An Ethics Quiz In An Ethics Quiz: Texas A.G. Ken Paxton’s Facile Remark

Your head-exploding Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Should I have made Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s response when he was asked what he would tell the families of the Uvalde victims the Unethical Quote of the Week or an Ethics Quiz?

This is what Paxton said:

“I believe god always has a plan. Life is short, no matter what it is.”

Personally, that response infuriated me. I have no idea how it would strike someone who is religious, which I am not, nor can I be certain how a parent of child who had died in the shooting would react to it. In my estimation, it is a stunningly unethical quote: facile, lazy, dismissive and incompetent.

Paxton is an elected law enforcement officer, the highest ranking in the state. The massacre was, among other horrible things, a massive failure of law enforcement. Paxton’s response, if he had the wit, wisdom and courage to deliver one at all, had to address that aspect of the tragedy, because that’s his job and alleged area of expertise. He wasn’t being asked about the shooting as a spiritual advisor, though I find the “God works in mysterious ways” reflex balm for every tragedy insulting when it comes from the Pope, never mind anyone else.

Paxton’s pat nostrum was a cynical way of ducking the question, and demonstrated that he lacked the decency to accept any responsibility, as a high-ranking member of the law enforcement system, for what happened in Uvalde.

That answer literally says, “Hey, it’s not my fault! Ask the Big Guy, but you know how He is: He has a plan, and we’re too weak and insignificant to understand it. Somehow, your kids were killed to advance that plan, so take solace in the fact that it’s all for the best.”

If he said that to me, I’d be sorely tempted to punch him in his smug face.

I find myself imagining how the public would have reacted if President Reagan had given Paxton’s response after the Challenger disaster, or if Queen Elizabeth had told her subjects mourning the victims of the 1966 mudslide that buried  the Welsh village of Aberfan, killing 116 children and 28 adults, that it was part of God’s plan, or if President Bush had mouthed those pieties following the attacks of 9-11. FDR in response to Pearl Harbor. The mind boggles.

The nicest thing I can say about Paxton’s answer is that it was incompetent. As with the far less consequential stupid statement that sparked the previous post, if you can’t do any better than that, don’t say anything at all.

After thinking about the issue a bit longer, however, I concluded that I am not the best arbiter of this issue. I hate the “God works in mysterious ways” mantra; my father, who liberated a Nazi extermination camp, hated it, and my wife, the daughter of a Methodist minister, hates it even more than my father did. Ethics quizzes here are reserved for ethics calls that I’m not certain about. I am certain that Paxton’s answer, coming from him, in response to the Uvalde shooting, is offensive and fatuous, but then I find that explanation from anyone, in any context, offensive and fatuous. That’s why I’m asking if I should have made this post a quiz about the statement itself.

There is one more ethics wrinkle to consider: the likely reaction of the anti-gun crowd to Paxton’s answer. Baseball pundit Craig Calcaterra, who keeps me from subscribing to his substack newsletter by being incapable of not soiling his baseball writing with the kind of standard issue social justice warrior blather excusable only when it comes from college freshmen (and often not even then), wrote this about Paxton:

Almost every day I come across something that makes me think we’ve reached a new depth as a species, and then some politician — who keeps getting reelected — comes along and says that it was God’s will for children to be blown away. Blown away so thoroughly, with their bodies so mangled by military-grade weaponry the ownership and use of which people like Paxton believes to be a sacred right, that it requires DNA testing to identify the bodies.

I don’t believe in God, but if I’m wrong about that and He does exist, I still doubt that’s His will, let alone His plan. Such a horrific loss of life is, however, something for which the plans of people like Ken Paxton explicitly allow and enable. He’s a coward for hiding behind God and refusing to own up to it. He had best hope, for the sake of his soul, that God does not exist because I feel like the God my friends talk about wouldn’t take too kindly to this kind of thing and would, rather, send Ken Paxton’s ass straight to hell for it.

