I haven’t written anything about yesterday’s horrendous events in Newtown, Connecticut because a number of writers with far more skill and wisdom than I continue to produce outstanding, thoughtful, compassionate commentary that I think will be invaluable in guiding our citizens as we grieve. As a general rule, I try not to write an opinion piece unless I think I have something original to add to the dialogue. Sometimes, however, when someone says something egregiously stupid, dangerous, or damaging, I feel compelled to respond.
Thanks to Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the despicable American Family Association (the public policy arm of the notorious hate group Focus on the Family), I now have something to say.
Fischer used a little of his broadcast time after the massacre in Connecticut to address the fundamental theological question of theodicy – how do we reconcile the presence of evil with the power of a benevolent God? There’s nothing wrong with that. Religious leaders all over the country will be doing the same. As evidenced by the number of possible answers theologians and philosophers have offered to this question, any honest Christian approach to the topic must begin and end with the limits of human knowledge and experience. We don’t know why there is evil in the world.
We don’t know why there is evil in the world. Anyone who offers any other answer as final and absolute is, quite simply, a liar and a charlatan. Christianity is not about explaining the existence of evil, it is about proclaiming the gracious good news that God is present with us despite the horrifying and sometimes-overwhelming presence of malice, selfishness, violence, and destruction in the world. Any member of the clergy who answers the question “Why did this child die?” with any answer besides, “I don’t know” should find a new line of work, preferably one where they are never again allowed to talk to people.
Which brings us to Bryan Fischer. In offering his answer to the question “Where was God when all this went down?” Fischer offered the following:
“Here’s the bottom line. God is not going to go where He is not wanted. Now we have spent since 1962, we’re fifty years into this now, we have spent fifty years telling God to get lost, telling God we do not want You in our schools, we don’t want to pray to you in our schools…in 1962 we kicked prayer out of the schools, in 1963 we kicked the Word of God out of the schools…we’ve kicked God out of our public school system. And I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children but you gotta invite me into your world first. I am not going to go where I am not wanted. I am a gentleman.‘”
So where to begin? Let’s start here – any god who needs a request before he or she will intervene to prevent the massacre of children is not worth worshiping. If that is genuinely the way the world works, I would rather be damned to Hell along with all those who believe in compassion and empathy than fawn in Heaven alongside those comfortable bowing before an egomaniacal sociopath, no matter how “divine.” I don’t know for which god Fischer presumes to speak, but it is not the Christian one. Jesus, when asked about a massacre, clearly says in Luke 13 that death by violence or disaster is not a consequence of sin or rebellion.
Fischer has apparently confused God with the vampires of movies and television, who cannot enter a home unless invited. (I like Vampire Diaries a lot, but Fischer of all people should look elsewhere for his theological guidance.) For just a moment, though, let us assume that this absurd claim makes sense. God – like Dracula or Caroline Forbes – needs an invitation.
With that bizarre rule in mind, I am willing to bet that when the deranged mass-murderer opened fire, someone in that school said a prayer to God for help. What an opportunity for Fischer’s “gentlemanly” God. A school full of young, impressionable “atheists” have finally invited Him in – at their time of dire need. What a great opportunity for an act of divine intervention, one that would almost certainly convert all of those pitiable “atheists” into true believers. One tiny answer to a whispered invitation, and God suddenly wins over hundreds of previously-unreachable “non-believers” and “heretics” who had previously denied Him access. If Fischer is right, God was just waiting for a word that almost certainly came. In Fischer’s bizarre scheme of arbitrary restrictions on God, this was the perfect time for a miracle.
As we know, whatever miracles took place that day, dozens of young lives were still lost, and God (the real one, not Fischer’s) stood weeping alongside the grieving parents and teachers.
Perhaps, though, what Fischer wanted to imply was that – by taking prayer and Christian Bible readings out of public schools – we have removed the influence that would have kept a troubled man from turning into a homicidal maniac. This claim is almost as stupid as the one Fischer explicitly stated. If you need state-sponsored, institutional prayers to be told not to shoot a child – your problem is not a lack of religious influence, your problem is that you are a sociopath in need of mental health care.
