Everyone (friends, TV commentators, editorial writers) asks, almost ad nauseam, "Why?" in reference to the murder of 20 children and six teachers and staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Tragedy seems to awaken our philosophical faculties and refocus our attention on fundamental spiritual questions, as opposed to the innumerable trivial questions which otherwise occupy our attention.
We want to know the motivation of the killer. If we could probe the inner recesses of his mind as he loaded his guns and started for the schoolroom, we would surely discover a reason that would, in the killer's mind, justify the slaughter. "I don't deserve the contempt of people ... I have a right to respect ... I will make a name for myself."
We are not different. We all do bad things for good reasons.
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I have the right to say something ugly about my neighbor because she had it coming to her. Or, it is OK to shoplift from Wal-Mart because it makes money on the backs of abused employees.
All of our questions assume that things are not the way they are supposed to be, to quote the tow-truck driver in the movie Grand Canyon, who rebukes a couple of thugs threatening the driver of a BMW stalled in the 'hood.
Whence this common, well nigh universal, sense of right and wrong?
The ancient Hebrews attributed the basis of this sentiment to a God who is justice personified and who requires righteousness of the creature made in his image.
Alas, perhaps the sentiment is merely a subjective feeling without a basis in reality. Perhaps what we call justice is only a word for what the most powerful say it is.
Such a belief might actually bring us more peace than our tormented search for reasons for evil with the assumption that somehow we live in a beneficent universe.
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz explains that, "a true opium of the people is a belief in nothingness after death — the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murder we are not going to be judged."
The Hebrew Scriptures, still venerated by a few decidedly unmoderns, professes a faith in a God who saves the poor, the fatherless and the oppressed.
The Christian Gospel proclaims the fulfillment of these hopes in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
But after Sandy Hook we wonder. Are we doomed to suffer one heart-wrenching act of evil after another? Or is there a God who cares enough to save and vindicate the innocent?
Christmas, or in a larger sense the story of the Bible, is not so much a definitive answer to our questions about good and evil as an expression of hope that there is an answer.