Craig’s rant is typical of the emotional hysteria Second Amendment foes are showering us with in the wake of the shooting. He’s a lawyer, and he does his research thoroughly when he chooses to: I can’t believe that he isn’t aware that the weapon used in the shooting wasn’t “military grade.” He may be so addled by this issue that he really believes “people like Ken Paxton” could prevent school shootings, presumably by passing more laws to make the purchase of firearms by law-abiding citizens impossible, or nearly so. Thus for people “like” Craig Calcaterra, Paxton’s cheap shrug-off reinforces the false narrative that it is mindless religious fanaticism behind conservative support for the Bill of Rights.

Opponents of the Second Amendment don’t help their cause when they sound like ill-informed hysterics, and supporters of the Second Amendment undermine support for the Constitution when they sound like Ken Paxton.

31 thoughts on “An Ethics Quiz In An Ethics Quiz: Texas A.G. Ken Paxton’s Facile Remark

  1. I’m not the one to decide objectively, either. In my view, Paxton is the perfect storm of stupidity, cronyism, venality, arrogance, and toxic partisanship. So part of my interpretation of his statement must be attributed to confirmation bias. But I can’t believe it’s only that. Still, all I can do is shake my head and acknowledge that he will almost certainly be re-elected.

  2. Paxton’s comment ranks right up there as among the most incompetent made by a public official in recent memory.
    As a “religious person” I would, in his position, realize that injecting anything theological into the discussion is both (a) NOT the role of the state attorney general, and (b) inappropriate (especially at this point) by any politician. He should have simply expressed his personal grief at the tragedy and sympathy for the families, the state’s support for the families in their time of grief, the continuing investigation of the shooting and the police response to it, and a continued commitment to finding ways to prevent such tragedies in the future. Period.
    I have occasionally heard both pro- and ant-gunners make similar stupid remarks; one anti-gun politician I know used the “it must be God’s will” line on me a decade ago while we were debating the right to self-defense and (my position) how women in particular were made safer by training with and carrying personal firearms. He was opposed to a “Refuse to be a Victim” program my former agency was providing to citizens. If a woman didn’t have a gun and was killed in an assault, he said, “it was just God’s will” and “their number was up.”
    Stupid.

  3. I am a religious person, and I hate that response. It might well be that no one dies save at the appointed hour. Maybe in a battle situation soldiers might well shrug and say “if the bullet’s got your name on it, there’s nothing you can do.” However, when someone has just been killed for no good reason, that’s not the time to trot out the idea that God has some plan we aren’t capable of understanding and this tragedy happened to advance that plan. I might well say “there are no easy answers on this one,” which is true. I might say “that their children were the victims of an evil person whose mind was not working right.” I might also say something along the lines of “if you’re looking for me to take the hit, you are looking in the wrong place. Save your fake righteous anger for the murderer who pulled the trigger.”

  4. Religious zealots who say things like “I believe god always has a plan.” are referring to the notion that God has a book of life and everything in the book of life (the good and the evil) is preplanned by God, every choice everyone makes is preplanned by God “himself”, God is in control of everything, God is good, everything planned by God has a purpose and is endorsed by God and therefore “good” but we mere humans can’t possibly know what God’s plan is. I’m a reasonably religious person and I think that notion is complete bunk and bastardizes the very core of Christianity.

    Paxton is either a religious zealot and he should be publicly chastised for bringing God into the discussion in such a way that intentionally cheapens the terrible loss of the deaths with a faux religious rationalization.

    That’s my opinion, I’ve plastered a bullseye on my forehead, let the mud slinging begin.

      • Jack Marshall wrote, “You didn’t complete the implied “or” after “either a religious zealot.” My mind filled in “or an idiot.” “

        I had “or closet zealot” in there and after I reread it I edited it out and then forgot to edit out the “either”, why, because I think he’s zealot either way so the distinction was pointless.

