Tal Howard on Newtown and the Massacre of the Innocents

I have been meaning to do a post on Tal’s Anxious Bench piece every since I read it over the Christmas holiday.  It is a powerful reflection on the relationship (or lack thereof) between theology and politics in the wake of tragedy.  Here is a taste:

Depictions of the massacre vary in content and style, but a common motif shows Herod, ensconced in the arrogance of political power, on one side of the painting, separated from a throng of powerless, weeping women on the other.  Between them, one sees a jumbled scene of dead and dying babies and their obedient executioners. 

Neither the liturgy of the Holy Innocents nor artistic depictions of the theme attempt to “solve” the raw experience of tragedy–even as it is certainly to be understood as taking place within the larger Salvation Story.  Arguably, both liturgy and art intensify the feeling of anguish. They call a spade a spade: “Look hard,” they say, “at the dead children; this is unimaginable, gut-wrenching sorrow.”  But in doing so, they make us realize that there are regions of human experience that transcend the political, the practical—regions that cannot be fixed, and only beckon, plaintively and even angrily, for a theological response.  They escort us from the op-ed realm of the remediable to the numinous realm of the why. 

Remedies and political solutions of all sorts, of course, should be sought out after events like the Newtown shooting.  As seekers of Shalom, Christians should be at the very forefront in proposing them.  But we should also remember that our humanity is compromised when we ignore or subsume the theological into the political alone.  The Feast of Holy Innocents and artistic renderings of the theme provide a supra-political “space” for us to ponder—simply ponder—unspeakable sorrow and our most vexing questions.  They do so most compellingly when they are faithful to the biblical text, as when the Gospel of Matthew reaches back to the book of Jeremiah, and offers us only these sparse, disconsolate words:

A voice was heard in Ramah

Wailing and loud lamentation

Rachel weeping for her children;

She refused to be consoled,

Because they were no more.

Chris Gehrz on Historians and Moral Reflection

How do historians confront the problem of evil?  Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz wonders how historians should approach the tragic events of December 14, 2012 in the Connecticut town of Newtown and the “Massacre of the Innocents” that took place in the wake of Christ’s birth.

As I do in my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, Fall 2013), Gehrz draws upon Peter Hoffer’s helpful essay on the problem of evil in The Historian’s Paradox: The Study of History in Our Time. He also draws upon Tracy McKenzie’s recent presidential address at the Conference on Faith and History, particularly his suggestion that historians should be engaging in moral criticism.

I am not as optimistic as McKenzie and Gerhz when it comes to Christian historians engaging in moral judgment, but I do not think it should be removed from the historian’s toolbox.  See some of my thoughts on this subject:

What is the Moral Responsibility of the Historian?

Should Historians Cast Judgment on the Past? 

Thinking Historically With Pro-Slavery Documents

Or just read Gehrz’s excellent post at The Pietist Schoolman

Saul Cornell on the Second Amendment

Saul Cornell is the Paul and Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University and the author of A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.

In Wednesday’s New York Daily News he published an op-ed entitled “The Second Amendment You Don’t Know.”  He argues that the founders’ original intent in passing the second amendment was “as much about regulating firearm possession as enabling it.”  Here is a taste:

In 2008, a closely divided Supreme Court abandoned more than 70 years of precedent and for the first time in American history affirmed that the Second Amendment is about a right to have a handgun in the home for self-defense. Lost in most of the commentary then and now is that this is almost the exactly opposite of what James Madison, the primary architect of the amendment, intended, and is hard to reconcile with the way most ordinary Americans would have read it in 1791. 

In 1776, most of the original state constitutions did not even include an arms-bearing provision. The few states that did usually also included a clause protecting the right not to bear arms. Why? Because, in contrast to other cherished rights such as freedom of speech or religion, the state could not compel you to speak or pray. It could force you to bear arms. 

The founders had a simple reason for curbing this right: Quakers and other religious pacifists were opposed to bearing arms, and wished to be exempt from an obligation that could be made incumbent on all male citizens at the time. 

Saul Cornell

When the Second Amendment is discussed today, we tend to think of those “militias” as just a bunch of ordinary guys with guns, empowering themselves to resist authority when and if necessary. Nothing could be further from the founders’ vision. 

Militias were tightly controlled organizations legally defined and regulated by the individual colonies before the Revolution and, after independence, by the individual states. Militia laws ran on for pages and were some of the lengthiest pieces of legislation in the statute books. States kept track of who had guns, had the right to inspect them in private homes and could fine citizens for failing to report to a muster. 

These laws also defined what type of guns you had to buy — a form of taxation levied on individual households. Yes, long before Obamacare, the state made you buy something, even if you did not want to purchase it. (The guns required by law were muskets, not pistols. The only exceptions to this general rule were the horsemen’s pistols that dragoons and other mounted units needed.) 

