responding to tragedy

A useful reminder for how not to respond to tragedy and sin

Dear Christian with a microphone,

I know. It’s tempting. Very tempting.

Everybody is looking for someone who has something to say. An expert. And it’s tempting to get on your soapbox when bad stuff happens and talk about how it’s judgment for sin, not an example of the cost of sin.

But the two are different.

Even if there’s a correlation between sin and judgment, where the negative consequences of sin (given that sin falls outside of the design for human flourishing so naturally has bad results) are an immediate form of judgment for sin, I’m not sure you can jump from the individual to the corporate – from the judgment the individual experiences after their sin to bad things happening, where people are hurt and some sort of nefarious or malicious intent on God’s part. There’s something very Old Testament about the idea that a nation’s fortunes are tied to their obedience to God’s law – but America isn’t Israel. Nor is Australia.

This is the God who hates sin and injustice so much that he sent his son to experience injustice and start the process of dealing with sin. At the cross. This was still evil, though good happened as a result.

You might want to link sin and judgment and death. And where better than when they’re all happening at once. You might want to point out that the world is broken. But I’m not sure that putting forward a solution, or a proposed cause, other than that all people everywhere have turned away from God and do bad things to each other as a result, is particularly sensitive.

Now is not the time to push your particular special interest. Especially if it looks like point scoring. Even if it’s right. Now is not the time to point score. But to comfort. To love. To empathise. To condemn. To support. To offer hope.

I know there’s a robust theology of God’s sovereignty behind your statements. I know people would be better off if they followed Jesus (that’s pretty much how I responded yesterday).

Sometimes it’s not obvious who to blame – so you might be thinking that a tragedy presents an opportunity to further your only tangentially related cause (or, more cynically, sometimes the people who give you lots of money might be looking for alternative scapegoats). But the blame game is the wrong game.

This is a horrible political road to travel – and it’s worse if you’re trying to play the political game as a Christian.

If that’s you, you’re not going to get people to follow Jesus by cashing in on events like this for your political cause – it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to ban video games (as the ACL did with the Norway shootings), or, as is the case with Mike Huckabee, trying to (re)introduce school prayer. Or, more charitably, to restore or salvage some sort of public role for Christianity in a post-Christian world.

“We ask why there is 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.” – Mike Huckabee

You may have a point. The world might be a better place if people were more like Jesus. That’s pretty much what I said yesterday. But that’s not going to happen if you systematise Christianity. If you legislate it. If you make it compulsory. And it’s certainly not going to happen if you try to make some political mileage towards that goal off the back of a tragedy.

Changes of action follow changes of the head, and the heart.

The head and the heart are only followed by the hands if you’re some sort of totalitarian control freak dictator looking to the kind of emotional response that produces Stockholm Syndrome, or Pavlovian responses to bad experiences.

That is not how the Holy Spirit works, which is essential to the process of making people more like Jesus.

Your theology is wandering off into dangerous territory if you think the answer to bad stuff is to set about systemically introducing Christianity, not having Christianity, through the church, systemically working to making things better by loving and protecting people through the political process. The two are different.

It doesn’t matter if you think that there’s a particularly heinous amount of immorality going down in the world right now (see this 2009 example from Danny Naliah, and just about anything Westboro Baptist say) – that’s a judgment call that requires you to ignore 2,000+ years of post-Jesus human history, and focus on a particularly narrow definition, or manifestation, of sin…

The correct response is not “we” or “they” deserved this, or in any way earned this, as a result of God’s judgment. You might make that theological case in general – the Bible is pretty clear that sin and death aren’t part of how God made the world, and one leads to the other, for all people. But you can’t take that to the specific – and link particular, disconnected, sins, to particular deaths, and you probably shouldn’t be making that case at this time. It looks cheap and unloving. Even if you’re trying to be loving.

It’s not particularly loving to victims of sin and tragedy, and their families, to be trying to score from their misfortune – no matter how well intentioned you are. Or how right your cause may be.

