The slaughter of the innocents

by Marilyn McCord Adams

Life doesn’t always unfold in “synch” with the liturgical calendar. Advent waits for cosmic interruption: the Word made flesh, a truly human but not only human God. Friday featured an interruption of the opposite sort. The governor of Connecticut declared: “evil visited this community today”--the kind of incident that all our systems were designed and up-and-running to prevent. Twenty children and six adults shot on site; add the killer’s mother and the killer himself.

So much commentary laments the slaughter of the innocents. A tearful president reacted as a parent: “so many were beautiful little children between 5 and 10, with their whole lives ahead of them.” Visceral responses to attacks on our young are hard-wired. I think of Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit sculpture of Herod’s soldiers’ butchering, of the mothers’ tug-of-war vice-gripping their babies with primal rage and hysterical grief.

Big-brained creatures need more time to mature, are vulnerable for longer. Biology builds in instincts to protect offspring at all costs. They are our species’ future. Human biology transposes this into the personal. Children have the best chance when they grow up in an environment where they feel safe and loved. We know that the world can be dangerous to our health, but we don’t want children to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil too soon. Or rather, we want to introduce them to the world’s hazards gradually, by age-appropriate stages, warning them off hot stoves, electric sockets, pulling the dog’s tail too hard, letting them experience little scrapes and pinches and “ouchies” before we expose them to anything traumatic.

Friday strikes terror into hearts of the adults, because it provides unmistakable proof that our best efforts were not enough to protect them. Each parent is asking herself, what more could we have done, what can we do now to prevent the worst? Newtown community, American villages and cities across the country, the leaders of our nation have paused to ponder such ghastly failure. Psychologically and spiritually, if we don’t let ourselves screen it out but confront it, the shootings at Sandy Hook are gut-wrenching and confusing.

Instinctively, we reach for a quick fix. The killer had two semi-automatic hand pistols and an automatic shotgun. Stricter gun control laws that took, not guns used for hunting, but rapid-fire weapons off the market would surely decrease the death toll. Personally, I grew up in a violent home and am confident that had my mother not insisted that the pistol be kept in a locked trunk under a ton of stuff in the back of the garage, it would have figured in any number of angry episodes and I would be long since dead. Personally, I will join forces to urge politicians to seize the opportunity to stand up to the NRA and make these legal changes, once and for all.

At the same time, we have to concede that the NRA is right: this sort of measure will not be enough to make sure Sandy Hook, Oregon, Aurora, and Columbine never happen again. Among the States, Connecticut ranks fourth for effective gun control. The weapons at Sandy Hook were legally registered by the killer’s mother. In any event, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Determined killers will find ways around the law to get what they need. Stricter gun control will surely save lives, but it will not guarantee safety.

Equally insistent is our instinct to “otherize” the killer. Tweets and twitters ask what sort of crazy person would do such a thing. We don’t want to think that normal people like us have it in us to do something like that. In fact, studies show that most ordinary people can be persuaded to participate in mass killing under the right conditions, where the violence is community- or state-sponsored, where there are stiff sanctions for non-participation, where a convincing group ideology assures that atrocities are the price we have to pay to secure our own survival and flourishing. But studies also show that most people don’t have it in them to kill and maim individuals in ordinary time.

Those of us who have experienced rage or fear, would probably do well not to be confident about what we would have done in Nazi Germany. Maybe we should not overestimate our own mental health or degree of spiritual integration. Still, I venture to say, most of us could not have done what Adam Lanza did on Friday: shot little children, school teachers and staff in cold blood.

For that very reason, we need to heed Jesus’ warning that “otherizing” is spiritually dangerous. Otherizing undermines sympathy, pronounces the perpetrator “beyond the pale,” definitely not one of us. We could not have shot children and school workers in cold blood, because we identify with them: they are us, their children could be our children, their town could be our town. But it is counting killers as not one of us, that tempts us to acquiesce in state-sponsored cruelty, torture, and executions. Who knows? Perceived alienation may have prompted Judas to betray Jesus, permitted Adam Lanza to “otherize” the children and adults he was shooting at the school. Our instinct to “otherize” should make us shudder with the realization that we are more like traitors and socio-paths than we would like to admit.

Jesus’ injunction to love enemies is a hedge against otherization. My point is not that parents and citizens of Newtown, Connecticut should forgive the killer, today, tomorrow, next month, or next year. That would be another “quick fix.” Grief and trauma have their seasons. I would not say any of these things to them. I am speaking to us, who the dubious luxury of standing back and assessing, to remind that otherizing is part of, sometimes lies close to the roots of our problem.

Not only children but humans generally do best when we feel safe and when we feel loved. Several interviewed psychologists prescribe reassurance through quarantine: Turn off the TV! Don’t watch the re-runs! Sandy Hook was a fluke. Most of the time, the world is not like that. Don’t lure yourself into the illusion that it is happening over and over again!

Meant as advice to the traumatized, this is fair enough. Once is more than children can digest. We need to believe the world is orderly. Even adults suffer from PTSD. Nevertheless, we adults have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil often enough to know better. In Syria, such atrocities happen daily. In less than six months, we have had Aurora, Oregon, and Sandy Hook. Evil can be relied on for ghastly interruptions more than once a year.

Another psychologist voiced the necessity of making the tragedy meaningful. Bad as they may seem, death and dying are often predictable, framed by stable contexts. Senseless killing without rhyme or reason provokes panic. Media scramble to restore balance by probing the killer’s motives. Knowing that the crime was committed by a jealous lover, or accidentally-in-self-defense during a hold-up gives us something to work with. In Arizona, in the Oregon mall, maybe in Sandy Hook, there’s no telling why they did it. Mike Huckabee looks instead for God’s motives: lethal bullets were Divine punishment because “we have systematically removed God from our schools,” because we have “otherized” God. Alienated Adam Lanza was bad enough. If an alienated God otherizes back, how can we keep believing that it’s good to be alive?

We can’t make Sandy Hook meaningful by looking backward, but only by moving forward, by working alongside a God Who is for us, resourceful to make good on the very worst that we can suffer, be, or do. God knows, God has created us in a world where ghastly evil interrupts, despite our best efforts to control. God not only creates; God resurrects. God makes the worst count for good by bringing life out of death. To be on God’s side, we must bend ourself to efforts that foster life, inclusive community, and creativity. Collaboration revives hope because it convinces us: we are safe because, and only because, we are loved by God!

O God, we bring before You the people of Newtown, Connecticut. Welcome the dead. Comfort the grieving. Convert the killer. Make them all know and feel the healing power of Your love. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, the slaughter of innocents “blows our minds” and sets us staggering. But if we really knew the evil that lurks in human hearts, the fragility of human goodness, and the flimsiness of our hold on life, we might be driven to despair. O God, You alone can renew what is smashed, twisted, and broken. Gather up our fragments. Put hearts, and families, and communities back together again. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

O God, where killing is concerned, what difference does it make whether the victims were children or adults? The children were fresh starts, potential-in- formation, bursting with promising surprises. The adults were invested in life, people with track-records and projects and commitments to others. O God, don’t ask us to choose among our griefs. They all died suddenly and without warning. Gather us all in the arms of Your mercy. Comfort us with Your love. Through Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Reverend Canon Marilyn McCord Adams is Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Assisting Priest at the Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill

Comments (1)

This is beautiful. Thank you.

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