An Open Letter:
On the Importance of Pastoral Care in the Wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre
On Friday December 14, 2012, the nation tearfully fell to its knees in response to the traumatizing violence that occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, CT. Tiny lives–passionate, joyous, frail–and their families were devastated by a lone gunman, who after murdering his mother with her own gun took vengeance on those he felt had replaced him in his mother’s eyes. This act of rage was horrifying. And although not identified as an act of terror, the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School has parents, children, and whole communities across the country living with new feelings of terror.
How could this happen in a quiet enclave of American life? To be sure, more and more quiet enclaves are being victimized by disenfranchised gunmen. Their sole motivation has been to express the torment of their own souls by visiting their pain upon others. While the devastation of Sandy Hook might readily be identified as one of the worst acts of public violence in our nation’s history, the Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre is not the only indiscriminate act of violence in public spaces during 2012. We have experienced 16 traumatic acts of gun violence where multiple victims were, in each instance, unknown to the gunmen. During the week of December 9th - 15th, there were actually two incidents of murder-suicide by gunmen who chose to inflict their suffering onto others through random gunfire.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre has been identified by many as the “tipping point” to bring a grieving nation to create legislation that will control the sale of handguns and assault rifles. Everyone in the nation, however, is not mourning this massacre with a desire to control the sale of weapons. Many local sporting goods stores saw increased, and in some cases, record sales of the Bushmaster-style AR-15 semi-automatic rifle–the same rifle used by the gunman at Sandy Hook to massacre innocent, defenseless children. All the persons who purchased the AR-15 rifle in response to the possibility of legislation that would limit or prohibit their ability to legally purchase weapons must truly believe: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” To restate the idea of AR-15 purchasers: “An AR-15 semi-automatic rifle did not massacre 20 children. Adam Lanza massacred 20 children.” Many gun enthusiasts have disconnected the glorified weapon from the rage and carnage of the massacre. NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, for example, said the answer to the question of gun control is to put armed security guards in every school. It seems that a segment of the population is far more concerned with its perceived loss of privileges than with the traumatic loss of children’s lives. These peculiar responses run deep within American life. When playwright Arthur Miller presented his 1947 play, “All My Sons,” a fact-based drama about defective aircraft engines manufactured by an American military contractor which caused the deaths of American aviators during WWII, Miller was considered un-American for his dramatization and investigated. With these kinds of ideologies operating in the wake of such a horrible act, is gun control really the most critical issue to focus our attention?
We must be very careful not to take a reductionist view on these important and painful issues. If we focus on the weapon of destruction–regardless of whether the weapon is seen as something to be regulated or as a prized possession–and minimize the experience of devastated lives, we ultimately diminish human compassion and distort the Divine image. If the Divine requirement for eternal blessing is for everyone to be as a child but our culture is one that terrorizes children, the consequence will be a nation that does not bless but curses children and considers terrorism an acceptable state of the nation. Dr. Randall C. Bailey, Distinguished Professor, Interdenominational Theological Center, identifies the problem this way: We praise God for Jesus’ escape to Egypt; and we ignore all the children, two years and younger, who were massacred by Herod in and around Bethlehem.
The Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre is not only a “tipping point” on the matter of gun control, it is also a call to attend to Rachel’s (and Ray’s) wailing and loud lamentation which resulted from Herod’s genocidal rage (Mt. 2:16-18). And lest we forget, the gunmen must also be eulogized in the presence of their loved ones who, with profoundly complicated grief, bear the additional burden of shame, guilt, and regret. The nation grieved during the funerals of everyone–children and adults–who perished by the violence of December 14th. The families, friends, classmates, and communities who gather to say their last goodbyes silently ask the question, “Why did this happen?” The person providing the answer to the silent question is not the mental health professional or legislator. The pastoral care provider is the one who is present to gather the anguish and stand against the evil that consumes our souls while affirming the power of life in the face of death. When the scream that declares one’s heart has been ripped out, knowing that that heart will never return as the casket is lowered into the ground, it is the pastoral care provider who works to restore and heal the heart, to mitigate against a rage that desires to seek vengeance, and to transform the loss into a precious memory.
I am saddened that religious and theological leaders are not being consulted or engaging the aftermath in ways that interrogate the terror woven into our culture. Adam Lanza began his rageful rampage within the context of intimate, domestic violence. He transferred his rage to public spaces where it became indiscriminate violence against children whose terrifying screams ended by their murder while the surviving families’ wailing may never end. Let us not ignore the wails and the wounds. A prayer vigil cannot be our first and last response to the terror that now inhabits our national consciousness. Let us not ignore the multiple critical needs, especially the needs that pastoral caregivers are particularly gifted to address. Pastoral care is not solely a field that focuses on crisis intervention. Pastoral care is also a field that encourages prevention through early psychosocial diagnoses.
I am concerned that as the culture is poised to legislate gun control, theologically educated leaders are failing to attend to wailing men and women who are suffering the traumatic loss of all our children. Too many theological curriculums are reforming their programs by dropping pastoral care in the name of responding to social concerns without acknowledging that society is inclined to ignore what it cannot legislate. Furthermore, because theological education tends to emphasize a theological hierarchy that locates practical fields at the bottom of a list of important voices, many theologically educated leaders are emphasizing a gun control agenda instead of seeking to address the human condition within our culture of terror. As a result, too many theologically educated leaders are well prepared to respond to the tipping point issue and are ill-prepared or willing to care for Rachel and Ray, who will not be “consoled because their children are no more.” Instead of maintaining or increasing pastoral care curricular offerings, the preparation for care ministries are being replaced by market appeal. Theologues are being taught to refer, making pastoral care an outsourced social service. If this trend continues, religious leaders will theologically reflect on and celebrate reductionist ideologies without the capacity or responsibility to care for souls because they will send Ray and Rachel to a time-out room where their wailing cannot be heard. If we suppress the wailing, what hope do we have for transforming a culture gripped by terror?
“Blessed are those who mourn” (Mt. 5:4) when we are willing and able to comfort. Women and men, boys and girls are wailing from the depths of human beingness. Let us not placate, deflect, or ignore those cries. As theological education develops new, in vogue programs that both respond to and capture the imaginations of popular culture and social agendas, I hope and pray that we will not neglect the suffering souls of the people. If theological education continues the trend of reducing the importance of pastoral care, who will bind up the nation’s wounds? Let us cease and desist from chasing after our reductionist impulses that encourage us to devote ourselves to a misidentified tipping point.
May we become advocates and emissaries of grace and peace.
Lee H. Butler, Jr., Ph.D.
Professor of Theology and Psychology, and Founder, Center for the Study of Black Faith and Life