Was the Sandy Hook Shooter Sinful or Just Sick?
Like many parents across America, I spent the weekend shielding my children from news about the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, even as I pored over reports that might offer some way to make sense of the horror. I saw comment after comment and post after post that tried to hone in on one aspect of this tragedy and from it craft a solution. There were the posts about increased gun control, that perhaps this mass murder can galvanize our politicians into another conversation about protecting the Second Amendment while also protecting our children from the senseless use of lethal weapons. Other writers and commenters looked to shooter Adam Lanza's psyche to offer a reason for his crimes.
In "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother," Liza Long, the mother of a child with an undiagnosed mental illness, writes about the threat her son poses to his family and his community. Her post has gone viral, with over 900 comments and 680,000 Facebook shares. She concludes: "It's time for a meaningful, nationwide conversation about mental health. That's the only way our nation can ever truly heal." In other words, mental illness is the problem, and increasing the social supports available to families will help prevent tragedies like last Friday's.
For many Christians, however, this response to shootings only bolsters a society wed to therapeutic solutions to all human woes. A typical Christian response online was not to talk about mental illness but rather about the reality of evil. From this vantage point, Adam Lanza is but one extreme example of the moral culpability we all share as sinners. As Baptist theologian Albert Mohler writes: "we cannot accept the inevitable claims that this young murderer is to be understood as merely sick … The sinfulness of sin is never more clearly revealed than when we look into the heart of a crime like this and see the hatred toward God that precedes the murderous hatred he poured out on his little victims."
So which one is it? A neurobiological disorder that needs therapy and medicine? Or a sin disorder that needs God's judgment and forgiveness? And why does it matter?
In the Gospels, again and again, Jesus comes as the one who offers salvation. He is the Savior, the one with authority to forgive sins. And just as frequently, Jesus comes as the one who offers healing. These aspects of his earthly ministry often appear side by side as Jesus both preaches the Good News of the kingdom and heals his listeners of their sicknesses and diseases (see, for instance, Mark 2, Matthew 4:23 and Luke 10:9). Jesus is the one who saves us from sin; he is simultaneously the one who heals our diseases. Our need for healing and our need for salvation are intimately related in Jesus' ministry. As the healing/forgiveness of the paralytic in Mark 2 suggests, to heal is to save, and to save is to heal. This dual nature of salvation recalls Psalm 41:4, in which the Psalmist cries out, "Have mercy on me, Lord; heal me, for I have sinned against you."