If you do. If you give in to that temptation and jump on that soapbox, you are an idiot who is damaging the gospel and making people think less of Jesus.

UPDATE – Huckabee has clarified his statement a little.

“A specific act of violence is rarely the result of a specific single act of a culture that prompts it. In other words, I would never say that simply taking prayer and Bible reading from our institutions or silencing Christmas carols is the direct cause of a mass murder. That would be ludicrous and simplistic. But the cause and effect we see in the dramatic changes of what our children are capable of is a part of a cultural shift from a God-centered culture to a self-centered culture.”

Christ and Pop Culture has a great post offering a balanced critique of Huckabee’s statement, which links to this Rachel Held Evans post that I liked.

Answering the “why” of tragedy and the “who” of stopping it…

This is the first American school massacre since I became a father. I don’t know if that alone made my heart sink further when we woke up to the news of 20 young lives lost this morning, and the six adults, but holding my daughter as I digested the news brought home to me the sort of range of emotions the parents of these children on the other side of the planet must be feeling.

gun control

Image Credit: Sydney Morning Herald

I remember writing an essay at uni, back in 2004, about the process the mainstream media moves through when covering a tragic news event like this – from reporting the facts, and just the facts (who, what, when), to reporting first hand accounts (who, how), to “experts” dissecting events and looking for deeper answers to “why” questions. This process has accelerated. Dramatically. Thanks to the internet – such that the facts are available almost immediately, and the democratisation of punditry means that we all have an opinion on the “why” question, and we can all jump on our platforms to not just answer “why bad things happen” but “how this should be fixed.”

The most obvious solutions are pretty obvious. They’re superficial.

We fix shootings by tightening up access to guns. There are secondary solutions – less obvious, and a step or two back on the causal chain – we should fix mental health so that potential perpetrators and sociopaths are identified, and loved – or fixed – or removed from society (and especially from access to guns), before they can lash out.

Some suggest we should stamp out violent video games and change the violent culture that spawns the sorts of people who do this sort of thing. Which seems pretty appealing. Except that this sort of violence predates television, it predates the newspaper, it predates anything that we could meaningfully ban in response.

Sure. Gun control worked in Australia – we haven’t had a shooting massacre since Port Arthur. And it’ll go some way to solving the problem in America. But my Facebook wall is littered with people calling for gun bans, as if that’ll completely solve the problem.

But guns don’t kill people. People kill people.

That’s cliched. With reason. Cliches become cliches because they describe something true – something that needs to be said often.

We can ban all the guns in the world – but people will look for ways to hurt other people. People will respond to generations of hurt – carrying the baggage inflicted by poor family decision making, absent or abusive parents, generational or systemic mistreatment of people, injustice, bullying, all sorts of pain inflicted by others… People will snap. Will make bad decisions. Will take drugs. Will do all sorts of mood altering things that leave them with a low empathy threshold, or a willingness to inflict pain on others for their own pleasure.

The world is broken.

People in our world are broken.

And giving those people less guns – because you recognise the brokenness is a wise response – but it’s not a solution. 

The only meaningful way to change human nature is to restore it to what it was meant to be before it broke. It broke when we turned away from the God who made the world. The world broke then too.

People were meant to be children of God. Children of God who didn’t turn on each other out of rage or anger. And yet, as Genesis tells the story, almost as soon as people turned away from God – brother knifed brother – you can bet Cain would’ve shot Able if he were able.

The only way for us to stop killing each other is to start not just recognising that we’re all valuable because we’re made in God’s image – and so, shouldn’t be killed by one another – but to start recognising that we’re all, to steal another cliche, family…

And the only way for that to be true is for all of us to turn to the perfect child of God – who not only models being a child of God perfectly, but enables us to become children of God – where our present lives, and future hope, reflect a view of the world that rules out events like this morning’s events.

