It was a brisk Monday morning in April, and, as usual, J.R. Foster and his intern were warming up with coffee at their weekly planning meeting. As a Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) campus pastor at Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, Virginia, Foster expected a leisurely Monday morning. Nestled in the mountains of western Virginia, Blacksburg is a small college town lacking the daily drama of the big city. So, even when consecutive emergency vehicles wailed past, Foster quipped, “There must be a cat stuck in a tree.”
It wasn’t long before he regretted the joke. Reports circulated … two people dead and the shooter at large … 10 people dead … 20 dead. “It was all so surreal,” remembers Foster. “Your head is just spinning.” Immediately he thought of his students. “At the time we had a paper list of student contacts — it was 2007. We started calling down the list.” Although some only narrowly survived the deadly Norris Hall classrooms where the shootings took place, everyone on the RUF roster was alive.
Foster’s thoughts quickly turned to the 49 people shot, 32 killed, and the gunman who finally ended the spree in suicide. For nearly 10 years, Virginia Tech’s campus held the record for the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history.
Although the memory of Columbine, Colorado, lingered, this new iteration of the mass shooting shocked everyone afresh. But by 2018, these mass shootings are no longer shocking. Through May, reports The New York Times, there was one school shooting each week this year.
The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.
Media reports of these tragedies often describe them as senseless. Even the most secular instinctively recognize that kids killing kids at school is so wrong it’s beyond explanation. Yet, because the gospel offers an all-encompassing story, Christians can make sense of these killings in ways that secular culture can’t. And the church is positioned to offer the most enduring solutions — solutions that confront the origins of this contagion and not just its symptoms.
The Limits of the Gun Debate
Despite our agreement about the incompatibility of murder with civilized society, the national debate about guns that escalates following each shooting fails to unite us around our shared indignation and horror. Rather, the loudest voices divide us — the extremes that declare guns as the problem or guns as the solution. As The Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson writes, “The maximal solutions … are something like, on the issue of global warming, recommending that the earth be moved farther from the sun.”
From whichever sideline of the gun debate you cheer, it’s hard to deny the correlation between the high rate of gun ownership in America and the phenomenon of mass shootings. Despite accounting for only 5 percent of the world’s population, Americans own half the world’s firearms and account for more than 30 percent of mass shootings. Gun homicide rates are 25 percent higher in the U.S. than any other high-income country.
What might be surprising in light of these statistics and the frequency of mass shootings is that the FBI reports a 49 percent decrease in the national rate of violent crime in the U.S. since 1991. To give further perspective to school shootings, since 1999, 223 children have been shot at school — which means the statistical likelihood of an individual student being shot is less than 614 million to one. Kids are far more likely to be killed traveling to their school or playing sports behind it.
Yet, school shootings and gun massacres trigger outsized emotions and fears that escalate the whirling storm circulating around guns.
Christianity Today reports that two out of five self-identified white evangelicals own a gun, higher than any other religious group, according to a recent study from the Pew Research Center. Southern Baptists might exceed that percentage, yet Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, says that Christians’ commitments to gun ownership must be subservient to our commitments to the gospel. “I hold to conservative views on the Second Amendment, but I don’t hold to my views here in the way that I would something clearly revealed in Scripture,” he says. “I certainly don’t hold to those things the way that I would the fundamentals of Christian doctrine and ethics, which is why I have very close co-laborers in Christ who are proponents of gun control. They haven’t persuaded me of that, but I don’t see them as being on another ‘side.’ We both are looking toward the same goal.”
The reality obscured in the bluster of extreme talking points is that most evangelical leaders favor measures that would increase gun safety. Even conservative columnist for the National Review, gun owner, gun rights advocate, and PCA member David French says there is room for creative thinking about how to reduce gun violence and has proposed gun violence restraining order legislation.