The founders had a word for a bunch of farmers marching with guns without government sanction: a mob. One of the reasons we have a Constitution is the founders were worried about the danger posed by individuals acting like a militia without legal authority. This was precisely what happened during Shays’ Rebellion, an insurrection in western Massachusetts that persuaded many Americans that we needed a stronger central government to avert anarchy.

Many people think that we have the Second Amendment so that we can take up arms against the government if it overreaches its authority. If that interpretation were correct, it would mean that the Second Amendment had repealed the Constitution’s treason clause, which defines this crime as taking up arms against the government. In reality, in the first decade after the Constitution, the government put down several rebellions similar to Shays – and nobody claimed that they were merely asserting their Second Amendment rights.

Cornell also discusses the Second Amendment in this article in Dissent.

A Christian Conservative on the "Callous" Theology of James Dobson

Last week Peter Wehner rebuked Mike Huckabee.  This week he takes on James Dobson.  A taste:

Some Christian conservatives seemingly cannot help themselves.  They have to try to find some deep theological explanation for the evil we witness in places like Newtown, Connecticut.  But often in doing so, they injure the very faith they seek to represent.  
The latest example is by Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who, in speaking about the events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, said this:

I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me, and we have killed fifty-four million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition.  Believe me, that is going to have consequences too.

And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us.  I think that’s what’s going on.

Let’s see if we can untangle some of this, beginning with this observation: In the New Testament, suffering and death are more often evidence of obedience than disobedience to God.  When the Lord told Ananias to go to Straight Street and place his hands on Saul (later Paul) to restore Saul’s sight, the Lord said to Ananias, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”  The two most important figures in Christianity – Jesus and St. Paul – died violent deaths (according to Christian tradition, Paul was beheaded by the Romans).  So the effort to create a cause-and-effect – in this case, turning your back on God leads to mass shootings and violent death – is itself theologically misguided.

The workings of God in the midst of tragedy cannot be reduced to a simplistic moral mathematics in which sin yields to disaster, in part because America is not a covenant community on the model of ancient Israel. The community of faith is found in every nation.  Believers share the blessings and tragedies of their neighbors. Rather than declaring the suffering of their neighbors to be deserved, they should work and pray for the common good.

And this:

Now, assume you were a parent of one of the children who was gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School and you heard a well-known Christian figure like Dobson declare that the worst thing you could possibly conceive of – the murder of your first-grade daughter — was a result of the wrath of God.  If you believed this, it would only add to your grief.  And if you didn’t believe it, it would only add to your anger.  And what would Dobson say to the father of the boy who had just dedicated his young life to the Lord?  Why was he the target of God’s judgment?  Because Washington State passed a same-sex marriage initiative?

Read the rest here.  It may be time for Dobson to call it a day.

Ross Douthat on Newtown

In case you haven’t read it yet.  Here is a taste:

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, Ivan is the Karamazov brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, killed — babes caught on the points of soldiers’ bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of 5 locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.
Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God — a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.
“Can you understand,” he asks his more religious sibling, “why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? … Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?”
Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at “too high a price.” Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth “the tears of that one tortured child.”
It’s telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his character’s speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in “The Brothers Karamazov” is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness.
In this, the Russian novelist was being true to the spirit of the New Testament, which likewise seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.
In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.
In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now. 
Read the entire piece here.

Pastor-in-Chief

Stephen Prothero discusses Obama’s Newtown speech.  Here is a taste:

Obama began by quoting from the second letter of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians:

Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away … inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands (2 Corinthians 4:16-5:1).

He then reminded us that, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once put it, we are all “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” The tragedy that visited Sandy Hook Elementary School could have been visited on any school in any town in America, Obama said. So Newtown’s grief is not its alone: “All across this land of ours, we have wept with you.”

As a pastor among pastors at Sunday’s interfaith event, Obama spoke of sadness and comfort and evil and inspiration. As a parent among parents, he referred to “caring for our children” as “our first task” as a nation.

Presidents are often tasked with posing difficult questions about foreign or domestic policy. In this speech, Obama asked philosophical and theological questions instead: “Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose?” He then spoke, as Lincoln did at Gettysburg, about moving through the darkness, without easy answers, “often unable to discern God’s heavenly plans.”

In his famous hymn to love in his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul wrote that “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). For me, the most surprising turn in Obama’s speech came when our president did the same.
“Love” is not a word that typically comes flowing off the tongues of our chief executives. But on Sunday, Obama spoke of love nearly a dozen times. In an uncertain world, he said, love is the “one thing we can be sure of.”

Watch the speech:

http://www.wtnh.com/video_player/swf/EndPlayVideoPlayer_v1_4_FP10_2.swf?v=101712_0