The God Who Shows Up When God Disappears: Newtown, CT

The God Who Shows Up When God Disappears: Newtown, CT December 17, 2012

The courage to take the anxiety of meaninglessness upon oneself is the boundary line up to which the courage to be can go. Beyond it is mere non-being. Within it all forms of courage are re-established in the power of the God above the God of theism. The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt. — Paul Tillich, “The Courage to Be”

Friday morning I was getting my thoughts together to write a Femmevangelical blog about the God in our minds — the one we picture when we pray, the image we conjure up when we think about God in action or God watching and listening to us. For many of us, God started as a simplistic idea that may have taken root when we were little kids in Sunday school and pictured a great old man with a long white beard, part aggressive lightening bolt wielder and part big, soft cloud hug in a robe. I had lain awake the night before considering my own life-long journey of imagining God, and the dramatic ways God had morphed in my head over time, mercifully maturing and expanding as I did. Sometimes the transitions were painful and I struggled against them, holding on to my comfort zone and considering every other concept of God to be wrong, even as something greater than me gently tugged me along. Other times, I begged to have another iteration revealed to me, horrified by what I heard, saw, experienced or realized while brushing up against God’s representations and permutations.

Then the breaking news came on CNN that there had been a shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. Throughout the day I followed the story, and cried much of the weekend as more terrifying, heartbreaking details were revealed and the death toll rose to 6 adults and 20 children under the age of 7. People from media anchors to politicians to community leaders to social media networks were understandably asking, how did this happen? and why did this happen? Those who contemplated the event through some form of religious lens put these unanswerable questions in terms of God: where was God? and why did God let this happen? Answers ranged from wrote to dodge, from comforting to finger-pointing. I realized that the sleep I lost Thursday night was not in vain; our image of God, who God is, what God does, our concepts of what God “wants” and even who God protects or sacrifices is in serious need of discussion.

Is this the guy in the sky? This is how Michelangelo envisioned God.


Fox News asked politician and evangelical personality Mike Huckabee “why did God let this happen?” The first problem is that the anchor’s question assumes God allowed twenty 6-and-7-year olds to be shot and killed, along with 6 caring and heroic teachers and administrators. This belies an image of God held in the mind of the questioner that either pre-determines or at least glimpses what happens with human beings before hand, and then just watches it like a TV show with the potential to step in, yet is not always inclined to do so, depending on … something none of us can quite get. This presumably stems from stories of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament, in which the Israelites, a wandering, vulnerable people, attributed the moments they were spared destruction to a God who steps in and defends them, but also attributed many disasters to God turning his face away from them in disgust when even just one person among thousands did not obey him. God is a powerful, moody man-god who considers Israel and Jerusalem his beloved wife, expressed by turns with gooey romantic adoration and raising a hand to angrily strike her,  smite her to her death. These are oral traditions of a group of people who at the time desperately tried to understand their tenuous circumstances in an ancient world that was deeply oppressive, violent, unpredictable, devastatingly painful and confusing, and also not very respectful of women. So of course, God was those things too. People lived at subsistence and so also thought that way; they were not educated nor were they often in control of their own destiny to any extent. But biblical fundamentalists carry this almost superstitious image of God forward into the 21st century, and God remains petulant, retributive, and prone to sacrifice men, women, children, even animals to his anger.

Huckabee answered in lock step:

We ask why there’s violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage? …

Maybe we ought to let (God) in on the front end and we wouldn’t have to call him to show up when it’s all said and done at the back end.

I take issue with politicians, religious leaders and commentators who point fingers of blame at school systems, the policy of freedom of religion, and people of other faiths or beliefs for senseless tragedies and inexplicable incidents of terror. To then furthermore try to make people feel guilty and wrong for calling on God in a time of great sorrow and upheaval is a mean-spirited and irresponsible way to use authority and notoriety. Remarks like Mike Huckabee’s implicitly insist that people who do not adhere to his personal evangelical Christian religious doctrine, and who resist religious coercion in public spaces meant to elevate and educate all citizens, have incited the wrath of God and/or paved the way for mass murder across our country and in our schools.

The fact is, God has never been removed from our schools, the schools have simply been opened up to make room for God as known and imagined by students, teachers and administrators of all types, backgrounds, religious beliefs and faiths. So God is very much present in schools, residing in the hearts and actions of all these various people. When Huckabee bellows that God has been taken from our schools he forgets where God actually lives — within people — and when thousands of Christians take to Facebook and Twitter to echo him, they are essentially saying that Christian doctrine as interpreted and expressed by a very specific group of people is no longer being forced upon everyone else in public schools. But actually, public school students are allowed to express their religion (i.e., wearing cross jewelry, having their own religious books to read at break periods, or talking about it among their friends), pray alone or in like-minded groups, have religious student groups, and have even been allowed to use signage with Bible verses around campus and on football fields. The key is, so can others express themselves, without the public school sanctioning or enforcing one over the other. This not only evens the learning environment, but helps students learn respect and love for differences and how to practice and hold their own confidently amongst them, which they will face in the world after school.

