“You,” she said, with eyes full of fire and fury, “you’re a Christian. Where was God when this happened?”
She indicated the headline on the newspaper. Sixteen children and one adult had been shot dead in a primary school in Dunblane, a small town in Scotland.
I don’t know what I said in response. But I do know that her impotent rage had transferred to me. Over the next few weeks and months I pondered that question. Where is God in the suffering? I was confused and angry.
On Friday, I heard about the Newtown, Connecticut shooting via Twitter.
This time I was not confused and angry. I read the stories and wept. I just couldn’t stop crying. I kept thinking of the parents, the terrified children, the bewildered teachers, the blood in the corridor, the unopened Christmas presents, the helplessness. I had no words, just tears.
Meanwhile, the words were pouring out on Twitter and Facebook. Words of heroism telling the stories of teachers who died whilst hiding children in a closet, teachers who shielded children with their own body. Words of outrage and calls for reform of gunlaws. Words of judgements of God. Words of investigation, and trying to understand, pronouncing the gunman crazy, calling for all who are mentally ill to be put on a list ‘like a sex offenders register‘. Words of anger at the allegation that all mentally ill are potential murderers.
Some of the words overpowered me and sickened me, others like Sarah Bessey’s lament, Lore Ferguson’s reflections on Christ, Ed Cyzewski’s advice to avoid Facebook and Danny Webster’s thoughts on silence I found healing.
I had no words. I wanted to stand alongside those who were mourning in silence and sorrow. Like Obama predicted, I held my boy a little more tightly that night. I cried as we prayed the Lord’s prayer together, and he explained to God that Mummy was upset because of a nasty man.
The two shootings affected me deeply, emotionally. But there was something different this time.
I studied my Twitter timeline, considering the various reactions as expressions of grief. There was denial and disbelief: ‘how could something like this happen here, in this safe town?’ The same words had been said about Dunblane. There was anger: people calling for gun law reform, people arguing against gun law reform. There was depression, sorrow – and relief and guilt that it wasn’t us, it wasn’t our children.
But it struck me that there was an undercurrent of another emotion. I pondered society’s all-consuming desire to understand what had motivated the killer, to label him as mentally ill, to pronounce on the cause and the cure. We want to understand so we can stop it ever happening again. We want to fix it. And as I held my boy tightly, I realised I was feeling something I hadn’t done with Dunblane: fear.
And that’s because I am a parent now. I want to believe I can protect my child from sickness: we get him immunised. I want to believe I can protect him from traffic accidents: we fasten his seatbelt, we teach him the Green Cross Code. I want to believe I can protect him from people who would harm him: we research the best nurseries and schools who will have a rigorous Child Protection policy.
But how can you protect a child from this? Guns are a definite factor, but they are not the whole story.
It is deeper. It is that sinister, mocking face that comes to us in our nightmares, that in daylight, in our middle-class circles, we like to pretend we have conquered. We believe it happens in movies and to other people, but not to us; we have built our fences and it cannot touch us.
It is that dark thread running through the world and in each of us: it is evil. How can you protect a child from evil?
I hold my boy tightly to me, and say these words with renewed conviction as we recite the Lord’s prayer,
“Deliver us from evil.”
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