The Presenting Problem
For most Americans this past week has been very sad. For those in directly affected in El Paso and Dayton, it has been a horrible week that has changed their lives permanently. Loved ones and friends have been murdered senselessly by deranged cowards, who targeted the defenseless in order to vent their rage at God and the world. Just a few days ago a pyschologist and professor of criminology and a sociologist published, in the L. A. Times, the results of a two-year study of every mass shooting (where four or more people were shot) in the USA since 1966. They report
the vast majority of mass shooters in our study experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. The nature of their exposure included parental suicide, physical or sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and/or severe bullying. The trauma was often a precursor to mental health concerns, including depression, anxiety, thought disorders or suicidality.
In other words, mass shooters do not simply drop out of the sky. They come out of broken families and are affected by sinful behavior and patterns of life in families and communities. Suzanne Venker argues that fatherlessness is a significant factor in the equation. Her argument has provoked a storm of reaction but to the degree it is true, it stands as an indictment of the sexual revolution and its lazy, self-serving dogmas that children are resilient and that one parent can raise a son as well as two. Of course, we all know that to be nonsense and the fact that critics are attempting to shout down the point suggests that Venker hit a nerve. Clearly children are resilient but many children have been deeply hurt by divorce on demand.
Some of the murderers suffer from some form of mental illness, which may be rooted in a medical condition (e.g., what used to be called schizophrenia) or the result of abuse or both. Most such mass murderers are male. They come from a variety of social and ethnic backgrounds. Increasingly, it seems, they are influenced by a false sense of online community. E.g., at least three recent mass murderers were involved in discussions on a notorious “dark web” discussion board where at they published screeds revealing their intent to commit mass murder.
Second, the study noted that before the killers decided to attempt mass murder, each had reached “an identifiable crisis point in the weeks or months leading up to the shooting.” They had a grievance at work. Workplace murderers are often retaliating for being fired.
Third, these are not random acts of violence. These are typically calculated, studied, planned acts of mass murder. These killers copied other killers and planned their attacks. Fourth, the authors focus on the means. The killers found the means to carry out their attacks but they qualify this point thus: “Once someone decides life is no longer worth living and that murdering others would be a proper event, only means and opportunity stand in the way of another mass shooting.”
Hurt, angry, bitter people—some of whom are out of contact with reality as the rest of us know it—have also decided that they would rather die and take others with them than to continue living. Predictably, the authors immediately want to talk about more laws. That is a decision for voters and legislators to address—we might hope that they bear in mind the armed civilian who stopped an attempted mass murder yesterday in Springfield, MO—but they make a mistake in passing over quickly the implications of their study: There are people, often young, always angry, so alienated from their own humanity and that of others, so Narcissistic, that they study and plot the mass murder of legally innocent people. That is the definition of evil and no criminal code can change the human heart.
The authors did not mention it but there is a corollary to the last point. In several cases (the Las Vegas episode being an apparent exception) there were warning signs of the coming storm. In the Parkland murders school officials, social workers, and even law enforcement had been contacted. The students knew he was a threat and yet nothing definitive was done. As of this writing we wait to see the authorities take responsibility for their failures.
There is yet another aspect to the crisis that is being ignored. Slaughter is not too strong a word to describe what takes place in too many American cities every summer. In Chicago, three years ago, 781 people were murdered and 664 in 2017. There were 2,750 shooting incidents in 2017. We have become numb to the figures but television cameras are not as attracted to the mean streets of Chicago as they are to mass murder in Dayton, OH or in El Paso.
Getting Beyond The Spin
Christians have an explanation for these phenomena. We call it sin. Yes, the mass murders are obvious sin, i.e., violations of the sixth commandment of God’s holy law: You shall not murder. The Reformed Churches explain the sixth commandment thus:
105. What does God require in the sixth Commandment?
That I do not revile, hate, insult or kill my neighbor either in thought, word, or gesture, much less in deed, whether by myself or by another, but lay aside all desire of revenge; moreover, that I do not harm myself, nor willfully run into any danger. Wherefore also to restrain murder the magistrate is armed with the sword.