The divisive, blaming rhetoric took off like a wildfire across the Internet. I read posts on networks that made my stomach churn. My partner, who is Jewish, endured posts of friends and friends of friends who said Jesus wouldn’t show up in schools where he wasn’t welcomed, and therefore we should all expect bad things to happen, as if it were the fault of everyone who was raised in a different tradition that a mentally ill man took his mother’s legal weapons into a school and started shooting. I had to say something. Before we left for dinner Friday night, I quickly pecked out my gut thoughts and posted them onto Facebook:

In my role as a Christian minister, I have to speak up about the lie politicians and others are putting forth, that the CT shooting happened because “God has been removed from our schools.” This is a dangerous, irresponsible, and and theologically immature statement. God is not found in the rules or activities sanctioned by a school, or the doctrines that make that an issue. God is in the hearts of human beings, children included. And praying to God will not in fact avert the tragedies of our world…we’ve all seen/experienced that tragedy happens inexplicably. God does not “allow” things to happen because we do not adhere to human-concocted doctrine and superstition. Where is God? God is grieving with us. But God is not smiting children because of the separation of church and state.

We went to dinner and I didn’t look at Facebook again. To my surprise, when I woke up the next morning, it had gone viral. As of today, over 23,000 people have liked the post, over 5,000 people have shared it with their networks, and around 1,800 people have engaged in quite an intense debate by commenting on it. It seemed to resonate with people who are trying to increase the amount of love available to help heal our country’s wounds rather than tear people down and make things worse. People seemed to resonate with a God who is no longer tethered to ancient assumptions, patriarchal doctrines, and interpretations meant to keep serfs humble and abiding.

It occurred to me that Huckabee’s explanation and the disturbing crusade it caused is unfortunately not just a simple protected expression of a point of view, which is always encouraged and appreciated. Instead, it knowingly exploits a confusing, gut-wrenching time in our already polarized country to incite hatred and rage toward people with different beliefs, making them vulnerable to discrimination and attacks, especially among children in schools who are being led to think that “taking God out of schools” is why “God allowed [the murder of children] to happen.” How terrifying that is to children of all backgrounds!

Further, it is offensive to religious people for authority figures to spread a malicious belief that God is such a murderous and retributive God, or such a judgmental, careless one, or one who is so easily offended at our attempts to govern ourselves. And, here it is important to state again that God has not been taken out of schools. American schools have simply been opened up to allow for children of all beliefs and faiths and practices to be equally included, equally valued, and equally free to feel good about their faith while in a public school setting, and not to oppressed for it. We must respect and allow that freedom for all our children. To instead blame that opening on behalf of all citizens for this act of terror is dangerous, incendiary, and the equivalent of putting a bounty of sorts on the heads of schoolchildren who are not evangelical Christians.

Asking “why did God let this happen” is an understandable but unhelpful question, one that leads human minds used to static doctrine into a paradox. Especially as we learn many of the children who were killed were Christians who attended church regularly and prayed daily with their families, and futhermore, the shooter attended church at St. Rose in Newtown and even went to school at the church school for a while; to say God allowed this to happen because of lack of prayer in schools forces us to deeply question various beliefs and scriptures that we cite ad nasuem. Not everyone is willing to go there, to let God be the God above theism and doctrine, and so very shameful, hurtful beliefs are enforced and only hurt faith. The helpful question we can address is, why do we human beings keep allowing this to happen? And what is our image of God that we keep pointing fingers at others while never taking a look at ourselves. Why do we think we can push everything bad off on a God who turns his face from everyone who is not us?

A book I read years ago in seminary has been mysteriously following me around my apartment lately. On Saturday morning I picked it up, The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich. His brilliant and eloquent words spoke a feeling I had been grappling with for days, and for months, no maybe years, before. The theistic God, the one of institutional doctrine and man-made creed, tends to disappear when tragedy strikes. Maybe, as Huckabee would have us believe, that’s because he thinks we’ve abandoned him, shut the door on him, not included him in something he wants to be a part of, like stubborn, omnipotent gatekeepers. This God stalked off and let children be murdered and then started ugly, hateful fights on social media. But Tillich reminded me that when this God goes, another God shows up. The God of mercy, faith, hope and love. The one none can really imagine in our wildest dreams, and the one none of us have a corner on. The one who stays no matter what we do, hurts when we hurt, and loves us beyond belief. The one that is for us all.

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My heart and prayers go out to all the victims and families and friends today, as well as the community of Newtown, and I write this post with all respect and deference to what REALLY matters above debates and reactions such as this… their hearts, lives and memories. 


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