The shootings in Omaha and in Colorado raise the specter of a (Thomas) Hobbesian “state of nature” wherein life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” and a war of “all against all.” With these two (or three) events clustered together it seems as if some internal governor has been removed, as if we’ve crossed a threshold of sorts. These shootings seem to be happening with alarming regularity.
Certainly there have always been aggrieved persons in our culture. There have always been mentally unbalanced sorts who have nursed a grudge and, so far as I know, we have no reason to think that they exist now in greater proportion than in previous years but these mass shootings do seem to be happening with greater frequency. Are there proportionally more guns available? I doubt it. Why are they happening? To focus on what the Westminster Standards call “second causes,” we have to ask whether people feel the degree of restraint they once did? In covering the Omaha shootings the media have focused on the mental health of the shooter. Yes, certain forms of mental illness probably do increase the likelihood of violent behavior, but there are two factors that the media have not covered: fear of God and fear of the magistrate. Even mentally unbalanced people can and do fear God and the magistrate and such fear can and does restrain people, even the mentally ill, from acts of public violence.
During my life I have noticed a significant change in public attitudes regarding authority (and thus restraint of behavior) of all sorts. My parents were children during the depression. They both rebelled against against institutional Christianity but I was taught the necessity of civil righteousness. As a little unbeliever I feared “the cops” and was taught that to defy them opened the possibility of the severest consequences. I knew that God is and that there would be a day of judgment. Fear of the magistrate and fear of judgment acted as a restraint on my behavior in public. I wanted to lash out at schoolyard bullies and even wished them dead but it never occurred to me to actually get a gun and make it so. Let me be clear: It wasn’t that I was actually righteous. I wasn’t! In my heart, I murdered those bullies a thousand times, but I never actually murdered them with my hands.
One early sign that public standards were loosening came when the Supreme Court outlawed corporal punishment in schools. In grammar school I had a desk next to the principal’s office. She had a “switch” (a small stick). She could and would use it if my behavior warranted. I don’t recall if she did, but I do recall a sort of death march through the grand foyer to her office every day for my assigned hour in second grade. Then, in seventh grade, the word went out that the Assistant Principal could no longer use his paddle on our disobedient behinds. Knowing that he could no longer paddle us, we mocked him openly.
The 60s and early 70s did bring a real change in outward behavior. I recall vividly when “the hippies” took over Memorial Park. They arrived in VW buses and brought with them a strange, sickly sweet odor that became a common place. Suddenly Memorial Park was off limits, at least until the cops forced them out of the park. I recall a heroin addict walking down our street and stopping to talk with me as I sat on the front stoop of our middle class house in our middle class neighborhood. He showed me the needle tracks on his arm. Such things would be bizarre today, but it didn’t seem odd in 1970. The lid seemed to have been lifted. Anything seemed possible.
This is not an appeal to a “golden age.” The hippies had a point. Middle class life in the 1940s and 50s probably was shot through with hypocrisy, but at least hypocrisy isn’t mass murder. The seeds for what we are reaping now were sown much earlier than the 1960s. They were sown in the middle of the 17th century by Rene Descartes, who taught us to begin with ourselves as the source of authority. That turn to the autonomous self only became more intense in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the Enlightenment took a sledge hammer to Christian theism. In the early 20th century, the mainline churches in the USA sued for peace with the Enlightenment and cashed in the faith for a vacuous, groundless, insubstantial, Modernist religion in which civil righteousness was not the by-product but the essence of religion. The children and grandchildren of those early 20th-century modernists gradually rejected it in favor of Narcissism, free sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Thus, the 1960s were essentially devoted to the destruction of restraints on public behavior. The 1970s were a celebration of the destruction of those restraints. How else can one explain disco music and the disco culture? The 1980s were, in many ways, a failed, last ditch attempt by grandpa and grandma to put the civil antinomian genie back in the bottle. It was a valiant attempt, but it failed because it lacked the necessary starting point. Since the 1990s we have been dealing with the children, and now the grandchildren, of those who tore down the barriers in the 60s. The boomers were raised generally to fear God and the magistrate. Their parents, the WWII generation still, by and large, believed in civil righteousness. Of course, their parents and grandparents had largely abandoned the historic, confessional, biblical Christian faith. All that was left, in many instances, was the shell of deism. Nevertheless, there was a shared sense of civil restraint. Today, that shared sense of civil restraint seems to have vanished.
The outward piety and civil restraint of Deism worked, in civil terms, because it was grounded in the idea of nature. The 1960s was not only a war against the hypocrisy of mainline liberal religion and morality but it was also a war against the very idea that there is such a thing as nature or objective norms of any kind. In the 60s and 70s we entered into an era of radical subjectivism. There is no God, no truth, no objective reality, no givens, no nature, and thus no boundaries (hey, let’s start a clothing line called, No Boundaries!).
