As I write this, it’s still late May. My mind spins with thoughts of the events of recent weeks. There are, of course, the everpresent, ongoing concerns about COVID. From week to week, I can never be sure if the class I’m teaching is actually going to meet, as this or that person in our seminary community shows symptoms or actually tests positive.
But against that background of anxious uncertainty comes one incident after another of violence and hatred. The stories are well known. On May 14th, a lone gunman in tactical gear opened fire in a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, killing 10 people. The crime took place in a predominantly African-American community and was motivated by racial hatred.
Ten days later, another gunman entered an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. He had just shot his grandmother in the face. Then he went to the school and killed 19 children and two teachers. Nineteen. Children. Some of them were desperately calling for help on their cell phones. The news reports that unfolded in the aftermath detailed the myriad ways in which the crisis was mishandled, adding outrage to grief.
And lest we miss what for me is an additional layer of horror: both gunmen were only 18 years old and posting their violence on social media.
The shooter in Buffalo was, in fact, livestreaming the event.
Closer to home, for our community, a gunman planned a massacre at a Taiwanese church in Southern California, the day after the shooting in Buffalo. Only one person was killed in the incident: John Cheng, a much-beloved doctor and dedicated believer who rushed the shooter. And just after Uvalde, our campus received an anonymous phone threat. The police were notified, and the community was reassured that there was no real cause for alarm.
That, of course, did not prevent people from being alarmed.
. . .
Violence is everywhere. And we should be shattered by the spectacle of mass murder, whether it’s war in the Ukraine or people being shot in our supermarkets and schools. But it’s easy to become desensitized, numb. After all, were that not the case, we might be nervous wrecks all the time — just ask the people who spend way too much time doomscrolling their news feeds. So for those of us who have the luxury of not living at the epicenter of the violence, we mourn the tragedy and senselessness of it all and move on: That’s awful! But it happened to them, over there, not to me, here. And I’ve got enough worries of my own.
We have always known that the world is a violent place. As believers, we have always known that the world is permeated by sin. That the world is not the way God created it to be. That the world is broken.
But then things like these happen, and our illusions of peace are shattered anew. How? we lament. Why, God, why?
As we saw throughout our earlier study of the Psalms, there’s ample precedent for such anguished questioning. We should come to God with such questions. But in the wake of recent events, I’ve been struck by a thought that shouldn’t have taken so long to come to full and poignant clarity: God sees and knows all the violence. God is present to every murderous act and every murderous thought.
I don’t live in Buffalo, or Uvalde, or the Ukraine. I can mourn the violence without being directly affected by it. But what about the heart of the Father, who allowed his beloved Son to be subjected to violence out of love for a broken world? What of the violence we harbor in our own hearts, even as we weep over the evening news?
I say all this because as we continue our study in James, we will be confronted by the idea of peace and peacemaking. I don’t want the language to get sentimentalized into something resembling Christian niceness. James is horrified by what he sees in the church and demands a change.
And the question for us is whether we too can be appropriately shattered by the inhumanity that is everywhere around us, even in the church. Even in our own hearts. Because without this, we may find it hard to know what it means to be committed to making peace.