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A Call to Evangelical Reflection on the Newtown Massacre

            The strong, visceral horror at the slaughter of little children in Newtown, Connecticut is universally felt in America.  This natural human reaction has led to serious questions about gun control, mental health and security.  Without a doubt these concerns are justifiable, but they fail to address a fundamental question: What is it about modern society that has produced a series of these types of mass murders that are unprecedented in human history?

            Now, many would deny the unprecedented nature of these unspeakable crimes.  It is said that America has always been a violent country.  Look at the Wild West.  What about the crime waves in the 1930’s of Dillinger and other gang leaders?  It is true that we have been a violent society, but the kind of violence that we have witnessed in Newtown and other incidents such as Columbine or the Aurora theater massacres is different. 

            Indeed, the Newtown massacre is not the first, nor the deadliest, attack on school children.  On May 18, 1927 Andrew Kehoe killed 38 elementary school children, six adults and injured over 50 other people at the Bath Consolidated School in Michigan.  After the bomb had been set off by an alarm clock, Kehoe drove up to the scene of the disaster, admitted to the crime and killed himself and several more by exploding dynamite in the backseat of his truck.

            There can be no discounting the fiendish nature of Kehoe’s deed; nevertheless it is distinguished from the current spate of mass murders by two factors.  First, it was not up close and personal.  Kehoe used explosives; he did not calmly shoot school children several times at close range like Adam Lanza did at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.  More importantly, Kehoe was a disgruntled man who was angered by the rise in property taxes because of the school, was about to lose his farm and whose wife was suffering from tuberculosis.  In other words, Kehoe’s was a demented act of revenge.

            The seemingly senseless nature of the current mass murders is distinct.  Jesse James was a vicious killer, but his deeds were done in the context of civil strife in Missouri, robbing banks and in self-defense.  He did not walk into public places, shoot people without reason and then take his own life. 

            While the issues of gun control and mental health care should be discussed, we need to understand the psychology of the killers.  We need to look at the possible role modern society and culture play in creating these monsters.  Yes, Kehoe, James and Lanza were evil.  Yes, their acts are sinful, but sin and evil admit of distinctions. 

            In 1979 Christopher Lasch famously described American society as a culture of narcissism in a book of the same title.  M. Scott Peck’s The People of the Lie, published in 1983, argued that cases of radical evil are examples of extreme narcissism.  My own conjecture, which probably should not even be dignified with the adjective “amateur,” is that these mass killers are cases of a lethal mixture of extreme narcissism fed by the fantasy world of video technology and the isolation of a mass society adrift without God.

            Current evangelicalism often speaks of the whole gospel for the whole person.  Usually this is spoken of, and legitimately, in the context of poverty and injustice.  It is time that we take a serious look at the relationship between human sin, both individual and societal, and the psychology and culture of mass murderers and demonstrate how the gospel speaks to this evil.  As we enter 2013, I call upon our evangelical educational institutions and think tanks to put together a research group of elite Christian theologians, historians, sociologists, psychologists and pastors to study this issue.  Such an effort could minister to a culture in desperate need for substantive answers, help save innocent lives and glorify the God of the gospel.

17 thoughts on “A Call to Evangelical Reflection on the Newtown Massacre

  1. Bill, do you really think the issue is so complicated as to require an army of elite minds to research it? And don’t you think that by making it look complicated one may be downplaying its significance and even distracting efforts from actually preventing this to happen again?

    1. Thank you, Julia. This is just the kind of interaction that I want. I certainly do not want to discourage the efforts to deal with the issues of security and even guns, but I do think that, important as they are, they are the equivalent of putting a bandaide on a sore. The bandaide is necessary, but what caused the sore? Yes, maybe we need armed guards at our schools now, but why has this come to pass? My own admittedly haphazard studies lead me to believe that these kinds of attacks are new and the result of a terrible cultural sickness. I do believe good could come out of serious research into the issue. One of the problems that I have with my brother and sister Evangelicals is that our cultural analyses often are as superficial as the secular ones. Unless we can begin to address these issues profoundly from the gospel, we will be irrelevant and our very sick culture will just get sicker.

