Scream About Uvalde, For God’s Sake
Posted on May 27, 2022
Though nothing may come of our screaming about another mass shooting, “like Jeremiah of old, the cri de coeur that comes from anger and despair must still issue forth.”
Columbine, Newtown, Parkland, Uvalde, and countless other massacres at schools have all been followed by the same infuriating and callous inaction. Even worse, absurd “solutions” are offered, with the sole intent of diverting attention from the appalling, but highly profitable, proliferation of virtually unregulated high-powered firearms. We have long since learned the woeful truth that there is no use imagining that “this time change will surely come.” Is there a point anymore, one may ask, in crying out in protest?
There can be, in fact, a compulsion to make one’s voice loudly heard, even when a grievous and murderous wrong has proven itself to be incorrigible and impervious to all moral argument, thus dashing all hope for change and repair. Consider the prophet Jeremiah. He had no real hope for the moral dystopia that he experienced in ancient Judea. And yet, even though he had no expectation of being able to move the needle, still he cried out in utter despair.
Why would one scream into the wind in that way? Abraham Joshua Heschel memorably described Jeremiah’s voice (like that of other prophets) as being “one octave too high.” What gave it that shrillness, and that urgency, even given the futility of any expectation of righting the wrongs? Heschel’s insight was both startling and profound: he argued that the special aptitude of the prophets was not an ability to predict the future, but rather the deep intuitive sense they had of the devastating effect that earthly injustice has on God’s inner emotional life. As he put it, whoever imagines that God is unaffected by injustice by and to humans, is denying the very essence of religious faith. In this view, what caused prophets to shriek was a shattering and undeniable empathy with the suffering of the Creator. Such profound empathy is always one of the signs that a professed love of another is real love. If that is true of love between human beings, all the more so must it be true of a love of God.
The massacre at Uvalde is already generating such “high octave voices,” because it has once again confronted us with the reality of a dystopian America. As a rabbi, I find horribly dissonant the sad conclusion that there is scant hope for righting many of the preventable wrongs of gun violence. Religious leaders are, after all, charged with giving people hope. But as long as we have leaders who have the ability to make a difference, but who close their ears, eyes, and hearts to human suffering, the only honest conclusion is that such hope, in present circumstances, is in vain. Yet it is striking that so many of those apologists for unregulated firearms claim also to be guided by religious values. So why are they unable to give their God the basic empathy that every vulnerability demands? Why would people who loudly profess their love of God and country be unable to sense God’s suffering as children die while more guns are sold, and as our lugubrious nation wallows in grief, deprived of hope? And why would they imagine that whatever or whoever lies beyond us will not exact a reckoning?
There is, in all of this, a moral obscenity, made even more indecent by the certainty that no arguments appropriate to normal times will change things. But like Jeremiah of old, the cri de coeur that comes from anger and despair must still issue forth, expressing the certainty that whatever transcendent realm lies beyond us is broken and suffering along with us, and in need of our action.
Some will say that we should not abandon all hope that the primal scream from those of us who can no longer contain it will make it to the stony hearts of our child-deaf, parent-deaf, and God-deaf legislators. Perhaps. But even if such hope is in vain, there is still the hope that the scream will motivate voters finally to give life a chance.
Jewish tradition gave us a beautifully evocative expression of the life-giving energy of every classroom in the world. It imagined the condensation coming from the mouths of young students sitting in class and breathing in the cold air of a wintry morning, and it asserted that the world is sustained by that very steamy breath of devoted schoolchildren. How grotesquely ironic it is to see the perversion of that image, as we mourn the shattering reality that the breaths of so many innocent schoolchildren have now become lifeless air.
Yes, cry out, for God’s sake and for ours.
Rabbi Gordon Tucker is vice chancellor for Religious Life and Engagement at JTS.