Answering the “why” of tragedy and the “who” of stopping it…

This is the first American school massacre since I became a father. I don’t know if that alone made my heart sink further when we woke up to the news of 20 young lives lost this morning, and the six adults, but holding my daughter as I digested the news brought home to me the sort of range of emotions the parents of these children on the other side of the planet must be feeling.

gun control

Image Credit: Sydney Morning Herald

I remember writing an essay at uni, back in 2004, about the process the mainstream media moves through when covering a tragic news event like this – from reporting the facts, and just the facts (who, what, when), to reporting first hand accounts (who, how), to “experts” dissecting events and looking for deeper answers to “why” questions. This process has accelerated. Dramatically. Thanks to the internet – such that the facts are available almost immediately, and the democratisation of punditry means that we all have an opinion on the “why” question, and we can all jump on our platforms to not just answer “why bad things happen” but “how this should be fixed.”

The most obvious solutions are pretty obvious. They’re superficial.

We fix shootings by tightening up access to guns. There are secondary solutions – less obvious, and a step or two back on the causal chain – we should fix mental health so that potential perpetrators and sociopaths are identified, and loved – or fixed – or removed from society (and especially from access to guns), before they can lash out.

Some suggest we should stamp out violent video games and change the violent culture that spawns the sorts of people who do this sort of thing. Which seems pretty appealing. Except that this sort of violence predates television, it predates the newspaper, it predates anything that we could meaningfully ban in response.

Sure. Gun control worked in Australia – we haven’t had a shooting massacre since Port Arthur. And it’ll go some way to solving the problem in America. But my Facebook wall is littered with people calling for gun bans, as if that’ll completely solve the problem.

But guns don’t kill people. People kill people.

That’s cliched. With reason. Cliches become cliches because they describe something true – something that needs to be said often.

We can ban all the guns in the world – but people will look for ways to hurt other people. People will respond to generations of hurt – carrying the baggage inflicted by poor family decision making, absent or abusive parents, generational or systemic mistreatment of people, injustice, bullying, all sorts of pain inflicted by others… People will snap. Will make bad decisions. Will take drugs. Will do all sorts of mood altering things that leave them with a low empathy threshold, or a willingness to inflict pain on others for their own pleasure.

The world is broken.

People in our world are broken.

And giving those people less guns – because you recognise the brokenness is a wise response – but it’s not a solution. 

The only meaningful way to change human nature is to restore it to what it was meant to be before it broke. It broke when we turned away from the God who made the world. The world broke then too.

People were meant to be children of God. Children of God who didn’t turn on each other out of rage or anger. And yet, as Genesis tells the story, almost as soon as people turned away from God – brother knifed brother – you can bet Cain would’ve shot Able if he were able.

The only way for us to stop killing each other is to start not just recognising that we’re all valuable because we’re made in God’s image – and so, shouldn’t be killed by one another – but to start recognising that we’re all, to steal another cliche, family…

And the only way for that to be true is for all of us to turn to the perfect child of God – who not only models being a child of God perfectly, but enables us to become children of God – where our present lives, and future hope, reflect a view of the world that rules out events like this morning’s events.

This future hope makes the present tragedies a little easier to stomach – not easy – because suffering sucks. Tragedies suck. The emotions we experience, even vicariously, in these situations as parents, and siblings, and children of other people – are real. The emotions the victims and their families experience during, and after, the inflicting of horrible human on human tragedy are real – and we can’t play this down. But how can we explain events like someone turning a couple of semi-automatic weapons on children without looking to shortcomings in human nature? Shortcomings described best by the very first chapters of the Bible… And how do we solve them without looking for solutions – solutions described in all the subsequent chapters of the Bible as God began his rescue mission that culminated with the horrific and tragic death of an innocent – Jesus.

He suffered. For the sake of securing a future – for himself, and for those who are in him – as his people. His children. The whole world is waiting for this future. From Romans 8…

17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groaninwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

We stop tragedies like this by becoming like Jesus – the true child of God. And while this doesn’t properly happen any time while we’re still this side of heaven, the process begins with following him.

28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

Following Jesus means beginning the process of reversing the human nature that leads to tragedies like this. It conforms and transforms us.

It seems trite. It seems like little comfort to those grieving the brokenness of our world. It seemed a cold comfort to me as I sat nursing my almost 1 year old, imagining a future where something horrific happened to her… but the more I think about it the more I yearn for, and honestly desire the future described in the closing chapters of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, where events like this don’t, and can’t, happen.

21 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Here’s the guarantee from Jesus himself, the closing words of the Bible… They’re what provides real hope, and a real solution, in times like these – when the tragedy of broken human nature strikes…

22 20 He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.

The author

Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His daughter. His son. His other daughter. His dog. Coffee. And the Internet. He is the campus pastor at Creek Road South Bank, a graduate of Queensland Theological College (M. Div) and the Queensland University of Technology (B. Journ). He spent a significant portion of his pre-ministry-as-a-full-time-job life working in Public Relations, and now loves promoting Jesus in Brisbane and online. He can't believe how great it is that people pay him to talk and think about Jesus.

8 thoughts on “Answering the “why” of tragedy and the “who” of stopping it…”

  1. I understand the overall message you’re getting at here. But I really hate the cliche “guns don’t kill people. People kill people” because it is most often used by people trying to argue that the current gun laws are fine and don’t need to change. The cliche is true but it down-plays the role guns do play. I have no desire to ban guns at all. I’ve been shooting before and enjoyed myself and am actually very opposed to people who suggest banning guns. But guns – especially semi-automatics – facilitate mass murder in a way most other weapons don’t. Take for example that guy in China today who attacked a class of pre-schoolers with a box-cutter or similar. He injured 22 children, but if he’d had a gun, he probably would have killed them all. People kill people but guns make it a lot easier for them to achieve that.