We need a more nuanced, civilized debate about gun violence that reflects the spectrum of views on gun control and safety. A good start would be for all of us, no matter our political persuasion, to lead with the uniting message that God hates violence, and our greatest concern is to prevent the slaughter of innocent life. But the gun debate has limits. It may even obscure some of the deeper questions that might offer insights into why specific varieties of gun violence are escalating. We often fail to consider our vulnerability as humans that makes us all feel unsafe — a problem neither gun ownership or gun control will solve.
Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be
School shootings are a particularly cruel variety of evil — calculated execution of the innocent. They are most disturbing because they most vividly illustrate the depth and complexity of our brokenness. They epitomize the sentiment of Cornelius Plantinga’s book, “Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be,” in which he writes, “The progress of both good and evil is more like a spiral than a shuttle and, more than that, like waves of intertwined and self-replicating spirals.” When it comes to mass shootings, waves of evil used to spread in ripples. Now, they trigger tsunamis.
In 2015, Canadian journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell proposed an explanation for why. He relies on the work of sociologist Mark Granovetter that describes the progression of a riot. Granovetter suggests that once a riot begins, the threshold for violence lowers as more people participate. So the man who agitates and throws the first stone is far more radical than the man who picks up a stone to join hundreds of neighbors doing the same. Granovetter focused on the social nature of riots, where each subsequent action makes sense only in response to the actions of previous individuals.
Gladwell applies this thinking to the “riot” of mass shootings. Since Columbine, Gladwell suggests, the threshold for violence has increasingly lowered as the number of shootings has increased. Peter Langman, a psychologist and expert on school shootings, agrees. “The phenomenon is feeding on itself … it’s gaining momentum, and the more there are, the more there will be,” he writes. In most of the shootings since 1999, perpetrators specifically mentioned Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. These two deeply disturbed young men created a script that made it possible for other, less radical or sick, shooters to follow.
Gladwell’s ominous conclusion: “ … the riot has now engulfed boys who were once content to play with chemistry sets in the basement. The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.”
In Plantinga’s language, these young men are caught in waves of intertwined and self-replicating spirals. If mass shootings are a contagion, we know their hot zone. Plantinga describes how sin and evil violate and destroy the shalom that God intended for the world with the same language of contagion. “After all,” he writes, “sin is a dynamic and progressive phenomenon. Hence, it’s familiar metaphors: sin is a plague that spreads by contagion or even by quasi-genetic reproduction. It’s a polluted river that keeps branching and re-branching into tributaries. … Like the drought that prompts a maple tree to announce its distress by producing hundreds of emergency seed pods … so sin tends both to kill and to reproduce. Indeed, like cancer, sin kills because it reproduces.”
When we combine Gladwell’s theory of thresholds of violence with the recent studies that reveal an epidemic of loneliness and sharp increase in “deaths of despair,” bringing the two sides of the gun debate together sounds easier than curing the contagion gripping our country.
Gladwell allows that gun control has a role in solving the symptoms of this disease but recognizes its limits. He writes, “Let’s not kid ourselves that if we passed the strictest gun control in the world that we would end this particular kind of behavior.”
Plantinga writes, “The predictable truth is that people living sorry lives often hate their lives, and people who hate their lives often hate the most intimate reminders of their lives … .” For school shooters, these most intimate reminders may be their schools and the students they perceive excluded or bullied them. They send their own “vengeance ricocheting through the larger human family,” says Plantinga, often in search of notoriety in place of isolation.
Following a 2015 shooting, a young man wrote on his blog: “I have noticed that so many people like [the shooter] are all alone and unknown, yet when they spill a little blood, the whole world knows who they are. … Seems the more people you kill, the more you’re in the limelight.” A few months later, he sent violence ricocheting through a community college where he killed nine people.
French, a member of Zion Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Columbia, Tennessee, suggests that mass shootings are only the fringe expression of a larger problem. “A more normal manifestation of the problem is that people are dying of opioid addiction, suicide, and alcohol abuse.” In fact, of the 30,000 gun deaths per year, 22,000 are due to suicide. He describes the core problem as a problem of purpose — lack of meaning, loss of significant roles as fathers, husbands, co-workers, and friends that leads to loneliness and isolation.
