Questions of faith in light of tragedy

Bonnie Willis's picture

All weekend I have found myself holding my children more tightly, looking into their eyes more deeply, and simply asking God to help me soak in the moments I have with them more intentionally.

I suspect millions of parents had the same emotional reaction to the news of the tragic massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., this past Friday.

I listened and read about other responses to the tragedy. Some commentators immediately called for tighter gun-control laws, while others asserted that if someone had a gun at the school they could have stopped the senseless killings. Others talked about how to handle mental illness.

I am sure that in the days and weeks ahead we will hear ad nauseam about these issues, so I want to reflect on this tragedy from a different perspective. In light of this tragedy, I want to briefly comment on what I have observed about the role of faith in public discourse.

It is interesting how faith always comes into play after tragedies such as this one. I can recall, after 9/11, for example, how it was suddenly acceptable to be “religious” in public.

Now, in a similar way, after the Sandy Hook Elementary incident, for example, no one seems to be questioning whether it is appropriate for the president or a public official to pray, read scripture, or express their belief in life after death.

There are no decries of separation of church and state during these delicate and fragile moments. It would be obscene to do so!

However, once the mourning period for our nation passes, and the national news cycle moves onto other topics, we will, more than likely, again, slowly begin to hear stories concerning the removal of religious speech and symbols from public life, reinitiating the same vicious cycle of debating the extent to which we should separate religion from government.

But why does this happen? Why is there this incubation period from this debate during times of tragedy? Why is it that opponents of religion in the public sphere do not maintain their opposition during tragedies such as this one? More interestingly, why is it that people who seem otherwise non-religious speak of praying and turning to God for comfort during times like these?

The answers to these questions would warrant more space than this article would allow. Suffice it to say, however, it seems to me that despite the systemic removal of religious speech and symbols in our public institutions, responding to such tragedies by turning to God remains one of the most healing and helpful responses to such tragedies.

The pessimist looks at such tragedies with cynicism and asks, “If there is a God, how could he let such things happen to the most innocent of our society?” Others who profess faith, out of a deep hurt and longing, may ask the same question in order to make sense of their loss. In both cases, the plain evidence of evil rocks us to our core.

I was an agnostic who became a Christian when I was in college, and a friend of mine once challenged me with this very same question. My response, at first, was apologetic in nature, as I spoke of the existence of good and evil, and the free will of humanity.

But that response seemed hollow to one with a profoundly aching heart. So my response turned personal. I shared how God was not a distant, cosmic entity untouched by our hurts — God knows pain because He watched his own son being tortured and murdered for our sakes.

My heart was filled with gratitude that day, and when I tearfully consider the 20 small lives that were lost on Friday, once again I am filled with gratitude.

Ultimately, the tragedy that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary gives us pause as a nation, and we recognize that there are some things that cannot be solved or healed by politics, money, or earthly relationships.

We recognize that there are some things that are too profound for words, and, at least for now, we are humbled as a nation long enough to turn to the transcendent for answers, for strength beyond our own, and for comfort.

And yet I am left with the nagging question that if it is appropriate for us to pray to God during times like these, why is it not appropriate to do so at other times?

[Bonnie B. Willis is co-founder of The Willis Group, LLC, a Learning, Development, and Life Coaching company here in Fayette County and lives in Fayetteville along with her husband and their five children.]