Yet another shooting tragedy has befallen us in the United States. Starting with Columbine in 1999, it has become a regular feature of American life in the 21st century. Fast forward to Friday, and we are now mourning the absurd slaughter of 12 people trapped in a theater in Aurora, Colorado. Our reactions cultural and personal are interesting to behold.
Take mine: my first thought as a devout follower of the Prince of Peace was to think, Maybe I should start packing a gun. We live in a broken society in which the police can no longer protect me and my family. It's probably up to me to do that now.
My sarcasm does not signal that I'm for or against gun control. We may be at a cultural moment when more self-defense is called for. Or maybe such a solution would just lead to more useless violence. I'll let political and social scientists sort that out. I'm more interested at this point in my reaction as a disciple of Jesus: it began with fear and self-protection.
It then moved on to vainglory, as I imagined how I would want to act in such a horrific situation. I had images of myself tackling the shooter or throwing my body over helpless victims, taking the bullet for others. This is adolescent, I know, but it's actually what went through my mind. For all I know, at such a moment, I may just as easily pee in my pants. But my pride says I'd play the hero.
At some point, my thoughts finally got around to thinking about others, to those who actually took a bullet, the wounded and dead, and the loved ones left grieving. But then another uncharitable thought immediately rose to the surface: I'd happily kill the s.o.b. who did the shooting.
I suspect my selfish, prideful, and revengeful reactions are not unusual, and that for most of us, they are checked by higher ideals. But there they are, mixed in with compassion, reason, and hope.
Lord, have mercy.
The national reaction of shock and outrage is understandable and at one level a continuing sign of our humanity. God forbid that we would react to these tragedies as we do to daily murder in big cities. The day after the latest Colorado shootings, The Chicago Tribune email newsletter began with this: "One dead, seventeen wounded in attacks across city." It sounded like a coordinated effort, so I opened the link. I discovered it was just another 17 shootings, the sort of thing that happens in Chicago with routine monotony. This no longer shocks us; it's part of the daily grist of news which is no longer news. So far in July alone, 27 people have been murdered in Chicago—over twice as many as were killed in the Aurora shooting. Last year in Chicago in July alone, 55 were murdered.
Why are we not shocked and outraged at this daily violence? If we were, would it do any good? What would it do to our psyches to be aware and outraged every day? Maybe we have no psychological choice but to move the violence to the subliminal regions. But then along comes a mass shooting, and we are aware, if only briefly, how much violence and fear of violence we live with daily.
To put it another way: it's best we not think too deeply about our key rings, the symbol of dark principalities and powers that seem to rule our world. I have keys to my front door, back door, garage, two cars, overhead luggage rack, just to begin the list. And dozens of keys for rental property I own. And so many online passwords, especially for financial matters, that I have to have a separate program, with its own password, to store them. Dozens of times a day I lock and unlock things physical and electronic, because we live in a world where people will do violence to me and the things I own if I don’t lock things down. Not necessarily killing, but anyone who has had their home broken into knows the feeling of being violated by a mere act of theft. And yes, sometimes theft involves real killing.
And then there is the constant and abiding presence of security guards and police at places we visit every day—banks, malls, schools, grocery stores, and so forth. And the regular announcements at the airport to watch for abandoned packages and suspicious behavior. They are a steady reminder that we live in a broken, violent world.
We put a veneer of civility over all this, so that it is attended to with decorum and, well, fun! How many sentimental trinkets are available for our key rings, the very symbol of violence we are trying to keep at bay? But these shootings remind us that we very much live in a world as "red in tooth and claw" as ever.
Our fear is difficult to put into words. But we try, and when we do, the theological gets mixed with the political, and compassion with hate. Note this one comment to a news story about a prayer vigil that was going to take place as a result of the shootings:
"It's time people put the blame and responsibility for such Actions where it belongs, instead of blaming "Original Sin" or that "The devil made them do it". This Monster CHOSE to commit these senseless acts of Violence, he CHOSE to do Harm. He isn't Crazy or Demon Possessed. He simply is an awful person who made horrible choices with disastrous Consequences. Had The GOP/TEA not demanded that Battlefield weapons be easier to obtain than renting DVDs, these kinds of tragedies would be occurring MUCH less. Home Protection, but NO ONE needs Automatic Weapons or Assault rifles. Life is't a Chuck Norris Movie; it's HIGH time We demand accountability from The "Right" for allowing their side to continually spew hate, incite Violence, demanding Genocidal weapons be easily accessible to anyone for The Misery and loss of Life it causes. Enough is ENOUGH!"
