Published for The Washington Post, December 24, 2012
This is a Christmas season shadowed by sorrow. We know, of course, that human beings, even small ones, sometimes die in horrible, unfair ways. But all the horror and unfairness seemed to arrive at once in Newtown, Conn., where some parents wake on Christmas Day, if they slept at all, to mourn their absent children.
These events brought to mind a sermon by William Sloane Coffin, delivered 10 days after his son Alex was killed in a car accident. “When parents die,” he said, “they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way, it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head high, instead of — as we must — marching as the latest recruit in the world’s army of the bereaved.”
This army is easy enough to join. All of us build imaginary worlds of security that can be smashed in a moment by a drunk driver, a cancer diagnosis or an unnoticed patch of ice on the road. The death of a child may be the worst of our fears. But many of us find tragedy of some sort, with a little patience. It is the sad reality of grief: each loss infinite but not unique. And each loss sharpened during the holidays. A dark thought in a season of light.
There are no easy philosophic or theological explanations for unnatural death — no greater, cosmic good that neatly justifies unfair suffering. And those who try to find God’s will in an earthquake, a cancer ward or a mass killing are engaged in a particularly cruel and arrogant exercise. Coffin would have none of it: “Nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. . . . The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
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