Every day we are inundated with reports of violence. Every newspaper is filled with pain. The evening news is too unbearable to watch. Internet news sites are covered in what’s wrong with the world. And then, there is another school shooting. Another report of innocence being stolen. Another child wounded, killed, parents left with broken hearts, and a void that can never be filled.
It stings. I have two small children. It makes me feel helpless every morning when I bring them to school. My heart can’t take the news, and I think I’ve started to become numb. I can’t imagine the pain and devastation of those who are much closer to the tragedies than I am.
It makes me want to cry out, “Where are you God? Why children? Why innocent people? Have mercy on us!”
And the response I hear from others around me is, “God wasn’t in the school. We don’t give God our permission to be in schools anymore. And if we would let God back in, these things would stop happening.”
I think we say this because it makes us feel like there is something we can do to make it better. It makes us feel like we can fix it. All we have to do is “allow” God back into our schools, and all these problems, all this pain, all this violence will just go away.
But it won’t.
I believe in a God who doesn’t require my permission before going places. I believe in a God who is ever present in the world, regardless of whether or not people in those places believe in or accept his presence among them. God is there. God is present in places of suffering. And that causes a problem.
In the field of philosophy, this is called the “problem of evil.” If God is good, and God is everywhere, how can there still be evil? Why do bad things happen if God is good and powerful enough to stop them from happening? This problem is one of the main reasons people don’t believe in God at all. It seems logically impossible for God to be all loving, all good, and all powerful, and still allow for a world to continue on where horrible things happen to people who do not deserve it.
And children deserve it least of all.
We say that God isn’t allowed in schools, and we say that is why bad things are happening, because deep down we don’t know if we can believe in a God who stands by and lets horrible people do horrible things to innocent children. We say it because we are afraid. We say it because we desperately want to fix it, and we know the problem is bigger than any of us.
But it doesn’t help.
All it does is shift our focus away from the real problem. It imagines that Christians are the victims of a godless world when there are others genuinely suffering. What we should be doing is mourning with those who are enduring real, unimaginable pain. We need to reach out and offer assistance, give hugs, love, and enter into the problems in the hopes of finding long-term solutions.
I know that not everyone believes in God, and it is not my intention to turn this into a debate about the existence of God. But, for those of us who do believe in a God, it doesn’t make sense to believe in a God who is less powerful than human beings. I don’t believe in a God who needs my permission to be present in school. I don’t believe in a God who is limited by my authority and can only enter in when invited. I know that God is present everywhere, even in places where there is immense and immeasurable suffering. And it stings.
And it brings hope.
In the midst of our suffering, God is there. God is close to those whose hearts are breaking. God didn’t cause the suffering, and the suffering didn’t come about because we have limited God’s ability to be present somewhere. Suffering happens because evil is a sickness that has infiltrated the world. It happens because evil is contagious. Violence happens because even though God created humans good and in his image, human beings are broken.
We have mentally ill people who do not have access to the care they need in order to keep from harming themselves and others.
We have drugs that desensitize people to the horrors of violence.
We have systems that fail to keep people who have already committed despicable acts of violence from hurting innocent people again.
We have children who are so angry that they lash back in violence.
We have schools that are vulnerable places with teachers and staff doing the best they can to keep kids safe.
We have political agendas that get in the way of us having real, meaningful conversations that will bring about change.
It’s a complex issue. It’s not just about guns. It’s not just about mental illness. It’s not something that’s confined to one party, one agenda, one way of doing things. It’s a mess, and it needs to be sorted through. But we’ve reached a point where the mess is so large, so unwieldy, so overwhelming that we don’t know what to do.
But we can’t do nothing. We can’t point fingers at everyone else and do nothing to be part of the solution. We can’t make ourselves into the victims when there are real people suffering real pain. The problem isn’t that God isn’t allowed somewhere. The problem is much bigger, much more sinister, much more difficult to manage than that.
When we say that God is not allowed in schools, we are making it about our own insecurities, and we are projecting a damaging theology of a limited and powerless God who stands by helplessly as we destroy each other. Making it about the place of religion in schools is missing the point, while at the same time disparaging the God we claim to believe in. It drives yet another wedge between polarized sides and groups, making it even harder for necessary conversations to happen.
Let’s put down our fighting words and sit next to those who are grieving. Let’s examine unhelpful and broken systems and ask difficult questions. For a moment, let’s forget the answers we think we already know so that we can hear each other. For a moment, let’s forget about proving who is right, and focus on creating the kind of world that’s fit for the laughter and joy of children.