  2. Bill- Always appreciate your ability to place particular items into the broader cultural and even Christian context. And I concur that Christian educational institutions (and churches too, which should be doing genuine CE,”education”) would benefit from studies; however, I also concur with Julia S that an elite think tank is not the answer. If indeed such a symposium occured my guess it that the secular elite would dismiss it out of hand anyway. Only agreeable religious types would listen, and then we’re ‘speaking to the choir’.

    You are right on the mark with “extreme narcissism fed by the fantasy world of video technology and the mass of society adrift without God”. Satan is the superlative narcissist; fantasy technology media of all sorts endorses even the basist forms of evil; and most Christians are equally adrift from God in that narcissism and fantasy have become acceptable (perhaps we’re just blind), until of course, horrors like Newtown happen and we point the fingers at society.

    I need self examination, by God’s word and Spirit, challenged and instructed by friends like you Bill. Then I need to courage to engage the overflow of my own convicted heart with the culture around me who also desperately adrift from God and also blind to personal narcissism.

    May God be merciful and gracious to us all in 2013.

    1. Thanks, Dave for your thoughtful reply. Actually, long-term thinking and indepth study on this issue, even if it never gets out to the secular world, would be good for the church, as you point out. I certainly did not mean to exclude the churches or, maybe denominational agencies, as possible sources too. With regard to the secular world, if they refuse to listen to the truth and choose to fail, we can only witness to the truth and, which we also desperately need, to live the truth as a community. Maybe then, they’ll listen. At the least, some will discover that the gospel makes more sense.

  3. Bill, I have been asking the same questions, although this particular shooting seems different than Columbine and many of the others, which seem motivated by vengeance and are often peer-to-peer violence. I do think and hope that such an assault on such young children is something of an anomaly. And I remind myself that these things are happening in other places too.

    This is a brain dump of some musings and questions rather than conclusions.

    I wonder if some of the characteristics of societies that have been shaped by modernity are vulnerable to these things in ways that traditional societies are not. Violence in traditional societies seems to play out differently. We humans are able to justify violence against “the other”. In traditional societies, where identity is more collective, the violence plays out against “the other” in ethnic genocide that is often humanly inexplicable, where normal people do abnormal things. That also occurred in WW2 Germany and Poland, where normal people did hideous things. There are conditions present that enable that kind of atrocity. (Jay Lifton wrote a book about the Nazi atrocities committed by normal people.)

    Ihe murderous inclination is in us. But the transience, isolation and extreme individualism of modernity encourage us to see ourselves as singular and everyone else as other. Relativism and individualism have eroded the right of a community to maintain some of the involvement and boundary setting in its members’ lives…often passing that prerogative on to the state. Individual hatred, delusion and sickness can fester for years, unobserved. If spiritual evil overruns an individual, we as a society do not have a mental model to parse evil from illness, and to name and respond to both in partnership. Also, virtual communities that form around affinities, that are not moderated by face to face interaction, do not require much virtue to maintain. Forbearance, grace, and forgiveness have to function in real time and space communities, for them to remain as communities. Real local communities also contain diversity, and diversity can correct some extremism. Virtual communities that form around the affinities of alienation, rage, and cynicism are toxic and have few humane checks. Those who are members of such virtual communities are not at stake when they encourage rage and hatred in their fellows.

    Of course, the bloodshed that occurs in the poorest and most broken communities of our society is as senseless and the numbers greater than at Newtown, but Newtown is “us;” ie the educated, wealthy, and media saturated.

