The Dec. 21 Brainerd Dispatch published a guest opinion titled, “Why Was God AWOL at Newtown?” written by political columnist Robert Ringer. His title indicates that the Newtown gun massacre is an occasion for asserting that if God exists he was not on the job expected of a God. Ringer’s first observation is that most other observers make what is basically simple too complicated. Thus his opening premise: “Bad things happen. It’s an inescapable reality of life.”
Next Ringer turns to exploring the “age old spiritual and philosophical question of, ‘Why does God allow evil and injustice to exist in the first place?’” He has no difficulty accepting that evil and injustice were manifest in Newtown. Even secular philosophers would likely agree Newtown represents moral evil rather than a natural evil because it was a human act, not an earthquake or an accident.
But there is something about Newtown that makes many more people think about God than seems usual. Most of Ringer’s thoughts are a series of “If this... then...” propositions occasioned by some assertions of an atheist, A Jewish theologian, Time Magazine, and a Christian theologian. Ringer seems stimulated to search for answers. After citing prominent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, Ringer concludes that the “The challenge is to understand which things are within our control and which things are not.” He offers no concrete suggestions.
Given the theological questions raised about God and evil, there is a curious gap in Ringer’s analysis. Ringer never refers to the Bible, even though the word God is found in the Bible over 4,500 times and the word evil over 600 times. Why does Ringer ignore it? Could it be that the Bible presents major difficulties for using it to formulate an ethic for gun promotion? Since Ringer cited Niebuhr, some exploration of what he wrote regarding God and evil offers some clues.
In one of his major works, “The Nature and Destiny of Man,” Niebuhr states that evil existed before man, but it was locked out of creation such that God initially called creation “good.” Humans were created finite beings biologically bound to nature. But humans differ from animals in that they have a unique freedom to at least partially perceive the moral infinite (God). This is coupled with a “free will” to love, or a will toward actualizing self-centered power. If the latter temptation leads to a decision to overreach the Creator’s limits, it releases evil into creation. It still does.
According to Niebuhr, a major element that tempts human beings to commit evil acts is anxiety. A major cause of anxiety is fear of violence. This anxiety in turn may predispose to more acts of violence, which creates more anxiety, and a vicious cycle may start. A means of trying to suppress this anxiety and the sense of insecurity is to increase personal power by whatever means possible.
In 1994, a respected theologian, Marjorie Suchocki published a book titled, “The Fall to Violence.” Building on the above Niehbuhr formulation, one of Suchocki’s main points is that a significant dimension of the “Fall” found in Genesis 3 is an act of violence against any part of creation. In the story the first object was a forbidden tree (“of the knowledge of good and evil”). Already In Genesis 4, “Cain rose up against his brother and killed him.” The means of personal power available for many is a gun. After citing a gun tragedy involving children, in her book, Suchocki writes: “Someone made the guns available to the children…Corporate greed for ever greater profits from gun sales results in an incredible proliferation of guns throughout American culture, all under the reasoning that if everyone has guns, everyone can protect the self from everyone else. All the persons in the chain share in the (moral) guilt of the death... The American obsession with guns and violence is our attempt to delude ourselves into believing that we can control the firing of our weapons, that we can confine our violence through channeling it into an arena or ring, and that we can turn the power of our televisions off, and so control the violence that we safely allow into our lives. But anxiety mocks our control. Violence, not death, is at the root of our anxieties, and our attempts to channel violence simply increases its ceaseless flow.”
Looking back 18 years, Suchocki was prophetic. The problem is worse. In her view, not only the people pulling the triggers, but also all others materially and culturally involved replicate the “Original Sin.” God never promised that he would interrupt free will to turn back a monster free will chose not to limit. The question is now is, “Where will we be in another 18 years?
Today there are an estimated 300 million private guns in the U.S. Half of the guns in the world are in our 5 percent of the world’s population. In some eyes, we look like a nation with an epidemic of anxiety about our own potential violence against one another. The size of monster we created will be difficult to quickly reduce.
Jesus admonished: “Do not be anxious...” (Matt. 6:25).He told us to pray, “Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven...deliver us from evil.” Heaven is where there is no anxiety. The Bible claims Jesus was uniquely compassionate, righteous, and innocent of the charges for which he was crucified on orders of a representative of the most powerful government of his time. Paradoxically, this historical injustice became transformed into a source of hope and comfort for millions, including many of those pondering the Newtown massacre. In a mysterious way, Newtown could occasion positive changes to change the course of violence.
Many people are skeptical about the biblical message and how it addresses our engagement with good and evil. But the Bible deserves a place at the table when interested persons ponder events like Newtown.
DICK PETERSON is a resident of Nisswa, a retired physician and a member of the Brainerd Dispatch Editorial Board.