The Sandy Hook Massacre has raised its share of questions for our society: How did this happen? Who is responsible? What must we do to prevent such things from happening again? Such questions are natural, expected, and deserve our attention and best efforts in answering them. Questions concerning the proper place and availability of guns in our communities, about who should have them and how many they should have, about where they come from and how they should be accounted for, and what kinds of weapons are and are not legitimate under the provisions of the second amendment of the Constitution. It also raises serious and important questions about public safety and the merits of arming teachers and the placing of armed guards in schools. Other kinds of questions emerge concerning our society’s relationship to issues of mental health, and who is deemed mentally ill and again the limits of our society’s right to know the details of another’s health under the Constitution and our ideas about privacy and individual liberties.
It is unclear as to whether our society is prepared to answer any of these concerns seriously but it is reassuring at least that, all these questions have an answer, at least theoretically. In other words it makes sense to ask and seek an answer to these kinds of questions and hope for the political will to fashion better answers than the ones we have now.
But there is another class of questions that arise at times like this that does not hold out the promise of an answer, at least not in the same way. These questions are not questions of policy – nor are they questions any kind of investigation could resolve. In other words, they do not resolve the questions at hand by offering policy solutions or information, hitherto unknown. Quite the contrary, the questions I have in mind are precisely the kind of questions that are made less intelligible by efforts to fashion policies or seek new information. In other words, there are questions we are inevitably led to ask that all the journalists, pundits, police investigators, or psychiatrists could never answer, at least not as a function of their customary responsibilities. And those questions are questions of Why? Why did my baby die? Why did this thing happen to us? Why has God let this terrible thing happen?
Questions of this sort are not questions the answer to which is some kind of explanation. In fact it is a feature of the kind of question it is that any kind of explanation only serves to confuse or deepen the misunderstanding. In fact it is precisely because such questions have no answer in fact or theory that makes them what they are. A mother asks, “Why did my baby die?” If one answers, that a deranged maniac shot and killed the child, then the person attempting an explanation has clearly missed the point of the question. Questions of this sort do not have explanations, because they are more like exclamations of anguish than questions or inquiries.
But because such exclamations have the form of a question, there is no shortage of answers offered. “God has a plan in this” is one such attempt at making sense of the senseless. It is does not take long for the obvious difficulties with God’s planning such things to become deeply problematic. “Really, then perhaps the Almighty ought to keep his plans to himself.”
Another way to think about this very difficult human terrain is to say that what the people of Sandy Hook experienced was essential evil. I say essential because the evil suffered is necessarily evil, evil without qualification, evil without mitigation. And essential evil is fundamentally mysterious, because all attempts at explanation are empty. No explanation will do. Essential evil is simply suffered. And its overcoming does not come by way of an explanation, but by the experience of essential love. And essential love is essential in that it too is necessarily so, without conditions, or qualifications. And like essential evil, essential love is mysterious. It defies explanation! Who can explain love that does not recognize distinctions or differences or degrees.
The Bible says that God is essential love. The Bible says Jesus is God. Jesus’ life says essential love looks like this, ie the life we see in the person of Jesus, a life that loved without qualification, condescension, or discrimination. And when essential love meets essential evil, it inevitably suffers. But it also entails the very possibility of resurrection, new life, or life more abundant, as is sometimes said. That is not to say that essential evil cannot ultimately destroy a person. It most certainly can. But when essential evil meets essential love, the death that is the senselessness of evil’s conquest need not prevail. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” If love can find its place in the midst of essential evil’s conquest, then true resurrection may come. And when it does, “Alleluia”, is about all one could or should say!
One way of making the distinction might be to say that when innocence suffers, evil of an essential nature has taken place. To call evil essential is an attempt to mark the character of the evil concerned. There are all kinds of evils, but only certain kinds of evil present themselves to us a mystery. The “why” of Sandy Hook is not about a nation’s gun policies or mental health practices, or about any kind of ignorance forensic or psychological information could overcome. The why of Sandy Hook does not seek any explanations, because no explanation will do.
Dr. Jeffrey Willetts