The first reaction to a tragedy such as the horrific shooting in Colorado is a sickness to the stomach and disbelief, followed by a breaking of the heart as we hear the stories and see the faces of the family and loved ones of those who died. And then we move to the question of why.
And if we are gentle, and if we are kind, and if we are wise -- we pause there and do not answer too quickly. We stay with the pain and the tears and the terror and in response offer compassion, prayers, thoughts and demonstrate a willingness to be supportive and loving in any way we can.
The faithful response is to hold a vigil.
The reason why it is so important stay silent and be still in the immediate aftermath of tragedy is that if we respond or answer too soon we do not honor those victims who have died, and those who continue to suffer. Instead, our reactions serve the idols of our own agendas and ideas. Our reactions become about us and our egos, and only serve to distract away from the real work of compassion.
Religious people naturally wonder why God would let such a horrible shooting of movie goers happen. While the question of why is almost unavoidable for those who believe in God, any theological answer that we provide will be our own fabrication and deeply rooted in our own biases.
A textbook example of this was the auto-react of Rep. Gohmert of Texas who insisted on the radio that the shootings are the result of "ongoing attacks on Judeo-Christian Beliefs":
"People say ... where was God in all of this? We've threatened high school graduation participations, if they use God's name, they're going to be jailed ... I mean that kind of stuff. Where was God? What have we done with God? We don't want him around. I kind of like his protective hand being present."
Rep. Gohmert would do well to be silent on the question of why. He should hold vigil and study the book of Job in which all of Job's friends react to his suffering by trying to say why all the bad things are happening to him. None of which turn out to be true. The lesson of Job is that we cannot know why bad things happen to good people and we should not pretend to have the answers.
A much better approach was taken by Gov. Romney and President Obama who offered prayers and even silence in their speeches today. They took a break from politicking and encouraged all of us to take time to cherish and love those who are near to us while extending our thoughts and prayers to all those in Colorado.
In his book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People," Harold Kushner offers one response that is worth considering today:
If the death and suffering of someone we love, or tragic events make us bitter, jealous, against all religion, and incapable of happiness, we turn the persons who died into one of the "devil's martyrs." If suffering and death brings us to explore the limits of our capacity for strength, love and cheerfulness, if it leads us to discover sources of consolation we never knew before, then we make the person or event into a witness for the affirmation of life rather than its rejection.
Tonight there will be prayer vigils in Aurora. The root of the word "vigil" is wakefulness. May all of us hold vigil today and be awake to loss of life and the suffering of those who survived.
Let us show our faithfulness by the compassion and love we offer to one another, even as we struggle with meaning and for hope in this fragile and violent world.