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.

6 thoughts on “Hearts of violence

  1. Thank you for writing this. Society wants a quick explanation and resolution, neither of which exist. There are so many cliches that can be said, however it all comes back to God–our relationship with Him and each other.

  2. Amen to that. Situations like this make us crave answers and solutions. But there is no quick fix. We are called to be a people who respond to evil with good. That won’t in itself eradicate the evil. But it will embody the fact that God has not given up on his redemptive purposes for this world. And that is the only true hope that we have.

  3. In my pre-Christ days I read where thinkers like Gandhi, Prince Kropotkin, Tolstoi, Martin Luther King Jr and many others made a god out of non-violence and co-operation. Violence will be a fact until all the enemies of Christ, including Death, are thrown into the Lake of Fire. Wow – that sounds graphic.
    And usually violence takes place against unwitting, unprepared and powerless victims. Our Lord talks about the need to tie up the strong man first before robbing his house. I believe in this case he is talking about restraining evil. If we do not do the good we know we should do we allow evil to flourish.
    So how does this apply to my life? Do I let anyone do anything they want to me and my family at anytime? Is that Christian teaching? Or are we to love our neighbor as we love ourselves? Are there boundaries? Each of us will answer that differently and will be tested differently. I think you acted wisely in diffusing a very bad and unexpected situation. You defended your wife in the best way possible with what you had at hand.
    But can I as a Christian use violence to stop evil? Here it gets tricky. I do not believe that Christians can use violence to defend the Kingdom of God or the Gospel. As soon as we do, we are no longer defending what we say we are defending. What about our families? Here I believe we can use any necessary means to stop evil. These means include obeying civil authorities, serving as jurors, voting, making our voices heard, and lastly stopping bad guys from continuing to do violence.

    1. Thanks for this, Don. I personally have wrestled with such questions: I believe I would willingly suffer violence myself, but if I had to use violence to protect my wife and kids…? I honestly don’t know what I would do; I suspect that all of the principled decisions I would make when I’m not threatened might fly out the window when I am. But therein lies the question: what am I doing now to cultivate the character of Christ in our lives, when I’m not staring down the barrel of a gun?

  4. This is such a complex and heartbreaking event that took place. Like Dr. Lee has shared, I’ve been assaulted once before: four teenagers wanted my wallet and gave no warning before they decided to make their move. When something so vulnerable occurred to me, I wanted revenge immediately. Later, I was confronted by forgiveness that is talked about so often in scripture. I want the shooter in Aurora to be fully condemned by the law of the land. Yet, another part hopes he can receive some type of treatment because of the deep break from reality he had been experiencing over time (he was a doctoral candidate for a Ph.d in neuroscience, he had an masters in neuroscience). My humble opinion is that he should be fully accountable yet treated because he is clearly sick. I don’t know if there’s room for that in our law process, I think it’s one or the other. It is natural to want revenge, it is also very difficult to forgive because of the level of trauma that victims experience. Lastly, I want to believe/hope that I won’t have to defend my family from such an attack. However, I understand that such violence can and obviously does occur. It is rare that we get time to figure out what our response is going to be, it is rare that we are allowed to see the trauma coming at us. I want to believe that I would do anything with my mind, mouth, and hands to prevent harm to my family and those around me.

    1. Thanks, Mickey. I’m sure more details will unfold as the days pass. I’m reminded of the story of Anders Breivik, and how slippery the judgment of insanity can be…

      I identify with your last statement that “I want to believe that I would do anything” to protect my loved ones. What I wonder is, “What would faithfulness to God mean in such a situation?” I don’t want the situation itself to be the first time I’ve thought about it…!

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