One of the ancient heresies faced by the church was the doctrine taught by a British monk named Pelagius, who died in the early 5th century. He argued that we are not born sinful. Rather, he argued that each of us is born like Adam and, like Adam, we become sinners when we sin. Modernity has embraced Pelagius with both arms and done him one better. In Modernity we rejected the notion of sin and have blamed the culture or society for all our choices, as if humans lost free agency with the advent of the steam engine and telegraph. Humans, however hurt by childhood abuse, still make uncoerced choices. At some level, everyone but the sociopath knows that murder is wrong but murders decide that expressing their hurt, their rage, their alienation is more important than lives of humans made in the image of God.
Further, we have long had semi-automatic firearms, even semi-automatic rifles, in the USA. 1911 semi-automatic handguns have been widely owned by Americans for over a century. Boys in the 1940s–60s grew up around semi-automatic M-1 carbines. Yet we did not see mass murders then with the regularity that we see them now. There have always been hurt, disturbed, angry, disaffected, and mentally ill persons. So what changed? I have already mentioned some but there is one more: the fear of God.
There is a limit to what laws and social work can do. There is only one Savior and his name is Jesus. He is God the Son incarnate, true God and true man. He was born of a virgin. He obeyed. suffered, and died in the place of his people. He is the only way to God the Father. Only the Holy Spirit opens spiritual eyes, and soften hearts, and grants new life and true faith. Obviously, the world is in desperate need of the saving grace of God. Jesus saves lonely, disaffected young men and every other kind of sinner in the world, from every nation, tribe, and tongue. The first thing we need to do then is to pray. In an age when our first instinct is to call for new polices and more laws, prayer might seem counter-intuitive but that is the nature of the Kingdom of God. It does not come with glory but quietly, even imperceptibly. Prayer is one of the most powerful things a Christian can do because the God to whom we pray is more than able to hear and answer.
A corollary to this is the preaching of the Word of God. It is time for ministers to abandon entertainment and to preach, with smile, with joy, what Paul calls “the whole counsel of God,” namely the law and the gospel. Congregations need once again to hear the story of our sin and how Jesus saves. They need to hear the law as the only and perfect standard of righteousness. They need to hear about who Jesus is and what he came to do. They need to know that the story of Scripture is not about us and how we can be successful, healthy, and wealthy. They need to learn again that the story of Scripture about Jesus the only Savior and about the life the saved seek to live, in union with Christ, in gratitude, according to his moral law.
Young men tempted to nihilism find, in the darker corners of the internet, reinforcement for their darkest, angriest feelings. They do not often find, however, reinforcement for the fear of God. Boys have always lost fights at school. They have always had angry feelings. They have long had access to tools that might be used for evil ends but they did not always use them thus. When the fear of God is removed from a culture, when parents do not pray with their children, when children are not in a congregation of professing believers, when it is presented to them that this world is all there is, in such a context we might not be surprised that young men lash out when they realize that this world can be disappointing.
Reformed theology teaches that God restrains evil by what has sometimes been called “common grace” or what William Perkins called the “restraining grace” of God. He characterized it this way:
Restraining [grace] is that which bridles and restrains the corruption of men’s hearts from breaking forth into outward actions, for the common good, that societies may be preserved and one man may live orderly with another….[It] is incident to heathen men and the virtues which they have. It serves only to repress the act of sin in their outward actions.
With these episodes we get a glimpse of the Hobbesian “solitary, nasty, and brutish” existence that our lives would be should God lift his restraining hand. We may be thankful that, as evil as things (and we) can be, God has not yet abandoned us to ourselves. In our prayers we should give thanks to God for his restraining mercies but we should also beg of him to work wonderfully by his saving grace to call all his people to new life and to true faith and that, by his grace, that new life might show like a bright lamp in a dark room.