Wisdom Wherever You Find It
I can’t know your pain, but you have a God who knows what it is like to lose a child. Sen. Tim Kaine
I first met Tim Kaine when he was the mayor of Richmond, Virginia. He showed up at the City of Alexandria’s annual observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He was standing alone, eating a cookie, so I introduced myself, and he told me who he was. “What are you doing here in Alexandria?” I asked. He replied, “I hope to be Lieutenant Governor, so I am getting out to meet folks all over the Commonwealth.”
Kaine has lost only one election in his life (it was a big one), and he has done an admirable job in every office he has held. Here is something he told me: It was when he was mayor that he faced what he thinks is one of the biggest challenges of his life in public service. Gun violence was claiming lots of lives in the city. Trying to address the mechanics of gun ownership and use was frustrating, but it hard as it was, it was a far second to what he described as the thing he was least prepared for.
He visited the families of the victims.
In Jewish tradition, we would colloquially describe that as a “shivah call.” During the seven (shivah) days following the funeral, community members, whether friends or not, go to the home of the bereaved family and offer comfort by their presence. The guidelines for conduct include not speaking until the mourner greets you – one should not presume that a grieving loved one wants to chat. The first words after that should be those of comfort. There is a sort of mantra of solace, but sometimes just, “I am so sorry” suffices.
After that, the tension is broken, and respectful conversation is the norm.
Tim Kaine is not Jewish, and he did not walk into homes where the conventions of mourning were at play. Though personally religious – he was raised a Christian and became a Roman Catholic – his job before elected office was as a civil rights attorney. The victims of gunplay were mostly Black, mostly men, mostly young. What could he possibly say to a mother who had lost the son that was the repository of her future?
If you gave me a million years, I could not imagine something as appropriate as he intuited. “I can’t know your pain,” he said once (and then too many more times), “but you have a God who knows what it is like to lose a child.” From within the ethos of Christianity, there may be no better way to open the possibility of God’s comfort than those words.
I remain a rabbi, a faithful Jew and a deliberate non-believer in Jesus. But when Sen. Kaine told me that story, I began to cry. I knew in the moment that such was the God I would want in my time of loss, of pain, of grief. I would want a God who understood what I was going through.
The Scriptures of most of the theist religions contain narratives of a deity who stands with the believers in an hour of need, arguing their case, enacting their judgments, avenging their grievances. When the believers feel small, their deity nonetheless delivers the mighty to the weak, the many to the few, the scoffers to the loyalists. When critiques are leveled at religions, they are often based on these promises, doubters snarling “Where’s your God now?” when the righteous are unredeemed.
I can’t argue with those people who find their path to faith blocked by evidence to the contrary, nor with those who point out that conflicts between adherents of different religions are to blame for so much that seems the antithesis of the religious vision. But just as they refuse to consider belief, I refuse to consider disbelief. And the deep sensitivity of Tim Kaine is part of the reason.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel identified the notion of an empathic God. He read the mission of the prophets to act as spokespeople for the divine pathos – God’s intimate concerns for humanity, part angry frustration at the one who shoots the gun, part broken heart for the mother who weeps.