect of damping down the rhetoric on both extremes of the political spectrum. Clearly, there’s no direct causal correlation between one person’s speech and another person’s act. And just as clearly, placing the 8th congressional district of Arizona in a sniper’s crosshairs on a map, or demonizing centralized government without exception and across the board, is speech designed to incite behavior in others that will almost surely become more unruly and even violent.
In this context, then, the president elevated all of us simply by elevating and depolarizing the collective discussion of these events. He was clearly moved by them, as he was moved by the spirited energy in that university field house. But the decision to deploy the image of innocent childhood at the end of that speech seemed strange then, and still seems strange now. “Suffer the little children to come to me” is fairly absurd as a default position in Tucson.
We should suffer to keep children as far away from this sort of thing as we can. Tragedy is for adults. The ancient Greeks for their part understood tragedy to be strong stuff; they didn’t leave it to children. Children never had speaking parts on the Greek stage, nor did children attend the Theater of Dionysus when tragedies were staged.
The rousing final lines of the president’s address illustrate the point. He reminded us of the cruel irony that Christina Taylor Green had recently been elected to a position in her student government and that she’d traveled to the shopping mall to see her congressional representative, Gabrielle Giffords. In other words—and this is the point I want to emphasize here—Christina Taylor Green had gone to see how adults behave politically, and to learn from their example. While I share a collective dismay and a very deep sadness in recognizing what a cruel reality she witnessed, and the terrible cost she paid for witnessing it, I’m not comfortable with the attempt to turn her into the judge, however imaginary, of the meaning of these events.
A federal judge was also a victim of this shooting, after all. US District Court Judge John Roll was 63; why not imagine him as the arbiter best suited to give voice to the political meaning of Tucson? Dorothy “Dot” Morris was 76; so was Dorwin Stoddard. Phyllis Scheck was 79. Bill Badger, the man who first wrestled Jared Lee Loughner to the ground even after he had been shot himself, was 74. Even Gifford’s assistant, Gabriel “Gabe” Zimmermann, was 30.
This was not a young crowd.
But Christina Taylor Green was young—just nine years old. And she bears additional symbolic significance for us, because she was born on September 11, 2001 (curiously, Loughner’s birthday is September 10, 1988). In the president’s own final words:
I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it. All of us, we should do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children’s expectations.
I want this country to live up to the best that’s in us too, but I want the expectations of citizens who are of voting age to matter. Children don’t do tragedy, adults do—in every sad sense of that word. A nine-year-old girl and a gravely injured member of Congress, neither of whom can speak right now, are being turned into symbols of these events; but lost in this myth-making is the enormously significant detail that two of the six victims in Tucson were men who died shielding others with their bodies. Dorwin Stoddard saved the life of his wife, Mary, who was also injured, and Gabe Zimmermann similarly saved the life of his employer and friend, Gabrielle Giffords.
“Dot” Morris’ husband, George, has spoken eloquently of the importance of living on as a custodian of his spouse’s memory; so has Mary Stoddard. These were no innocent victims, too young to take deliberate action in their own defense, as Christina was. These people, and others like Daniel Hernandez, were adults who made decisions, however instinctive, to place themselves at risk in order to protect those they loved—and even those they scarcely knew.
There is a profound heroism here, a virtue not yet available to children. It is our job to instruct them in it, and to remind them of such adult examples. So there is another address for this president yet to deliver, another difficult walk over this same, sad terrain. We have need of further reflection from the imagined perspective of responsible adulthood.
The State of the Union address will provide a timely venue for this new and more difficult way of speaking. I hope our president will rise again to that even more difficult occasion.