Sunday night the President preached at Newtown, Connecticut. I would describe his message as "paternal." The guy is not usually all that forthcoming about what really matters to him; he's too carefully controlled, too cool, to reveal his moral foundations. But I suspect this speech gets close to the inspiration for his own trajectory: he feels responsible for making this a society (and a planet?) that ensures a good future for his own children and all children. Despite the 18 minute length, this is worth watching or you can read it here.
He's telling us we are grown ups and asking us to act our age.
One of the instinctive, but unconsidered, linguistic tics we have recourse to when confronting the latest massacre is to invoke the "innocence" of the victims: "innocent" children, "innocent" civilians, always "innocents" … (Conservative columnist Ross Douhat provided a fine, maudlin example of the genre here.
) Do we really mean that only the deaths of "innocents" count in some cosmic scale? And who are "innocents" anyway? Does the noun include the suffering crazy people who are often the perpetrators? Are young victims more "innocent" than ordinary adults caught in extraordinary circumstances? Why? Why not?
One of the best treatments of the "innocents" question that I've run across was in this reflection
on the school shootings by the theologian Marilyn McCord Adams:
Visceral responses to attacks on our young are hard-wired. I think of Giovanni Pisano’s pulpit sculpture of Herod’s soldiers’ butchering, of the mothers’ tug-of-war vice-gripping their babies with primal rage and hysterical grief. Big-brained creatures need more time to mature, are vulnerable for longer. Biology builds in instincts to protect offspring at all costs. They are our species’ future. Human biology transposes this into the personal.
A sense of the "innocence" violated, whether among children or other random victims of atrocity, is not a moral categorization. Our sense that "innocence" is significant in our responses is an inarticulate recognition of our common humanity with people more directly touched or harmed.
A friend, a woman I admire -- not yet a priest but on the way to being a very good one I believe -- preached in church on Sunday. She quite successfully navigated the difficult business of tying the liturgical readings, the Advent season, and the Newtown horror into a coherent message of hope and possibility of love. But along the line, she used one phrase that yanked me out of the flow:
…the hurt of unjust violence …
What's that? What is "unjust" violence? Or alternatively, what is "just" violence? In a setting where the message is Hope died and comes alive again, I am not sure there is any such thing.
Having just been through a campaign to end death sentences in California, I've thought a good deal about "just" and "unjust" violence. At one level, our entire effort in support of Prop. 34
was to enable people to understand and internalize that the death penalty is not
about "justice." It's insanely expensive, convoluted, and broken beyond repair, and cannot completely avoid the risk of making an irreparable mistake. To an astonishing degree, California voters internalized that message -- 48 percent of them.
Unfortunately, 52 percent did not. Some portion of the majority were people who have had personal experience of violent evil and want the perpetrators dead. But most of them were people applying a rather vague notion of desired "justice." When a heinous act has been done, someone should suffer -- that's a gut reaction, seldom a deeply considered conviction. When people put their minds to it, numerous other factors lead to a conclusion there are better responses to perceived harm. That is, more adult responses.
It's no crime to respond viscerally to the evil some of us do to other members of our species (not even to get into what we do to other species and the planet) -- but most of us do have to try to become grown ups and act our age.