"God has called them all home." My stomach lurched as the president concluded his words at the interfaith vigil in Newtown, Conn. Make no mistake, I am profoundly grateful for the ways in which President Obama has led us through these dark, distressing days following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He has shown both parental emotion and presidential resolve. Times like these have called upon him not only to speak as president and parent but also to speak from the heart of his faith. He didn't run to become pastor-in-chief, so I sympathize with him for having to find words for the unspeakable at such a traumatized and tender time.
So why was I so troubled when, after he read name after name of 6- and 7-year-old children, he concluded, "God has called them all home"? Why did I fear the emotional pain and theological confusion those words might stir?
The problem is the suggestion, albeit unintentional, that God was the catalyst, the actor, in determining when these children left the arms of their parents and ended up in God's embrace alone. The problem is it suggests that God instigated, initiated, the movement of these small children away from their families forever.
I believe to my core that on that awful day God received every one of those children and adults into God's embrace. But I don't believe God called them home. I believe God's intention and deepest desire was for those children to have many, many, many more homecomings of the ordinary sort before they ever knew a final, divine homecoming. I believe God wanted each of those children to continue to come home after school, dropping backpacks and coats -- perhaps to the aggravation of parents who would ask for coats to be hung and backpacks stowed, until the horrific day when the parents yearned for such a simple aggravation. I believe God wanted those children to enjoy homecoming dances when they reached high school. I believe God intended for those children to later join the throngs of college freshman making their way home for winter break after a first semester away at school. I believe God looked forward to homecomings when those children, grown to adulthood, would bring fiancées to meet future in-laws and then new babies to be cradled by grandparents, and so much more. Yes, God welcomed those precious children home that terrible day last week, but no -- God did not call them home.
I think that President Obama shares that grief-stricken feeling that the children's lives were cut short, that there was far more living they deserved to do, which is why his choice of words is all the more unfortunate: That nearly last line is what lingers in memory, appeared in quotes in the "crawl" at the bottom of news shows, and was tweeted around the world. The notion that God called them home is painful emotionally. It suggests a rightness or timeliness that isn't there. Should a grieving parent then feel guilty that they wanted their child home at the dinner table and not "home" with God, if God "called" them there? It dances dangerously close to the terrible phrase, "It was God's will," surely the most painful pious platitude some offer in the face of another's loss. It is troubling theologically to put the initiative, onus or intention in God's hands for the end of their earthly days and beginning of what is next. God did not intend the untimely end of these young lives just as God does not intend the untimely deaths of the 24 children and youths who are killed by guns every three days in our nation -- one life cut short by guns every three hours.
Why bother splitting hairs over a phrase that the president -- under the most difficult emotional circumstances -- said, when he was doing his best to offer solace to those in that high school auditorium, while the rest of us looked on from our own homes? Because there is the danger that the words provide a comfort to those of us who cannot afford to be comforted. While the families gathered in that auditorium need all the comfort they can get, the rest of us out here need to stay discomforted and disturbed so that we persist in achieving the change, finally, to our nation's gun policies, our culture of violence, our inadequate mental health care system, and other factors that contributed to this tragedy and the daily tragedy of eight young lives lost to gun violence that rarely makes the news. And if we do not achieve these changes it will not be God's failure or God's will, it will be ours.
I don't doubt and am in fact deeply grateful for what I believe is President Obama's deep commitment to leading our nation to more sensible gun policies and other change that will keep our children safer. Earlier in the speech, President Obama rightly reflected:
"This is our first task -- caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right. That's how, as a society, we will be judged. And by that measure, can we truly say, as a nation, that we are meeting our obligations? Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children -- all of them -- safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we're all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return? Can we say that we're truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I've been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we're honest with ourselves, the answer is no. We're not doing enough. And we will have to change."
The president followed his much quoted line, "God has called them all home," with the charge "For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on, and make our country worthy of their memory. May God bless and keep those we've lost in His heavenly place. May He grace those we still have with His holy comfort. And may He bless and watch over this community, and the United States of America." The charge to find strength to make the country worthy of the children's memory didn't make the crawl at the bottom of the news shows or get tweeted in the way that his line about the children being called home did. But we can't afford to let the charge and challenge get lost in the shuffle.
Even -- no, especially -- in the wake of this terrible tragedy, may those of us who have watched in horror at the pain of those families and the loss of those children have the strength not to seek comfort but to embrace challenge. I think the words of this Franciscan benediction are meant for us:
May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in this world,
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done.