Responding to the Incomprehensible
The shooting at the Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs has weighed on me. I haven’t commented much on recent mass shootings and killings. That’s not because I don’t think they are important or worthy of comment. One more “Praying for Sutherland Springs . . . Las Vegas . . London . . . Paris . . . insert town here” just seems rather anemic in the face of such horror.
There certainly has been an stunning rise in such acts of violence. As a pastor, I am far more concerned with the why than the how. What is driving this tsunami of indiscriminate violence? Each time we look for a motive so we can make sense of it. Even when we find some hint, like the Sutherland Springs shooter wanting to lash out at his ex in-laws, motives never actually satisfy. Whether couched in religious language or not, there usually seems to be an overwhelming story of rage, victimhood and isolation. I’m not a psychologist, nor have I spent time with any mass killers, but at the end of the day everyone committing such an act is seriously mentally deranged in some fashion. No mentally and emotionally healthy person gets to the place where they would see shooting a bunch of innocent people as a good idea.
But I want to push this further. There have always been deranged and angry people. But we cannot deny the dramatic rise in this way of acting on these feelings. What is different?
I don’t presume to have all the answers, but I’d like to throw some thoughts into the conversation. We live in a culture where violence is not only common, but is entertainment. We see it all the time. It is on TV, in the movie theaters, in our games, and even the evening news is loaded with stories of violence. Can we actually think that saturation will not influence behavior? I’m not saying that an emotionally healthy person is going to see a superhero movie and walk out ready for a mass killing. But we should not be surprised that a small number of emotionally unhealthy people would be led to fantasize about such actions and some would even act on those fantasies.
Weapons of mass carnage are readily available. Guns get a lot of attention and I certainly think we should do a better job of controlling who is able to possess guns. But now we have rental trucks turned into weapons. You can learn online how to build very powerful bombs from fertilizers and other readily available chemicals. There have been mass killings with knives, poison gas and commercial airliners.
But as I’ve noted before, we’ve been awash in violence for decades and more. Why now? I believe a major contributing factor, and one that has dramatically increased in recent years, is isolation. We live in a transient society. We rarely know our neighbors. We spend more and more of our time behind the walls of our homes, staring at little screens, binging on Netflix or whatever. Thank to our compulsive attention to the little screens, we sometime don’t even connect meaningfully with those with whom we share those walls.
We call it “social” media, but the fact is that for many of us it actually serves to isolate us more. Everyone else’s life looks so great of Facebook or Instagram. Why not mine? Everyone else has hundreds on their “Friends” list but nobody actually cares about me. I heard someone comment that when people arrive for an office meeting, the phones are out until the meeting actually begins. That used to be time for getting to know one another, building relationships, caring for one another. Waiters will tell you how frustrating it is that when people arrive and instead of pulling out the menus and talking about what to have, everyone opens their phone. I believe that it is face to face human interaction that helps to keep us sane. A screen does not suffice. Isolated people eventually go nuts, and being isolated in a crowd can be even worse.
I’m not prepared to say that we are a nation without God – America is still one of the most religious countries in the world. We have the idea of God as a divine helper or “the force” but not the God of the Bible. Without the Biblical God we do not just lose the hope of heaven. We lose grounding that there is more than what we see and experience in this moment. We lose hope that this is not the be all and end all. Life becomes all about me rather than how I fit into the grand design of a creator God. God grounds us in a vision bigger than ourselves. Without God there is, finally, no meaning beyond what we happen to like or dislike. So we despair. And too often, when we are overtaken by despair, we lash out hurting just to prove that we can do something real, evil though it may be.
So, what is a Christian to do? Pray? Of course. Yes. Pray more, pray often, pray fervently. Pray for the victims, the wounded, the families, the first responders. Pray for those who might be moving in the direction of such acts. Pray that we will find ways to begin to connect with one another again. Pray that we will turn to God in a new way.
But prayer alone is not enough. It has been said that “Prayer is not a substitute for action, but the essential prelude to it.” If I believed there was a political answer to this tsunami, I would call for action. But I do not believe the politicians will fix this. They will talk, blather, posture, maybe ban bump stocks, but they will not fix the problem. Even if they were to address gun control or the care of the mentally ill or spend billions on metal detectors and surveillance of citizens, none of this would solve the deeper problems. The people of God need to be the Body of Christ, to do the things that He calls us to do. Reach out. Connect. Share our faith. Walk in the struggles with our neighbors. Don’t turn the blind eye to one in pain and need. Don’t leave your neighbor isolated.
Do something really subversive! Come to church on Sunday! It doesn’t have to be St. John’s. But gather with a worshiping body to orient our priorities again. Then act on those priorities when we step out the door. This is a crisis that can only be met one to one, face to face, in the grace, love and forgiveness of God.
Fr. Eric Turner
An abbreviated version of this post originally appeared in the November 12, 2017 edition of St. John’s weekly eNews. Click here for the eNews.
If you are reading this at a later time, you can click here for the current eNews.