    • You are probably wrong. People who say this are mostly not zealots (people with zeal for God), but casual Christians who have heard it somewhere and think it makes people feel better somehow. There are serious predestination people who hold this (and would never say such a thing at a time like this), but most of the people who say such a thing at a time like this are casual Christians who haven’t really thought this through. This line of thinking is popular among progressive Christianity. This lines up with the Christianity of people like Oprah, for example.

      • It’s fine to disagree on this but I consider anyone who would spout that kind of uncompromising nonsense to be a zealot.

        Zealot: a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals.

  5. I don’t think that phrase means what he thinks it does.

    God does have a plan. And those plans can be derailed by the choices He allows us human beings to make. We don’t know what His plans for each of those victims were because some other human being decided to kill them. We only know that God allowed it to happen. God allows people to make terrible decisions every day. Sometimes those decisions cause harm to others. As human beings, we demand the right to sovereignty. How dare God give us a list of things we shouldn’t do! How dare God tell us what’s in our best interests! Then, when our choices cause adverse consequences, we’re the first to wonder why God didn’t interfere and stop us from being dunderheads.

    The thing is that God probably does stop terrible things from happening every day but we don’t think about those because we may never be aware of what terrible things were prevented. We do know that a terrible thing happened here because one person decided to do it. God can alter the details of the plan if the players don’t cooperate or are put out of the picture.

    So why did God allow this terrible thing to happen specifically? I have no idea. And neither does Paxton. I suppose I could ask God some day why it happened but, by the time I meet Him, I’ll likely be so awestruck that I’ll be prostrate on my face and unable to say anything.

    Unable to say anything is probably what was best for Paxton. But God sometimes allows us to say unhelpful things, too.

  6. It was incompetent (1) because, as you say, an elected official should try to stay away from religious pronouncements, and (2) it was a statement that depended too much on the perception of the receiver to determine its meaning.

    However, It’s quite possible, given the demographics, that the victims’ families are all (Catholic?) Christians, and have been telling themselves some version of his statement as a point of comfort… “Our child is with Jesus (God, the angels) now”. THEY may have taken that comment in the same vein, though it was still unwise for Paxton to assume so.

  7. ” I have no idea how it would strike someone who is religious, which I am not, nor can I be certain how a parent of child who had died in the shooting would react to it.”

    I know what I am about to say really isn’t an ethics argument, but mostly a Biblical response to this particular statement. As someone with some experience in this matter I can confidently say I and my peers rarely use this statement in lessons or in teachings for a few reasons, mostly because we don’t like it and its rarely used correctly.

    First, let me establish some context. The verse people quote is in Jeremiah 29:11. It states depending on the translation you’re using something like this: “For I know the plans I have for you,” Declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” The popularity of these words was spoken by the very unpopular Jeremiah in a time of judgment against Israel. At the time Israel was rampant in idolatry and Jeremiah told them that not only would they fail to overcome their situation of city under siege, but they would become captives to the Babylonians during the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar. This exile would last roughly 70 years and end after the Babylonian Empire fell. By the time these words are spoken, these words are offered as comfort that God will get them though these tough times often with the experience making them better for it.

    The problem with its usage is twofold. The first really isn’t germane to the discussion, but might offer some clarity to the second or speak to Paxton’s motives, so I will mention it anyway. People want to make this verse about them. It’s not. One could make the argument that God does have plans for them, but a majority of those plans include upholding their Christian values of faith, pray, repentance, and sharing the gospel. There are no secrets when it comes to those plans. They are outlined in the Bible.

    The second is that God wants or allows bad things to happen. Based on the statement Paxton is making I can only assume he is applying some infantile argument of this: bad happens in the world, therefore God wants bad things to happen, therefore it’s his plan to make them happen. On the surface, this argument might make sense to someone like Paxton. It seems easy to say if God is who he says he is he could easy stop all the bad things that happen on earth. After all, an all-powerful and all-knowing God should be able to direct anything towards good, so why doesn’t he unless he wants those bad things to happen?

