“And Death’s Dark Shadow Put to Flight…” A Post for Newtown, Connecticut

It goes without saying that our prayers and hearts have been with Sandy Hook Elementary […]

Bryan J. / 12.17.12

It goes without saying that our prayers and hearts have been with Sandy Hook Elementary and the Newtown community since last week. On this side of our Sunday services, “Lord have mercy” is pretty much all I have left to say in my spiritually and emotionally exhausted state, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that.

For those of us who are still struggling to maintain composure in light of tragedy, or for those exhausted from the 24 hour media coverage, or for those wrestling with the relationship between a good God and an evil world, this is our small offering to you. Others have written eloquently and profoundly in the midst of this tragedy, and it is our hope that this roundup of the ‘net’s best helps you in whatever place you find yourself.

Over at Christianity Today, new Editor and 2012 Mbird conference speaker Mark Galli speaks of the sobering truth that this won’t be the last time we’ll have to bury our children, noting that our desire to control the phenomenon of mass shootings hasn’t really borne fruit, and he questions if it ever will.

One wants to say, “It will be okay. Order will be restored. We’ll do something about this, so that it will never happen again.” One wants to say this, but we know that it is not okay, that the restored order will be broken again; sadly, it will happen again.

This is why our hearts froze when we heard the news. Not only could it have happened here, but someday it may very well happen here. That’s because we’ve seen it happen so often, going way back. It happened in biblical times at least twice, once after the birth of Moses, and once at the birth of our Lord. Sad to say in this respect, the Bible continues to be a very relevant book.


A piece gaining some momentum in the social world comes from Loraine Skenazy, parenting author and blogger. She writes of the worst mass-murder in a elementary school history, which took place in 1928. While we might not fully agree with Skenazy’s conclusions, the insight that these mass killings aren’t unique to our time and place is helpful:

In the end there were 38 children dead at the school, two teachers and four other adults.

I’m not talking about the horrific shooting in Connecticut today. I’m talking about the worst school murder in American history. It took place in Michigan, in 1927. A school board official, enraged at a tax increase to fund school construction, quietly planted explosives in Bath Township Elementary. Then, the day he was finally ready, he set off an inferno. When crowds rushed in to rescue the children, he drove up his shrapnel-filled car and detonated it, too, killing more people, including himself. And then, something we’d find very strange happened.


No cameras were placed at the front of schools. No school guards started making visitors show identification. No Zero Tolerance laws were passed, nor were background checks required of PTA volunteers—all precautions that many American schools instituted in the wake of the Columbine shootings, in 1999. Americans in 1928—and for the next several generations —continued to send their kids to school without any of these measures. They didn’t even drive them there. How did they maintain the kind of confidence my own knees and heart don’t feel as I write this?

They had a distance that has disappeared. A distance that helped them keep the rarity and unpredictability of the tragedy in perspective, granting them parental peace.

Skenazy goes on to observe a link between the minute-to-minute live updates, the revolution in automotive and air travel, and the national grief we’ve all experienced, and seems to imply that this is a bad thing. I’m not so sure. What’s evident from her example, though, is that terrible atrocities unfortunately pre-date most of our popular scapegoats for the human condition, be they video games, automatic weapons, or bullying.

Next, as America tries to explain and integrate last Friday’s events, Liza Long wrote this piece over on The Blue Review, ominously titled “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” detailing the difficulties of being the parent of a violent, mentally ill teenager. Use caution: expletives and troubling anecdotes abound:

Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”

“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid [expletive]. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”

“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid [expletive]. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”

I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza’s mother. I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother. I am James Holmes’s mother. I am Jared Loughner’s mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother. And these boys—and their mothers—need help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it’s easy to talk about guns. But it’s time to talk about mental illness.

Not surprisingly, among the best responses comes from the NYT, where columnist Ross Douthat invokes Mockingbird favorite Fyodor Dostoyevsky in articulating a cross-centered response to great tragedy:

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel [The Brother’s Karamazov], Ivan is the Karamazov brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, killed — babes caught on the points of soldiers’ bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of 5 locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.

Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God — a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.

It’s telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his character’s speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in “The Brothers Karamazov” is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness…

That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.

The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.

And so you have it… if God himself did not suffer as an innocent, then perhaps we would be without hope. But to quote one author, our great hope is that the suffering God will one day “make all bad things come untrue.” It seems as if our Advent prayers come with a little more desperation than usual this year. Come Lord Jesus.

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

P.S. To hear a few more voices engaging with the shootings both pastorally and theologically, you might want to check out the sermons that Mbird honchos David Zahl, Nick Lannon and Jady Koch gave yesterday. They are all available on our Resources page.