08
Jan
13

shootings and morality

After a few weeks of grieving the tragic slaughter of innocent children, teachers and administrators in a Newton Connecticut school, I find myself finally moving on to deeper questions of morality. From the committed Christian to the nominally religious to the staunchest atheist, people readily agree on the evil nature of Adam Lanza’s violent rampage and condemn it. The event has prompted universal moral outrage. But were his actions truly evil? When asked, my answer is “yes.” Whether driven by mental illness, some unknown motivation or a combination of the two, I assert that Lanza’s killing of 27 people was an immoral and evil act. It was a violation of the biblical prohibition, “You shall not kill.”

Dec 2012 Connecticut Shooting

Dec 2012 Connecticut Shooting

In the wake of such violence and suffering, many in our culture turn to pastors, priests and moral philosophers for answers. Understandably, we all want to know “why?” As a pastor I long to offer a brilliant and comprehensive response that might make sense of all the insanity … but ultimately my attempts at explanation fall short. I just do not have sufficient answers. For some, the lack of clarity as to why such evil exists leads to frustration and a condemnation of God and religion. One gentleman confronted me demanding an explanation. My best attempt was cut short by an abrupt, “Given the evil in this world, God can’t exist.” For him, if Christianity can’t adequately answer his questions about evil then religion is false and God is a sham.

In fairness, I understand the frustration of having to live with unanswered questions. But I wonder if the same man who approached me questioned an atheist and similarly dissed them for their inability to answer the question? Interestingly, few people turn to atheism in the wake of such senseless violence and pain. And except to share their genuine sympathy and outrage, atheists are mostly silent on such matters of evil.

Unlike Christianity, atheism can offer little to ease our pain in the face of suffering. For them there is no explanation except to say it’s just the brutal reality of a meaningless existence. In the words of well known atheist Richard Dawkins, “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe has exactly those properties we should expect if there is at the bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is and we dance to its music.”

As a Christian, like the atheist, when seemingly senseless acts of violence occur I cannot offer a comprehensive explanation of “why?” But for me, it’s not that there’s no answer to “why” but that in my limited human capacity I simply cannot grasp the reason. I rest in the hope that some day goodness and justice will prevail. But even here atheism fails to offer any hope for justice. According to Dawkins, there is “no evil and no good…nor any justice.”

Yet when tragic killing takes place, the outrage of everyone, including atheists, cries for justice. The same person who says, “I can’t believe in a good God who judges people” in turn protests violence and moral evil saying, “Why doesn’t God do something?” Apparently, a good God of justice and judgment is acceptable as long as his divine justice is meted out on others and not applied to their own life. However, if there is a God who is good and just then his justice must be applied equally to all in order for it to be truly good and just.

C.S. Lewis offers this observation…

AA Mere Christianity“It is no use either saying that if there is a God of that sort—an impersonal absolute goodness—then you do not like Him and are not going to bother about Him. For the trouble is that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with his disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. This is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. God is the only comfort, He is also the supreme terror: the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from. He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies. Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again. They are still only playing with religion. Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger—according to the way you react to it. And we have reacted the wrong way.”

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11 Responses to “shootings and morality”


  1. January 8, 2013 at 3:55 pm

    “Unlike Christianity, atheism can offer little to ease our pain in the face of suffering. ”

    It also makes no claim to do so. So, saying that atheism doesn’t offer something that it doesn’t claim to offer isn’t really a point against it.

    “For them there is no explanation except to say it’s just the brutal reality of a meaningless existence.”

    There are explanations. Mental illness and gun control might be part of those explanations, in one way or another.

    “According to Dawkins, there is “no evil and no good…nor any justice.””

    Not from the Universe. But from humans, there can be justice. Not perfect, and not always, but we can achieve it.

    “However, if there is a God who is good and just then his justice must be applied equally to all in order for it to be truly good and just.”

    I think it’s more that…if I had the powers of a god, I wouldn’t allow children to be killed in the first place. So, if there is a god, he’s the kind of god that does allow children to be killed.

    Which makes him, if he exists, not the kind of god I would ever love.

    • January 8, 2013 at 6:18 pm

      “However, if there is a God who is good and just then his justice must be applied equally to all in order for it to be truly good and just.”

      “I think it’s more that…if I had the powers of a god, I wouldn’t allow children to be killed in the first place.
      So, if there is a god, he’s the kind of god that does allow children to be killed.”

      I’m Not a Scientist, your outlook on having God-like powers isn’t truly good or just, then, is it? What makes you think you would be a god worthy of love? No need to comment, it is peculiar how many people who deny having faith ultimately try and justify their beliefs through their own lens of reality, which is limited and flawed in its own right and, therefore, lacks the evidence necessary in science to justify a hypothesis.

      • January 8, 2013 at 7:41 pm

        ” your outlook on having God-like powers isn’t truly good or just, then, is it?”

        I’m curious how ‘not allowing children to be killed’ isn’t truly good or just.

        “What makes you think you would be a god worthy of love?”

        I don’t think I would particularly care. But it seems to be a big thing that the Christian god wants, according to the Christians I’ve spoken to.

      • January 8, 2013 at 9:40 pm

        Nepotism is not being just…

        I wish you well, NotAScientist.

    • 5 Jesse
      January 9, 2013 at 6:29 pm

      “I think it’s more that…if I had the powers of a god, I wouldn’t allow children to be killed in the first place. So, if there is a god, he’s the kind of god that does allow children to be killed.
      Which makes him, if he exists, not the kind of god I would ever love.”