    The obvious answer is free-will combined with a broken world. If God wanted servants, he could have easily accomplished that goal (and in a way he has through the creation of angels). The standard answer for free-will is that for love to be real, it must not be coerced. If we did not have the ability to reject God then we couldn’t truly come to him in love. To be a child of God you must first love him. There is some debate of whether or not this line of thinking is accepted in scripture, but I believe the idea is there. We might pray for divine intervention but we accept these prayers will rarely (if at all) change the outcome of free-will.

    The broken world idea is more metaphysical. Romans 8:20-21 says, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Paul here writes a bleak picture of a sin-ravaged world we all live in. Because one man sinned (Romans 5) all the world is subjected to that sin, not just the humans that occupy it. It’s clear from reading the rest of chapter 8 God never intended for His creation to experience this corruption and futility into death forever. Therefore, God allowing anything to advance that death in anyway is counter to Paul’s claim. God doesn’t allow it any more than he allows man to engage in sin in the first place.

    I’m going to try to maybe give Paxton some leeway here (at least from a Christian stand point). There are a few fundamental truths we as Christians do agree on which I think also might go into his thinking.

    1. Bad things may happen in the world and to good people, but we see this world is not the end. This is illustrated in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”

    2. Whether or not God allows bad things to happen, he will use those bad things for good. This may be the point Paxton (and many others) are trying to make when they make statements like this. However, if this is the point he is trying to make, he should make it. We can condemn tragedy without having to justify it away. I feel people’s frustration on wanting to ‘do something’ but hiding behind bad logic and misinterpreted scripture isn’t it (though at the moment I’m at a loss of what ‘it’ could be).

    3. Suffering can be a learning experience. As followers of Christ, we realize he suffered the ultimate suffering. I don’t want to make the ‘there are worst things’ argument, but I do want people to know there is a way to move forward and we have been doing it for 1,000s of years.
    Our reaction is to all adversity is “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He makes your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6).” However, we are also taught “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15).” Paxton and Christians like him who engage in talk like the one above aren’t engaging in good apologetics, gentleness, or respect to the ones they are talking to. It would have been better for him to say nothing at all.

      • Bad Bob wrote, “Come on now, she had occasional gems…”

        And a stopped clock is accurate for two minutes out of every 1,440 minute day. 😉

        Seriously, I was really being facetious and I know that she had some gems and maybe I’m wrong but when it came to religion I remember her going just a bit off the rails.

  8. There’s a time for evangelizing and there’s a time for pastoring. When you’re dealing with a grieving family, the time is for pastoring.

    The problem of pain is a long-standing issue. The Book of Job in the Bible addressed it thousands of years ago. St. Thomas Aquinas addressed it in his Summa Theologica. C.S. Lewis wrote about it during WWII, even before the discovery of the horrors of the Holocaust. Contemporary apologists continually have to confront it. I think I’ve liked what Bishop Robert Barron had to say in his Catholicism series, and what Catholic Answer staff apologist Jimmy Akin had to say in the first Catholic Answers Conference. But in the face of so much suffering, how can we make sense of it? In the face of so much suffering, how can we believe in God, or at least a good God who is, according to classic Christian theology, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent?

    In terms of seeking answers for this, there is one fundamental answer that is true, but it isn’t on the face very comforting. That answer is, “We don’t know.” The problem of evil is a mystery, meaning that while we can understand large chunks of it, we can’t ever fully plumb the depths of the issue. Bishop Barron pointed out in his Catholicism series that we are so mystified by the Incarnation, in part because God’s answer to the problem of so much evil and suffering was not to abolish it all (or at least not immediately), but to descend from the heavens, take on our mortal nature, and suffer and die alongside of us. In the midst of our own suffering, though, that’s on the surface not very comforting. How does God suffering and dying relate at all to my suffering? How does it relate to the parents who have just had their innocent child gunned down by a madman?

    Jimmy Akin, his talk, walks through a number of steps in trying to answer the problem of pain. First, he acknowledges that some pain exists because it is helpful. We feel pain from intense heat or cold because those damage us. We feel a stomach ache, perhaps even get sick, when we eat something bad. If we didn’t have those painful experiences, we would probably damage ourselves beyond repair in short order. Pain acts as a deterrent. But that’s a very limited explanation. He then describes another category of pain, such as getting the just deserts of our actions. If we do something foolish, or something wrong, then evil befalling us is to be expected. But that doesn’t answer why it seems that innocent people suffer, or at least that people’s suffering does not seem tied to the sins they have committed.
    So going deeper, Jimmy explored how some pain exists in order to allow a greater good, such as free will. If people didn’t have the capacity to choose right or wrong, we would be far inferior because of it. But even that’s not a full explanation, because supposedly in heaven, we will both retain free will and there will be no more pain and suffering. So he digs deeper and speaks on how God does permit terribly evil acts because he can draw greater good out of it. For example, we (humanity) killed God. In the crucifixion of Jesus, we killed God. And yet God fashioned redemption for all mankind out of that act. But even this does not seem to answer all the questions. Finally, he admits that there are answers we’ll probably never learn about the problem of evil, but there was one final takeaway. With God, we have a promise that whatever suffering we endure, he’ll make it up to us. Without God, we’re left with pain, and pain to no purpose.

    These are all great lessons to learn when you’re in a rational mindset and aren’t grief stricken. And these are important lessons to learn before you’re grief stricken. Because every one of us at some point will be grief-stricken, and questioning why this particular evil has fallen upon us. Bereft of these lessons, we’d be at a complete loss. But with these lessons, we have a bulwark against which we can support ourselves.

    But when someone is grief-stricken, that’s not the time to teach those lessons. Job’s friends in the Book of Job try to “comfort” their friend, who had just lost all his possessions and all his children, by preaching at him all the lessons they had learned, and of course that he must have sinned terribly to have deserved such an awful punishment. And this does nothing to help Job. Neither does telling a grieving mother that “God has a plan, even if we don’t know what it is.” If someone is rooted deep in faith, and has taken to heart that “God works to the good all things for those who love him”, even then, that’s not a great consolation.

    When someone is grieving, what they tend to need most is acknowledgment that their pain is real and justified. That’s what compassion is, understanding someone else’s pain. It doesn’t mean you have to cry alongside them. It doesn’t mean you have to make promises to make things right. It just means that you stand with them while they are in pain. Because fundamentally, what has been done has been done. That’s not going to change. Anything we try to do in the future might to be prevent things like this from happening again, but it can’t change the past.

    The parents of the children shot at Uvalde deserve far more than the politics raging around them. They deserve far more than platitudes and worthless promises. But no one in this world can give them back what they have lost. So we can only stand alongside them in their grief.

  9. Ryan Harkins wrote, “The parents of the children shot at Uvalde deserve far more than the politics raging around them. They deserve far more than platitudes and worthless promises. But no one in this world can give them back what they have lost. So we can only stand alongside them in their grief.”

    Well said!

  10. Part of my problem with that answer is also that, based on that reasoning, should the shooter be punished. If the person doing the shooting is just following God’s plan, why would you be punishing him. (Which, yes, is ridiculous)

  11. Dear Jack,

    it reminds me of speaking to the pastor who gave my father’s eulogy after the service, thanking her for her kind words. She was incredibly well-meaning, but she only knew him through reputation and me not at all. When I expressed thanks for her words and started to walk away, she touched my shoulder and said (with an earnest look) “Today isn’t a day to mourn your father, but to worship the God who made him.”

    It still infuriates me when I think of it, as I wanted to reply “Can his ego not take a back seat for 1/2 a day?”

    • Not a day to mourn?

      What other day to mourn is better?

      Jesus wept when he visited Lazarus’ tomb. Even though He knew He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead!

      • Jack,

        Love or hate me, he’s also the reason I’ve remained a loyal reader despite our (you and I) numerous disagreements. We would often read your blog separately and then argue it later on (usually on opposing sides), but it nevertheless fueled many (many) hours of edifying conversations.

        To put another way (if I’ve never said this before), thank you.

