As America mourns and seeks answers to make sense of the carnage inflicted on innocent tourists in Las Vegas, some have been quick with offering solutions to prevent similar slaughters in the future. Unfortunately, such outcomes will never be possible, even if every gun were magically removed from the world. The problem is found not in the hand that pulls the trigger, or guides the steering wheel, or pushes the remote control detonator, but rather in the human heart and its seemingly infinite capacity for hatred. A soul filled with malice can invent a thousand ways to inflict mayhem on its targets.
As I listened this week to newscasters ask their talking head experts, “Why is it that the number of mass murders has been increasing recently?”, and to their guests’ befuddled responses, it became clearer to me that in the quest to “solve this problem,” we are only treating symptoms while remaining ignorant of the disease. The debate on gun control, background checks, bump stock modifications and high-capacity magazine clips, while a good exercise (in my opinion), will at the best lead to banning one method of mass killing. Of course, that is nothing to sneeze at, but a human heart filled with seething rage will find other means of destruction (think of Timothy McVeigh, the Boston Marathon bombers, the Nice truck driver, and of course the 9/11 hijackers).
In doing a bit of research, I discovered that the newscasters’ pressing question was actually based on a false premise: There is actually no statistically significant increase in the number of mass murders committed in the USA since 1970. But there certainly is a growing sense that our country is a more conflicted and less safe place to live. No doubt the relentless 24/7 worldwide news cycle has much to do with this perception, and the ensuing reality.
As a solution, some have proposed more laws and law-enforcement, and greater government surveillance in order to protect the public from evil plots. Even though no one likes to give up some freedoms to privacy and easy access to public space, some sacrifices are necessary in such an age of violence and insecurity, so the argument goes. Others say that these freedoms are too precious to sacrifice, and we must just get used to an increased threat matrix in our lives.
How do we find ourselves in this downhill slide? I think the answer, to quote the words of Carl Sandburg, is that we have forgotten where we came from:
When a nation goes down or a society perishes, one condition may always be found; they forgot where they came from. They lost sight of what had brought them along.
Why today do we see such a willful disregard of life, where far too many human beings are casually snuffed out before they even exit their mother’s womb, where innocent children become the victims of sexual predators, where teenagers die from gang violence or drug overdoses in such large numbers that their deaths become simply “more statistics,” where mature adults are targeted because the skin they are wrapped in is of the “wrong color,” or their belief system somehow disqualifies them from inclusion in the human race? Why does our society see the elderly and infirm as civic detritus, to be swept aside or quietly ignored rather than cherished and appreciated?
The incivility among our political leaders seems epidemic today, but it only reflects what is found in our larger culture (have you checked out the comments sections of controversial news stories reported on the Internet, or been of late to any public lectures on hot-button topics?). Debate descends into name-calling and vilification.
And yet we seem amazed and shocked when hatred breaks out into real-life violence. Our entertainment industry pumps out thousands of highly graphic, virtual reality video games where players enact blood-spattering violence onscreen for hours on end. Hollywood produces blockbuster “action flicks” which rake in money as they expose viewers to casual carnage. I’m not talking slasher movies and “film noir” offerings, but mainstream movies seen by millions. According to info I dug up on the Internet, if you sit through the five “Die Hard” films, you will see some 374 killings; Last Samurai – 558 deaths; Troy – 572 deaths; Olympus Has Fallen – 131; White House Down – 135; the latest James Bond offering Spectre – 235 deaths; and the movie glorifying the Hellenic army of ancient Sparta, 300 – some 600 deaths. All of these in around 120 minutes per sitting. And these are just a random sampling. Add to that all the movies and television shows featuring gratuitous, non-lethal violence, the normalization of rape and sexual objectification of women, the demonization of whichever group is the social outcast du jour and still we wonder why our society is so filled with malice and cruelty toward others. We fill our minds with images of destruction and malevolence and then wonder why our culture shows so little kindness and unity? I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’ words in The Abolition of Man, written 70 years ago but still so pertinent:
We make men without chests [i.e., unable to express courage and principle] and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
How can such evil as the recent Las Vegas massacre happen in America? Well, as the saying goes, you reap what you sow. After seeding our minds and hearts with endless images trashing human beings as inconsequential and glossing over piles of murdered bodies as trivialities, how can we be surprised when people act out what they have come to see as normal? We blur the line between good and evil and then act shocked when people cross it so easily.
