December 18, 2012

The lessons from Newtown are not political

by Jesse Johnson

Sandy Hook SchoolChristians should speak about the Newtown shootings, because we have something to say.  This kind of tragedy raises questions that we are equipped to answer, and they are not in realm of gun laws or health care. In fact, it should frustrate us to see non-Christians framing this tragedy in moral terms, and (in a great reversal) Christians falling back on political ones.

There is a chaplain in Los Angeles, Phil Manly, who works mostly at the USC medical center. USC happens to be one of the largest hospitals in the US, and the morgue there has become a temporary resting place for unidentified bodies in Los Angeles county. They are cremated, and the ashes held for a particular duration of time. If unclaimed, they are buried.

Every year USC does one of these mass burials of all the ashes of unidentified and unclaimed bodies. It could just happen in obscurity, but the chaplain won’t let it. He insists on doing a memorial service each year for these remains.

Keep in mind that nobody knows who those people are. Except for the funeral home caretaker—who is there mostly as a witness—the service is before an empty room. Occasionally a reporter will come and watch. Last year there were 1,600 different people who were buried in this mass grave.

I asked Phil once why he insisted on conducting a memorial service in front of an empty room for people that are unknown. His answer was simple: it falls to Christians to grasp the importance of every life, and the dignity with which God made people. If a person passes from this world to silence, it should be the Christians who stand up, and are able to articulate why this person was made, whose image he was in, and what the purpose of his life was. Nobody else can do that, but Christians can.

As I read the news from Newtown, I was of course shocked and grieved. I had a rehearsal for a wedding that I was doing that night, and I ducked out early to come and hug my daughters. I called a friend of mine who pastors in Newtown (you can read his comments here), and I prayed for the victims’ families. But I also read the news, and read the opinion columns, and could not help but see how inadequately they dealt with the issues at hand.

This is why Christians care about Newtown. We actually have something to add to the conversation. We understand what innocence is. We understand what sin is, and what the consequences of it are. We have categories that are sufficient to make sense of a senseless tragedy.

After all, the slaughter of innocent children is right there, in the Christmas story. Soldiers with bloody swords were right on the heels of the wise men. The prophecy of the slaughter of children is literally the next verse after the prophecy of the virgin birth (Jer 31:13-14; 15).

Some observations are obvious and can be made by Christians and non-Christians alike. If you have a mentally unstable child who is prone to violence, don’t stockpile guns in your house, for example. At least don’t teach him how to use them.

You also don’t have to be a Christian to realize that the slaughter of children is horrible, wicked, and tears at the very fabric of what it means to be human. Anger at the shooter, grief for the families, and general horror and shock are all appropriate responses that are not dependent on one’s creed.

But behind that are basic questions that Christians have answers to. We know what makes children “innocent,” and thus a crime like this so horrible. We know they have a sin nature, but also child-like faith. We can explain why there is dignity in every human life. We can explain exactly what knowledge children lack, and what exactly they learn as they grow that makes the term “innocent” no longer applicable.

Christians have categories for sin and suffering. We can explain how God created the world good, and yet because of sin evil things happen. We understand that the sovereignty of God does not negate the fact that God is grieved at the slaughter of children.

We also can articulate the limits of human justice, and how even if a murderer escapes this life without answering for his crimes, we know that eternity does not bring false acquittals.

A question people have been asking frequently— I’ve heard it a few times today—is “where does evil like this come from?” Christians understand the wickedness that is in the heart, and we know how to answer that question. We also know about common grace, and instead of asking “why do things like this happen?” we give thanks to God because things like this don’t happen more often.

Finally, we understand what it means to be “safe.” We know that gun laws, mental health treatment, school security systems, background checks, and armed security combined cannot make a person safe. Instead, our safety comes from being reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Our eternal safety comes from the work of the Spirit, and our temporal safety is not guaranteed. This is why it is indeed sinful to say “today or tomorrow we will travel to such and such a city” without regard to the Lord’s will. We use deadbolts out of wisdom, but trust them out of folly.

Obviously there is evil in the world. But that concept only makes sense when there is a law giver, and the appalling nature of a crime certainly is commensurate with the authority and dignity of the one who is transgressed. This crime was so barbaric because it transgressed children. But at that point our common ground with non-believers runs out. The real horror of the crime is that it was a sin against God.

So while the world wrings its collective hands and rightfully mourns, Christians should mourn as well. But we should do so knowing that God, in his word, has taught us how to think about such acts.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • kevin2184

    Another great post, Jesse. Thanks.

  • I bumped Clint Archer’s similar post to put Joey’s up yesterday. I’d encourage you to read it. Back on the home page, it is right under this one. Thanks Clint.

  • Linda Velazquez

    Jessie I teach Sunday school at Immanuel to the second grade. I noticed in your blog you glossed over the part about the devil. Last Sunday three different kids brought up their fear of the devil. And no one mentioned the shootings. I don’t think any of the kids had been told by their parents about it. I was actually glad I didn’t have to address it. But I spent a good deal of time addressing these children’s fear of the devil. And our lesson plan for that day was about the shepherds receiving word of baby Jesus.

    One child told me he has nightmares that the devil is out to get him. So I do think we need to discuss the devil. And I do think we need to discuss evil.

    LInda Velazquez

    • Thanks Linda for your faithfulness. Were you able to hear my sermon two weeks ago on Jesus casting the demons out of the man into the pigs? (You may have been in Sunday school that day). In short, I said that God is sovereign over the devil. Kids don’t need to live in fear of the devil, because God is the ruler of the devil. Fear God, not any thing (or anyone) he created. Does that help?