      You might find the point of view presented in the blog link below interesting:
      http://reknew.org/2012/12/when-free-will-meets-unfathomable-evil/

      A quick summary:
      To create a world where people are capable of genuine love requires that those people have the free will to choose (or not to choose) love. Free will is a tricky animal. The free will that makes people capable of choosing love also makes them capable of choosing evil.

      I don’t think God wants us to choose evil, but more importantly, I don’t think God would intervene in people’s free will to do so since it means they were never really created with that free will in the first place. Again, free will being a prerequisite for genuine love.

      • January 9, 2013 at 7:04 pm

        ” Free will is a tricky animal.”

        If a criminal tries to kill a child, and I physically stop them, no free will has been stopped.

        So, if I were a god, I would merely stop criminals from killing children. I wouldn’t stop them from choosing to try. They just wouldn’t be able to do it. Not while I was around.

        Which, again, makes me (and most people) more moral than that hypothetical god that doesn’t prevent such things.

  2. 7 rkollbocker
    January 8, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Fair enough. However, regarding “no evil and no good…nor any justice” – are not humans part of Dawkins’ random meaningless amoral universe? And if justice does come from humans, which humans get to set the moral standard that delineates what is evil and what is good? That becomes the moral dilemma.

    • January 8, 2013 at 6:11 pm

      “are not humans part of Dawkins’ random meaningless amoral universe?”

      Well, first of all, I can only speak for myself. You’d have to talk to Dawkins to know exactly what he thinks.

      We humans are part of a random, meaningless amoral universe. But due to our sentience we are able to give things meaning of our own.

      “which humans get to”

      All humans get to.

      Mostly (though not totally), we land on the same conclusions. Where we differ tends to be on who we think the standard applies to. On who is ‘us’ and who is ‘them’.

      The world is not perfect, and we still have major disagreements and fight and go to war over them.

      Which, to me, points to the fact that morality is something humans come up with for a variety of different reasons and based on a variety of different things.

      I try to base my morality on reason and empathy and well-being and benefits. And I try to surround myself with people who do the same.

  3. January 8, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    “Nepotism is not being just…”

    Yeah, that makes no sense. I said “children”. Not “only my children”.

  4. 10 Karen
    January 14, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    As a pastor I long to offer a brilliant and comprehensive response that might make sense of all the insanity … but ultimately my attempts at explanation fall short. I just do not have sufficient answers.

    This is the kind of honest admission for which I respect you. I am persuaded from my own experience that answers are the last thing a person asking “why” in such a situation really needs. The only “answer” that suffices is a true depth of sincere compassion/empathy and a commitment in self-sacrificial action to remediating suffering wherever it occurs to the best of our ability. (If you take the trouble to investigate the roots and foundations of most hospitals, many schools, charitable and relief organizations, human justice organizations, etc., today, you will discover that Christians are actually historically quite good at this–arguably considerably better most times than their unbelieving or other-believing counterparts. And this is what ought to be expected from those whose central premise is that their own God entered human history as a human being specifically out of such empathy and compassion in order in a self-sacrificial manner to remediate its suffering (ultimately, if not immediately for most). When the latter is not in our power (as it often isn’t) prayerful presence and reverent and humble silence are the only answers that will serve. It seems to me if we are taught anything in the book of Job, it would be that.

    For some, the lack of clarity as to why such evil exists leads to frustration and a condemnation of God and religion.

    Likely there are a number of reasons for this–many good ones, in fact. I suspect oftentimes the sub-Christian responses of professing believers to others’ struggles in this area are a key factor in the development of such frustration and condemnation (though certainly not the lack of clarity or comprehension, which is simply derivative of the very nature of evil itself). Even believers struggle with understanding the justice and goodness of God juxtaposed with the evil in the world. Whatever the case I suspect that most times, this is symptomatic of 1) a lack of a real experience of God (having an opinion that God/Christ exists and that the gospel is true is not the same thing as being a believer in the sense of one who has encountered the living Christ in his own experience) and also 2) exposure to teaching based on an erroneous understanding and interpretation of Scripture (and in some cases also the writings of the Church Fathers) such that the very understanding of Who God is and the nature of his creation are distorted (into various sub-Christian theodicies). Regarding this latter issue, David Bentley Hart’s book The Doors of the Sea is, hands down, the best defense of a truly apostolic Christian understanding of the nature of evil and God’s relationship with his creation that I have ever read. That is, It is the only one I have read that seems completely faithful to the ethos and teaching of the New Testament. I will warn you, though, that Hart is more scathing in his critique of the many sub-Christian responses and explanations on the part of professing believers in the face of the great suffering and evil found in the world, than he is of the philosophical ridiculousness proffered by professing atheists in the face of the same.

  5. 11 Karen
    January 21, 2013 at 4:04 am

    There is no argument, no philosophy, no policy that can properly answer what happened on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It all rings hollow in the end, doesn’t it? But as the columnist Ross Douthat also writes, this horrible story comes to us at a time when another story is almost upon us.

    You see, in nine days, we will celebrate Christmas. And yes, the story and spirit of Christmas are largely the stuff of sentiment these days. There is the cute baby Jesus, the happy shepherds, the adoring wise men, and so on. But if you look at the icon of the Nativity of Christ, you will also see that the manger is shaped like a coffin, that the myrrh brought by the wise men is the kind of thing that will be used to anoint the dead Jesus, that the swaddling clothes are very much like burial cloths. In the true story of Christmas, Herod rages and the road to the Cross is already begun.

    And that is our answer. We stare evil in the face, and we say again and again: Christ is risen!

    From a homily given by Fr. Andrew Damick, pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Christian Church in Emmaus, PA posted here: http://roadsfromemmaus.org/2012/12/17/where-was-christ-in-the-newtown-massacre/


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re: the random-ness

Husband. Father. Senior Pastor of Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn, IL.

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