Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Adam Was a Child of God
Adam Lanza was a child of God. He did horrible things this past week. Clearly he was a troubled and angry young man prompted by impulses we may never understand. By all accounts he had a lonely, unhappy childhood and adolescence, never really fitting in. He has been described by former classmates as “socially awkward,” “weird,” and someone who found it exceedingly hard to relate to others. It seems likely that he had an organic basis for at least some of his emotional difficulties. We will likely never know quite what happened inside Adam over the years and, in particular, the few weeks and days leading up to the killing spree. We do know, of course, that the emotional and physical wreckage, the profound loss and grief he leaves behind will be with families in Newtown and beyond for years, indeed a lifetime. And the nation’s embrace, quite rightly, is focused there right now. Yet, for all of that, Christians and people of other faiths believe that Adam was a child of God, too. Just as God weeps for precious first graders and their teachers, God weeps for Adam.
Twenty-five years ago on the Sunday before Christmas a man walked into my office in Pennsylvania looking for help. He had lost his job and had grown despondent about his future. He was preoccupied with worry that his wife and two step children would be thrust back into the dismal poverty that he had known growing up. I realized quickly that Conrad’s problems were more than I could manage, so I referred him to a therapist while still checking in with him regularly. Three weeks later his wife called me before dawn. Conrad had started taking anti-depressants which lifted his depression but in the process unleashed an underlying psychosis. Convinced that his family was heading for crushing, humiliating poverty, Conrad decided they would be better off dead. While his wife was at work that night, and his step-children were sleeping, he took an old hunting rifle from the closet, shot and killed his son while he slept, and then attempted to reload. Fortunately, the gun jammed; when he was unable to reload, he picked up the phone and called the police.
My journey with Conrad was a long and painful one – conducting the funeral for his step-son, attending the trial, several years of visits to Conrad at county jails, the state maximum security psychiatric hospital, and finally the state penitentiary, visiting his wife and step-daughter as they struggled through their losses, watching Conrad decline into profound illness and then slowly beginning to recover. The last time I saw him he was better, functioning well, but still a deeply wounded man. He was a convicted murderer. And yes, he was also a child of God.
Ultimately Adam and Conrad are responsible for the murder of innocent children. But it does not deny human agency to say that some of the wounds we see in others are not readily explained, that responsibility is not always easily sorted out, that sometimes there is no obvious cause on which to blame the brokenness of people who victimize others. Devoted parents may watch their children grow up to disappoint or frighten us in the most profound ways. Caring professionals may offer the best care only to watch disaster unfold. Not all human tragedy can be reduced to easy blame or ready explanation. The mystery of evil is as deep as the mystery of God’s love. I’m reminded of Howard Thurman’s rendering of Psalm 139. It reads in part: “When I have lost my way, and thick fog has shrouded from my view the familiar path and the lights of home, when with deliberate intent I have turned my back on truth and peace. . . Thou has searched for and found me! I cannot escape Thy Scrutiny. I would not escape Thy Love!” Perhaps it is here that we see Adam and Conrad and others like them. Lost. Searched out.
It is too much to ask grieving parents and neighbors to shed a tear for Adam right now. But for the rest of us? Is it too much for us? What we do know is that God weeps when we cannot. That God loves when we cannot. That God embraces children we cannot. And for us that is both a judgment and a grace. Adam was a child of God. May we ponder that mystery even as we welcome the Child of Bethlehem in the coming days.
John H. Thomas
December 20, 2012