Sunday, December 16, 2012

Pointing to Jesus: Toward Understanding the Newtown Massacre

I'm old enough to remember JFK's assassination, the Texas clock tower sniper, Son of Sam, Jonestown, 911, Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, and probably other horrors that are not now coming to mind. With the exceptions of a presidential murder and a terrorist attack on our largest city and our capital, I can't recall the national attention being galvanized the way it has been in the wake of Friday's killings at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. How can those who profess Christian faith account for this, or otherwise put it into some meaningful context?

The reason this incident ranks so high on the horror scale is probably because most of the victims of the Sandy Hook shooter were children, and rather young children at that. Anyone who is a parent or grandparent, or can imagine being a parent or grandparent, is pretty much turned into a mass of quivering jelly by the mere thought of what happened in Newtown. It is essentially the sum of all our fears. But that's not the real horror. The real horror is this: Yes, on December 14, 28 innocent people (and I include the shooter in the number, who was an innocent victim of his own mental illness) lost their lives suddenly and violently at Sandy Hook School. But I'm quite certain that at least 28 others, and probably many times over, also lost their lives suddenly and violently on the same day, just in our own country, to say nothing of the rest of the world. Each of those lives was equally precious as the lives lost in Newtown. Each of those victims have people who love them, and whose hearts are broken today. And there will be more tomorrow, and the day after that. Our attention is arrested when such events are aggregated, when they happen in one place and at one time. But they happen every day, and that is the real tragedy. Human beings live under the power of sin and death. Life is nasty, brutish, and short for a great majority of people in this world. That is a fundamental data point of our experience. And delivering us from this power is precisely what we mean by salvation, when we say that God saves us. God's project, as it were, is to bring forth a new creation, one in which perfect love reigns supreme (which itself obviates any need for justice or peace), and every tear is wiped away. 

So when the world asks us, as Christian believers, "Where was God at Sandy Hook School?", there (almost literally) are no words--or, at least, not very many. The best thing we can do is point--as always, pointing to Jesus. We point to Jesus, lying in a feeding trough in a barn as an innocent newborn infant--completely vulnerable, completely exposed--and say simply, "There is God." And there is no truer statement we could make, because there is God; indeed, God with us. We then point to the cross, to a naked and bleeding Jesus dying there, still as innocent as the day he was born, and we say, "There is God." And there is no truer statement we could make, because there is God; indeed, God for us. 

The only other word we can then speak--or, perhaps, not speak at all, but sing--is an ancient hymn that is preserved in the Eastern liturgies, but some westerners know: "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." When used liturgically, this hymn is sung over and over again, at increasing tempo and increasing volume. It is worth singing over and over, at increasing temp and increasing volume. It is precisely what we can say when the horror we confront is untellable. It is what we must say. While the wound is fresh, we cannot say very much more, and we ought not to say anything less.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Another Trigger Gets Pulled

The appropriate expression, I believe, is "shocked but not surprised." The Presiding Bishop's office announced today that it has interpreted public statements by the Bishop of South Carolina as a de facto request that he be formally relieved of the obligations of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, and that she has indeed granted that presumed request, and so, by implication, declared the office vacant. This is one of the chess pieces that needed to get moved into order to clear the way for the erection of a reconfigured "continuing" Episcopal diocese in the low country of South Carolina. How this impacts the adjudication of the earlier charge that he had already long since abandoned TEC by a public renunciation of its discipline by abetting the amendment of the diocesan constitution to remove accession to the canons (not the constitution) of TEC remains to be seen. It does now all seem moot, but--who knows?--maybe the March 2013 House of Bishops meeting will still stake it up.

I have already delivered myself of my deepest thoughts and feelings on this matter in my previous two posts on this blog, so I won't re-plow that ground. Well, maybe just a little:

Bishop Lawrence has, indeed, made it publicly clear that he no longer considers himself an Episcopalian. And as there are clearly people within his diocese who do wish to be Episcopalian, it seems fair enough that the church at large work with them to push the reset button on the presence of the Episcopal Church in that area. But let's be honest: Mark Lawrence "left" the Episcopal Church the way someone "leaves" the top floor of a burning skyscraper: It was a voluntary act, but not one he would have chosen except under the most extremely anomalous circumstances. For any practical purpose, he was pushed.

If the rest of the church had just been able to let the Diocese of South Carolina be what it is, we wouldn't be in this pastoral and constitutional mess. What they did to their constitution left it no different materially than the constitutions of a whole bunch of other dioceses that nobody seems to be picking on. They continued to participate in the life of the larger church, even if they did grumble a bit. But since when is grumbling the unpardonable sin?

Yet, elements within the diocese simply could not abide life in the margin. So they conspired to abuse the Title IV canons on abandonment. The first time, they were unsuccessful, and Bishop Lawrence was exonerated. Then the composition of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops changed and the votes were suddenly there. In the absence of any double jeopardy protection in Title IV, they made it stick the second time. So a small group of disgruntled Episcopalians within the diocese, with an assist from a majority of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, have succeeded in fomenting chaos. The damage they have caused is untellable.

Did they have help from outside? There is no lack of speculation in that direction, but I have no direct knowledge. If they did, though, whoever helped them is equally culpable.

Among the many victims of this disaster are parishes--with their clergy and faithful--who are in theological sympathy with the majority of the diocese, but disagree with the decision to leave TEC, and, in fact, have no desire or intention of doing so. Now they are faced with the distasteful prospect of making common cause with their offenders--those who instigated the apocalypse--or finding some other less unpalatable way forward. There are no "good" solutions. Our only hope, collectively, is to find some that are less bad than others.