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I went to a funeral this week — the best kind of funeral, where you laugh while you’re sopping up the tears that are gathering under your chin. It was the kind of funeral that stops you in your tracks, because he was too young, because we could all remember how important he made us feel, because our own lives are still moving along and we all want to make them matter, like he did.

One thing they said about him: he had an insatiably positive attitude. I love people who are like this, probably because I am so unlike this. In a moment when I was beginning to feel some stress about the ways my own life measured up to the life we were celebrating, this virtue of a positive attitude felt like a relief. It gave me a chance to let myself off the hook. “That will never be me,” I thought with a chuckle, and breathed deeper. I felt absolved, in a way. Safe.

After the funeral, at night, I went to my book club. A friend balanced a plate of crackers on her knee as she read aloud a quote from the book that we had all loved. We nodded as she read, in full agreement. “Moral outrage is the opposite of God,” she read. I was nodding, too, because I believe this to be true. And since moral outrage is pretty much my cruise control, I had to laugh. I was imaging what they might say about me when I die, rather than extolling my sunny disposition. “She was outraged. About so many things. So often.”

I can’t stop thinking about the teachers who died in Florida this week. Perhaps thinking about the children who died is just too painful, so I’m stuck on the grown ups. They are being extolled as heroes now — other-worldly in their courage. But I wonder a little bit about that, because I live with a grownup who is principal of an elementary school, and I happen to have it on good authority that he is a real person who occasionally is unreasonable, leaves the lights on, spends too much money on donuts. 

It is no longer difficult to imagine a gun shooting up my husband’s school — since they practice that scenario several times a year — and I imagine that there would be some heroes. I can imagine him among them. I can imagine the ways people would talk at his funeral.

Sometimes I think when tragedy hits, we need to put people on those pedestals because it makes us less fearful that death could happen to us, too. If we can make the person something wholly different than us — God-like, perfect — then maybe this world wasn’t for them in the same way that it’s for me. Perhaps it makes me feel safer to think that the coach who put his body between a gun and a child was made of different stuff than me, had a hero’s destiny.

So I’m resisting this, like any perpetual pessimist would, I suppose.  That man was not called to take a bullet, he was called to be a football coach. He was not gifted at split-second self-sacrifice. He was gifted at encouraging and challenging adolescents to become athletes and leaders. I wish we would talk about who he was, and not a mythology about his destiny that shields us from the pain of what we have done.

I don’t want to be inspired after Parkland.  I want to be outraged.

I want my husband to be able to manage classroom sizes and test scores and parent meetings, and not have “human shield” be an accepted part of his job description. I want him to spend time evaluating the teachers on their student success, on their striving for equity and on their compassionate care for children. I do not want him to spend time training teachers how to use their school-issued gun. I do not want him to spend time disciplining children who were re-traumatized because the firearm in their classroom looks like the ones the militias used in their village during the war, looks just like the one their daddy had the night he went to jail for hurting their mommy. I don’t want him to learn from district lawyers about the new liability protocols, to have to fire good teachers because they accidentally forgot or dropped or lost or used their gun.

I don’t want him spending time teaching children how to get to safety in the event of an AR-15 in the hallway, and rehearsing his own role of the hero. But he already does that; it’s mandated.

I don’t want to worship the heroes who saved lives, as though it was their destiny. I don’t want to make Ash Wednesday meaning out of this tragedy. Ash Wednesday is for one thing: the truth. We die. We are, all of us, dust. We are, none of us, other-worldly, superhuman, destined for mythology. I don’t want those deaths to be meaningful, sacrificial. I don’t want Christ-figures roaming the hallways of our schools. I just want them to be teachers.

I want to rage against the story of the hero. That story is does not honor them, and the tragedy of their death. That story serves the NRA more than it serves their memory. They were not destined to die. We let them die.

Those of us who live — we who are optimists, we who are pessimists — I hope we can resist the urge to make meaning from this tragedy. Let the meaning we make be the actions, the rallies, the votes, the money that makes one demand in our rage: we don’t want any more heroes.

 

Photo by Jay Dantinne on Unsplash

Kate Kooyman

Rev. Kate Kooyman is a minister of the Reformed Church in America who lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

11 Comments

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Rage may motivate you, but it doesn’t justify. It’s an incredibly arrogant thing to say “we let them die” (as if you have some special grasp of this fallen world).

    Or to slander those who honor of the heroic acts of the fallen as nothing more than a desire to shield themselves from their culpability. The hero fits in with “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

    If you want to shake a first, look upstairs. He’s in control. When you’re done, come back and join the rest of us mere mortals and we’ll try to work it out together.

    • Joseph Kuilema says:

      Matt,

      I think your suggestion to “shake a fist upstairs,” is a good one. As Christians we ought to feel comfortable shaking a fist upstairs, because to do so is both biblical, and a necessary part of handling rage at injustice. As one of my favorite theologians, Miroslav Volf, says, “Rage belongs before God.” How long, Lord, how long, will we bury children at the alter of our supposed freedoms? Freedom is only in Christ.

      I think anytime we speak prophetically it can sound arrogant. It probably sometimes is (or at least that is the case for me). At the same time, in Reformed theology, we carefully balance God’s sovereignty with human free will. We want to avoid making God the author of evil. Yes, God is in control. No, I cannot say God intended for those children to die like that. The things Kate is describing here: the fear, the sense of helplessness, the diversion of resources and time away from the true purposes of education, these do not seem like markers of the shalom God inaugurates at the cross, the shalom God is day by day bringing into the world.