The consequences of the eclipse of norms of any kind is that the message is sent repeatedly that the pangs of conscience that we feel aren’t real, that they don’t correspond to any objective reality, that they are only some sort of prehistoric hangover that evolution hath not quite dissolved. Further, if we medicate ourselves sufficiently, it’s not very hard to chemically obliterate the conscience altogether while we wait for evolution to do its thing. The consequence of the eclipse of conscience is that we no longer have to trouble ourselves with God, nature, norms, or even civil righteousness. Laugh if you will, but I think that the film Forrest Gump did a brilliant job of chronicling the war of the boomers against hypocrisy and nature and the revenge, if you will, of “nature” (i.e., providence administered through second causes).
If, in civil society, we convince ourselves that there is no God to whom one must answer, if we continue to tell ourselves that there is no such thing as objective reality or norms or nature, then we have eliminated an important governor upon natural, corrupt, human impulses. We cannot substitute Prozac for the fear of God. Clearly, the young man who murdered 8 at Westroads in Omaha did not fear God. He planned to murder as many as he could and then to commit suicide. It appears, however, that he did fear the civil magistrate after a fashion. The surveillance video suggests that he entered the store unarmed to scout out the security briefly and then re-entered with the weapon in order to commit his crime. As I write, it isn’t known exactly what the murderer(s) in Colorado planned–beyond murdering as many as possible.
One result of the gradual elimination of an internal sense of restraint is necessarily the increase of external restraints and there are three ways to achieve this external restraint:
1) increased public funding of police forces;
2)increased private funding of security forces;
3)We all begin to get and carry concealed weapons or some combination of the three.
Different regions will probably opt for different solutions. In the Northeast and Northwest corridors where social liberalism reigns, option #1 will likely prevail on the model of Mayor Rudy’s plan in NYC. Other places, with less confidence in the magistrate to fulfill his end of the civil compact, will likely pursue other options. In Texas, laws have already been enacted to make it easier for private citizens to carry concealed weapons and it seems evident that the move by New Life Church in Colorado Springs to increase armed, plainclothes security after the Arvada shooting saved many lives.
Columbine became Littleton and Littleton became Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech has become Omaha and suddenly Omaha is replaced by Colorado; we’ve come full circle. Whatever the result of the public policy debate that will follow these shootings we must reckon with the fact that we are fallen people. Each of us has murder in his heart. Just as folk move from online porn to the real thing (Dateline NBC anyone?), so a 19-year old moved from virtual slaughter to the real thing. Public official and private business people must now face the cold fact that whatever once restrained people from acting on their murderous impulses seems to be reduced or eliminated. Most public gatherings are easy targets or mass murderers. It appears that, in one way or another, our cities, towns, and shopping areas must become an armed camp, whether publicly, privately, or both.
Well-meaning liberals will call for increased spending on mental health programs. This means putting more people on drugs and into counseling. There will be hearings and probably a spasm of spending, but it will fade away as the memory of these assaults fades. These moves will all fail as they are built on false premise. The State of Nebraska spent a considerable lot of money on the Mall murderer. Unless we are to bring back involuntary hospitalization (which the social liberals effectively gutted in the 70s) the mental health establishment is incapable of protecting us from violent predators. In one way or another, the Modern liberalism has given us Hobbes’ “war of all against all.”
As Reformed Christians, even as we address the public implications of the fall and the collapse of restraint, we should remind ourselves of the doctrine of providence: “all things come not by chance, but by his Fatherly hand” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 26). This is not to counsel passivity. It is to put these episodes into some context. How should churches respond? The surrender of the mainline churches to the Enlightenment helped create the current situation. To do more of the same and to expect different results is, by definition, insanity. The message of the Emerging Church movement, however it be clothed in postmodern/late modern rhetoric, is just more of the same–the social gospel which forgets or ignores the failure of the Social Gospel movement the first time round.
Confessional Reformed Churches (and others who identify significantly with them) should do what they’re called to do by God’s Word: preach the law and the gospel. As we remind ourselves of our doctrine of providence, we should also remind ourselves of our doctrine of sin. The current crisis is a brilliant, if brutal, illustration of human depravity. We’re not good by nature and, when those restraints that once retarded our basest impulses are removed, we’re obviously capable of the grossest sins. Once we have preached the law, we ought also to proclaim the free grace of God in Christ. Who knows what might have been had the Omaha shooter been in a Christ-centered congregation rather than on the street? I’m not a postmillennialist and thus I have no idea that the proclamation of the gospel will result in a golden age. I do know, however, that if there is to be real righteousness, it will not come from the law. The law only convicts. It only restrains. It leaves us without excuse. The law can only do what it can do. Only the gospel changes. In response to these terrible acts of violence, the proper response of Christian congregations is to do what they’ve been called to do and to trust the Christ who gave them that mission: to preach Christ, to baptize, to make disciples.
Christians live in two kingdoms. The proclamation of the law and the gospel belongs to the Kingdom of God, i.e. to the visible institutional church. We are also citizens of the kingdom of man, the civil kingdom, the common kingdom. As citizens of this kingdom, in our capacity as citizens and private persons, we ought to advocate for the application of the natural, moral law whenever possible. We ought to remind civil and private officials that human beings are not angels and that, within the constraints of the constitution, they ought to frame policies that account for that fact. They ought to effect security in pubic life. But the law only restrains. It doesn’t produce actual righteousness. Counter intuitively, only the foolishness of the gospel does that.