So the murderer becomes a "monster," and those who supposedly "spew hate, incite violence" are condemned with venom. This, unfortunately, is where shock and outrage take us.
We lack the imagination to conceive that people who do these sorts of things are human beings, so we talk about them as "monsters" or mentally ill or whatever—we label them to suggest they are not like us, for we could never do such a thing. But of course we could; the routinization of murder under Stalin and Hitler, among other regimes, suggests that any of us can be enlisted to wipe out fellow human beings, doing so with routine efficiency. Death camps are run by everyday people like us just doing their jobs.
National pop-psychology is one of our favorite pastimes, as we try to find a reason for the shooter's actions. He's already being labeled a "loner," for example, as if the gregarious and outgoing are incapable of such violence. We'll come up with some theory that comforts us in the dark of night, that if only we as a nation did X, Y, or Z, we could prevent people from going over the deep end like this. Some of those things may indeed help in some ways. But we are kidding ourselves if we think we have within our national grasp an educational or psychological or political solution to evil.
There is no solution or explanation for evil. Evil is fundamentally irrational; it simply cannot be grasped by means of our intellectual categories. Evil is the very denial of rationality, because it is a rebellion against the Logos, the very principle of the good, the true, and the beautiful who created and sustains the universe.
And who has redeemed the universe. The Christian hope in the face of evil is not to explain it or cure it. Our hope is absurd in its own way, turning absurdity on its head. We proclaim that evil has already been dealt the decisive blow. And that blow was delivered, paradoxically enough, at a moment when evil seems to have won—on the cross on which Jesus Christ died.
Christians "make sense" of tragedies by acknowledging that they are in fact senseless, and that their absurdity is little different than the absurdity of the Cross. And that's precisely why, when we talk about the gospel, we begin with the absurd. As Paul notes, our preaching is
foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense. (1 Cor. 1:22-23 , NLT)
And the content of the preaching is this: absurdity has been defeated by absurdity, death has been defeated by death. The Resurrection, especially in the preaching in Acts, is mostly about the vindication of Jesus ("Jesus, whom you crucified, has been exalted by God, so ha!"—see Peter's speech in Acts 2). The apparent failure of the Cross was, in fact, a victory—a victory over the irrational principalities that currently wreak havoc in the world, represented by those little key chains we carry around. (So maybe it's a sign of good theology to carry something silly on our key chains—it shows we're not taking evil as seriously as it takes itself!)
The commenter quoted above also waxed theological, something a lot of people, believers and not, are doing:
Why weren't those who were Mercilessly Slaughtered Prayers to Live heard I wonder. Evidently God was too busy planning with Tebow for Touchdowns this Fall to check his Voicemail. It just makes NO sense to me to Pray to a God that can't stop such things from happening in The 1st Place.What kind of God who is truly all powerful,Just or Loving just sits back&let's innocent People die&then has them believing it's THEIR Fault? Certainly not one I'd Pray to,or even bother with. That's like saying they deserved their Fate because someone else they never met did something Bad. It's a slap in the face when they say such things.
It does make even the faithful wonder "what kind of God" we have put our faith in. Apparently he is a God who does not intervene to prevent such horrors, for reasons we, as much as this commenter, find unfathomable. It is indeed a slap in the face to people when we use a thin veneer of pop theology to "explain" the tragedy. Better just to confess, as did David, time and again in the Psalms,
Lord, . . . you hid your face;
I was dismayed. (Ps. 30:7)
This Psalm, coincidently enough, was the reading for the day after the shooting. But actually, that's not such a coincidence, because lots of Bible passages note this reality, the feeling that God is hiding himself. Many a saint, like their Lord, has felt utterly forsaken. The Bible is pretty frank about this reality.
But in the very same Bible, and in that very same Psalm, we read other startling confessions, like,
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning. (v. 5)
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever! (vv. 11-12)
The online commenter expresses well the sentiment that even the believer experiences. The difference is this: For the Christian, the Object of dismay and anger happens to be the Source of healing and hope. The life, death, and resurrection of Christ has shown that this is not a fanciful wish, some utopian dream, but one grounded in history—a history that itself seems to be grounded in deathly absurdity, when, in fact, it is alive with hope.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker).