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God's Politics

Julie Clendenin: Talking to Children About Tragedy

Monday was a heavy day. That night, my family sat down for our usual routine – some quiet moments before dinner when we sit and pray together. My two younger daughters, ages 9 and 7, were in their places as their daddy began to pray, “God, we’re so grateful for all the good things you give us.” But this night, he included something else in our prayer. As he asked God to comfort the people and families affected by the students at Virginia Tech, the girls both looked up. “What happened?!?” they asked, almost in unison. My husband’s answer was short and simple: A young man was upset and confused and did something that is completely beyond our understanding. There is no way to know why he did what he did and it’s very sad that no one was able to stop him.


I guess I should mention that my children don’t watch TV news and that we often hide the front page of the paper in an effort to shield them from the shock of our daily news. We want to break things to them gently and remind them that God is alive and at work in this world despite all the hate and anger around us. I want them to know God’s touch first, so that they can manage the barrage of frightening events around them.

So, how do parents explain this kind of thing to their young children? We can’t. There are too many unanswerable questions. Who is this shooter? Why did he kill? Who could have, or should have, protected the young ones who are now lost? My daughters want to understand – and so do I. But we don’t.


The one mystery I can explain is this: God will be the comforter and the peacemaker in this kind of situation. We say it and we believe it, but this truth does not explain things and it doesn’t make events seem any more reasonable. I’m reminded of the ancient prayer: “O God, we do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

Julie Clendenin works in the media department at Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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posted April 18, 2007 at 5:53 pm

God’s role as comforter in this time of grief is that of mourner. He is the ultimate wailer and the one person that can absorb all the pain and turn it into something great.The grief people feel from this he will share and keep calling out. He will heal but only thru the sharing, only thru the honesty, only thru the love. May he do it now. May he do it soon. p

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posted April 18, 2007 at 5:55 pm

Julie says that “God is alive and at work in this world despite all the hate and anger around us.” In “Letter to a Christian Nation”, Sam Harris writes: “If God exists, either He can do nothing to stop calamities or He doesn’t care to. Impotent or evil?” Or, like I’ve come to believe, perhaps God created the universe and we’re pretty much on our own. I’d like to believe that Julie is right, but I have my doubts. In looking for explanations, some say the devil is behind actions such as these, but the monotheist in me believes the devil can’t possibly exist. I’m searching for answers, and hope someone out there can give a plausible explanation as to why calamities happen if there’s truly a living God.

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posted April 18, 2007 at 8:08 pm

I am concerned about the use of the term ‘tragedy’ and then talking about the shooter in the same sentence. It is a ‘tragedy’ for the families of the dead and wounded. The news people are couching it as ’33 dead’ no, it is 32 murdered, 1 dead. I believe that we do a diservice when we change the text so that it is more acceptable. There is great evil in the world and it needs to be identified. Now you can use the ‘alledged…’ so that they can not sue you. Not that you can not feel some compassion for the one doing the killing – it still is caused and motivated by great evil. Later – .

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posted April 18, 2007 at 8:18 pm

What would Sam Harris accept as evidence of the existence of God? Volumes have been written on the subject of why God allows us to suffer. I think most of us can think of a time when we suffered for no apparent reason, yet retrospectively realize that our suffering made us stronger or taught us something we needed to learn to be able to deal with future trials. Humans do not have the ability to see or understand God s perspective the real Big Picture. Sometimes the answers are not for us to know at least, not on this side of eternity.Sunday I went to the French Quarter Fest and just as I was getting ready to leave a man sat next to me and opened a conversation by telling me that people do not appreciate their blessings, a point with which I completely agreed. He told me that he was living on the street until he could go in to the hospital and have his leg amputated. He told me that he had met some well-meaning Christians who had offered to pray with him and assured him that God would make everything alright. Perhaps the reason God allows us to suffer or to witness suffering is so that the wise among us will realize our blessings and be grateful. Or perhaps He allows us to suffer so that we can empathize with others who are suffering. Perhaps the worst thing we can try to do is try to make sense of suffering. My bother-in-law is in a persistent vegetative state. My wife and her parents have on many occasions become frustrated with well-meaning Christians who offer their opinions as to why God would allow them to suffer. Sometimes the best we can do is just listen and express sympathy.

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posted April 18, 2007 at 9:27 pm

Cads: There are a few ways of looking at pain which largely make the beast comprehensible to me. It may not work for you, but for what it’s worth…C.S. Lewis writes (Problem of Pain): God whispers in our pleasures, but shouts in our pain. In other words, pain is God’s megaphone to get our attention. Once he has it, we are confronted with what our rebellion and selfishness has wrought in this fallen world. This is not the way things were meant to be, and pain is the opportunity for us to stand with people in the gap and minister to them. From a larger perspective, pain is what gives free will legitimacy. There has to be evil for good to exist. For if God went around mopping up after every mishap, then free will would be rather pointless. Just as parents know their children will never learn and mature if they do not bear the consequences of their mistakes. Finally, if all else fails, I think about the fact that God has suffered tremendously too, in the death of his son. God does not ask us to tread where he himself has not gone before.

