Did what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School put a damper on your holiday celebrations this year? This is the darkest time of the year to begin with, so what happened in Newtown just seems to make the darkness even more impenetrable.
As I see it, our society gives us three options for dealing with the darkness around us, among us and in us.
The first is escape. We can create a fantasy land with holiday lights, new outfits, gift-wrapped presents under the tree waiting to be opened, tiny tots with their eyes all aglow, beautiful carols sung in candlelight on Christmas Eve … and plenty of alcoholic beverages. It’s like our whole culture tries to transform our homes, churches and main streets into Disney World. When it’s done well and when life is going pretty good for you, the whole configuration can feel very romantic and comforting.
Reality can be too much to bear sometimes, so for the sake of our mental health it’s good to escape it every once in awhile. Do you remember Lilly Tomlin’s character, the bag lady? She once said, “You know I’m certifiably crazy. What happened was that I decided that reality was the main cause of stress, so I checked out of reality. And you know, life has been a lot better ever since.”
The second option is to try to overwhelm the darkness with light in the form of increased knowledge, progressive politics and technology. Following the shootings in Newtown almost everyone was asking, “Why? What caused this young man to do such a terrible thing? Was it a mental health issue? Was it due to bullying? Do we have too many guns available?” It’s an example of this assumption we have that if we can diagnose the problem correctly, then science and innovative minds will come up with a solution, a cure.
To be sure, science and technological innovation have come up with some amazing inventions that have made our lives much better. The limits of science to deal with problems like school shootings, however, are revealed in the following joke: The doctor tells her patient that the bad news is he’s over medicated. “The good news,” she adds confidently, “is we have a pill for that.”
The third option uses terminology that neither science nor the entertainment industry understand because it comes out of a view of reality that transcends reason and is counterintuitive to a society focused on being happy. It is an option communicated best in stories and poetry and is expressed in concepts like evil, grace and self-denying love.
One of the narratives that best expresses this third option is the biblical story of the birth of Jesus. Read it from Joseph’s point of view: His fiancé gets pregnant before they get married, and he knows for sure he’s not the father. All he has to go on is talk of angels from Mary and a dream he has in the middle of the night. Mary gives birth in what amounts to a homeless shelter. The young family has to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s soldiers who massacre children with swords instead of assault rifles.
This third option doesn’t try to escape “reality” but faces it head on. Neither does it arrogantly assume that mortals are wise enough to invent a “pill” that will cure all of society’s problems. It names the problem with the term evil but then tells a story of God putting himself in a situation where evil seems to triumph.
Science doesn’t have a vocabulary to adequately explain the behavior of Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, on the one hand or the teachers who tried to protect their students on the other. Mature religion does. Mature religion can name unseen forces that impact our lives without pretending to be able to understand or control them.
Hollywood tends to assign the motivation for good and bad behavior to our emotions, to a spirituality of how I feel at the moment. If it ever made a movie of what happened in Newtown, Tinsel Town would portray Adam Lanza as angry or depressed and the teachers as caring and giving.
All of that may be true, but good preachers don’t confine themselves to rummaging around in their congregants’ feelings every Sunday or Shabat. They understand that love, as a religious term, is as much a matter of the will as of the emotions. It is a verb connoting action more than a noun describing how we happen to feel. When you love your neighbors in the biblical sense of the word, you do what’s best for them — even when you don’t like them.
There is a place for escape and fantasy in our lives. Science and technology have the potential to bless us if we understand their limitations.
But religion has some important contributions to make regarding the discussion about what happened in Newtown … and Columbine and Rwanda and in Nazi death camps. First, it presents a view of the world that acknowledges the reality of darkness. Second, it provides a language to talk about that reality in ways an empirical approach cannot give us. It’s not that terms like evil or grace are irrational. Rather, that kind of language is trans-rational.
And third, neither escapes from reality nor science and technology are able to produce the kind of love those teachers at Sandy Hook showed for their children.
“Merry Christmas” is not a phrase you’ll find in the Bible. “The peace that passes understanding” is. This Christmas, especially this Christmas, allow the third option to show us where to go from here.