    I think research that is cross-discipline would be a good thing. What is the relationship between increasingly mainstreamed popular occutlism, and alienation, and what are the statistical links to suicide? There is quiet anecdotal evidence of links. What about sexual abuse, which has reached plague-like proportions? As Christians, we need to better understand the intertwining of emotional damage, mental and emotional breakdown and illness, with the reality of the demonic as well. Right now, it seems that we have Christian silos functioning from either medical or spiritual models, but not both. Anthropological studies might show parallels between individual violence and communal violence like the spasms of violence in Rwanda that seemed inexplicable even to some of the perpetrators later.

    This particular time, I have wondered about the use of the term “shooter,” and wondered what we are saying about him and us. It neutralizes both the act and the humanness of the murderer. I think of our video games that are labelled FSPs, first person shooters, and wonder what we are saying when reduce the human identity and culpability of the a person who is killing other people to simply “the shooter.”

    There are deeper questions I have about whether our spiritual, big picture blindness about our willingness, as a society, to protect the killing of innocents, is being exposed by our justifiable outrage when those murdered innocents are 6+ years older.

    Something in our society has shifted. I sense it but can’t define it. There are things that were once, perhaps, held in check that are no longer as restrained. Yet, God is still God. I need to understand better who he is and how we are to be in this world that we are part of these days. It can be hard not to succumb to despair, and yet we also live in a Kingdom of hope and joy. Sometimes I need to find my bearings again and again, but I also need a new mental model making sense of the world under God as it is, instead of as it was, and I would better keep my bearings.

    1. Barb, thanks so much for these excellent reflections. This is precisely the kind of thinking that we need to be doing. What you say about traditional societies and the issue of the “other” in them and modernity is very helpful. The kind of genocide that you mention is different and would also explain the slavery and treatment of Indians that Tim in his reply mentions. Since they were not “us” racially and culturally, we were able to justify mistreatment of them. They are another “tribe.” I wonder too whether much of the violence that you mention in poorer areas are “tribal” in the sense of gang related or just the violence of drugs and other criminal behavior, like a Jesse James. You’re right too to raise the issue of the occult and demonic (See my reply to Colin). Yes, the hypocrisy of protecting abortion (killing of the “other” who is not human and is unseen) and being horrified at the killing of young children is evident. Somehow by the grace of God we need to be people who do not alienate the other, but, as God did in Christ, love the other. And, yes, let’s not despair, a sin to which I am all too prone. God bless you, sister.

  4. Hello Bill,
    Yes, I watched the scenes on TV from across the pond. Words fail me to describe an individual that could perpetrate such an evil, wicked act, especially on helpless children.
    If such an event happened in the NT, no doubt it would possibly have been attributed to demonic possession?
    Do you not think Hollywood has some in this?
    Paul said in 2 Timothy 3.1 that ‘perilous times shall come’. It is these type of events that confirm to me the veracity of the bible.
    Psychologists, Psychiatrists and any other ungodly ologist, can only make matters worse in my humble opinion.
    Only the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, and nothing less, can put the world right?
    God bless you and a happy 2013!

    1. It is good to hear from you again, Colin. Thanks for your sympathy for us Americans and best wishes to you for the new year.
      You are right to point out the possibility of the demonic, and, when I mentioned psychologists, I was thinking of those who were of the faith. M. Scott Peck, to whom I referred in the piece is an example. He was a psychiatrist and actually worked for the Surgeon General of the Army and helped prepare a paper dealing with the Mylai massacre in Vietnam, which, I believe, was rejected by the government. He published The Road Less Traveled in 1978, which was a huge success. It was also a kind of New Age spirituality stew. When I read The People of the Lie, which was published in 1983, I was happily surprised to find him referring openly to his conversion to Christ in 1980. Chapter 5 of the book dealt with demonic possession and exorcism, which was an absolute shock to the psychological establishment. His is the kind of interaction that I am thinking of, even if I might not always agree with his conclusions. Peck, by the way, is now with the Lord.
      Yes, and we should always be thoughtful of the signs of the end, nor surprised by the extent of human evil. I have no time table, but increasingly I find myself echoing Revelation 22:20, “Come soon, Lord Jesus.”

