Giving Thanks in the Time of Mass Shootings

According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, which locates news stories on any shooting event that involves 4 or more people, America has seen 388 mass shootings so far in 2017.

Three hundred eighty-eight mass shootings since January – even if there wasn’t another shooting the rest of the year, we’d still average more than 1 a day.

Of course, some of these shootings stand out far above others on a national level. An event like Las Vegas where 59 people were killed will stand out above even the four people injured in a shooting in Austin last week.

Even in church settings where we actively try to celebrate all life and care for the needs of everyone, some stories simply catch our eyes more than others. We see the massacre in Sutherland Springs more clearly than stories from even closer locations because we share something more obvious with those killed and injured. We can readily put ourselves into their shoes, realizing that as they were facing a gunman in their service, we were lifting up the communion elements together in ours.

Next week, many of us will be traveling home to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends and family. So how are we supposed to give thanks while knowing any one of our hometown papers could have “Shooting Leaves 4 Dead” as a headline the next morning?

It can be tempting to let times of celebration simply override our fears and sadness. Maybe if we think about the incredible salted caramel apple pie our aunt always makes, or the way our brother always gets caught cheating at board games after dinner, or the great sales the day after, we won’t have to think about the pain of those who are staring at an unexpectedly-empty seat at their own tables this year.

But what if we don’t want to simply deny the reality of what’s happening around us? What then shall we give thanks for?

Maybe this year, in the wake of so much trauma so close to home, we can give thanks for a God who doesn’t promise safety, or even understanding, but instead promises presence. Theologian Hans Reinders writes,

Lament is about agony and pain… but “explanation” does not take pain away. Surely there is a true need for understanding [in response to crisis], but understanding does not necessarily take the form of explanation; it might also take the form of discovery. Instead of asking why God allowed this to happen, we can also ask, “where is God present in all of this, and how?” (Reinders, 2014).

Reinders follows Swinton and Wright in seeking the presence of God as the response to divine promises – there is not just a future hope, and there is not some belief that seeking God will lead us to happy, healthy, safe lives, but that instead we can take comfort in knowing that “the world in its entirety shall be the place of God’s presence” (Wright, 2009). We might not stop mass shootings, but our faith at least isn’t contingent on guarantees of safety. Our Immanuel – meaning “God is with us” – is not going anywhere, shootings or not.

This Thanksgiving, despite shootings, despite world events, and even despite personal family strife, we can give thanks that our God has no plans to abandon us in our times of need. That in our deep unrest, in our commiserating with families of victims, even in our own anger and our shame, God does not call out “I am leaving, I am leaving,” but instead remains.

Let us give thanks to the Lord, for God is here, and here with us God will remain.


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