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For the lockdown generation, prayer is merely code for inaction

Gun violence is in the air Americans breathe, and like air, I knew Texas’ response to what happened in Uvalde would be neither solid nor substantial.

Diego Esquivel, left, and Linda Klaasson comfort each other May 25, 2022, as they gather to honor the victims killed in the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

(RNS) — My kids didn’t learn about the Uvalde shooting until Sept. 6, the first day Uvalde students went back to school after a gunman entered Robb Elementary and murdered 19 fourth graders and two teachers. Even though I’d spent the summer reporting, driving the 90 miles back and forth for interviews, protests and church services, I had not yet covered that difficult ground with my own elementary schoolers.

How did that happen? I knew they would ask, and for that I had answers: failed locks, failed police, failed systems.

I was more nervous about whether they would ask “why” it happened. I cannot explain that part.

Schools around Texas, most of which had been back in session for weeks, wore maroon T-shirts on Sept. 6 to show their support as kids in Uvalde went back to campuses fortified with more cameras, higher fences and heavy police presence. My kids asked about “maroon shirt day,” and I knew the day we’d been putting off for months had come.

As I prepared, I thought back to the evening of May 24, as my husband and I looked at our sleeping children, ages 5 and 8. “We’re going to have to tell them eventually,” I said. At that point we didn’t even know yet the full list of victims in the Uvalde massacre.

On May 25 we dropped them off at their San Antonio elementary school, trusting that if the news came up at school, the teachers and staff had been briefed on how to handle it. We hadn’t wanted the kids to start their school day processing the news — news we ourselves had barely digested.

As they slammed the door shut and bounced away from the car, I cursed the air. It was the only available force, it seemed, to blame. Gun violence is in the air Americans breathe, and like air, I knew Texas’ response to what happened in Uvalde would be neither solid nor substantial.

I drove into Uvalde a week later as a reporter, as a mother and as a person of wavering faith. I’ve given up on theodicy — trying to explain how God could let bad things happen — and instead tried to communicate God’s love and justice to a hurting world. I don’t know why bad things happen, but I know it’s our job, as people who claim to follow Jesus, to pursue shalom, to try to make things right. Part of responding to bad things is making sure we prevent them from happening again. We want to both alleviate pain and prevent it when we can. On the drive, I would lament the world we’ve created, the suffering left unaddressed, and wonder how I’d eventually explain it to my children.

Flowers are piled around crosses with the names of the victims killed in last week's school shooting as people visit a memorial at Robb Elementary School to pay their respects, Tuesday, May 31, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Flowers are piled around crosses with the names of the victims in a memorial for those killed in the school shooting at Robb Elementary School, May 31, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Ironically, sitting on my shelf was a preview copy of my book, “Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down: A Guide for Parents Questioning Their Faith.” I was supposed to be good at these conversations. White evangelicals’ idolatry of guns is exactly the kind of betrayal that led many of the people featured in the book to leave the churches they’d grown up in, deconstruct their faith and question everything they thought they knew about how to raise moral people. Yet, I am holding onto the possibility of a good God in the midst of hypocrisy, violence and power hunger.

But that book is also about giving our kids love when we don’t have answers, when we cannot reconcile our spirit to the God we thought we knew, much less to a church lusting after power.

School shootings put us in that place without answers, and they fill our children with questions. Mass shootings have brought the problem of evil to our doorstep. Why would God allow kids to be killed at school? We all pray for our children’s safety … so why do some kids not come home? Are mass shooters uniquely evil, or do they have a religion of anger and supremacy cheering them on?

While we wrestle with the fruitlessness of such theodicy, we are cut off, often in God’s name, from any kind of solace, any kind of reassurance that if not God, then at least our neighbors are doing anything to keep our kids from harm or to comfort those who grieve. The parents who lost children and the children who lost parents on May 24 are begging for gun reform, they are demanding responses from lawmakers — we’ve heard it directly from their mouths over and over. Those who oppose them, politicians mostly, are the same who are quick to quote Scripture, court big-name pastors and tout a brand of Christianity that baptizes their various agendas.

That was weighing on my mind as I prepared for the conversation with my kids, but as the actual conversation unfolded, they were not struggling to reconcile anything. My kids were quick to reassure themselves that their safety plan was in place. They asked practical questions about locks and procedures, trying to figure out what went wrong at Robb Elementary. And then, after assessing the situation, they talked about how sad they were for the kids and their families, tears welling and receding.

The lockdown generation knows school shootings are possible, that young men bursting into schools to shoot indiscriminately is just something that happens sometimes. They know how to hide quietly in closets and desks. Their doors stay locked, their windows stay covered. In some ways, they’ve never known a world without that looming presence. But to hear that it can all fail, and fail so spectacularly, is as jarring for them as it is for me, and there’s real compassion for the slain. While they are aghast at the malfunctioning of a fortress, because that is what their schools have become, I am aghast at the dysfunction of a nation.

My kids never asked why, at least not in the grand sense. They weren’t in disbelief or existential crisis over their loss of innocence. If the lockdown generation is going to believe in God, it will always be a God who coexists with both the gunman and the ones who put the gun in his hands. Prayer, for them, will carry the stench of inaction — both parents’ prayers unanswered and the “thoughts and prayers” of nonresponsive politicians. It’s difficult to know what hope looks like in this scenario, what goodness and shalom might mean, but I am determined to figure out what it means to be the people of God when it feels like God is gone and all we have left is air. 

"Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down" and author Bekah McNeel. Photo by Josh Huskin

“Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down” and author Bekah McNeel. Photo by Josh Huskin

(Bekah McNeel is a journalist, wife and mother of two. She is the author of “Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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