I finally got around to watching the two-part segment about faith and the Newtown school massacre from The Melissa Harris-Perry Show on December 22. It featured several creative and smart scholars who I’ve followed for some time, including Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, Dr. Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and Chris Stedman, assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University, whose book, Faitheist, I have written about here previously.
There was an interesting overlap between some of the religious and nonreligious perspectives that stood out to me in these conversations. In this first clip, Chris emphasized how atheists and nonreligious people turn to their community for support in times of tragedy, much like religious people do. By highlighting this, he gently dismantled that old notion that you have to have God to get through difficult times.
In the second part of the conversation, Anthea points out that the conversation we are now wrestling around in about individual gun rights misses almost entirely the value of community.
The other elements of the conversation that struck me were the typical platitudes offered by Rev. Joe Watkins (“rain falls on everybody … when you get above the clouds you see the sun is always there” … really?), and the way in which Chris pointed out a tendency for people to blame godlessness, and thus the god-less, when evil occurs. When Mike Huckabee made his idiotic statement that we’ve kicked God out of schools and that’s why evil enters in, he reveals a dangerous binary that makes room to associate atheists with evil.
Hence, in tragedies like this, we end up with God everywhere (interfaith prayer memorial, presidential sermons, priests consoling families) and nowhere (not in schools? not in the violent deaths of first-graders?) at the same time. In the first segment, Anthea mentions her response to the latter suggestions over at Religion Dispatches:
“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.”
That’s the only kind of God I can imagine being worthy of our time and attention.
The last word on this, as we move forward into the political discussion about gun control, goes to Serene Jones from the end of the show’s discussion:
“Did Jesus ever say anything about guns? No.”