The combined rate of deaths from suicide, alcohol, opioids, and other drugs — sometimes called “deaths of despair” — increased 50 percent from 2005 to 2016, according to a Commonwealth Fund study. Many have attributed these deaths to both economic and social desolation. The same characteristics of mass shooters — isolated, alienated, mentally disturbed — might also be said of those who turn vengeance inward through suicide or addiction.
But the problem extends beyond those who destroy themselves and others. Nearly half of Americans experience feelings of isolation or loneliness, a recent study revealed. Former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, says, “For better or worse, people understand the language of epidemics. I think of loneliness as an epidemic because it affects a great number of people in our country but also because one person’s loneliness can have an impact on another person. This is not a condition that is developing in isolation.”
Where True Safety Lies
An epidemic of loneliness, a contagion of mass shootings, waves of sin and evil — a grim picture of our broken world. What answers does the church offer to this pervasive misery? The best solutions typically don’t light up the Twitter feed, because they are not national, political solutions, but hyperlocal ones in which believers are tending to people’s souls. “I’m very reluctant to say, ‘If we just did this, this incredibly complex problem would go away,’” says French. “But the fundamental regeneration of the human soul is essential.” The primary job of churches is to address the root cause, he says. “Politicians and activists are treating symptoms. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the cure is the gospel.”
In the aftermath of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, Foster remembers students struggling to understand how the brokenness of the world could penetrate this quaint college town with such force. “It was unnerving to them,” he says. “They felt unsafe. They had not seen the fall touch them in such a profound way.”
We would all like to believe that the brokenness of the world won’t intrude into our lives, or that we can protect ourselves from it. It’s terrifying to concede that we have no ultimate source of safety apart from God. Fear is a driving force for the fight over guns — both sides are scared. Russell Moore says churches that are doing their central work of loving and teaching may be the best answer to that fear. “These kinds of churches can flourish in rural Oregon and urban Atlanta, in blue states and red states. These kind of churches can seek to create not just individual disciples, but an alternative order in which the citizens of heaven know one another, trust one another, and are able to call on one another when one hears a strange sound at the window.”
But we must go beyond protecting one another within our own homes and churches. As we acknowledge our own fears and rest in our only true source of safety, we can share with the world the same solution to brokenness that Christ offered us.
Despite Plantinga’s vivid and disheartening descriptions of how sin corrupts the world, he reminds us that the story doesn’t end with the fall. “Evil rolls across the ages, but so does good. Good has its own momentum. Corruption never wholly succeeds … . Creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still.”
Foster took courage in the strength of that bigger story as he watched the secular community wrestle with the question of “why?” “People were hoping in hope,” he says. “They were hoping that things would get better. That’s the difference in the message we had compared to others in the community — we could offer them an object for their hope.”
Foster didn’t have a plan for how to respond to a school shooting. “They don’t teach you this stuff in seminary! My playbook was just for us to be together a lot.” He turned to the emotions displayed in the Psalms for the message he communicated tenaciously to his students and to all those who came to the church for comfort: We live in a broken world; we groan in a broken world; we hope in a broken world. In the aftermath of the shooting, most RUF students in Blacksburg shied away from the gun debate. Instead, they embraced deeper community with one another. Together, they mourned the brokenness of the world and the fear that its proximity ignited. They acknowledged the pain that felt unbearable. They hugged each other. And pointed each other and the world to the ultimate hope and safety that only Christ offers.
Faced with a contagion that seems senseless and unsolvable, the world needs to see just this kind of alternative community. It needs to hear the church groaning with sorrow over the brokenness of the world. And it needs an invitation to all who are lonely, isolated, sick, and despondent, to come groan with us and to hope with us in the true safety of our Savior.
Susan Fikse is a writer and nonprofit director living in San Diego.