Thursday, December 3, 2015

Thoughts About the San Bernardino Shooting

So many things are going through my head today as I digest the news following Wednesday’s shooting in San Bernardino. Having lived there for seven years in my first ministry and during seminary, and it being Kathy’s hometown, you cannot hear about this tragedy without thinking about the past as well as the present. Thankfully, we’ve had no word of any harm coming to friends and family there. But fourteen families are grieving today, and the network of sorrow certainly extends throughout that community.

I’m saddened that before the situation was even resolved with the shooters dead or captured, some saw fit to moralize on the evil of gun violence in our society and the need for more gun control. I don’t disagree, and I’m not opposed to such measures if they are constitutional and can be shown to be able to accomplish real protections for society. However, every gun used in this case (as in every shooting rampage of late) turns out to have been purchased legally, with background checks, in California—which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. And the shooters here (a married couple) also had pipe bombs in their arsenal (illegal in any situation); thankfully, the bomb deployed on a remote controlled toy car failed to detonate. They also wore assault gear, had Go Pro body cameras to record the carnage.

As details have emerged, this incident looks like an intentional plan to inflict mass casualties, record it in order to scare others, and continue until dead. In short, this was a terrorist operation. It may not have been an ISIS or al Qaeda operation. The husband was a U.S. citizen who flew to Saudi Arabia to marry his wife and brought her back. His family says he was a religious Muslim, and it would seem they created their own personal arsenal to create their own personal jihad. This was not simply “workplace violence”—you don’t prebuild pipe bombs so you can react if someone insults you at an office party, and then wear a Go Pro while you shoot up a room at random. No, this would appear to be what many have feared—a radicalized, independent “cell” of Muslim radicals. I would probably feel better if we found that they were in league with a known terrorist group and not just homegrown, independent terrorists.

Another development that caught me off guard was a strong pushback against politicians and others who urged that people’s thoughts and prayers should be with those in San Bernardino during the ongoing incident. The New York Daily News highlighted tweets from four Republican candidates with the headline, “God Is Not Fixing This” and saying that these politicians were “cowards” for not doing something about gun control, and hiding behind “thoughts and prayers.” The Atlantic ran a similar story and talked about this as “prayer shaming”—I didn’t even know that was a “thing.” But it is, and it grows out of thinking that those who would call for prayer must be pro-gun rights and conservative. Further, it shows a commitment to the idea that praying is really doing nothing, and that God isn’t fixing this, but politicians and elected officials could.

Such thinking is profoundly wrong on many levels. Not all who pray are against gun control. When a crisis is ongoing, prayer is a proper response for those who believe in God. A person in the building contacted her father and her request was “Pray for us.” She was not arguing against gun control, she was fearful for her life and asked for the only help that she could seek—God’s. Can people (including politicians) use prayer as a platitude? Certainly they can. But it is no more platitudinous than decrying gun violence and calling for gun control before we even know what is going on.

This thinking also takes God out of the equation as not “fixing” this. Such an arrogant attitude springs either from disbelief in God or a purposeful disregard of such concepts as God’s sovereignty, moral responsibility, human freedom, and the existence and all-encompassing power of sin in a fallen world. Evil people will do evil because that is their nature, and it is the restraining grace of God that keeps all of us from being the monsters that we could easily be. Yet we cannot escape the issue of moral responsibility because in this case and all others like it, we always ask, “Why did they do this?” We want to understand what is, to us, incomprehensible. We want to say they were crazy or on drugs or offended or religious zealots, but we want a reason that we can judge.

Of course, those who believe in God will not be dissuaded from believing that prayer is one of the most important actions to take in any situation, regardless of what else we may be able to do. We also believe that God rules in the affairs of men, and has already told us that when humanity chooses not to acknowledge him, he gives them over to their own sinful desires and imaginations, to passions that will undo them, and to debased minds and thinking that will justify and celebrate doing what ought never to be done (read Romans 1:18-32 carefully, and see what it says about the human condition once the truth about God that is available to all is rejected). Our world continues to experience the evil that people can and will do as they exercise their choices out of their own motivations.

Finally, we do believe that God is fixing this world, but in a way that will bring divine judgment upon all who fail to acknowledge him and deliverance and blessing for all who receive his grace and forgiveness. In fact, “…now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).”
Until that “fixed” day, we repent, we worship, we pray, we bear witness, and as representatives of the truth and compassion of Jesus, we do what we can to stem the tide of evil in our society, whether systemic (such as racism) or individual (such as a lack of daily food).

And we wait in hope for that day.