This future hope makes the present tragedies a little easier to stomach – not easy – because suffering sucks. Tragedies suck. The emotions we experience, even vicariously, in these situations as parents, and siblings, and children of other people – are real. The emotions the victims and their families experience during, and after, the inflicting of horrible human on human tragedy are real – and we can’t play this down. But how can we explain events like someone turning a couple of semi-automatic weapons on children without looking to shortcomings in human nature? Shortcomings described best by the very first chapters of the Bible… And how do we solve them without looking for solutions – solutions described in all the subsequent chapters of the Bible as God began his rescue mission that culminated with the horrific and tragic death of an innocent – Jesus.

He suffered. For the sake of securing a future – for himself, and for those who are in him – as his people. His children. The whole world is waiting for this future. From Romans 8…

17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groaninwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

We stop tragedies like this by becoming like Jesus – the true child of God. And while this doesn’t properly happen any time while we’re still this side of heaven, the process begins with following him.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

Following Jesus means beginning the process of reversing the human nature that leads to tragedies like this. It conforms and transforms us.

It seems trite. It seems like little comfort to those grieving the brokenness of our world. It seemed a cold comfort to me as I sat nursing my almost 1 year old, imagining a future where something horrific happened to her… but the more I think about it the more I yearn for, and honestly desire the future described in the closing chapters of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, where events like this don’t, and can’t, happen.

21 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Here’s the guarantee from Jesus himself, the closing words of the Bible… They’re what provides real hope, and a real solution, in times like these – when the tragedy of broken human nature strikes…

22 20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.

A prank call, tragedy, the blame game, and the power of forgiveness

Wow. What a gut punch. The nurse who took a prank call from an Australian radio station, where staff pretended to be the Queen, and Prince Charles, has, it appears, taken her own life.

There seems to be a pretty strong causal link between the call, and this outcome.

So the blame game begins.

Plenty of people have responded by condemning the Australian pair. I read someone suggesting they should be charged with manslaughter. That is, frankly, ridiculous.

Playing the blame game in a tragic situation like this is ridiculous.

Blame is not the appropriate response to tragedy. It just makes tragedy worse.

It’s a tragedy. A mother of two. A wife of one. And surely a friend to many… lost. It’s awful. Indescribably awful. There are no winners in this situation now. None. But there are people who are going to feel this loss, and their grief is going to be preyed upon by  a hungry and vicious British press, feeding a bunch of people who want to see blood. Everybody is voicing their shock on social media. Because it’s truly shocking.

But words have consequences. Even unintended consequences. The consequences become bigger as the words are given more importance – and in this case some relatively harmless words have become harmful because they’ve been amplified.

The futility of the blame game

It would be easy to point fingers at just about anybody in this situation, but establishing agency and causation is almost impossible. What follows is an exercise in futility. It’s particularly fruitless, because already, once the chain of events kicked off the way it did, there weren’t any winners, just victims – well, except the one group who wins either way…

The prank callers – sure, if they hadn’t called anybody then this wouldn’t have happened. They’re now under siege from all over the world, and people are saying horrible stuff about their responsibility for events. Give them a break. They couldn’t possibly know this was going to happen when they sat down and sketched out a pretty funny prank concept. But they were doing their job…

So we could blame the radio station – sure, for pushing comedy based programming, but people love prank calls, and this one was mostly harmless – and the callers were expecting to be hung up on immediately. The British press is having a field day dragging out stories about Kyle Sandilands. They sure do love controversy… but then so do their listeners…

So we could blame Australian culture – we listen to, and love, commercial radio comedians, and their audacious prank calls. But we’re a world away from the events in England.

We could blame the hospital – but the administration has been incredibly, and publicly, supportive of the nurses involved. They blame the callers. And blaming the hospital goes mighty close to blaming the victims… the nurses – one of whom has now become, tragically, the biggest victim.

