As is typically the case with such events, the terrible shooting in Newtown, Connecticut was followed by a round of outcries in the media expressing shock and bewilderment over how something so tragically and radically evil could happen in America. Such events are treated as an aberration, as something completely unexpected from everyday people in American society. Over and over the question is asked, What went so terribly wrong with this man that he chose such an awful and desperate course of action?
I want to suggest, though, that events like the Newtown shooting may not be as much of an aberration as we might think.
I don’t know what your workplace is like, but in most places I’ve ever worked there are petty little hatreds and intrigues perpetrated all day long every day. Think about how people who work side by side day in and day out secretly plot against each other, stab each other in the back, and talk about each other behind closed doors. Think how mercilessly people judge strangers and people they don’t know every day. Think about all the mean things people say about customers when they aren’t listening. I’ve worked in customer service before, and I know what people say about the customers. Ever talked with a customer service person who sounds like they couldn’t care less about your problem? Well, the truth is, they probably couldn’t care less. But the sad state of customer relations today is a topic for another post.
Maybe your work place is better than that. I hope so. But most every place I’ve ever worked has had these petty little intrigues going on constantly. And isn’t the basis of these intrigues really hatred and anger? Sure, we don’t want to call it that, because no one likes to think they’re hateful. We justify it and tell ourselves that it’s okay – we love the people that really matter to us; it’s only the people we don’t know, or the people who really deserve it, who we treat poorly. But of course, the people who really deserve that kind of treatment are never us. It’s always someone else.
Yet Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:32-36, NIV). The standard Christ calls for puts us to shame, and reveals our love to be less than it’s cracked up to be.
I used to think I never hated anyone. I would get angry sometimes, sure, but never hateful – or so I thought. But then I encountered a person and a situation which seemed so evil to me, and so frustrating, that one day I discovered hatred in my heart for this person and the others involved in perpetrating this evil. I thought I was above hatred. But I eventually learned otherwise.
And the worst thing about hatred is that it breeds itself against the unsuspecting. Hatred can start as what seems like righteous indignation against evil. But be careful, because that seemingly righteous anger against evil can slowly turn to hatred of those we feel are evil, and before you know it, the evil you were fighting has found a home in your own heart. Like Ghandi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” We can feel justified in fighting evil, only to discover that our anger has turned dark, and suddenly we are mired in evil ourselves. Our distaste for evil becomes vengeful, and then we’re just perpetuating the cycle.
I want to submit that there’s an undercurrent of anger and hatred constantly brewing just below the surface of American society, and it expresses itself in these petty intrigues that are expressed daily in the workplace, and in the rancor of our politics. Think how quick we are to demonize the people on the other side of our political disagreements. We’re certain the enemy is the President and the liberals, or else it’s the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” depending on your point of view. YetScripture teaches that “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” (Eph 6:12-13, NIV). Our real enemies aren’t human at all, but spiritual.
I want to suggest that these tragic shootings like the one in Newtown are not an aberration, but rather an expression, or a “flair-up,” if you will, of the anger and hatred that is never very far below the surface in American society. Consider again the petty back-biting so common in many work places, or even in many school-yards. Most of us, if we’re blessed enough to grow up in a home where we were shown love through words and actions, then we’ll have the personal resources to let mean acts or unkind words just roll off our backs. But consider the child who grows up in a home where no love is shown, or who maybe was shuffled about from home to home due to family instability; and this child never learns to see himself as loved. In this often cruel world, the person who doesn’t learn how to ignore all the teasing and petty criticisms and meanness, the person who never learns to develop a thick skin, is at a grave disadvantage indeed. If he can’t fend off criticisms and meanness and hatred, but is only able to accept every evil thing that’s every said and done about him in his life, then at some point the pot is going to boil over so to speak. At some point the pressure is going to explode. And explode it does in these tragic acts of violence.
