In a well-meant message of consolation delivered Sunday at Newtown, President Obama declared that "These tragedies must end. And to end them we must change." He again used the word "change," in gainsaying the idea that America does enough to protect its children. "We are not doing enough," said the president, "and we will have to change."
"Change" what, exactly? That would be the question, wouldn't it? Change the laws? By instituting really tough, really meaningful gun control, whatever "meaningful" means in a nation that constitutionally protects the right to own and carry weapons? Possibly we could put a cop (with arms-carrying authority) in every school; on every bike path, every street corner. We've yet to hear the details.
No doubt we should forebear ridicule when the actuating factor behind the President's call is a massacre of the innocents, Herod-style: stomach-churning testimony to - to what? Long-standing apathy toward gun control? More like longer-standing apathy, I suggest, to the presence and power of rampant evil in a world disposed to see every ill as curable, at least in part, through regulation or legislation.
It might be nice if that were the case. It is not by a country mile the case. The problem of evil actions -- to which we seem half-acclimated in this progressive century of ours -- precedes the invention of firearms. I could say it goes back to whatever Cain used on Abel: possibly just his non-controlled, non-regulated fingers. This is assuming the ill-fated pair in Genesis 4:8 excite recognition in our fast-secularizing world, where problems and solutions alike turn out to be present-embedded and human-made. The heavens, for growing numbers of us, hold only the stars.
Yet if humans are everything (as modern people grow more and more convinced), how come we can't get things right? Can't we just talk things over? Pass the right laws? Multiply the number of law-enforcing agencies and agents? What is the matter with us? Something old? Something inborn?
The desire of humans to have their own way, irrespective of ancient obligations to a Creator God, seems to be old as the hills. Theology calls it sin, and theologians over the centuries have labored to analyze and prescribe for it: not opposing laws whose aim is preventing preventable outbreaks of it, preferring this addition, nonetheless -- repentance and amendment of life.
Would that approach have prevented the Newtown massacre? The killer was just plain crazy, wasn't he? Likely so. Madness, meaning lack of reason, would seem just one more piece of evidence as to how much disorder afflicts a race -- the human one -- in love with its supposed ability to plan everything, control everything.
That task, especially when backed by science, seems easy enough -- until the restraints expected of our sophisticated era fail to work, and small, dear, generous, wonderful children succumb to armed cruelty: just as humans, old and young, have succumbed throughout history to the worst that fellow humans can do to them.
Could it not be -- maybe? conceivably? -- that politics and consolatory speeches and clever laws need a foundation of realism, one which acknowledges human affairs as the huge mess they are: too big, too inexplicable for the combined power of president and Congress to "change"?
Just a few days lie between Christmas and us. It was around this time, we hear, that the Son of God came to our rescue -- not to perfect everything at that precise moment, but to invite repentance and amendment of life, before offering his own life as a sacrifice. Don't believe a word of it? The alternative is to believe another act of Congress will bring us finally to that gun-controlled paradise where the evil, the murderous and the frankly loony embrace the pure of heart. It might happen in heaven. I wouldn't count too much on watching as politicians throw open the gates.