Hearts of violence

Pray for Aurora.

In the wake of Friday’s midnight massacre, it’s one of the few things I can say with certainty.  We need to pray for the victims of that horrible act of violence; people will bear the emotional scars of that trauma for a long time.  Indeed, some in that community are probably still reeling from the 1999 shooting in Columbine, just a short drive down the road.

But even more, if we follow Christ and his kingdom, we need to pray for the violence in our own hearts.

Why do things like this happen?  A heavily armed gunman invades the opening of the much-anticipated final installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, kills at least a dozen people, and wounds dozens more, many critically.  Why?  He was apprehended without resistance in the theater parking lot.  With his hair dyed red, 24-year-old James Holmes reportedly claimed to be the Joker, the archnemesis of Batman played to psychotic perfection in the previous film by the late Heath Ledger.  Other eerie parallels to the movie franchise have been drawn, fueling speculation about the cultural role of cinematic violence, and indeed, the mental instability of Nolan’s main characters, including Bruce Wayne himself.

Pundits left and right have used the incident to renew long-simmering arguments about gun control.  Neither will convince the other.  I have had similar arguments with members of my own extended family.  I even debated whether or not to write this post, knowing how sensitive an issue this can be.

Let me say therefore that I don’t claim to know the answer to the political question, and hope that what I say here will be taken as it is meant: as an encouragement to dig beneath the politics and ask what kind of people Jesus has called us to be.

Let me also say that I’m not writing from a purely abstract position.  My wife and I have been victims of armed robbery.  Walking home from a friend’s apartment, we encountered a gang of kids coming the other way.  They surrounded us; one pulled a handgun, stuck it in my stomach, and demanded my wallet.  I gave it to him, and that was that.  We finished the short walk home, and called the police.

Nothing else, as far as I know, ever came of the incident.  But for months afterward, I would dream at night of violent revenge, replaying the scene over and over in my mind, morphing into an nth-degree black belt and mopping the pavement with those unsuspecting thugs.

And even as I lay safely in bed, enjoying my orgy of triumph, a new and different fear would gnaw at me: where would such violence end?  What would my revenge beget?  Would I have to start looking over my shoulder everywhere I went, suspecting passersby of secret malice?

Now, in the wake of the spasm of violence in Aurora, I find myself also wondering this: if I had been carrying a gun that night, what would I have done with it?  They were kids.  Would I have shot them?  Would they have shot back?

I honestly don’t know.  I don’t know what I would have done in the heat of the moment, nor how I would have felt about it as the years passed.

But I do know this: I have to do more than just wait and see what happens should another crisis be upon me.  I have to seek God’s kingdom continually, to let the Holy Spirit develop the character of Christ in me.

I have written on this passage before, but Paul’s words bear repeating:

Don’t pay back anyone for their evil actions with evil actions, but show respect for what everyone else believes is good.  If possible, to the best of your ability, live at peace with all people.  Don’t try to get revenge for yourselves, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.  It is written, “Revenge belongs to me; I will pay it back, says the Lord.”  Instead, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink. By doing this, you will pile burning coals of fire upon his head.”  Don’t be defeated by evil, but defeat evil with good. (Rom 12:17-21, CEB)

In the wake of the eruption of violence in Aurora, people on both sides of the ideological fence have put forth their preferred but opposing hypothetical scenarios.  On the one hand, a lone crazed gunman enters a densely packed theater and opens fire; an armed citizenry responds, subduing the killer and saving lives.  (Better yet, the very knowledge that the people are packing heat is enough to deter such murderous behavior in the first place.)  On the other hand, the scene inside the theater escalates into an all-out war, and more people get hurt, while outside the theater, an arms race develops as citizens seek out more and more powerful protection.

Who’s right?  Again, I don’t know.

But that’s not my question.

My question is this: what does it mean for us as individual believers and collectively as a church, in a world of violence such as ours, to concretely embody Paul’s words above?  Don’t repay evil for evil.  Do everything you can to live at peace with everyone.  Don’t take revenge; leave that to God.  Overcome evil with good.

What should I do?  Why should I do it?  Would I be willing to hold to that vision even if it cost me my life?

I don’t know what was in James Holmes’ mind and heart when he walked into that multiplex.  But I know the violence in my own heart.  And I need brothers and sisters who will help me repent of it, for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom.