Fostering Surprise and Compassion: a Reflection on Christmas and Newtown

Last week I spent a long morning with an old friend and we talked about how after the Newtown killings on December 14, 2012 that left twenty children and eight adults dead, we felt despondent, rage, and offered many prayers of lament to God. We also admitted we were far more upset after this tragedy than after other recent mass shootings like those in Aurora, Colorado, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or Tucson, Arizona. We noted that we were not alone in seeing these murders as somehow more egregious. The reactions to the killings in Newtown  have been understandably passionate.

As I have sifted through the opinions and debates about the cause of the killings and the appropriate steps to reduce or prevent future similar events, I sense a tangibly different reaction to the Newtown tragedy as compared to other recent mass shootings. The National Rifle Association initially went silent after this mass shooting, something it has not done after other similar events. Congressional leaders who have strongly supported maintaining and extending gun rights are now talking about seeking some new controls. What can account for the different reactions this time around? Sen. Joe Manchin III from West Virgina sums up the reason for the change rather well: “Never before have we seen our babies slaughtered.”

My friend and I sat with the thought that these murders were worse because they involved children. Children represent innocence and the future and to murder them is a tangible expression of an evil full of nihilistic despair. But it is not fair to see these children as more innocent than the victims in Tuscon, Oak Creek, or Aurora. What were the people going to shop at Safeway and meet their congressional representative doing that made them somehow more deserving of murder? The Sikhs in Oak Creek simply wanted to worship as they saw fit. What wrong did a 24 year-old commit by showing up to a midnight showing of a Batman movie that made her death less tragic? Why could we not mourn for these victims with the same passion we mourn for the children of Sandy Hook Elementary? Furthermore, why is the death of the children the force driving us to question our culture, systems, and laws — why do not the deaths of the adults play as large a factor? It troubles me that I am somehow more moved by the premature deaths of certain types of people than I am by others.

I have to admit as a Christian who believes every person is created in God’s image and is loved by Jesus so much that he died for them, I cannot make any legitimate theological argument about why the loss of children is inherently worse than killing other people. But I cannot deny that it feels worse. My friend also brought up that just three days after the killings at Newtown, eleven girls in Afghanistan died from a landmine they accidentally triggered as they gathered wood. This story has received far less attention and I admit I did not feel the same despondency as I did when I learned of the Newtown murders. I sat there wondering why I did not feel as bad for the Afghan girls as I did for the Newtown children. Maybe proximity has something to do with it — the Newtown killings happened in my nation, to my fellow citizens. But I think I ultimately hold a belief that is frighteningly well-articulated by Joker in the 2008 film, The Dark Knight.

For a moment, let us limit the matter to premature deaths of children due to violence. I do not mourn the deaths of the Afghan girls or the numerous other children who die in war zones every day with the same intensity as I mourn the children of Newtown largely because I have made space in my head to say bad things are bound to happen in those places. Their deaths are sad, but not all that surprising. Joker was right, their deaths go according to some terrible plan. I wonder if this is a plan devoid of hope of a better world, a plan that accepts evil too easily.

Perhaps I have given too harsh an assessment. Maybe beyond merely having a hopeless acceptance and expectation of evil, I just do not have the capacity of compassion to feel the pain of each loss. We are limited human beings who possess a finite amount of love and concern. To mourn the loss of every murdered person would render us incapable of going about our daily lives. While the deaths of children and adults due to violence are truly tragic no matter where they live, it is simply beyond us to not only know of each loss, but also to have our hearts truly break for them.

Neither of these options satisfies me. If Joker is right about our outlook and expectations, it is time to get a new outlook and new expectations. I am under no illusion that evil is not real, but that does not mean I am willing to give up hope for victory over it. I think the first step in refusing to accept the plan the Joker describes is to foster a sense of surprise. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel beautifully elucidated the need for surprise in the face of evil:

I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.

Secondly, even if we were able to read and absorb the information about the deaths of each person in the world, I think we may not actually possess the compassion to mourn their demises. This requires a heart big enough to hold both their lives and deaths. For if we were only to focus on deaths, despair would be the only legitimate option. The world is not only despair, however. Just as children were being killed in Newtown and elsewhere around the world, babies were also being born. My heart is not big enough to care — to celebrate all instances of beauty and to grieve all losses. I believe, however, that God is just that compassionate. God can be in the delivery room with the new parents, celebrating new life with them, while simultaneously grieving the children who prematurely die and comforting their loved ones in mourning.

At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation of Jesus, God coming to be with humanity. To foster surprise and grow compassion, there may not be a greater holiday to celebrate than Christmas. There is little more surprising than the idea that the God of the universe would become a human and be born among an oppressed people, to poor parents, and have that birth announced to outcast shepherds. There is nothing more compassionate than this same God choosing to experience the pains and joys of humanity firsthand. Compassion literally means to suffer with someone and this is truly what Jesus did with us as he lived among us, ministered to us, and died and rose again on our behalf. For various reasons, our culture turns Christmas into a saccharine holiday full of schmaltzy tripe. I encourage us to reject temptations to do so. Christmas is no less than God not just reaching into, but moving into a world drawn to despair. In Jesus, we have the final answer of hope that we long for.

I am not able to muster the surprise needed to reject the plan that the world is an evil place and all we can do is make our own enclave as safe as can be by keeping others out. In Jesus, however, I have a God who can shape my heart to be so surprised at the evil that kills children that I am drawn to participate with God in doing something about it. My heart is too small to have the compassion to mourn the deaths of humans beloved by God, but in Jesus, my heart can grow as I learn to go where he goes and love whom he loves. I do not mean to make this transformation sound easy because it is not. It requires adopting a new plan and a new set of priorities, and submitting to this incarnational God, this Jesus who is surprising, dangerous, hopeful, and who goes where he is not invited.

(I intended this post to be my Advent reflection for 2012, but it proved difficult to write, so now it will serve as a Christmastide reflection.)

2 thoughts on “Fostering Surprise and Compassion: a Reflection on Christmas and Newtown

  1. Gotta make it quick. My thoughts on why we feel worse about children being killed is this: We have all been children. We all understand how naive / venerable we were as children to certain truths in life. And at this point it is understood why we MUST have parents / protectors / guardians. As adults and to a greater degree as parents we take this role / this duty. When something happens under our “watch” I think we naturally feel worse because we accept some of the blame. We don’t collectively have the same feeling of responsibility for other adults for a variety of reasons.

  2. Your quotation from Heschel brings to mind this quotation from Chesterton:

    “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

    I think that what makes Newtown more difficult to accept is that Heschel’s “surprise” and Chesterton’s “abounding vitality” comes naturally to a child. Newtown feels more tragic because that “abounding vitality” has been lost.

    In the aftermath people were saying things like, “I never thought this could happen here,” which struck me as naive given the depravity of man. But a child saying the same thing doesn’t strike me as naive. The child is alive in ways which we are not, and because we regret that loss of life in ourselves, we mourn that loss of vitality in the children of Sandy Hook that much more.

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