by Michael Reid Trice, Ph.D.
Human tragedy can inspire the strongest partnership of religious leadership within communities across the globe. When tragedy strikes local communities, it is the religious first-responders who have relationships within the community and with the families, who must forgo grief by being present with the grieving. These are the ones who end up in firehouses and morgues, standing with others during the most wrenching moments of their lives. The hard “why” questions are usually immediate and exacting, and nothing is easy.
In 2012, from murders in a Sikh Gurdwara, to a movie theatre in Colorado, to the murdered children and educators in Newtown, Connecticut, amidst tragedy this country witnessed heroic religious leadership in its towns and cities. Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, Muslims and more, found their leaders confronted by the hardest circumstances of consoling the living and burying the dead, alongside responding to the inconsolable who don’t want to know why the world fell apart as much as why the ones they loved are gone. Where was God?
Shortly after tragic events, witnesses often refer to these tragedies as “unspeakable” or beyond comprehension. Think of the Newtown massacre: President Obama spoke to this tragedy as an “unspeakable sadness;” Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy called it a “tragedy of unspeakable terms.” “A former, distraught classmate of the 20 year old gunman told CNN affiliate WCBS that he could not make sense of the person he knew with the man who wrought such devastation on the innocent – “I don’t know who would do anything like this. This is unspeakable.” The unspeakable is where words, rationality and sanity vanish. Causality comes unhinged and the order of things is upended. Tragedy is like that – it breaks in, assaults safety in daily life, steals away loved ones, and leaves human beings with a life full of healing.
Religious leadership in tragedies from Syria to United States are expected to be first-responders to the unspeakable even while tragedies are unfolding. A religious first-response can never be a polished theological treatise and still hope to be credible or relevant. In the face of the unspeakable, no one cares if your answer impresses your seminary professor. In this way, first responses are difficult because speaking to the unspeakable is near impossible; when the irrational and insane enters into daily life, rational and sane responses are never sufficient. What does speak to the unspeakable is the conviction of presence without enmeshment. Your hell will be my hell too. I will not abandon you to your pain.
Presence like this is a form of reassurance, and reassurance is always a source of hope. In tragedy, religious leadership finds a singular voice of hope in their shared community because building a consensus of values in the face of the unspeakable is necessary to provide a light in the midst of meaninglessness. Religious first-responders spend a lot of time in the initial days and weeks administering what some refer to as a ‘spiritual morphine.’ This is not an argument for religion as an opiate. Instead, those mourning are reminded that loved ones are gone but not lost.
Being gone but not lost is a cold comfort. Still, by way of example I recall a CNN report on Rabbi Shaul Praver from Newtown. Such reassurance from Rabbi Praver provided just enough forward momentum to one of his congregants, who was the mother of six year old Noah; that momentum allowed this mother to take the next excruciating steps of planning the funeral of her son. All steps like this are small, and sustained through the consistent attention of religious leadership and communities of faith, precisely in the midst of terrible tragedy. These kinds of responses from religious leadership are caring, consistent and coordinated within their communities and alongside other communities of faith.
Often religious leaders will refer to the days and weeks after a significant public tragedy as a sacred darkness, or of the sacred entering a dark place. Such moments are described as pockets of catharsis somehow outside of normal time and social expectation, where the theoretics of what we believe are secondary to what is always the truly essential – our shared humanity. We are reminded in tragedy that our humanity is the first part of belief; doctrine and ideology are secondary. References to the sacred darkness are a reminder from religious first-responders that hope in the midst of tragedy is not reduceable to a theological formula.
Unlike a direct, rational and inappropriate retort that “God must have taken your child because he loved her so much,” the truth of hope in sacred darkness is altogether different. Hope approaches the unspeakable from the flank in a time where tragedy shakes the foundations of what we believe and what we are cynical to believe. It provides an opening into the unknown. The opening salvos of hope enter in at precisely these moments in the form of reassurance that the living are also not lost. They belong intimately to one another in profound spiritual ways.
In 2013 and the years ahead, more religious leaders will be first-responders to tragedy. This leadership will discover anew that their greatest partners are and will be their colleagues and peers in faith within their towns and cities.
Tragedies will continue. The unspeakable will break in and perforate our expectations for safety in the world. Religious first-responders will be thrust into these events, and our responsibility is to be as prepared as possible with the resources that assist these communities in the perils of tragedy.