  5. Billy, while I do not in any way dispute your analysis of our culture, I think that the first order of business is to get our arms around the sea of deadly weapons that we live in…starting immediately with tighter gun control laws. I won’t go into particulars except to say that there are many obvious, commonsense actions that can and should be taken.

    To say that we are a “society adrift without God” doesn’t begin to adequately address our national sin. Were we a nation without God as we decimated and dispossed the indigenous peoples of this continent? Were we a nation without God when we wrote into our constitution that a man with the wrong color of skin was three-fifths of a person? Many similar, though less egregious, examples of the depth of our national sin could be given. Our repentence must go beyond the breakdown of the family structure, our obsession with sex, the mainstreaming of homosexuality, the tolerance of abortion, and many other evils.

    My concern is that too many of us have drunk the Kool-Aid…we believe that we are indeed an exceptional nation, somehow different from other empires. We are not. I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said, “I tremble for my country when I recall that God is just.”

    I guess what I am trying to say (and I know you well enough to know that what I am saying doesn’t apply to you) is that too many evangelicals have, in the words of Cornel West (or was it Martin Luther King?), become tolerant of injustice. Or to put it another way, we are not maladjusted to injustice. We should be outraged by child poverty in this country, by radical inequality, by endless war, by rapacious environmental destruction, by the unavailability of health care to so many of our fellow citizens…most of this driven by greed, a hedonistic lifestyle, and outsized desire for comfort and security.

    I have rambled on enough…and I’m not even sure I have been coherent. In summary, I agree with you that our culture is sick. In fact, most often it is sicker than we acknowledge. Speaking to a theologian, I am confident in saying that theology is important. As evangelicals, I believe we need to appreciate more fully reformed eschatology. With the resurrection of Jesus a new world is being born. As His followers, I believe we need to be about the business of ushering in that new world — that is what we are called to do. Of course, in the end a fresh dispensation of God’s grace will be required to bring the new world to pass…but we should work for it now.

    By the way, I think I heard that on the same day that the Newtown massacre occurred, a man in Japan attacked elementary school children. However, rather than being armed with automatic weapons, he was armed with a knife. No one was killed.

    1. Thanks, Tim. I in no way wrote and did not intend to imply that we shouldn’t be looking into gun controls, but the problem is that we may or may not do that and still not address the underlying disease in our culture. Indeed, I think that our secular power structures would resist the kind of critique that I am proposing, and, yes, I also am fearful that our churches really don’t want to hear it and maybe me as well.

      I am not sure how American exceptionalism got into the discussion. It’s a term that is thrown around by different groups with different meanings. I would say that there is no doubt that when this nation was predominantly Christian, at least in a cultural sense, the Christian faith was ignored or perverted in order to pursue selfish interests. I’d suggest that you look at Barb’s reply and my response about communal or tribal violence. The difference today for so much of our society, and it would seem to be true in particular for the kind of mass murderers or maybe it would be better to say rampage killers that we’re seeing today is that there is not even a Christian point of view on their radar. One can’t even bring the charge of hypocrisy against them.

      God bless, my brother.

  6. Great post, Uncle Billy. I agree that forming an interdisciplinary research body that incorporates theology / biblical principles and contemporary science has the potential to address this senseless violence in a significant way. I would contend, however, that such a body should extend beyond the Evangelical church to include diverse Christian perspectives and traditions. This would extend its influence and render its research more effective. Perhaps it could even collaborate with a larger interfaith research body – these are the very issues for which people of diverse faiths must work together and forge alliances.

    1. Thanks, Robin. You are right in the sense that the issue needs to be addressed broadly. I was writing to my audience (so small that that is a pretentious way of describing them!). Also, I do think that it would be more beneficial for evangelicals to meet together first in order to understand well what their own faith says to it and help our own people begin to be transformed, as is mentioned in several of the other replies, before jumping into interfaith dialogues. Certainly, the broader Christian community needs to begin dealing seriously with it.

