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Newtown, Connecticut, December 14, 2012

December 22, 2012

?????????????Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
–Emily Dickinson

Mourning is the homage our bodies, our minds, our souls pay to grievous loss: lost lives, lost dreams, joys, hopes, and expectations, lost innocence, lost innocents. Our first need in a time like this, when loss on an incomprehensible scale has come upon us, is to mourn. Only our souls can tell us when it’s “enough.”

Music, such as the prayers beautifully sung by the rabbi and the young Muslim boy in the Newtown memorial service this week, enable us to grieve as does nothing else I know. I am longing to hear again Henryk Gorecki’s masterpiece, Symphony No. 3, called “Three Sorrowful Songs.” (We have the deeply moving recording with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta, conducted by David Zinman.)

Poetry too can be a solemn reminder of our need, if only to stop. This week my heart stopped for another Emily Dickinson poem:

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth —

The sweeping up the heart,
And putting things away
We shall not need to use again
Until eternity.

The grief-swept heart is also a hearth, and its sweeping is a humble task. What then are the tasks to which we who count ourselves among the dedicated community are called? (I do not think you need to be a member of a “religious community,” but I do think you need to see yourself as part of a community dedicated to the common good, responsive to its needs.)

The first task of the dedicated community is to open a space for mourning in our personal and social lives. There is always the temptation “to pass by on the other side,” unlike the Good Samaritan, or to pause briefly and soon forget. The entertainments brought us by the mass media — with the exception of some broadcast and print news outlets– will do everything they can not to let us “stop for Death,” to shut mourning out. This tragic massacre calls upon us to weep with those who can only weep until we and they have wept enough.

The second task is to tell the truth: A demonic evil has visited us, yet again. Has this rough beast finally got our attention? “We know who you are!” the demons cry out to Jesus (see Mark 1:24) — a strange testimony to the way in which a blessed presence brings evil out of hiding, out into the open, hoping to shock and awe us with postured self-importance. “Demonic” signifies deeds that twist what is good to evil ends. Being pressed by Piers Morgan on CNN to justify the absence of gun controls, an unflappable gun seller said, “The truth is shooting semi-automatic guns is fun.” I’d never heard “fun” so stoutly defended, as if he took us for idiots. Demonic expression often takes such grotesque forms. The United States of America is shamed among nations for its culture of violent “fun.” Our task is simply to tell the truth about guns, video games, movies, sports, even art— starting with ourselves.

The third task is to give voice to righteous anger: What keeps our society on its knees, worshipping at the altar of this culture of violence? We have made of “freedom,” precious freedom, an idol, a stuffed scarecrow of a god. We have twisted the image of God – the spiritual freedom in which we are made– into a license to please ourselves and never stop. But of course anger is never righteous unless it is directed to good ends, unless it takes our spiritual freedom in hand and puts it to work. For instance, to enact gun regulation at least as serious as our regulation of ladders, to fund mental health programs at least as much as we fund the TSA, to eliminate obsessively fascinating gratuitously violent entertainments of all sorts.

We can be gratified that President Obama, by saying that we must act as a society to end the violence such as we have seen in Newtown, Connecticut, has heard the public outcry, at last, and has called for legislative action. He has once again showed himself to be our Pastoral President — a calm and consoling leader, calling the flock to support one another, praising Newtown’s example of courage and compassion before the world. Knowing that a minister is also a community organizer, he also said that we, America, must do better by our children and by even ourselves, in concrete and costing ways. He thereby puts not only us but also himself on the spot, actually to do it!

But lest we too quickly pass by this ugly visitation, Death — this eruption of demonic fury, laughing in our faces as it crams the innocents into its maw — lest we fail to stop and ponder the meaning of this meaninglessness, I want to cite Ross Douthet’s column in the New York Times, December 16, “The Loss of the Innocents.”

“In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, Ivan is the Karamazov brother who collects stories of children tortured, beaten, killed—babes caught on the points of soldiers’ bayonets, a serf boy run down by his master’s hounds, a child of five locked in a freezing outhouse by her parents.
“Ivan invokes these innocents in a speech that remains one of the most powerful rebukes to the idea of a loving, omniscient God—a speech that accepts the possibility that the Christian story of free will leading to suffering and then eventually redemption might be true, but rejects its Author anyway, on the grounds that the price of our freedom is too high.
“ ‘Can you understand,’ he asks his more religious sibling, ‘why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? . . . Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?’
“Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at ‘too high a price.’ Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth ‘the tears of that one tortured child.’
“It’s telling that Dostoyevsky, himself a Christian, offered no direct theological rebuttal to his character’s speech. The counterpoint to Ivan in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is supplied by other characters’ examples of Christian love transcending suffering, not by a rhetorical justification of God’s goodness.
“In this, the Russian novelist was being true to the spirit of the New Testament, which likewise seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.
“In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today—besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow—is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.
“That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.
“The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable—the shadow of violence, agony and death.
“In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.”

Journalists and poets have become our theologians. Who will be our prophets?
G.K.B.

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