“It’s an interesting thing. We ask why there’s violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage … ?” (Mike Huckabee).
That statement by a former presidential candidate sparked a fire in both civil and religious circles, and well-meaning people have fallen into it, turning a national tragedy into a political and religious argument.
To be fair, Mr Huckabee wasn’t stating that this massacre was a direct result of prayer being taken out of that school. He’s talking about the overall decline of moral and religious values, of personal responsibility and accountability and an awareness of eternal judgment, brought about by removing God and religious instruction from public discourse. He seems to be saying that this is the inevitable consequence of separating church and state. This is what we get for pushing God out.
I can’t tell you the number of Facebook posts I’ve seen portraying this same sentiment: “Dear God, why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a concerned student. Dear Concerned Student, I’m not allowed in schools. Signed, God.”
The logic is the same as Huckabee’s. Because some people have rejected God in official government arenas, God has been forced out, powerless. And like a spoiled, petulant child he’s going to punish us now by granting our wish. “Okay, I’ll teach you! See what you get?” It seems silly from the outset.
Why that’s silly …
First of all, bad things happen to good people. All the time. Evil has been occurring since the days when Cain murdered Abel – to “godless” and God-fearing people alike. To say that because something bad happened, it’s God fault or that God allowed it to happen in order to punish us is an argument Jesus himself dispensed with back 2000 years ago. Maybe some of these perhaps-well-intended people out to defend God’s honor should go back to the book before spouting off religious sounding drivel that has the sound of holiness but lacks any of its truth or power.
When Jesus sent out his disciples to “bring God into the public arena” (okay, the New Testament phrases it more like “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God”), some of the towns absolutely rejected the message. And those disciples wanted to call down God’s judgment on them, destroying them with fire from heaven. If ever anyone could be accused of removing God from their culture, from a Christian viewpoint, it would be those villages.
But Jesus’ response? “You don’t know what Spirit you are of. I did not come to destroy lives, but to save them!” (Luke 9:56). What’s that mean? For one thing, that hostile, retaliatory reaction you’re feeling is not from God. It is not some divinely inspired “righteous anger.” That vengeful spirit is coming from some other place. And second, the Spirit you’re supposed to be representing doesn’t do that kind of thing. That’s not who God is, and that’s not who we are.
Any kind of projecting this attitude back on to God – “You kicked me out, so here you go!” – is actually antithetical to God’s heart.
On a different occasion, some people came to Jesus to get his spiritual assessment of some victims who were murdered by the Romans as they offered sacrifices to God. Surely, this was God’s wrath. They must have done something to deserve this. Jesus’ response: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you … Or, those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. And unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).
Catastrophes are not caused by divine judgment – at least that’s what Jesus was saying there. “Don’t be looking for fault, don’t try to make sense of it by blaming the victims or those around them. Do you think you are any better? You’ve all escaped a tragic fate you probably deserved because of God’s grace. Now act like it.”
That kind of spiritual smugness – “this happened because so-and-so did such-and-such,” with the unspoken implication that we live so much more worthily and are undeserving of similar tragedy – just rubs salt in the wound of those suffering. It reflects badly on those saying it, and completely fails to reflect the true heart of God.
And it’s diametrically opposed to the description of God loving a faulty humanity so much that he went to the extreme of letting his Son be crucified just to restore unimpeded connection.
Were God’s hands tied in this Newtown school because some politicians made it illegal for schools to force students to pray? Did God stand by helpless as a gunman mowed down 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school all because they weren’t allowed to post a copy of the 10 Commandments on the wall? Or worse: did he allow it to happen as punishment?
Not according to Jesus.
To give Mr. Huckabee a little credit, he did say something that was spiritually accurate. “God wasn’t armed. God didn’t go to that school.” Finally, truth. God did not cause this. “But God will be there in the form of a lot of people with hugs, and with therapy, and a whole lot of ways in which, I think, he will be involved in the aftermath.”
God’s hands are not tied
The divine promise, “I will never leave you, never forsake you,” is not restricted because “activist judges” separate civil government from faithful practice. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you, God, are with me.” That is the correct perspective. The people rushing back into the building, to rescue and support the injured – these are the hands and feet of God. The comforting presence, both human and divine, that will be there to pick up the pieces of these shattered lives – that is the act of God.
We may never be able to make sense of this tragedy – or of any other, for that matter. Hurricanes that flood cities, tsunamis that destroy villages, earthquakes and fires, plagues and diseases … all the calamities that befall this troubled earth. They are part of our existence, part of our “fallen creation” as some theologians explain it. God, for some reason, chooses not to intervene sometimes. He sometimes allows events to occur that shake us to the core, make us question his love, question even his very existence. And in this life, we may never get the answers we’re looking for. But we cannot start pointing fingers at each other, laying blame for “divine wrath.” It serves no one, and certainly does not reflect the heart of God. It is “not the Spirit we are of.”
Instead, let’s be more focused on bearing fruit of our true spirituality. We need to put on more love, more joy, more peace, more patience and tolerance, more goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and humility. Let’s be the hands of God reaching out to help, the lips of God offering words of consolation and encouragement, and the strength of God by helping to restore and rebuild broken lives. That’s something more worthy of us. That’s really the heart of God, and that is the spirit we are of.
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.