Now, I’m not trying to justify the people that do these things. What I am trying to say is that these radical acts of violence may not be so aberrant after all. Rather, they’re a physical and violent expression of an anger and rage that is constantly below the surface of American life. Rather than being a fluke, these outbursts of violence implicate us all, and demand that we search our own hearts in order to see what anger, what hatred, what meanness, what thoughtlessness we may have committed against others.
I want to suggest that the only way to stop gun violence and these tragic shootings in America is by examining our own hearts and our own actions, our own little petty intrigues and hatreds. How do we treat our families and our loved ones? What attitudes to we harbor and display toward our coworkers? Our neighbors? The strangers we meet on the street? The people who hold the opposite political view from our own?
We can’t pretend that gun violence is just a problem “out there” for lawmakers and gun owners to deal with. We can’t assume the problem is just gun owners, and that if we can just get rid of all the guns then our kids will be safe. No. When rancor and incivility are the air we breathe, we can’t assume that just taking away guns is going to solve the problem. As long as our society has a problem with anger and hatred, we will be subject to violence. So the only real solution is to start by examining our own hearts, our own actions, our attitudes.
And also consider this: In a nation that murders millions of its own young every year through abortion, should we really be surprised that there is other violence against children? The Bible says we reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7). Our violence against the unborn has come home to roost. We can’t turn a blind eye to the murder of millions of innocents and then think our own children are going to be safe. If you want to help stop the murder of innocent children in American, then take a stand against the murder of innocent children through abortion.
And consider, too: When children and adults see so much violence portrayed daily on TV, in movies, and in video games, should it really surprise us that from time to time people act out this stuff? Really, I think the fascination with onscreen and virtual violence is another expression of the deep rage in our culture. Watching violence, and participating in it through video games provides a temporary outlet for the anger, but not one that is ultimately satisfying; it just creates a hunger for more.
Even here, I think the answer still lies inside. What are we engaged in ourselves? What motivates us to enjoy watching killing on the screen? What’s the motive of our hearts? What are we teaching our kids and allowing them to participate in? I think the answers to all these questions are part of the solution to gun violence in our nation.
If we look in our hearts and we discover anger, hatred, rage, or just petty little backbiting against others, what do we do? Only God can change the heart. The first thing we need to do is take all these things to Him. The Bible says “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-10, RSV). When we take our sins and failure to God he not only forgives them, but he cleanses us them, too, and of any ill effects. We can’t change our own hearts, but God’s Spirit can change us from the inside out, if we will ask Him to come and work in our hearts.
God calls us to let of our anger, and to put it behind us. Colossians 3:8-17 says:
8 But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. 9 Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11 Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Verse 8 says that we should rid ourselves of anger, rage, malice, and the like. The wording of some other translations is that we are to “put away” or “put off” these qualities or traits. This brings to mind the idea of taking off old clothes that don’t fit anymore, or that are too tattered to be worn any longer.
2 Corinthians 5:17 says that those who are in Christ are a new creation. Colossians 3: 9-10 above alludes to this when it talks about those who have taken off the old self and put on a new self in Christ. This is the key to overcoming the “dark side” of our nature if you will. When we give our heart to Christ and ask Him to come live in us, he gives us a new nature. The apostle Paul is saying that if we are in Christ then we have this new nature, and that anger, rage, malice and the other bad traits he mentions are no longer befitting one who is new in Christ. Rather, the attitudes and actions which are fitting for one who is made new by Christ are compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, and peace. These Paul instructs us to put on like new clothes. Elsewhere we’re told that these traits are not something we manufacture ourselves, but are the fruit of the Holy Spirit whom God gives to live in the hearts of those who receive Christ as their Lord and savior (see Galatians 5: 16-26 for more about the fruit of the Spirit).
These attitudes, and especially forgiveness, are the antidote to anger and hatred. Forgiving those who have wronged us, rather than retaliating, breaks the cycle of hate, and opens the doorway to love, which can heal all wounds and restore all hearts.
To end today’s post, here’s a video of the song “Rest In Peace” by the band Extreme. I think it makes the point really well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odz3c68JE1c