Two Takes on the Newtown Tragedy

It seems to me that there have been two primary types of reactions to this week's school shooting in Newtown as people struggle to make sense of this awful event. The first is a secular reaction: many people look to make sense of it in terms of certain social, cultural, or psychological problems. The cause of the massacre is our access to and infatuation with guns. Or perhaps it was a case of a mental illness inappropriately diagnosed and dealt with. This sort of explanation of the event turns us to re-examine our failures as a society and leads us to political debates about how to restructure society or certain policies in order to eliminate or reduce the chance of this happening again.

The second sort of reaction is a religious reaction. I have seen just as many people speaking about this event as an instance of pure evil, as evidence of our fallen condition, and of the original sin that will always plague humanity. The cause of the massacre is explained as a consequence of human nature. This sort of explanation asks us to turn to the spiritual as a way of dealing with the recurrent evil in the world. On this take, the massacre is not framed as a problem to be solved, but as a reminder of evil as an ongoing condition of life that must be dealt with through spiritual or religious practice: faith, prayer, love, hope.

I'm not sure that we have to decide between these two approaches, but it does seem to me like we often do decide -- and judge those who take the different approach as having decided poorly. To a secular mind, painting this act as an instance of pure evil takes it out of the hands of human action and control and therefore denies the responsibility that we have to prevent future acts. This looks like a failure of will and self-determination. And responding through prayer and placing trust in a higher power seems to the secular mind to simply be neglecting the hard work of real and lasting social reform.

To the religious mind, taking such an event as an instance of poor social policies or social structures seems cold and politically motivated. To be struck by the event as an act of pure evil is to see the hollowness of human action in relation to such things. This almost metaphysical realization of the inadequacy of action in the face of evil leads the religiously minded to see policy debates surrounding the event as offensive in their superficiality. They seem trivial in relation to the deep loss that occurs and the horrible insights that we perceive about our nature and place in the universe.

My own mind oscillates feebly through these two different modes of "making sense." At moments I want to be angry with the people who make, distribute, buy, and play with the weapons that were used to shed the blood of 6 year olds. I want this industry shut down, and my anger makes me want to judge the people who are involved in this industry and who defend it on the basis of abstract constitutional arguments as complicit in this tragedy. At other moments, I realize that this reaction is based in resentment and revenge and tired political divisions rather than love and hope, that such reactions are a way for me to avoid the understanding that such events do not have explanations, that awful events can't be boiled down to the trite debates of the hour.

I would like to make a recommendation here, as if I have an answer. But I am afraid that the only--and maybe even best--answers that those of us witnessing these horrors from a distance will find are distraction and forgetting.

If between now and when we forget about the Newtown tragedy, we have gained little in bitterness and more in trust, care, and concern, is that enough? Probably not. But it would be something.


  1. Thanks for posting this observation. I've been feeling adrift in terms of my reaction to this and this is enlightening.

  2. Thanks, Jeff. Avoiding bitterness and gaining care and concern....that's a good way to approach getting past this.

  3. You laid out the two paradigms really well. As usual, I find myself in both. I wonder if political bickering has made a caricature of the project of making our world better. I also wonder if something like this might shock us enough to address (secular view) the evil (religious view) that is really there and to stop playing games (secular AND religious views).

  4. Americans are very forgetful when it comes to mass shootings. Why does your well regulated militia need automatic and semi-automatic weapons to ensure the security of your free state? We don't need them.

  5. It really is a different world. Couple of different things to consider; guns, mental health, and media. No one solution, but one question, is this more of an American problem? The Australian answer has worked, would it work here?

    1. They say guns are too embedded in the culture for laws such as they have in Europe and Australia to work. Perhaps that's true, but it also sounds a bit like an excuse. I don't have answers, but I do think we can do better.


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