  12. I know you aren’t religious, so it’s interesting to see your take on this, as I take you to be a serious person.

    I don’t see any problem with what he said, as long as there was more to go with it. If this is all he said, and he said it in a dismissive manner, then he screwed up. if this statement comes in the middle of a broader discussion about the nature of evil and God or other words meant to be comforting, then the statement alone isn’t generally problematic to me. Here’s why.

    Someone else posted about God preplanning stuff and all of that. That’s one way of looking at God, but it’s not the only way. Some people are in the free will camp. People do bad things because they choose to misuse their wills and hurt others.

    The theology comes in when you look at the nature of God. If a good, all powerful God exists, then this God could stop every bad thing from ever happening. God has the ability to stop evil…right now! And now. So on and so on.

    But, God doesn’t stop evil. God allows people to misuse their free will to hurt others. So, in this broad sense, it is part of God’s “will” that bad things happen because God doesn’t stop it. Theologians distinguish between different types of wills of God. I am going to copy and paste a snippet.

    ///”From the context of Scripture, however, we do distinguish among several words with respect to the will of God. For example, we speak of His sovereign, efficacious will. We define this will as that which comes to pass by necessity from the very force of God exercising it. We also refer to this as the decretive will because whatever God decrees necessarily, by the force of His sovereignty, comes to pass.

    There is also the preceptive will of God. This is where God reveals to us the commandments that He wants us to obey. However, God’s command that we love Him with all of our hearts is not a sovereign, efficacious act of His will. Otherwise, we would automatically love Him with all of our hearts. That is to say, we can resist and disobey him. In fact, we disobey the preceptive will all the time.

    Finally, we talk about the will of desire or God’s effective will, which involves His disposition. He takes no delight in the death of the wicked, in the sense of a gleeful enjoyment of their negative outcome. Nevertheless, He still decrees or commands that these people be punished. There are other nuances of the will of God that we can find in the New Testament, but those are the three most significant and most frequently used.”///

    So, what people mean when they say a tragedy is the will of God is that God has allowed people to misuse their free will for some purpose we do not understand. Part of life is learning to accept the ways of God, even when they seem completely at odds with human experience. God is a categorically different type of being, so it necessarily follows that God will do things that won’t make sense to us, given our limited perspective. This means that God has some reason for allowing tragedies and not stopping them. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but if you are a Christian, it’s a truth of life.

    This does NOT mean that we do nothing in the face of evil. It just means sometimes evil can’t be prevented in some circumstances because some people seem to always make the wrong choice.

    If there are things that should’ve been different in the police response, then he should own up to that part. Like I said, a simple response about God’s will that is dismissive would be unethical, but the general idea is part of basic theology. You don’t even really need to be a Christian, just if you believe in some sort of classical theism, you have to learn to accept what feels like God’s inaction.

    • He was asked what he would say to those parents, and that was his entire answer as what he would say. It’s an asshole response. Simple as that. Theology is not what the parents need, and even if it was, he’s not in a position to offer it. Paxton couldn’t have written your comment with a gun to his head.

    • But, God doesn’t stop evil. God allows people to misuse their free will to hurt others. So, in this broad sense, it is part of God’s “will” that bad things happen because God doesn’t stop it. Theologians distinguish between different types of wills of God. I am going to copy and paste a snippet.

      If our Lord God HaShem does not stop evil, why should anyone else?

      On usenet, I have read more than one person clakinging that Republicans are not reallt Christians because they deny health care to people by refusing to enact unviersal health care.

      It is prertty clear that the Lord Jersus Christ refuses to heral the sick.

      Why do His followers have a duty to do what the Lord Himself refuses to do?

      • Complicated question.

        God would be the very moral framework for all of reality. The creator of the moral framework establishes the rules, and those living under it follow those rules (simply put).

        Suffering also isn’t forever though. I have a disabled sister currently in kidney failure, so I feel the force of these questions. If God is good, you sometimes just have to trust in the goodness of God. You should expect that certain things will not make sense to you.

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