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."
Remembering this biblical nuance helps us address the tragedy in Newtown. First, it reminds us that preventing horror and evil does not simply mean better services for the mentally ill, better lockdown drills, fewer guns, or more prayer in school, although many of these changes should be considered in response to the Newtown tragedy. Second, it reminds us that sin is both an internal moral choice and an external power. In Romans, the apostle Paul describes our complicated relationship to sin as he describes us as "powerless" and living "under the power of sin." Similarly, in Ephesians 6:19 we read, "For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." The external power of sin is real, but Paul and other writers also make it clear that humans—each and every one of us—have chosen to participate in the rule of sin. We are both the perpetrator and the victim of evil's hold on this world.
And yet. The good news of the gospel, the hope we hold out in the midst of darkness and despair and anguished cries of mothers and fathers ripped from their children on a bright sunny morning, is that there is one who comes both to forgive and to heal, to bind up the brokenhearted, to wipe the tears from those who mourn, to put this broken world and these broken lives back together again. Adam Lanza's sin, and Adam Lanza's sickness, resulted in 27 other deaths. He needed God's healing from the darkness of mental illness, just as he needed God's forgiveness for the hatred he harbored in his heart.
Christians cannot offer simple solutions or easy answers in response to the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary. Sin is multifaceted, and we witnessed its long and dark reach on Friday morning. But the salvation offered through Jesus is a healing-salvation for both the victims and the perpetrator of the heinous crime. And the power of sin is countered, and ultimately overcome, by the power of the love of God.
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