Newtown Shootings: If God Exists, Why Do Terrible Things Happen?

Newtown Shootings: If God Exists, Why Do Terrible Things Happen?

My email flooded with questions from readers this weekend regarding the shootings in Portland, Oregon and Newtown, Conneticut. As always, I offer answers not to close a conversation, but to broaden one. Here are some of the questions, and my answers:
My third grader asks why God didn’t prevent the Sandy Hook Elementary School slayings. Our pastor told us what to say to our son, and the answers satisfy him, but not me. Why didn’t God spare these people? Why is there evil?
This may be difficult to hear, but your questions are the shadow side of your theology. Because you imagine a God who could stop the killings, you wonder why he didn’t. Because you imagine a God who is all–good, you wonder why there’s evil. Imagine differently. In Isaiah 45:7, God says, “I fashion light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil.” God contains all opposites, and creation actualizes them. Reality is what reality is because God is who God is: the source of all things, evil as well as good.
Can you help me find Bible passages explaining these killings?
Don’t search the Bible to explain what happened; search it for wisdom that helps you respond well to what happened. Start with Job 2:9—“Shouldn’t we accept the bad as well as the good from God?” Job realizes the “yin–yang” nature of God and creation, and teaches radical acceptance: facing the truth of what is as the first step toward positively engaging with what is. Without the distraction of “why,” we are free to grieve more fully. The healing is in the grieving, not the explaining.
I rarely go to Mass, but I went after the Newtown killings. I wanted answers, but the priest said it was a mystery. What do you say?
No mystery, just reality. Listen to Deuteronomy 30:19: “Behold I place before you living and dying, blessing and cursing. Choose life that you and your children might live.” Choosing life is choosing to experience good and evil. Choosing life wisely means learning to navigate the triumphs and terrors of living, and teach our children to do the same. Religion should be about navigating reality, not hiding out in “mystery.”
I believe in karma, but I can’t accept the idea that the people murdered in Connecticut and Oregon deserved to die. Do I understand karma correctly?
I read karma differently. Karma (“action”) teaches that present situations result from previous actions. This is a physical fact not a moral judgment. The people who were killed were killed because of where they were, not who they were. Thinking otherwise blames the victim, and exempts us from taking responsibility for the quality of our society. What happens happens because at the moment it happens, nothing else could happen. How we respond to what happens is what matters.
My sister’s pastor says heaven is for true believers only, and that some of those Sandy Hook kids are in hell. Really?
Our beliefs reveal our deepest values. This pastor believes in a zero–sum world where God’s love is reserved solely for those of whom the pastor approves. He has set himself up as God, and uses hell as a recruiting tool. He is piling evil upon evil.
My rabbi says God honors free will, and that’s why he didn’t protect those children in Connecticut. Does that make sense to you?
No, it doesn’t. Did these people freely choose to die? Of course not. Why is God always honoring the free will of the wicked rather than the innocent? This is just another theological dodge protecting your rabbi’s image of God.
Our imam says God created humans with free will, and this is why evil happens. We should be grateful to Allah, because who wants to live in a world without free will?
I do. What benefit do we derive from our capacity for cruelty, brutality, and murder? If God had created us without these, we wouldn’t even know it. We wouldn’t ask, “Why can’t we rape and murder?” We would simply live moral, decent, loving lives, and never trouble ourselves over the absence of evil.
I’m writing about my initial response to the horror of Newtown: I thought it was a Muslim terror attack. I’m ashamed of this. Am I an Islamophobe?
First, you can’t control the thoughts that pop into your head. Second, Islam does have a terrorist problem. Third, we live in a culture obsessed with violence and fearful of Islam. So thinking this isn’t unusual. Be thankful for your shame, however. It proves you aren’t an Islamophobe.
How long after a mass killing is “too soon” to talk about gun control?
It’s always too soon to talk about gun control if your identity is defined by opposing gun control. These tragedies reveal our deepest defenses. Some of us defend our God against the challenge of theodicy (why God allows evil); some of us defend our guns against the challenge of gun control. Some do both. In either case we are defending ourselves against having to think critically about our beliefs. When told that your concern with gun control is too soon after Sandy Hook, agree and explain that you aren’t responding to Sandy Hook, but to the Portland shooting. And if that’s too soon, you’re responding to the Wisconsin shooting. And if that’s too soon, you’re responding to the Tucson shooting in 2011, or if that’s too soon to the Columbine shooting in 1999. It’s never too soon; it’s almost always too late.
I watched on TV as the President, local politicians, and clergy addressed the people in Newtown—empty promises and pious platitudes. What would you have said?
Nothing. I would have walked among the people, hugging them and crying with them. I would have allowed my heart to break, rather than my gums to flap. Until we are truly broken we will never heal what is wrong with our nation and ourselves.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro writes the "Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler" column for Spirituality & Health. To send him a question, email [email protected]

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