The Personalist Project

Twenty-six people died, in their church, in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, this past Sunday.

I’m not sure I have anything adequate to say in response to that. I’m not sure if any number of words can capture the horror, sorrow, frustration, confusion, fear, loss, and helplessness of a nation responding once again to the evil of the mass killing of innocents at the hands of a single man.

But when a great deal of blood is spilled, it seems an equal amount of ink inevitably follows, much of it combative or ideological, some of it constructive, and some meant--however unsuccessfully--to be comforting or inspiring.

Yesterday Simcha Fisher dedicated some time to dissecting a Federalist article that I think was probably intended to be inspiring, but wound up being…something else, instead. I’m not going to discuss the Federalist article at any length here (it was entitled, “When the Saints of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers”), but I was interested in the discussion it spawned.

Simcha Fisher writes:

 When horrible things happen, there is always a contingent of Christians — sometimes even of Catholics — who insist we must breathe shallowly, stretch our eyes open very wide, stare fixedly into the shiny distance, and declare all things good-fine-happy-triumphant-wonderful-terrific and joy-joy-joy-now-now-now. There is always a contingent who will say these things even to the faces of people who have just suffered immense, incomprehensible grief.

I've heard from more than one grieving person that "God has a purpose" and "at least he's with God now" are both way up there in the ranks of "worst thing to say to a grieving person." So why do we keep saying them?

There is an entire nation grieving those who were killed in Sutherland Springs on Sunday, but most of us are grieving in a somewhat remote way. We grieve that human lives were lost, and in such a senseless manner, but our public grief is nothing compared to the personal grief of those who knew and loved the victims.

Those of us whose grief is general, at a remove from the people who died, may find it comforting to find ways to make sense of tragedy, make it less threatening to our faith and our sense of safety by removing the mystery from it—whether that means clinging to simplistic diagnoses and cures for the social ills that contribute to these tragedies, or by manufacturing silver linings—spiritual or otherwise—so that we can put a credit on the balance sheets of the Universe to offset the losses we’ve witnessed.

We hide from tragedy behind pat formulas and karmic calculus, but the bereaved need something different from us.

Simcha points out that Christ, whose will IS the Father’s will, didn’t find relief from the real weight of sin, grief, and suffering in his knowledge of the good that could be brought out of it.   

Christ wept when Lazarus died. Christ begged for his suffering to pass in Gethsemane. Christ cried out in agony and desolation on the Cross. Why? Because suffering is real. Death is horrible. It is not from God. He accepted and allowed and used all the evil and suffering that came into the world through sin, but it was not His will that there should be evil and suffering. He wept.


Want to comfort the grieving? Do as Christ did and as we are commanded to do, and weep with them.

Stand before the mystery of their subjectivity, of the completely unique and unrepeatable relationship with their loved ones lost by each mourner. Stand silent before the grief that eloquently tells the real, incommunicable value of the dead.

In this way, we affirm that each loss is a real loss, that each injustice suffered is a real injustice. As Simcha reminds us, when every fibre of your being cries out against the wrongness of death, you are protesting a wrongness God never intended for us.

This is the mystery of sin in the world. This is why we need Jesus. Sin creeps into all of our lives, and someone else's sin can bring death--the enemy, death, the consequence of sin, the broken thread in the weave of Creation--into the lives of the innocent.

We are God's beloved children. And so He weeps over the death that sin brings into the world, even as He calls us to choose life so that we might live forever with Him. 

God does bring good out of our evil, over and over again, but He does so with our cooperation. We are not God's playthings, pieces to be moved around the board into our appointed positions by any means necessary. 

The world is broken and groaning for her healer.

And Christ wept.

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Comments (2)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Nov 10, 2017 8:24am

Kate, I agree completely with your gist. 

I've been learning myself, slowly, to stop thinking in terms of "fixing" feelings. It is much realer and more human to just be with those who are suffering in their suffering. 

But I want to offer a partial defense of platitudinous Christian responses like the ones you mention—not the platitudinous part, but the Christian part.

I think many Christians sense in the national response to atrocities like last week's a worrying element of utter despair—a dread of death and suffering that misses the perspective of eternity.

I think maybe they're trying in their clumsy, tacky way, to reintroduce that perspective. Death is terrible, yes, but it's not the end of everything. It's the beginning of eternal life. And if we put our lives in God's hands, we are safe, even if we're being arbitrarily slaughtered by madmen or terrorists.

And I think sometimes that glassy-eyed dissociation is a mode of self-protection from the scorn of the world of the elites, where faith is ruthlessly mocked.

Rhett Segall

#2, Nov 10, 2017 11:35am

Surely we need to know the bereaved and what would be best for them.  Sometimes religious words are appropriate, sometimes not.  Our loving concern, even if expressed awkwardly, is always important.  If the bereaved is Christian then St. Paul's words fit: "But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus." (1Thes.13) When and how to speak them is a question of discernment.There is an organic, psychological process that must be respected if the message is to have its full effect. As Jesus said "Many things I have to say to you but you cannot bear them now." (John 16:12)

Which brings up the issue of Christian forgiveness.The murder of 5 Amish children  several years ago and  the Baptist Church murders more recently:  in both situations forgiveness of the culprit was instantaneous.I fear that in  instantly forgiving the culprit one may repress deep natural feeling of hatred and bitterness which need to be explored in appropriate ways.

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