Again?

ShootingThere has been another tragic shooting in America. The headlines read: “Gunfire, then Chaos”; “Rampage at Washington Navy Yard”; “Gunman fires from balcony, killing 12, before dying in battle with police”; “Accused assailant, a former Navy reservist, said to have had anger problems.”

I read those headlines in the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning, but a half-hour earlier I read this brief article in the Christian Century:

Scared of America

Following the killing of an Australian man studying in Oklahoma, Tim Fischer, the former deputy prime minister of Australia, suggested that Australians should avoid traveling to the United States. “Yes, people [who] are thinking of going to the USA on business, vacation, trips, should think carefully about it given the statistical facts you are 15 times more likely to be shot dead in the USA than in Australia per capita per million people,” Fischer said. He had championed gun control reforms in Australia nearly two decades ago. Gun control laws have virtually eliminated firearms crimes in Australia (CNN.com, August 20).

I know that gun control is a political hornet’s nest. I know that mentioning it in a blog post is an invitation to every reader with an opinion to post a comment (and believe me, there is no shortage of opinion on this issue). But if there is such a thing as an objective observer, would that person not ask why? Why is it that firearms crimes in Australia have been virtually eliminated? And why is it that I greet the news of another tragic shooting in America with a single word:

Again?

KOH2RVA: Day 113

Amish BuggyThis is how it happens sometimes:

  1. A shooting takes place at an elementary school in Connecticut.
  2. You feel the pain the whole nation is feeling, but don’t know what to say.  On one side are all your liberal friends, screaming for gun control.  On the other side are all your conservative friends, pleading the Second Amendment.  All you know is that you don’t want one more child to die.
  3. Over the Christmas holiday you take your family to visit your parents at a nursing home in Franklin, West Virginia.
  4. On the way your daughter spots an Amish buggy whizzing down the road, and wants to know more about these fascinating people.
  5. You do a Google search when you get home and find a whole website about the Amish and the Mennonites.
  6. You find this section that seems eerily relevant to Number 1 above:

Q: I understand your belief in nonresistance and pacifism. Does this principle extend to personal situations where you are confronted with imminent evil, say a known murderer confronting you and your family in your home? Can you use force to preserve your life in this situation? To what extent? What is the Biblical basis for your position?

A: Both Amish and Mennonites are committed to a lifestyle of peace and non-violence. Yes, this pervades every aspect of life. However, no one can predict with certainty how anyone would really react to an absolutely unprecedented crisis such as described above. Emotions as well as thoughts are involved and the situation is personalized. Having said this, we would hope that as people who have practiced a lifestyle of peace, we would not resort to force and violence in a crisis situation such as the one described.

We must briefly make several points:

  1. There is no assurance that use of force would save my life or the life of my family if confronted by an attacker.
  2. We could recall many accounts of unhoped for deliverances, whether by mediation, nature, or divine Providence, when Christians refused to use force when confronted by an attacker.
  3. If the result is death at the hands of the attacker, so be it; death is not threatening to us as Christians. Hopefully the attacker will have at least had a glimpse of the love of Christ in our nonviolent response.
  4. The Christian does not choose a nonviolent approach to conflict because of assurance it will always work; rather the Christian chooses this approach because of his/her commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Some of the Biblical references for peace and non-resistance are: Matthew 5:38-48; John 18:36; Romans 12:18-21; and I Corinthians 6:18.

I still don’t know what to say about the shooting in Connecticut, or what our response as a nation should be, but I’m impressed by the way the Amish and the Mennonites approach the subject.  I love their line, “If the result is death…so be it; death is not threatening to us as Christians.”  That sounds gutsy, and a whole lot like something Jesus might say.

As we work to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, this year, maybe we can remind people of that—that faith in Christ can set you free,

Even from the fear of death.

KOH2RVA: Day 99

pink candleToday was the Third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Joy.

A group of International students from VCU had been invited to light the Advent candle. They processed slowly down the aisle as the Youth Girls’ Ensemble sang. They mounted the steps and gathered around the Advent wreath. They held the lit taper to the pink candle and we all watched and waited for the wick to catch flame.

It didn’t happen.

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so much suspense in church. I kept watching, willing the wick to catch. The student who was holding the taper seemed to have it in just the right place, but even so another student reached up to help. They adjusted the flame, moved it ever so slightly back and forth, but no matter what they did they couldn’t seem to get it to work. Finally, the song ended, and they had to step down from the chancel, the pink candle still unlit.

It seemed shockingly symbolic, that on a day when most of us were still grieving over the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the candle of joy wouldn’t stay lit, almost as if God himself were saying, “How can the flame of joy dance on its wick on a day like this?”

Maybe those students didn’t fail. Maybe they lit the candle over and over again and God kept snuffing it out, whispering, “No, not today.”