We could blame the royals, for not immediately hosing down the event, and refusing to comment. But they’re under constant scrutiny, and even in this most private of moments are suffering from media attention. And suggesting what might have been – an immediate statement of forgiveness, laughing the whole thing off – would have produced better results is an exercise in the hypothetical. It may have resulted in thousands of copycats. Prince Charles seemed to think it was funny.

We could blame the culture clash – It’s, on the surface, an awful example of two cultures with a lot in common not quite sharing the same sense of humour. The prank was funny. Most of us are incredulous that it worked the way it did. That’s how pranks get laughs.  The British weren’t amused. Turns out a common love for irony, not shared by the Americans, doesn’t extend to a common love of taking the proverbial out of their royals.

The British press – they’re the only winners in this situation. They’ve got a controversy to inflame, victims to profile, royals to protect. They turned the prank into a “cruel international hoax,” and blew away any sense of proportion. So, now the story serves to demonstrate the power of a rabid and angry British media. The same British media that protects the royals when it suits them, and publish naked pictures of the same royals, taken with a telephoto lens, while they’re in a private place, on a holiday, when it suits them.

But blaming the press isn’t really all that worthwhile, you can’t blame them without blaming the people who consume their products – the audience dictates what the commercial press prints. So do the advertisers. So do the people who buy the advertisers products.

Essentially. We’re all to blame. And we’re all victims. Victims who have to live in a world where horrible stuff like this happens.

The power of forgiveness

Now, I don’t want to make mileage from this tragic set of circumstances. That’d be ghoulish. This really is awful. And as a guy, behind a keyboard, thousands of kilometres, and a cultural jump away, I’m feeling only a small amount of the grief that those closer in proximity will be feeling at this loss of life. Every time I think about that poor husband, and those poor kids, I want to yell at someone. Blame someone. And I’m pretty detached from the circumstances. The best I can do is pray for that family, and, given the above – pray for our world. The kind of world that creates the environment for this sort of thing…

But imagine a world, for a moment (channeling John Lennon), imagine a world where, say this prank call still happened – because it’s not a perfect imaginary world – imagine it happened, and the mistake was made in receiving it… imagine if the first victims acted in forgiveness immediately. Imagine if they had immediately spoken out to forgive not just the nurse, and the hospital, but the callers. That would have robbed the story of its sting. The press couldn’t be indignant about a story where there’s no victim, the nurse would have nothing to fear. The story would’ve fallen off the middle pages of the paper within days, if not hours.

Imagine if the press was forgiving. Imagine if, given the tragedy, we didn’t just band around the family of the nurse, which is good and right, but around the radio presenters who I can imagine, as humans, are now suffering incredibly deep feelings of remorse and regret, questioning their own agency in proceedings, and blaming themselves…

Imagine if there was a royal who, when persecuted, forgave the masses who perpetuated the persecution. The clamouring crowds, baying for blood. The feeding frenzy of a public who just want to see a spectacle – with no real regard for justice being served. Imagine a king who when misunderstood, who is suddenly the centre of attention, all eyes on him, as he is nailed to a cross – killed for simply being who he is – called out:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Imagine a world where more of us, in more circumstances, followed that king. Imagine if, even when tragedy happened, we didn’t look for who to blame, but for who needs love and forgiveness – and we offered it, even if they were doing us wrong.

Imagine if we acknowledged that we were in the wrong – rather than looking to blame others – and we went after forgiveness, from the victims – but also from Jesus, the king, who was put in the above circumstance by us too – the crowd baying for blood 2,000 years ago, the crowd baying for blood (and cheap entertainment via the media) now – we’re part of both of them. We’re to blame. We need forgiveness. We’re participants in this culture that creates victims all over the place.

I guess that’s my biggest prayer, and the point where I can take the most action in response to these circumstances, and this world. I really want people to know Jesus because modelling that kind of forgiveness, and that kind of willingness to turn the other cheek, actually stops tragic events like this happening.

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