Little children were killed in an unspeakable act of terror. An entire community, and much of the nation, was left wondering how God could allow such a thing to happen.
Last Saturday, Fox News personality and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee explained such occurrences by stating, “since we’ve ordered God out of our schools, communities, the military, and public conversations, we really shouldn’t act so surprised when all hell breaks loose.”
The problem with that theory is that God is often missing when treacherous acts occur. The four little girls who were killed in an act of terror at a Birmingham church in 1963 faced a similar fate. Certainly God was not ordered out of the 16th Street Baptist Church, yet all hell still broke loose when it was bombed that September morning.
Likewise, the teachers and children who lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary last week were not victims of public policy banning God from their school. As most people of faith well understand, God does not need to adhere to American legislation.
Nonetheless, it is a valid question to ask where God was during the shootings. Coming to terms with why tragedies happen and why evil seems to temporarily prevail is an emotional and intellectual exercise that people have struggled with for centuries. If God was there, why didn’t He stop the shooting? If He wasn’t there, why not? There are no answers to these questions. We just don’t know.
African-Americans, however, have a unique perspective in these sorts of situations. During the first half of the twentieth century as a free people, we still experienced lynchings, beatings, rapes, and terror on a regular basis. Those who endured surely asked God why, but most importantly, they were carried through those horrible times by faith. When students and protestors faced down fire hoses, attack dogs, and police batons, what allowed them to persevere was a belief that their righteous indignation was fueled by God Himself. It is no coincidence that many of our leaders were, and continue to be, clergy. For centuries of slavery, it was faith in a God and a belief that we had the right to live that brought the nation to a point where it could elect a black president.
Even in those difficult times, the question was less about why God allowed bad things to happen and more about how God would allow brighter days to be seen. This had to be our focus since wallowing in the pain makes it unbearable. But by focusing on redemption from the pain, no situation is too difficult to overcome. We cannot explain why those little children were killed at Sandy Hook. We cannot explain why slavery was ever deemed acceptable in America. We cannot explain the Holocaust, or genocide in Darfur, or 9/11, or any number of evil acts that have occurred over the years. But what we do know is that having faith in something larger than ourselves, and for the greater good, always eventually prevails.
As the nation mourns the tragic events of last week, it should look to the lessons of its citizens for strength. We are a nation of people of various races and ethnicities who were formerly persecuted, each in their own way, and saw America as the way to opportunity, freedom of expression, and a safer, more prosperous existence for our families. As such, the African-American story is a testament that the worst circumstances imaginable do not defeat a strong spirit. We must draw on the God we know to help the country endure.
To be sure, asking why tragedies happen is necessary. It is by asking that we find the answers to prevent them from occurring again. It took people and laws to end slavery, Jim Crow, and outlaw genocide in any form. And now, we must take appropriate steps to adhere to the Second Amendment while employing smart gun policy and mental health treatment to reduce the likelihood of another Sandy Hook.
We can’t answer why awful people choose to kill our children, whether in 1963 Birmingham or 2012 Newtown. We don’t know why God allows those things to happen. But what the African-American experience knows for certain is that the God we know is here now, and only faith in better and brighter days will help us bear the tragedies and prevent them from happening again.
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. He currently resides in Alexandria, VA. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.