Children die. Sometimes peacefully at home, as my eight-month-old son did about a year ago. Sometimes when bombs blow up churches, as was the case in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, when four little girls died. And sometimes they are slaughtered, as in several biblical tales and during the shootings in Connecticut. These are horrific moments that leave us wondering, "where is God?"
We are not the first, and sadly, we will not be the last, to wonder about the place of the sacred amid the deaths of innocents. That theodical problem is with us - theologically unsolved and socially unresolved. But history and personal experience have taught me one thing: silence can be powerful.
"God has a plan for this," a woman explained to me as she prattled on just before the memorial service for my son Elijah. She meant the words to be comforting, but I swallowed them as if lumps of clay. They have sat in my stomach ever since, and try as I may I have been unable to vomit them out spiritually. Providential interpretations of everyday life sometimes feel satisfying - like when bad traffic slows me or down or when a friend has a cold. The deaths of children are quite another.
This chatty woman was Elijah's very evangelical grandmother. She meant well; she loved and loves Elijah, but to her, everything was in the hands of a big, all-seeing, all-powerful Father. For me, the thought that God had a plan for my son to be unable to eat, that God intended for my son to fail to breath, or that God was instrumental in my son dying in my arms was disgusting. To me, that God could only be an awful and wicked monster.
And the thought, today, that God perhaps has a plan amid the Connecticut shooting sickens me as well.
As a historian, I knew that I was neither the first, nor the last to lose a child. Millions have lost their children or experienced those losses from afar, and sometimes in devastating and highly public circumstances. In 1963, white terrorists killed four young girls when they bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Anne Moody (who became a civil rights activist and then wrote one of the most famous memoirs of the movement) did not know them, but she heard the news on the radio with her family in Mississippi. It sent shockwaves through them. "I looked at George; he sat with his face buried in the palms of his hands. Dave sat motionless with tears in his eyes. Mattie looked at Dave as if she had been grounded by an electric shock. I put my hand up to my face. Tears were pouring out of my eyes, and I hadn't even known I was crying." She could not remain in the house. Moody fled into the streets and then, lost and confused, she "I found myself in a graveyard."
She wanted to find God and some meaning in it all. "I sat there looking up through the trees, trying to communicate with God." She prayed, "Now talk to me, God. Come on down and talk to me." God did not come down, so Moody decided to shout up. "Mama used to tell us that you would forgive us seventy-seven times a day, and I believed in you. I bet you those girls in Sunday school were being taught the same as I was when I was their age. It that teaching wrong? Are you going to forgive their killers?" Moody was at a loss for how to deal with the deaths and with the killers.
On that day, Moody's pacifism died. She would no longer stand back as others used violence to get their way. If God refused to help, then she even threatened violence at his throne. If she found out that God was "black," then, "I'll try my best to kill you when I get to heaven."
For Anne Moody, traditional Christian teachings offered her very little, if anything. Turning the other cheek would only allow the violent to continue. Arguments that "God has a plan" would never bring back those four little girls (as they will not bring back the lost in Connecticut or my little son). She wanted change and change now - from heaven and from politicians.
But perhaps God was there as Moody prayed - in the silence. Perhaps God did not say anything, because God knows that words at times like that were meaningless. Perhaps God is more like the whisper in the wind that the biblical Eljiah experienced or like the Jesus who knelt silently when the "adulterous woman" was brought before him. Perhaps he knew, as my friend Jonathan Walton - now the pastor at Harvard University's Memorial Chapel - knew that one can mourn with another without telling them how to interpret the events. Reverend Walton's text message to me after my son's death is the only one I have kept: it reads simply, "sigh." He knew as a father and as a brother that this was not the time to counsel.
So as we mourn the many losses; as we hug our children; as we have our debates over gun control; and as we wonder where God is, perhaps we can think about what we say and what we do not. Perhaps in this moment "sigh" is better than childish theology; perhaps to remain attentively quiet is what God would ask of us - because that is what God seems to do too.