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Sue badeau

posted April 18, 2007 at 9:48 pm

One of the things I have learned at times like these is not only to ask “What do we tell the children?” but to ask “What are the children telling us?” Listen to the children. They often have wisdom, vision, compassion, insight, grace, mercy and courage that transcend their years. I met a young man last year with several disabilities and a lot of experience with trauma and tragedy. He was also a fantastic artist. He drew an amazing self portrait that is powerful, compelling and utterly captivating. It also has no mouth. “No mouth” he points out, “Nobody listens to me.” Ouch. My six year old grand daughter reminded us all that it was OK to cry. It rained that day, and she said it reminded her that God was probably crying. “This makes God so sad.” she said. Simply. Matter of factly. Weep with those who weep. And listen to the children

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posted April 18, 2007 at 11:43 pm

On the question of why God “allows” terrible things to happen and Sam Harris’ argument — We live in a fallen world and God created us with free will. The fact that God is all powerful does not equate with God controlling every aspect of our lives. I do believe God intervenes, particularly in response to prayer, but God obviously does not stop all acts of evil in the world. What the adversary has intended for evil/harm, God can turn to good. I think it is important to distinguish this from the concept that God does horrible things to people so that good will come of it. This is what messes with people’s faith. God does not create these hellish events. I like Gregory Boyd’s discussions of this question that I think most people of faith never see adequately answered – he discusses it in 2 books, “God At War” and “Satan and the Problem of Evil”. I am in the middle of the first book and am finding it addresses these questions in a systematic way that is accessible yet intellectually rigorous and spiritually satisfying. Sam Harris is right that most Christians don’t adequately solve this apparent conundrum. That doesn’t mean it can’t be solved, just that few address it honestly and unflinchingly. I like Boyd for this reason and recommend his writing highly to anyone interested in these questions (if only to answer those like Sam Harris). On the question of this particular tragic event, I think it raises a number of disturbing questions including:1) if Cho was on psychoactive drugs as several sources (including roommates have reported), were they SSRI’s, known to cause violence and aggression (and labelled as such in other countries outside the USA). If so, he would join the long list of school shooters taking these medications. 2) was the police and campus response to the first shooting simply a matter of mistaken identity (eg they thought the boyfriend was the shooter) or was it possibly reflective of different attitudes towards violence when it is perceived as “domestic” in nature? (probably too early to tell) 3) where did Cho learn to handle automatic weapons so professionally, given he apparently had no military experience? 4) and of course, gun control and media violence questions and many more Let’s also hope that this news event doesn’t completely take away any media attention to the hearing on Attorney General Gonzalez that was postponed to the end of the week. Last thought – Let’s not forget to pray for the survivors (in addition to victims and their families), who often deal with survivor guilt and self-blame after school shootings. And for Cho’s family. I cannot imagine what they are going through.

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posted April 19, 2007 at 1:46 am

I believe there is pain in the world so that we understand and have perspective on, happiness. Does God “allow” this to happen? I can’t speak for God, but can only offer this thought…should you ask God “Why don’t you send someone to help us?” God answers “I did. I sent you.” We can’t prevent the next tragedy from happening, whether it be a headline-grabber like this shooting, or another anonymous death from drugs or alcohol, so commonplace that it doesn’t warrant even one line in the local paper. What we CAN do is offer our prayers for the survivors, prayers for the victims and the killer, and offer our hand to a stranger in need when we can. “Whatever you do to the least of my bretheren, you do to me.” Peace.

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posted April 19, 2007 at 9:32 am

I don’t mind pontificating about the problem of evil, but I am not really satisfied with any of the options given. I think as Christians who are trying to be helpful and hopeful in a time of tragedy need to express that we just don’t know the mind of God. There is nothing wrong with being angry at God for what has happened. If He’s not to blame he is a big enough boy to handle misguided anger. If he is to blame, then maybe someday we’ll understand things better. From where we sit, tragedy makes no sense and when an all powerful God fails to act, we are left with questions that can’t and shouldn’t be answered by those of us who have read a book or two.

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posted April 19, 2007 at 7:34 pm

3) where did Cho learn to handle automatic weapons so professionally, given he apparently had no military experience? Come over and I should have you loading and unloading my guns flawlessly in the dark after about a half hour of practice.

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posted April 20, 2007 at 8:52 am

“Come over and I should have you loading and unloading my guns flawlessly in the dark after about a half hour of practice.” What the hell does this have to do with talking to children about tragedy?

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posted April 21, 2007 at 8:35 pm

As parents, are we really doing our kids a favor when when shelter them from what’s going on in the world? At some point we have to help them process instead of pretending that the evil isn’t out there. By age nine, our kids need real answers – not airbrushed sentiments that don’t teach them how to live. Sounds nice but let’s get real.

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