      I do admit that I don’t see much happening. I would hope so but am not connected to any of the power structures to push for it. As I said to Barb Knuckles, I do fight against despair about our culture. Prayer needs to be on the “agenda” too and not just talk. Another area where I’m not doing what I should.

      Love you and Anne. God be with you.

  7. Hi Bill,
    I agree and share your thoughts about narcassism, video gaming, and absence of God as we review these horrific events. I feel there is truly (like someone previously mentioned) an underlying issue or disease that we as Chrisitans must address. The issue is the breakdown in family structures. So many children are truly living in this broken world without basic family structure and support. They are dealing with more distractions than we have ever had to battle before as a society. I see it with the video games. When children are hurting and feeling absolutely powerless in their world the idea of taking over an entire army, scaling walls, and destroying the enemy via a video game is enticing to say the least. When this fantasy and all powerful world becomes a repetitive scene (for some kids hours a day)the lines begin to blur making it even harder for children to even differentiate reality and fantasy let alone recognize the need for a Savior and truth. . Where I don’t feel video games alone are the root cause of these horendous crimes I feel they are preventing our children from dealing with some of lifes pains and trials as they remain powerful and in control in their fantasy world. This leaving a continuous disconnect, inflated ego and fatal disregard for human life. Throw in mental health resources being cut back significantly and it becomes even clearer why these senseless tragedies continue. I feel restoration of the family unit is a place to begin. What better group to do this than the church? Will it really happen outside the church? Maybe but would the efforts really last?
    Your blog for me is a great reminder that we begin with intentional prayer, be reminded of the power in loving each other every day and keep our eyes fixed on Him.

    1. Thanks so much, Melissa. Your comments are very helpful. I do become concerned when I hear so many of our students at CPLS spending extended periods playing video games. On the other hand, I think that they have families and the CPLS atmosphere that are positive supports which keep them from losing touch with reality. It seems to be that we have to look at a complex web of causes that bring about these horrific events and not pin the blame on any one factor.
      I appreciate your expertise as a counsellor in this matter. One difficulty in this discussion is that I see people often equating narcissism with mere selfishness. Obviously, as sinners, we are all selfish and need God’s grace to overcome it, but pathological narcissism would seem to me to be something different than mere selfishness, certainly quantitatively but perhaps qualitatively too. It looks like a kind of complete self-absorption that ignores the claims of others and perhaps even their claim to be real. Any help?

      1. Hi Bill,

        I agree it is a “complex web of causes” we must look at. I just can’t help but think the the breakdown in families can be linked back to so many of our societal struggles (not just the school shootings). Also, I was not speaking of CPLS at all, just families in general. When I mention breakdown I don’t just mean high divorce rate but an overall disconnect. Do you feel we have become an isolative society? I am not against modern technology. I even feel there can be positives from video games for kids. However, we find in our family we have to guard against how technology can encourage isolation and a disonnect in a very slow and subtle way.

        Also, what are your thoughts on the mental health side of things. My heart breaks for all the families who are trying to seek help for their children but face road block after road block.

        Due to lack of time and mental focus at this hour I better chime in later. I remain thankful for the church and for our Savior who provides a sustainable hope that is much bigger than the darkness we face at times.

        In Him- Melissa

        1. I missed this one, Melissa. Sorry. Yes, the mental health issue is real, and I do agree that the problem is not just technology and video games in and of themselves, but I’m trying to come to grips with a culture-wide malaise. Sometime we should stop during our running around at CPLS and have a chat! Thanks for your thoughts.

  8. Hi Bill,

    I am sorry too that I haven’t been able connect again on your blog. Life is full, fun and going by quickly most days. I do however enjoy your topics of discussion and value your insight. Thank you for sharing.

    Blessings to you


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