You can’t really schedule joy, and unfortunately you can’t really schedule grief. It comes when it comes. And it came today:

The Third Sunday of Advent.

Guns Don’t Kill People…

glockI’m still learning details of yesterday’s Fort Hood massacre, and haven’t processed enough to be able to comment on it at this point, but it brought to mind this essay written by David Von Drehle shortly after the shootings at Virginia Tech.  David is an editor-at-large for Time magazine and a close personal friend.  Few people are able to put thoughts and feelings into words as well as he.

We won’t know, for some time now, what prompted Major Malik Nadal Hasan to open fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, but David’s thoughts on what has motivated other shooters is worth reading.  As we remember the victims and their families, may we continue to pray for peace in the world, and in the troubled souls of those who aim to kill.

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It’s All About Him
by David Von Drehle, Thursday, April 19, 2007 

My reporter’s odyssey has taken me from the chill dawn outside the Florida prison in which serial killer Ted Bundy met his end, to the charred façade of a Bronx nightclub where Julio Gonzalez incinerated 87 people, to a muddy Colorado hillside overlooking the Columbine High School library, in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wrought their mayhem. Along the way, I’ve come to believe that we’re looking for why in all the wrong places.

I’ve lost interest in the cracks, chips, holes and broken places in the lives of men like Cho Seung-Hui, the mass murderer of Virginia Tech. The pain, grievances and self-pity of mass killers are only symptoms of the real explanation. Those who do these things share one common trait. They are raging narcissists. “I died–like Jesus Christ,” Cho said in a video sent to NBC.

Psychologists from South Africa to Chicago have begun to recognize that extreme self-centeredness is the forest in these stories, and all the other things– guns, games, lyrics, pornography–are just trees. To list the traits of the narcissist is enough to prove the point: grandiosity, numbness to the needs and pain of others, emotional isolation, resentment and envy.

In interviews with Ted Bundy taped a quarter-century ago, journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth captured the essence of homicidal narcissism. Through hour after tedious hour, a man who killed 30 or more young women and girls preened for his audience. He spoke of himself as an actor, of life as a series of roles and of other people as props and scenery. His desires were simple: “control” and “mastery.” He took whatever he wanted, from shoplifted tube socks to human lives, because nothing mattered beyond his desires. Bundy said he was always surprised that anyone noticed his victims had vanished. “I mean, there are so many people,” he explained. The only death he regretted was his own.

Criminologists distinguish between serial killers like Bundy, whose crimes occur one at a time and who try hard to avoid capture, and mass killers like Cho. But the central role of narcissism plainly connects them. Only a narcissist could decide that his alienation should be underlined in the blood of strangers. The flamboyant nature of these crimes is like a neon sign pointing to the truth. Charles Whitman playing God in his Texas clock tower, James Huberty spraying lead in a California restaurant, Harris and Klebold in their theatrical trench coats–they’re all stars in the cinema of their self-absorbed minds.

Freud explained narcissism as a failure to grow up. All infants are narcissists, he pointed out, but as we grow, we ought to learn that other people have lives independent of our own. It’s not their job to please us, applaud for us or even notice us–let alone die because we’re unhappy.

A generation ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch diagnosed narcissism as the signal disorder of contemporary American culture. The cult of celebrity, the marketing of instant gratification, skepticism toward moral codes and the politics of victimhood were signs of a society regressing toward the infant stage. You don’t have to buy Freud’s explanation or Lasch’s indictment, however, to see an immediate danger in the way we examine the lives of mass killers. Earnestly and honestly, detectives and journalists dig up apparent clues and weave them into a sort of explanation. In the days after Columbine, for example, Harris and Klebold emerged as alienated misfits in the jock culture of their suburban high school. We learned about their morbid taste in music and their violent video games. Largely missing, though, was the proper frame around the picture: the extreme narcissism that licensed these boys, in their minds, to murder their teachers and classmates.

Something similar is now going on with Cho, whose florid writings and videos were an almanac of gripes. “I’m so lonely,” he moped to a teacher, failing to mention that he often refused to answer even when people said hello. Of course he was lonely.

In Holocaust studies, there is a school of thought that says to explain is to forgive. I won’t go that far. But we must stop explaining killers on their terms. Minus the clear context of narcissism, the biographical details of these men can begin to look like a plausible chain of cause and effect–especially to other narcissists. And they don’t need any more encouragement.

There’s a telling moment in Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, in which singer Marilyn Manson dismisses the idea that listening to his lyrics contributed to the disintegration of Harris and Klebold. What the Columbine killers needed, Manson suggests, was for someone to listen to them. This is the narcissist’s view of narcissism: everything would be fine if only he received more attention.

The real problem can be found in the killer’s mirror.