A teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, reflecting on the carnage and tragedy of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history, asked the question for the world:
“Who would do this to our poor little babies?”
The initial answer is a 20-year-old man named Adam Lanza.
The larger answer seems harder for us to grasp, but is more to the point.
The answer is “evil.”
When the 10-year anniversary of the Columbine killings took place, we were able to look back with new insight into the event on the morning of April 20, 1999, that forever changed our national consciousness.
We have learned that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not goths. They weren’t loners. They weren’t in the “Trenchcoat Mafia.” They were not disaffected video gamers. They hadn’t been bullied. The supposed “enemies” on their list had already graduated a year earlier. They weren’t on anti-depressant medication. They didn’t target jocks, blacks or Christians.
They just wanted to kill.
Two seemingly normal, well-scrubbed high school boys went to their school in a prosperous suburban subdivision with the goal to kill thousands. Their bombs didn’t work, so they proceeded to kill 13 classmates, and wound another 24.
By 2002, the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Education Department had completed a study on school shooters and found that no single profile fit them all. What was clear that few simply “snapped” at the time of the attack. They had usually planned it with meticulous detail.
“They are rage shootings,” says David Osher, a sociologist and vice president at the American Institutes for Research.
And the rage has continued.
Does the name Byran Uyesugi ring a bell? Robert Hawkins? Mark Barton? Terry Ratzmann? Robert Stewart? In an article titled “Why are Americans killing each other?” Ted Anthony writes that “each entered the national consciousness when he picked up a gun and ended multiple lives.”
Forty-seven were killed through mass shootings in the month before the Columbine anniversary alone.
As Anthony notes, we now live in a society “where the term ‘mass shooting’ has lost its status as unthinkable aberration and become mere fodder for a fresh news cycle.”
But then he asks the pivotal question: “Why are we killing each other?”
The only answer that he could muster was the loss of the American dream. Eight years of terrorism angst, six years of war in Iraq, months of recession. He lamented that 663,000 lost their jobs in March 2009, and worries how many might be angry about it – and might have a gun.
With all respect, that is no answer.
In his book Explaining Hitler, Ron Rosenbaum surveys theory after theory regarding the Nazi leader’s atrocities. In the end, all of his explanations fail to confront the “laughing” Hitler, the bloodthirsty dictator who was fully conscious of his malignancy. He didn’t have to kill the Jews; he wasn’t compelled by abstract forces. In truth, he chose to, he wanted to.
Here was simply an evil man.
And that is the answer.
But this is precisely the word we seem unable to own.
It brings to mind Jean Bethke Elshtain’s experience on the first Sunday following the attacks of 9/11. She went to a Methodist church in Nashville. The minister, which she describes as having a kind of frozen smile on his face, said “I know it has been a terrible week.” Then, after a pause, he continued, “But that’s no reason for us to give up our personal dreams.”
She thought, “Good grief! Shouldn’t you say something about what happened and how Christians are to think about it?” But then she realized that if one has lost the term evil from his or her theological vocabulary, then it is not easy to talk about such a thing.
But a robust and deeply theological discourse on “evil” was precisely what the world needed to hear at that moment, and would have been uniquely served in hearing. Millions flooded to churches across the nation to hear a word from God, or at least about God, to make sense of the tragedy. Sadly, many were left as empty and lost as before they entered – which is one reason why the millions who came just as quickly left.
And why we as a culture have no framework for the tragedy of events such as Newtown.
So let me repeat what I tweeted on the day of the attacks.
I am heartbroken for the parents, furious at the evil, and more resolved than ever to give my life to Christ’s mission.
Which, by the way, is the war against
James Emery White
James Emery White, Christ Among the Dragons (InterVarsity Press).
"Who Would Do This to Our Poor Little Babies," Peter Applebome and Michael Wilson, The New York Times, December 14, 2012, read online.
“10 years later, the real story behind Columbine,” Greg Toppo, USA Today, Tuesday, April 14, 2009, p. 1A and 2A, read online; “Lessons from Columbine,” Greg Toppo and Marilyn Elias, USA Today, Tuesday, April 14, 2009, p. 1D and 2D, read online.
“Why are Americans killing each other?” Ted Anthony, Associated Press, posted Sunday, April 5, 2009, read online.
Ron Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil.
Jean Bethke Elshtain in the afterword to Evangelicals in the Public Square, edited by J. Budziszewski.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.