Only the most insensibly violent acts can grab the attention of Americans who enjoy dramatized violence in their favorite television shows and movies. When we hear about these heinous crimes, something stirs inside all but the most desensitized. Sadly, two such incidents have grabbed headlines in recent days.
Observers are struggling to comprehend what happened outside a high-school homecoming dance in Richmond, California, the evening of October 24. Authorities have detained five people after a 15-year-old girl was reportedly beaten and gang raped for more than two hours. As if the assault wasn't bad enough, authorities believe than more than 20 people looked on or participated. Police report that some of the onlookers laughed while others snapped pictures. No one reported the crime to authorities. No one taking photos on a cell phone used the device to call for help.
"This just gets worse and worse the more you dig into it," Richmond Police Department Lt. Mark Gagan told CNN. "It was like a horror movie. I can't believe not one person felt compelled to help her."
Some experts suspect that witnesses feared retaliation if they "snitched," a grievous sin in violent communities. But that theory does not explain why some of the onlookers eventually joined in the rape. Others believe that the so-called bystander effect kicked in to convince at least some of the witnesses that someone else had reported the crime. Or perhaps they simply fell in line with the rest of the tight-lipped crowd.
"If you are in a crowd and you look and see that everyone is doing nothing, then doing nothing becomes the norm," Drew Carberry, a director at the National Council on Crime Prevention, said to CNN.
Similarly, no one did anything to stop the deadly beating of 16-year-old honor student Darrin Albert. Earlier this fall on September 24, a melee erupted between rival groups at Fenger High School in Chicago. Albert, a bystander, was struck with a wooden plank in the brawl, which someone videotaped. Later, Chicagoans watching the fight on the news could hardly believe they were actually seeing such raw violence unfold in broad daylight, in a school, with no police presence to be found.
"This has got to stop," Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich wrote. But why doesn't it? The cycle of death repeats itself again and again.
"The killing, the shock. The shouting, the weeping. The refreshed resolve to make it end. And then the urgency wanes."
National and local leaders dutifully stepped forward to offer their theories for the fight's root causes.
"Somehow many of our young people have lost faith in the future," said Arne Duncan, President Obama's secretary of education and the CEO of Chicago Public Schools between 2001 and 2008. "They've been denied love, support, and guidance and have grown up believing that their life is not worth anything—so no one else's life is worth anything either."
As in the Richmond rape, experts identified reasons for the violence related to social development.
"For a young person to pick up a weapon and kill, the capacity to carry out the act will often have been planted in the heart of the young person early on," Kevin Limbeck, the executive director of Family Focus, wrote to the Chicago Tribune. "That capacity for violence is the result of a negative development process which can take place in the formative moments of his/her young life."
Illinois Democratic state Sen. James Meeks, pastor of Salem Baptist Church in Chicago, noted that many people tend to blame the parents after these violent outbreaks. But he delivered choice words for the "disastrous school system" where these kids languish. Meeks wrote that 98 percent of Fenger juniors read below their grade level. The situation isn't much better in other schools on Chicago's South and West Sides. College is no option for students trapped in these schools, so hope for the future fades. When hope fades, restraint disappears.
"Without question, the lack of preparedness of students leads to despair, disruption, and ultimately violence," Meeks wrote in the Chicago Tribune. "Nobody wants to be held accountable, but the blood of every child is on our hands."
Meeks's allusion to Deuteronomy 21:7 and Matthew 27:24 reminds us that Scripture is no stranger to brutality. Consider the attempted rape in Genesis 19:4-8 and the actual one in Judges 19:24-25. The biblical authors do not seem surprised in the narrative. Rather, they identify the crimes with rebellion against the Lord (Gen. 19:13, Jdg. 19:1).
Curiously, popular responses to the recent violence presuppose that humans are basically good before society messes them up. So we need to identify and fix those dimensions in our society that lead people astray. Surely factors such as the bystander effect, poor schools, and broken families testify to what happens when cultures forsake common goods that restrain sin. But the Bible depicts a more realistic view of human nature. Everyone is born with the capability to kill, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). Indeed, when the Savior of the world appeared, the crowds beat and mocked him (Matt. 26:67-68, Mark 15:19). Not even Jesus' closest friends tried to stop the violence, which included the most horrendous of deaths, crucifixion.
Yet all this happened in the plan of God (Acts 3:17-18), who showed his righteousness by putting forward Jesus as a "propitiation by his blood" (Rom. 3:25). God patiently passed over former sins. But Jesus took sin upon himself and died as a substitute for those who would receive him by faith. That is the plan of salvation from God, who is both just and the justifier (Rom. 3:26). There is no greater hope for a world trapped in the cycle of violence.
"Money alone will never solve this problem," Arne Duncan admitted about the persistent crime in Chicago schools. "It's much deeper than that. It's about our values. It's about who we are as a society."
Even more, it's about who we trust as our Savior.
Collin Hansen is a CT editor at large and author of Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists.
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Previous Theology in the News columns are available on our site, including:
Sheffield's Biblical Studies Program Survives | Student protests save department founded by F. F. Bruce. (October 15, 2009)
Transcending the Worship Wars | Bryan Chapell urges Christians to move past musical preferences toward Christ-Centered Worship. (September 21, 2009)
Amiable Impasse | Charitable Catholic/evangelical dialogue snags on imputation, authority. (September 8, 2009)