Having lived through the Cumbria Shootings, every subsequent mass shooting has affected me deeply – and no more so than the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut where 20 children and 6 members of staff were brutally murdered. Perhaps it was the age of the children and the memories of my childhood innocence, of attending a Primary School with no security gates or doors, where any member of the public could just have wandered into my classroom. When I was 5 years old I fell off the steps into my temporary classroom and broke my collarbone. The school responded by putting vertical wooden bars on the handrails. That was about as high tech as it got.
As a Christian, such tragedies profoundly challenge my faith. It’s not that it makes me question the existence of God but it does make me ask questions of God. “Why here, why now, why these people inparticular?” At the time of the Cumbria Shootings it was “Lord, we’ve been through the Cockermouth Flooding, the Keswick bus crash and now this: what the heck are you playing at?” It brings us face-to-face with the problem of evil – and the problem of pain. For this reason I find myself unusually disturbed by Christian leaders who seem to be able to find the answers so quickly. Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee said, within hours of the shootings:
Well, you know, it’s an interesting thing. When we ask why there is violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools have become a place for carnage because we’ve made it a place where we don’t want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability? That we’re not just going to have to be accountable to the police, if they catch us. But one day, we will stand in judgment before a holy God in judgement. If we don’t believe that, we don’t fear that.
As it happens, my Primary School was a Church School, but my Secondary School wasn’t – and it was no less safe. But that’s not why I think Mike Huckabee’s analysis is so misplaced. What I found most striking about the victims of the Cumbria Shootings was how diverse they were. Pillars of their local church, community and business stalwarts and sporting greats; the devout to the devout atheist. It was utterly indiscriminate – and I’m sure the same is true in Newtown.
Actually, I could have been amongst the fatalities but for some strange reason I decided not to meet up with my dad in Egremont for lunch: he had arrived early and we’d agreed he would meet up with me at my place of work instead. There’s nothing like “it could have been me” to really focus your mind. Jesus said that we do not know the hour or the day: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.” Just like Gary Purdham
The problem with evil is that it isn’t fair. Events such as these mass shootings demonstrate the depths to which humanity is able to fall but they can also demonstrate the heights humanity can climb when members of our emergency services or the teaching profession put their life on the line saving others – and in so doing, demonstrate Christlike love in the most graphic way possible. The shootings revealed in West Cumbria the depths of its community ties that had withstood many tragedies before as the Miners’ Memorial in Whitehaven stands testament to.
The Cumbria Shootings profoundly affected people living in West Cumbria – and the clergy were particularly affected. On the Sunday after the shootings I saw two clergymen not known for their emotional exuberance break down in tears mid-sermon. On the day of the shootings, a local curate with three boys under five sped into Whitehaven to collect them from activities before speeding to West Cumberland Hospital to comfort bereaved relatives. The haunting look in his eyes as he told me this evidenced the trauma he had witnessed.
The memorial services in the wake of the shootings were held at what remains of St. Nicholas’s Church – a church that burnt down in the 1970s but the community could never afford to rebuild. Poignantly, only a church without walls could contain the sheer numbers of people who turned out. Reports of over 1,000 – perhaps even 2,000 people – dwarfed even the capacity of Carlisle Cathedral some 50 miles away. Everyone – even the deeply irreligious – was asking “Why?” – as if there must be some purpose to the carnage. Nobody – not even the clergy – pretended they had clear-cut answers.
There can be some purpose in suffering if we learn from it – and learn the right lessons. When I broke my collarbone running into class, I learnt to walk more carefully, and my school learnt to make the steps more safe. When diseases such as cholera and typhoid spread like wildfire through our Victorian cities, public health was improved and cures were found. When there was a spate of fatal coalmining accidents in the 1960’s and 1970’s, we passed the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. When flooding blighted Cumbria, Flood Action Groups were established, flood defences were built and houses were flood-proofed. I believe that God can – and does – intervene in the world, but I also believe that God gives us the tools to mitigate suffering. He commands His people to fight for justice and defend the causes of the vulnerable. He does not call us to sit on our hands and blame the victims of suffering for turning against God.
Rachel Burgin (nee Stalker)