Why did Newtown happen? Making meaning from tragedy

Why did those children in Newtown have to die? The question is as meaningless as it is natural. Photo: Associated Press

NATCHITOCHES, La., December 16, 2012 — In the wake of the Newtown shootings, some people are demanding stricter gun laws, some are asking how such a thing could have happened, and others simply wonder why. It’s human nature to look for meaning in chaos and to do something – anything – in tragedy’s wake, so none of these responses is surprising or deserving of disparagement.

I’d suggest, though, that for Christians to search for meaning in tragedy runs counter to some fundamental elements of Judeo-Christian thought. Consider Job.

Job appears to be a composite text. The prologue was added on, as was the epilog. The crux of the story is the response of Job and his friends to Job’s “misfortunes” (a paper cut is a misfortune; what happens to Job is better characterized as an obscene joke). They seek meaning and purpose. They want to know why Job suffers.

At the climax to the story, God Himself appears in a whirlwind. The answer he gives Job and his friends boils down to this: I am God and you’re not. The creation has no right to expect an answer from its creator, who can exalt or smash it as he pleases.

Nowhere in Christian theology is it required that our suffering have purpose. We wish it to be so, we look for silver linings. We talk of children called home to God, ignoring the fact that millions of other children are left to suffer here in poverty and ignorance. Does God love some children more than others? We talk of God’s “plan,” and assert that all that happens is part of a greater good. Well then, is God so incompetent a creator that He can’t bring to pass His greater good without watching 20 children be slaughtered in Connecticut, or millions be slaughtered in Rwanda, Germany and China?

Does God enjoy our sufferings, does He not know how to stop them, or is He just indifferent?

Evil is, and there’s no explanation for it. To attribute it in any way to God, especially as a part of a plan, is to leave God accused of indifference, incompetence or malice. Christianity has no answer to the problem of suffering in the world that isn’t ad hoc, irrational, or that doesn’t make appeal to “mystery.” If we care about evil and suffering, then, we should look down here on earth for both causes and solutions.

In the wake of a tragedy, we want to fight evil – fight gun ownership, fight hatred, fight we-don’t-know-what-but-there-ought-to-be-a-law. Or we want simply to trust in God.

Better than fighting evil or sitting on our hands is doing good. There are no laws that will make men good, and no laws that will prevent suffering far greater than is being felt now in Connecticut. There’s nothing wrong with being human and wanting to fight evil, but neither is that the most useful thing we can do. I don’t know how to ensure that no child is ever abused, but I can make very sure that I don’t abuse my own and make sure that they know I love them. All the laws in the world won’t stop another young man like the Newtown shooter from slaughtering innocents, but we can do a great deal to be neighbors to all around us, to treat each other with love and compassion, to build up those around us and not destroy them.

Will that fix what happened in Newtown or what’s happening in other anonymous places all over the world? No, but it makes the world a little better. Whether we believe in God or not, whether we blame Him for what happened in Newtown or turn to Him for comfort, or whether we ignore Him as a factor at all, our response should be the same: Love our neighbors, serve our fellow beings, and help each other be brave in the face of a world that can rain down sorrow on any of us in an instant.

I love my wife and children. I know I can lose them tomorrow in a spasm of violence or an indifferent shrug of the universe. That’s not a reason to fall into fear and try to ring us round with fortifications. It’s a reason to treat them as well as I can now, and build memories, give up fear, and learn to walk through life with them by my side or without them. My wife and children don’t belong to me, nor does my house or my wealth or my job or my health. I can lose any of them at any time. Tomorrow will bring what it brings; we must learn to treasure today.

Wealth, position and family are all external to us; they aren’t ours, they shape us and give us purpose, but they don’t give our lives meaning. United in service and in love of neighbor, we still can’t erase the grief from the hearts of parents who have lost children – and that grief can be found in millions of hearts, not just those in Newtown. We can, however, give it the only meaning we’ll find in this world. In so doing, we’ll give meaning to our own lives. It may be the only meaning our lives can ever have.  


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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