I didn’t sleep very well last night. I don’t imagine many American parents did. Awake, I keep stopping to kiss my kids softly on the tops of their blond heads. They must wonder what’s wrong with me because normally I’m kind of a beast in the morning, before I have two giant cups of tea. So far, they haven’t asked why I’m being so quiet, why my eyes are swollen, from where this sudden font of patience has sprung. Since I picked them up from school yesterday afternoon, all I have said to address their periodic spats of bickering is a mantra-like, “It costs you nothing to be kind to each other.” Over and over and over I say it, maybe more to myself than to them, hoping it will be the cool water that douses this inferno of grief and madness that threatens to overtake me.
I keep looking for God in this wreck. An awful lot of people on social media are echoing Mike Huckabee’s insistence that violence is happening in our nation’s schools because kids don’t pray in school, a claim that, when parsed, places the blame wholly on the parents who send their kids to public schools and the children who don’t start their days at 7 a.m. Mass. Yes! Blame the victims! Surely if they had prayed more, those 5-year-olds would be alive today! How long before the ever-sensitive Westboro Baptist Church announces plans to protest at the funerals because God Hates Gays?
For many years I thought something was seriously wrong with me because I did not feel the presence of a supreme being in my life. I tried so hard to find it. I went to church. I prayed. I would watch my mother sit silently with her rosary, and later claim that her “novenas” were the reason my nephew got a job or some relative made it through surgery. It isn’t that I haven’t experienced moments of genuine awe and wonder, or even terrifying sublimity; it’s that I cannot recall ever feeling that any of the miracles around me came from someone Out There. And gradually, over my forty-four years of being alive, I’ve become less ashamed, less afraid, to say that I just don’t buy it. I do not believe that miracles come from anyplace but within. When I lie next to my babies in their beds at night, singing them love songs to usher them into rest, and feel the curve of their small bodies melting into mine—the complete trust and faith they have in me to take care of them even in sleep—I know that the miracle comes from my heart and theirs, entwined over the years to grow as a single entity of mutual love. When my dogs smell my emotions and respond accordingly, I know that thousands of years of genetic evolution have led us to the point where these animals have developed such a strong bond with me personally that my odor and their noses exist in perfect communion.
But still, I have worried and worried and worried that my kids will suffer socially from my nonbelief. There are family and cultural considerations. Will everyone think my kids are morally deficient because “God” is just a well-crafted literary abstraction to me? The sins of the mother are visited upon the children . . .
There is no such thing as “sin.” I knew it intuitively when I refused to baptize my babies, and I feel it even more strongly today—today, when forty parents are waking up, if they slept at all, to empty beds in their children’s rooms, when forty parents will soon be called upon to identify the bodies of their children, baptized or unbaptized. When all is said and done, does it matter? Do you really think those who weren’t baptized into the Christian faith—or any faith—will burn in Hell now that they’ve been shot to death, execution-style, in their classrooms?
Look around. This is what we have, right here, right now. If genesis stories help you cope, go for it. Every human civilization has had them, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. Jesus Christ produced one of the world’s greatest, most revolutionary, moral philosophies, the careful study of which we could all richly benefit from. But if you are not living in communion with your fellow living beings, there is something deeply and desperately the matter with you. If your answer to gun violence is more gun violence, you need help—spiritually, psychologically, philosophically. If you place prayer over policy, you are foolish and not to be taken seriously in a dangerously serious world.
Right this minute, a woman in the Congo is being raped with the bayonet of a child soldier. In China, a newborn girl is being drowned in a bucket of water because she isn’t a son. In the United States, about 266 people will be shot with a firearm today; about a third of them will die. Why do these things happen? They happen not because a mythical being in the sky is mad at us, nor because of the presence of some amorphous “evil.” They happen because we let them. Because, in truth, it’s easier to go to a candlelight vigil in honor of victims than it is to grow up and take control of ourselves, our government, our world. It feels better to blame the victims than to blame ourselves. And, quite frankly, God and Satan and an evil masked gunman make for a much more cinematic experience.
So, carry on. Go to church, say a prayer, light a candle. It can’t hurt. Just don’t mistake those things for anything real. Dead children are real, and they are everywhere.