How I Talk To My Daughter About Terrorists (and other tragedies)

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Alison and I watched CNN together the night of the Boston Marathon bombings and the night the suspect was captured. I know that family therapists and child psychologists would probably warn against exposing a 12-year-old to coverage of such a horrific event (especially CNN coverage), but I’ve learned to happily ignore the parenting experts. We did spend a little time snickering over Anderson Cooper’s choice of attire on Night #2, so it wasn’t all heavy-loaded. But the event was tragic and there was no way to spin it otherwise. So I didn’t try. I answered her questions as honestly as I could while we watched the events unfold. Over the past week she has been especially concerned about the young man who was taken into custody that evening. For some reason, she has focused on his injuries and how he is healing. She asks about this regularly and I am unsure what to say, so I tell her that he is in a prison hospital and that is all I know about his physical state. Yesterday, she wondered if he was scared in the boat. Her tenderness towards this individual seems out of place.

I read a post from someone a few days after the event. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t want to know his name. I don’t want to see his face. I don’t want to know his life’s history, his back-story, who his family is, where he went to school, or what he liked to do in his spare time. I don’t want to know what “cause”, if any, he was fighting for. I don’t want to know why he did it, or may have done it, or what possessed him to carry out his actions. I don’t want to know. Because that’s what he really wants. I’ll be damned if I’m going to give him what he wants.

I completely understand  and share in the anger that is felt toward this person. But when my daughter asks about him, I also understand where she is coming from. We have told her that every person is loved deeply by God whether they are the worst person in the world or the best person. We have quoted the verse “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and then talked honestly about how near-to-impossible it is to do. But yet, we are asked to do it. We have told her that every person matters and that grace is not out of reach for anyone.

But what about terrorists? Shouldn’t we share the sentiment of the person who cheers the death of Osama Bin Laden or the person who says “I don’t want to know his name or see his face?” That seems fair, except that we are told that God cherishes his created ones so much that he knows the number of hairs on their head. This verse rolls off the tongue when we’re telling the loveable how loved they are, but it’s a little harder to comprehend when we’re talking about the unloveable. You might say to me at this point that if a relative or dear friend died at the hands of a terrorist I would feel differently. And you might be right. But according to what God says, I wouldn’t be entitled to feel differently.

So what do I tell my daughter when she expresses concern for a terrorist who perpetrated a senseless, cold-blooded killing? Do I tell her tell that we are not supposed to care about him and that it is permissible to spew hate for those who have carried out hateful actions? Do I allow her to cheer the death of those who caused death?

Here is one thing I tell my daughter about terrorists and tragedy: There is good in the world. There is also evil in the world. And God cares deeply about our response to both. 

We’ll never be able to love like God loves, but when tragedy is in front of us we have an opportunity to practice that kind of love if we will choose it. I keep going back to the prayer Jesus uttered before he died:  Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing. It is beyond comprehension that he prayed this with his back shredded and nails in his hands and feet. I easily spout off these radically difficult verses and treat them as if they are platitudes. They are not. These are the very actions that show the world what God looks like. Love. Grace. Forgiveness. And they are hard to live out, which is why most of us don’t do it. Does my daughter’s response of tenderness toward the perpetrator reflect the character of God? I can only answer with this:

“But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:44-45. That’s what Jesus said, among many other mind-blowing things, when he was sitting on the side of a mountain talking to a crowd of people. So I’m going with that, even if most of the time I find it very difficult to do. When I talk to my daughter about terrorists and the tragedy in the world, I can find no better words to use than those of Jesus. Because I’m pretty sure he was talking to us as well.

3 thoughts on “How I Talk To My Daughter About Terrorists (and other tragedies)

  1. Thank you for this beautiful reminder, Lisa….I know you are so proud of your daughter and her sensitive, caring heart. And how fortunate she is to have a mom who has instilled in her the truths about the character of Christ.

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