As a nation we seem to have squandered the collective virtue spoken of in our Founding documents, virtue which or course grew (and still grows) out of the luxuriant soil of a biblical worldview. Not all our Founders were Christian theists, but all were weaned on the revelation we know as the Bible, and all the central pillars of our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights rest on the fundamental understanding of human nature and purpose as taught in the Bible. When Thomas Jefferson (a deist) wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he could say that with certainty because Western civilization was still steeped in the biblical teaching that to be created human was to be created in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and that ultimately we answer not to ourselves but to our Creator for how we live and how we treat others. While the Founders undoubtedly failed to fully understand and apply this truth (allowing the continuation of slavery for another three generations), nonetheless the truths by which they crafted our founding documents were and continue to be a shining light to freedom-loving peoples here and around the world some 250 years later.
Our earliest political leaders knew, however, that for a democracy to succeed its people must have a strong moral compass. John Adams wrote:
Public virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private Virtue, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics. And also, Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
Likewise, George Washington said in two places:
Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government, and
Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people.
Likewise, Benjamin Franklin:
Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.
Even that Founding Father best known today for the beer named after him, Samuel Adams, wrote:
Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.
Why today does American culture seem to be circling the drain of extinction? Why do we see such degeneracy of moral and communal purpose, and the rise instead of a brutish, self-centered lust to stomp on others to sate our private passions? Perhaps because we have lost sight of what brought us to the pinnacle of our past greatness, measured not by shining cities or innovative technologies or material wealth or even our form of government, but by our goodness as a people. This goodness did not arise by accident, nor is it something inherent in all societies, but rather it grew out of our once common understanding, now all but lost, that our only hope for reining in the evil within the human heart is to be found in the transformative goodness of the God who commanded us to love Him with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his Democracy in America:
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
Some may counter that human goodness can come from sources other than the God of the Bible. Perhaps. But I have never seen a worldview capable of inspiring human beings in a lasting way to treat others (especially those seen as outsiders) as brothers. No other religious or philosophical system teaches that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and thus are to be treated with the dignity and respect that God Himself deserves. No other religion carries within its Scripture the Golden Rule (though many follow the Silver Rule: “Don’t do to others what you wish them not to do to you”). No other commends so strongly a love willing to go the second mile, to give the shirt off your back, to sacrifice even your life for the welfare of others, even to love your enemies.
What ails America is a darkening of our heart – a relapse into the unfettered evil of our fallen human nature. This cannot be corrected with new legislation. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Laws can restrain the heartless, but cannot change the heart.” Nor can we heal our moral wounds simply by looking to the good deeds we see in those around us, as if somehow the evidence of good in some places can eradicate the evil in others. Wishing away evil by turning a blind eye is merely whistling in the dark.
What then is the solution? We need a revolution of the heart to take hold in a significant portion of the population – a cleansing and transformation from inside out. In America’s relatively short history this has happened a handful of times. Historians speak of the Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Businessman’s Revival, Azusa St. Revival and so on. In each of these movements worthy of its salt, “revival” did not mean first and foremost the addition of new people to the church rolls. Instead, these divine, sweeping movements brought the transformation of human character, leading to societal reforms and the exhibition of newfound goodwill and harmony across ethnic, economic and class lines. As a fresh spiritual tide rolled in, all boats rose. It is not necessary for all society to turn to God in order for all to benefit from a revival’s impact. But it is necessary for the Church to cry out for God’s mercy, to commit to prayer for a rekindling of her love for Christ and his Kingdom, and to reflect his life and love increasingly to the surrounding culture. Jesus’ disciples need to take seriously his words, “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world…” (Mt. 5:13-16).
There are no short fixes which will prevent another Las Vegas style massacre. But there is a long-term solution, and it begins with the Church taking seriously its mandate to love God with all our heart, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. A primary step in demonstrating this love is the fervency of our prayers for His presence to permeate our lives and the lives of those around us.
One last thought. It is easy to think the problem is “out there” in someone else’s heart, and not in my own. How many times have you heard Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas killer, referred to as “pure evil,” “a monster,” “an animal,” or some such term which removes him from the realm of every day evil by which we are all tempted? We do well to remember the ancient teaching that our human nature is flawed – originally good but presently spoiled and in need of restoration. That same capacity for evil which motivated Paddock is also in my heart, and yours. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote so eloquently in The Gulag Archipelago,
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
The disease of evil infects every human heart. Only God possesses and offers the cure. But the medicine must be taken in order to be effective.
May we drink deeply the elixir of His grace and mercy!
May God remind us where we came from as a nation!
May any greatness to which we aspire be grounded in moral goodness born of His Spirit!