I wrote the following Frank Answer on December 17, 2012 in response to the Sandy Hooks Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, and posted it on the Immanuel Lutheran Church website. I never re-posted it on this blog because I thought it was time-conditioned. But now we’ve had another school shooting at Parkland High School in Broward County, Florida. Seventeen students and staff were killed and a dozen others seriously wounded apparently by a 19-year old former student named Nikolas Cruz. I re-read my 2012 Frank Answer and decided to re-post it as it was because I think it is timely, and other than changing the name of the perpetrator I would probably write something similar in response. Theologically, it is still a matter of evil. In terms of practical solutions, the same.
Question: Can we make any sense out of the murder of innocent children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut?
Frank answers: The horror of this event last Friday (December 14, 2012) has only increased as more information is reported. The shooter murdered his own mother, broke into the school and turned an automatic weapon on 6- and 7-year olds, their teachers and principal, and finally killed himself. Twenty first graders and seven adults were gunned down. The medical examiner said that most of the children were shot multiple times. As the investigation unfolds we may learn more about 20-year old Adam Lanza and develop some theories about why he acted as he did. But from a theological perspective I know one thing about Adam, no matter what we learn about his personality and putative issues: he was possessed by evil and committed an evil act.
Please note that I didn’t say Adam was evil; I said he was possessed by evil and that he committed an evil act.
1 Peter 5:8-9—a text we read in the night prayer office of Compline just las night—says: “Be sober. Be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.”
Adam was in the clutches of the evil one. There may be social and psychological reasons why he was willing to be seduced. Yes, it was an act of his own will to succumb to evil. Once he did, however, he was not acting out of his own free will or even rationally. His will was taken captive by evil and he acted with evil intention.
It’s hard to define evil. Some define it as utter wickedness. But this puts evil into a moral category; it is regarded as an immoral action. I think evil is beyond morality in that it has no redeeming quality. It is an intention to cause harm just for the sake of causing harm, not for the sake of achieving some greater good. We will never know why Adam shot those children at point blank range, but it was clearly with the intention of killing them for the sake of killing them.
Western people are reluctant to acknowledge the reality of evil. The psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote about this in People of the Lie. But the problem of evil—even of evil people—surfaces in secular books and films. Consider the following response of Hannibal Lecter to FBI agent Starling in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs who queries Hannibal about what had happened to him. “Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened. You can’t reduce me to a set of influences. You’ve given up good and evil for behaviorism, Officer Starling. You’ve got everybody in moral dignity pants—nothing is ever anybody’s fault. Look at me, Officer Starling. Can you stand to say I’m evil? Am I evil, Officer Starling?”
The death of the children and adults in Newtown was without purpose but not without meaning. The meaning is that they were victims of evil. Christians ought to be taking evil seriously. I’m not talking about sin—those acts of commission or omission which are our fault, our own fault, our own most grievous fault. I’m talking about bad stuff that can happen to us and temptations that come our way and for which our Lord taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil.” The Great Litany of the Western Church petitions deliverance “from all sin, from all error, from all evil” and “from the cunning assaults of the devil.” Martin Luther ended both his morning and evening prayers in The Small Catechism, “Let your holy angels have charge of us that the wicked one have no power over us.” In the light of the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, which is just one more in a series of school shootings, parents might well turn this into a blessing of their children as they send them off to school: “May the holy angels have charge of you that the wicked one have no power over you.”
I’m not advising this because I think the schools are unsafe. But we know from the half dozen notorious incidents that have occurred in recent years (there have actually been hundreds of school shootings in the United States alone, not counting other countries) that they were all unexpected and many of them probably not preventable. In these shooting incidents some of our youth have been the shooters. We remember the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in1999 which shocked our own youth so profoundly that they lit votive candles here in the church the Sunday after that incident.
As for prevention, it seems that one common trait in most of the school shooters is that they were bullied or marginalized. Bullying is also an evil act since it is done just for the sake of causing hurt. Those who are doing evil should be restrained, whether they are shooters or bullies. School authorities and parents need to work with their youth not only about not bullying, but also on how to respond to being bullied or when they see bullying going on. We simply don’t act nice in the face of evil. The bullies must be faced down by their peers.
There will be cries in our society for greater restrictions on access to guns, especially semi-automatic weapons. Somehow our lawmakers, who are bullied by the National Rifle Association—as well as many of our citizens—, think it is an infringement on their second amendment rights to require background checks on all gun sales and transactions and more sensible age limits on gun purchases. The guns Adam used were apparently in his mother’s house, and the guns used by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were apparently purchased by an older acquaintance. This alerts us that no laws restricting gun purchase will be foolproof. But we have had enough shootings in our society (school children in Chicago get gunned down on the streets) to justify new thinking about gun ownership. A society that thinks more of its gun rights than the safety of its children is, if not possessed by evil, immoral and needs to repent.
Pastor Frank Senn
The images are from the aftermath of the Parkland High School shootings.