When tragedy strikes

"In the face of tragic events, there are some questions that will never be answered, not in this world, at least. This is not a theological cop-out," says the author. Photo: Martin Novak
Published July 24, 2012

If you’re like me, the recent news reports of shootings and mass killings in Canada and the U.S. have been spirit numbing.

Toronto’s Eaton Centre is the top tourist attraction in the city, with about one million visitors each week. But on June 2, gunshots were fired at the Centre’s food court, while the mall was heavily crowded with shoppers. Five people were shot. One of them died at the scene and another died nine days later.

Then, on July 7, a neighborhood barbecue on Scarborough’s Danzig Street turned into a horror story as gunmen opened fire on the crowd, leaving two dead and 23 wounded. It was the worst mass shooting in the history of Toronto.

Our thoughts and prayers were still with the Scarborough victims and their families when we awoke on Friday to the news of another tragedy of even greater proportions. A gunman dressed in a gas mask and bulletproof vest, carrying several firearms, including an AK-47, opened fire at a crowded Aurora, Colorado movie theatre during a midnight showing of the latest Batman film. He killed at least 12 people and wounded 58. It was one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.

I don’t pretend to know why these gunmen killed innocent people. Drugs, gangs, poverty, hopelessness, mental illness, human depravity: All sorts of experts will give their reasons for what occurred. What we do know is that innocent people, shopping at a mall or enjoying a barbecue or watching a movie were senselessly killed or wounded.

So how do we, as Christians, make sense of these tragedies? After all, tragedies are more common than we think, whether it be a natural disaster, a freak accident or intentional. How do we deal with tragedy when it happens in our lives, the lives of our loved ones, or in our world?

Let’s first admit that in the face of tragic events, there are some questions that will never be answered, not in this world, at least. This is not a theological cop-out. It is simply a fact about being human. We don’t have all the answers. We never do. And we never will.

One of the great 20th century physicists, Dr. Edward Teller, was a key scientist in ushering in the atomic age. Speaking to 300 of the brightest high school seniors in the U.S., Dr. Teller challenged them, “Become scientists, and all your life remember these words: ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Those are good words. There are some things in life that even the brightest scientists and theologians just can’t explain. Tragedy is one of them.

And because we don’t know why bad things happen to good people, we have to be very careful about saying that suffering-our suffering or the suffering of someone else-is ever deserved. The truth is, you don’t always get what you deserve. Life is not always fair, and bad things happen to good people. There are no guarantees. None of us (not the best nor the worst of us) can be sure how things will turn out in life.

I remember the comedian Jack Benny getting an award many years ago. He accepted it with these words: “I don’t deserve this award. On the other hand, I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that, either.”

Thornton Wilder wrote The Bridge of San Luis Rey, a novel about a little village in South America. Each day, the villagers made their way across the bridge to go to the fields. One day, without warning, the bridge collapsed. Six people fell to their deaths.

There was a priest in the village who said, “Aha! I will do research into these people’s lives and show why those six people were on the bridge when it fell. I will prove beyond a doubt that if you do bad things, bad will happen to you, and if you do good things, good will be done to you.”

He studied every aspect of their lives and came to this conclusion: “Those six people were no worse, nor no better than anyone in the village. God does allow the sun and the rain to fall upon the good and the bad.”

You may recall that in the Book of Job, an innocent man loses everything of value in his lif -his children, his wealth and his health. He is reduced to sitting in an ash heap, scratching his boiled body with broken pottery. He cries out to God, “Why is this happening to me? I am your faithful servant, innocent of any blame! God, you have no right to allow this to happen to me!”

But what does God say to him? At the end of the book, when God finally does respond, he tells Job that the creature has no right to question the Creator, because life is a mystery beyond human comprehension. Although Job is vindicated and even rewarded for his faithfulness, he never gets an answer to his questions.

Living without satisfactory answers isn’t easy, but that’s what it means to live by faith. There are some things we cannot understand and there are tragedies in life for which we are not responsible, but just happen.

But there is one last thing that needs to be said: God understands. God knows why things are the way they are, and we can trust God in the face of the mystery that is life.

Benjamin Hirsh, a survivor of the Holocaust, tells a story about the ancient rabbi Baal Shem-Tov. One day, the rabbi and his students were standing on a hill when they noticed foreign troops invading their town. From their vantage point on the hill, they were able to see all the horror and violence of the attack. The rabbi looked up to heaven and cried out, “Oh, if only I were God.”

A student asked, “But Master, if you were God, what would you do differently?”

The rabbi answered him, “If I were God, I would do nothing differently. If I were God, I would understand.”

We Christians know that God does understand, because in Jesus he has been there in all the problems and pains of being human. In Jesus, God understands the heartbreak of our losses and the depth of our sorrow. In Jesus, God knows every tear we have ever cried and every burden we have ever borne. And although in this life we never escape suffering, in Jesus we can move through it, because in him the darkness never overcomes the light. In Jesus, we never suffer alone. He is our constant companion.

It is not too much to say that when the shots were being fired in that mall or at that barbecue or in that theatre, Jesus was there, taking every bullet into his own body, suffering with us, bleeding with us, dying with us, because he is with us always and forever, even in the worst moments of our lives.

So when tragedy happens, don’t pray to understand. You never will. Pray, instead, for the ability to trust. Don’t let anyone tell you that God is punishing you or other people when tragedy strikes. God sends the rain on the just and the unjust. God understands. And God’s love lasts forever.


The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.



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