This is painfully obvious to anyone who has stopped to think about this tragedy, yet common sense and common decency have never been barriers to the AFA, Fischer, and those of their ilk pushing their anti-social agenda. The things they believe are so ridiculous that the only way they can persuade impressionable people to agree with them is to convince the general public that groups like the AFA are speaking for God. This means they have to use every opportunity to impose a kind of mindless, irrational pseudo-piety on the general public when people are at their most vulnerable. Fischer’s comments are one more pathetic attempt to reach out from the outer darkness of irrelevance where his hate speech belongs and grasp at any opportunity to sway a few people to his agenda.
Mr. Fischer, since you felt so comfortable speaking for God, I feel compelled to do the same. For fifteen years now I have been entrusted with the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church and the obligation to proclaim the gospel. With all the authority of that call and ordination, let me say very clearly, “You, Bryan Fischer, are a fucking idiot! You do not speak for God. You do not speak for the Church. You do not speak for Christianity or Christians. You have proclaimed a false gospel of ignorance and hate. If you wish to continue to teach in the name of this cruel, capricious god – please have the integrity to admit that it is not the God who – incarnate in Jesus – “died for us while we were yet sinners.”
For those of you who came here for more than an excoriation of Bryan Fischer’s heinous heresy – perhaps looking for something to make sense of the tragedy in Connecticut – I hope I provided ample warning early on that I do not have that to offer. Christianity does not have all the answers, we are just an extended and diverse family of people united in seeking meaning in the ancient teachings of Judaism and the Early Church. We have come up with many possible explanations for the presence of evil, but on some level they all eventually fall apart.
Where they all collapse is at the foot of the cross, a place that is simultaneously the triumphant cornerstone and the greatest shame of our faith. Ours is not a religion of a thundering god crashing through the world magically repairing all the brokenness of our lives. Ours is a faith built on a God who – seeing the pain, fear, and grief inherent in the human condition – joined us on our journey, even though it ultimately meant torture and murder at the hands of the forces of greed and selfishness.
The message of the cross is that the miracle of God is not in saving our lives, the miracle of God is in the purity of a Creator’s love that is so powerful that God is willing to step down from the luxuries of Heaven and take on our suffering. God did not save the lives of those children because – for whatever reason – the Universe does not work that way. According to our Scriptures, Jesus begged God, his Father, to save him from being murdered – and God did not do that either.
It sucks. It makes no sense. And it causes us all to question why we should bother worshiping such a God in the first place. If you are looking for a God like Fischer’s, one who can be propitiated to intervene violently in mortal affairs, I recommend Durga. For better or for worse, the God of Christianity does not consistently act in such a fashion.
Unlike Fischer, I do believe God was present at Sandy Hook Elementary, and that God acted. I believe that the presence of a God who understands heroism in the face of suffering inspired teachers to risk their lives for their pupils. I believe that a God who was vulnerable and broken at the hands of vicious killers was there for every excruciating second of that horrible time, and that each one of those children entered into eternity gently cradled in the arms of a loving God who understood what they had endured.
Perhaps that’s not enough. In the days to come, some of us in our grief and anger will turn away from a God who would not or could not intervene to save the lives of those children. Others will turn to other faiths or philosophies for answers. I don’t think God will begrudge us that, after all God knows what it’s like to be forsaken.
And so, for those of you hoping that I could replace an insipid and shameful answer to the “Why?” question with a useful and theologically sound one, I cannot. I cannot even promise you that if you pray and study and give every second of your life to God you will be spared the grief of another tragedy like this one. I can only offer you what I have been given, what I believe, that there is more to this world than what we can see and touch, and that beyond the boundaries of our senses is a loving Creator who connects us to each other and to that world of greater meaning in ways that ultimately inspire more questions than answers.
When we seek that Creator, we are seeking to be more than we can be as individuals. We are seeking to be greater than our limitations, stronger than our brokenness, and more powerful than our flaws and vulnerabilities. We are seeking to stand in the face of evil, not in the hopes of easy victory, but in the certain confidence that – even in our most shocking defeats – love, compassion, and grace will ultimately triumph.
We have seen some of that in the aftermath of Newtown, and more examples will certainly be forthcoming as people respond to the acts of one man at his worst by showing what humanity can be at our best. Even as we join our tears to God’s in memory of those we have lost too soon and too horribly, perhaps we can also see some glimpse of the miracle of a God who knows our struggle and draws us into a people who refuse to be overcome by evil, but who instead will – every time – overcome evil with good.