Bad things happen to good people; this is a tragic truth in life. How religious individuals explain the "why" can be very different from faith to faith. When people turn to God for solace it is never shocking, but when they turn to God to blame the victim, the rest of us are disgusted.
Why do many -- often conservative evangelical or fundamentalist Christian theologians -- blame the victim as a go-to response?
Tragedy and religion are nearly inseparable twins. Even if individuals do not seeing tragedy as divine judgment against whatever bogeyman seems appropriate, they still turn to God for answers, solace and self-reflection.
For example, after the destructive 2011 Christchurch earthquake, a return to religion was very noticeable. According to a recent study by Drs. Chris Sibley and Joseph Bulbulia of the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, which surveyed 4,000 individuals from 2009 to 2011, "levels of religious affiliation have been declining for fifty years, but after the Christchurch earthquake we found a marked shift in the opposite direction."
While this alone may not be surprising, what is consistently disturbing is when religion is not just a place for comfort, but used as a throne for judgment. We're all used to the Pat Robertson reactions to tragedy; it doesn't differ much from Westboro Baptist's talking points: event X happened because someone is gay in city Y. In other words, the simple answer is to have a scapegoat that God is eager to judge.
This might not be the majority response by American Christians, but it is far from being peripheral. For example, a recent study by Public Religion Research Institute discovered that more than one-third (36 percent) of Americans believe that "severity of recent natural disasters is evidence that we are in what the Bible calls the end times" and that roughly three in 10 (29 percent) of Americans agree that "God sometimes punishes nations for the political decisions their citizens make."
For some, there is no other real consideration. Before the names of the Sandy Hook victims were even released, Bryan Fischer, radio show host with the controversial American Family Association, said the Sandy Hook tragedy was punishment for kicking God out of the public schools and creationist apologist Eric Hovind and the pastor of Fox News, Mike Huckabee, agreed.
"We've kicked God out of our public school system," said Fischer. "And I think God would say to us, 'Hey, I'll be glad to protect your children, but you've got to invite me back into your world first. I'm not going to go where I'm not wanted. I am a gentlemen.'"
Do gentlemen hold the safety of children hostage?
Many of us are shocked every time we hear it, but this type of thinking -- to blame the victim while claiming to read the mind of God -- is not a new thing. Puritans and evangelicals in pre-revolutionary America believed that national calamities like this were divine punishment. In their day, these PRRI poll numbers would be significantly higher.
This was part of what was called the National Covenant, an idea that not was not limited to just colonial America. Like ancient Israel, these Puritans believed that a people or nation entered into a covenant with God to obey his commands. Obedience brought blessing, but disobedience brought punishment. This divine justice could take the form of enemy attacks, accidental deaths or anything tragic. So if these occurred, everyone involved assumed responsibility and repented.
For this reason, they lived with the constant reminder that they should be right with God or tragedy may fall upon them. This fear troubled them to the point that even in educating their children on the alphabet, they saw it as a chance to remind them of their duty to God. While today we might teach our children that "y" stand for yellow or "d" for dog, in that day, children were provided a more graphic mnemonic device. When it came to the letter "y," children read: "Youth forward slips, death soonest nips," a rhyme accompanied by a skeletal reaper stabbing a child in the head with an arrow.
Try sleeping at night after learning that alphabet.
This phantom idea of God's judgment eagerly waiting to drop the sickle "haunts" -- to use a term of Flannery O'Connor -- the conservative Evangelical mind in America, whether or not they know its roots. That is why a pastor can blame a hurricane on the so-called "homosexual agenda" and not feel in any way unjustified in doing it, and why those outside of that dark worldview might find it to be an absurd idea.
I think there might be a better way: If you are unable to console, consider silence.
I have 17 nieces and nephews, which is just three less than the number of children who were killed. My contextualizing imagination considered what would happen if I lost all of them in a day due to a tragedy like this. What would it be like to have such gaping holes in a family and community?
Rather than being armchair investigators and theologians, blaming the deaths on the first hobby horse and phobia that comes to mind, and before the yellow tape has even been raised and before we even know which Lanza pulled the trigger, perhaps we can just be silent.
We all need time to grieve, but this is especially true for those who will miss the eager sounds of children around their Christmas trees this year. The Apostle Paul said Christians should weep with those that weep (Romans 12:15), and if the theologian can't do that, then maybe he or she can just be a decent human being and get out of the way. You're really not helping.
Follow Brandon G. Withrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/bwithrow