      • Matt Huisman says:

        I like this comment a lot, it correctly identifies the essential freedom issue at stake. It recognizes the beautiful elements of Kate’s post (I could not condense them so well).

        One of the reasons I allowed myself to be talked into engaging on this site – because there’s only so much time to waste on the internet – is that these RCA types are relevant and worth the time. Perhaps we can all find a way to profit from a break in the monotony of the echo chamber.

        That said, your “Freedom is only in Christ” line is a little unnerving. (I imagine the persecuted church world would find it a bit casual.) True freedom may only be found in Christ, but these lesser freedoms have their foundation in the first and are in very real ways there to help reinforce it.

    • Rev. Andrea DeWard says:

      Add me to the list of those enraged – and I believe justifiably so – not just at repeated school shootings, but at how condescending and misguided your comment is, Matt. The author Rev. Kooyman is far from arrogant but your comment certainly comes off as such. To me your words seem to be a willful attack because you’re intent on missing the point.

      As for the “He’s in control” – is that what we’re supposed to resort to in the face of evil and tragedy?
      “Sorry your husband was murdered – just remember, He’s in control.”
      “Terrible that you were raped – but you know, He’s in control.”
      “It’s really awful that your whole village was bombed – yet we have to believe, He’s in control.”

      To quote Emma Gonzales, “We call B.S.”

      God has entrusted us with tremendous responsibility and equipped us to be people of wisdom and compassion, to be agents of change. If we close our mouths, sit on our hands, refuse to care for this world, to do our part to make it better, I do not believe God is going to let us off the hook with a shrug, saying, “Don’t worry, I’m in control, you just sit back in your comfortable life and let me take care of this mess you’ve allowed.”

      God is not an enabler of evil, and we shouldn’t be either. If we do nothing, we are guilty of exactly that.

    • Kate Kooyman says:

      Hey Matt — appreciate the comment and hope for some conversation. I wonder what you mean about a “special grasp” — what do you hear me claiming to understand by saying “we let them die”? What I was trying to articulate with that line is that I feel some complicity in the deaths of these kids. I believe the whole community should take responsibility for keeping kids safer in schools. My personal way of acting out that belief is advocacy for safer gun laws. I’m interested to hear if we’re far apart on that, or if there’s something else you’re pointing to with your comment that I’m not hearing. (I’m all in for working this out together, as mere mortals. Maybe that starts here? I’m willing to try.)

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Matt, Kate’s words are neither arrogant nor slander, nor does she claim a special grasp of anything. This is a lament. It is full of self-awareness and humility, tentativeness and grief. Please be fair in your reading and comments.

  • Grace Shearer says:

    I really appreciated your comments, Kate. I’m sure it must be very difficult with two boys in school and your husband is the school leader. I also appreciated your willingness to meet with Matt, although he did come off as being condescending. Keep up the good work.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    Hi Kate. What are your thoughts on this proposal? https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/02/gun-control-republicans-consider-grvo/

  • Matt Huisman says:

    Hi Kate – I object to “we let them die” / “the pain of what we have done” because your confession of complicity is one where I’m guilty of corruption and murder and you’re guilty of not trying hard enough to stop me. So we get things like:

    “So Senator Rubio, can you tell me right now that you will not accept a single donation from the NRA in the future,” he demanded as the crowd went crazy.”

    “How long, Lord, how long, will we bury children at the altar of our supposed freedoms?

    I’m glad you could get that weight off your chest.

    Your lament goes too far and denies the existence of any legitimate counter-position or any earnest people who want something that works. Beyond that, you seek to encourage rage at the expense of the heroic. We can try to outsource it away to the state, but even then – when the FBI fails to investigate repeated warnings and the security officer takes a defensive position outside the school – the need still presents itself. We honor the heroic not to absolve ourselves but to remember our limitations and to be encouraged by those who chose to rise above them.

    • Kate kooyman says:

      Thanks for responding. We have different perspectives. I will agree that a change to our laws is not the only solution. The solutions will be many. I bet we could find solutions we agree on.

      I will say that I am not encouraged at all by those who have risen above our limitations, if by that you mean being encouraged that there are professional educators who take bullets for children. I have no desire to dishonor them or their sacrifice. I do honor them. I am grieved and undone by their sacrifice. I take no encouragement from it, since my husband is among those professional educators who seem to now be expected to do this.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Rev. Kooyman,

    Since we are making this personal….

    Every year or so, at our son’s high school, the Administration runs a mock drill in the event of a school shooter. Every time, our sons dutifully make sure their classroom door is locked and they huddle in the corner of the room with their classmates.

    Invariably, at family dinner that evening, we talk about the shooter drill. Our advice to our boys is to be disobedient: grab your thickest book, hold it in front of you, and, if possible, go out and rush the shooter. It probably won’t end well for them, but it could save others. Also, if more boys were encouraged to do the same, it may act as a deterrent to future young men to commit school shootings.

    This dinner conversation is not intended to fulfill some Walter Mitty fantasy. Rather, we understand that this fallen world can be a dangerous place, full of suffering, and it is our calling as image bearers (Christ-figures?) to do what we can to help others. Maybe, just maybe, this will be a way to bring shalom into the world. See John 15:13.

    Now, I’m sure that in our son’s school there are others who find my suggestion to be abhorrent. They may send up laments to God asking corporate forgiveness for the sins of my boys. They may even write essays saying they are not heroes. Oh, well.

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