    Obviously Jesus’ salvation for us is the only complete answer. But on an earthly level what is? I recognise there are a lot of aspects that go into the issue. You have the whole american pro-gun culture, the problem of sharing a border with Mexico and the illegal smuggling of firearms into the US, social problems like drugs and alcohol which lead to gun-related crime, mental illness and probably man other things, and tightening controls on guns won’t fix those issues. But I do believe it will have an impact on the damage that those people can do.

    1. Hi Leah,

      I agree. I’m just saying that’s not where the “why” question stops, or the root of the issue, not that it’s not a valid “why” question.

      When I was writing the essay I mention above it was about the time that a bunch of academic stuff was being produced on the coverage of September 11.

      A lot of discussion then was around the failings in airport security – and one of the results is much stricter screening at airports… But radical Islamism and US foreign policy in the middle east were factors prior to that factor – extra layers of the onion that the spiral of “why” questions seeks to peel away.

      Gun control is an answer. It’s not “the answer”… Thinking about how we portray violence in pop culture and approach it as parents is “an answer” – probably a less effective answer, but it’s not the answer…

  2. Hi Nathan,

    I like your articles and have been reading them for some time, but this is the first time I have made a comment.
    Gun control is not the answer – but it is a fine start..

    I do agree there are many other factors involved too. Such as creation of a bitter & powerless underclass in society, and I though the one you mentioned about caring properly for people with mental health issues was a good one that had not crossed my mind before now..

    I was not a fan of John Howard – but I certainly was impressed by 2 things he gave us – stronger gun laws and school chaplains. Both hopefully having a positive direct and indirect effect respectively on the violence and dissatisfaction within our society..

    After this latest tragedy I did some reading and found that Firearm homicides in Australia dropped 59 per cent between 1995 and 2006, after tight gun laws were introduced following the Port Arthur massacre of 32.
    And that the USA has almost 300 times as many gun-related homicides as Australia!

    Here is an article by John Howard himself;
    http://guncontrol.org.au/2012/09/our-strict-gun-laws-have-saved-thousands-of-australian-lives/

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for the stats, the comment, and the links… I completely agree.

      Gun control will stop massacres, but it isn’t the root cause of the issue.

      I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t change the laws, in fact, on the contrary, I said:

      “Sure. Gun control worked in Australia – we haven’t had a shooting massacre since Port Arthur. And it’ll go some way to solving the problem in America. But my Facebook wall is littered with people calling for gun bans, as if that’ll completely solve the problem.”

      And when I say:

      “And giving those people less guns – because you recognise the brokenness is a wise response – but it’s not a solution. ”

      I’m advocating giving people less guns, but suggesting that won’t solve the underlying condition…

  3. Hi Nathan,

    Much like those above, I like your piece, but I’m unsure about one aspect of the logic. When we respond with a ‘how do we stop this’, there seem to be a few questions behind this.

    One, the ‘what have we come to that this happens?’ question, is answered by your statement that this will not stop until the parousia, when all will bow to the lord of justice. The problem with this answer is that this is out of our hands – we cannot force people to be regenerate today, and today is when we face this problem. It leads our only response to be ‘Come Lord Jesus’, which is a good and correct response, but perhaps insufficient.

    Another question being asked is, ‘What should we change,as a society, today, so as to prevent this happening again?’ this is where gun control, mental health, etc. come in to play. As the law has the role of restraining the hand of evil (which is present today), these responses are valid and sensible, but are actually answering a different question to yours.

    On another note, a danger in the current rhetoric, particularly from us outside the US, is that we make comments about ‘american culture’, which we are only partly familiar with (at least I am, I cannot speak for all), and set ourselves up as culturally superior, because we have not had this recurring problem. Your article would do well to emphasise that the underlying problem is not ‘american culture’ but a universal human condition – while still allowing that american culture and laws appear to contribute to this particular manifestation of evil.

  4. “The problem with this answer is that this is out of our hands – we cannot force people to be regenerate today, and today is when we face this problem. It leads our only response to be ‘Come Lord Jesus’, which is a good and correct response, but perhaps insufficient”

    I’m not very optimistic about the law’s ability to limit human misbehaviour. I certainly don’t think it will cause people to be, or act, regenerate.

    I think what is most likely to work – without the work of the Spirit – is a pinch of common grace, and a view of life that is “humanist” but driven by Christians who value life because humans are made in the image of God. I see common grace working in this area because I think Romans 7 describes the approach to moral questions for all unregenerate people, not pre-conversion Paul – we all want to do good but can’t.

    These responses are valid and sensible, but are actually answering a different question to yours.

    Again. I agree. Everyone else on the internet is answering those questions, I’m simply suggesting real answers don’t come until we consider the root cause.

    Your article would do well to emphasise that the underlying problem is not ‘american culture’ but a universal human condition

    I actually thought I managed to steer clear of making this an American issue by universalising the problem (talking about the world), and the language – particularly the pronouns.

    But nothing makes our point better than the bizarrely coincidental stabbing spree in a Chinese school yesterday.

    1. P.S – thanks for the comment – this discussion is rounding out this post nicely.

      My point when I was talking about the questions we ask and answer after tragedies isn’t that any question is better than another – but that unasked questions leave us with a less than complete view of the event.

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