Our hearts have been broken this week, as we have read and watched coverage of the killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Saint Paul urges us to “weep with those who weep,” and this has been a week for tears and prayers. So many people slain in the prime of life, hatred that is difficult for us to comprehend—the world seems a darker and more dangerous place.
Allison and I had been in Orlando the week before last for a theology conference. We had dinner a mile and a half from the nightclub the evening before the tragedy. “It could have been us,” we thought. If you are gay or Latino, I imagine you may be feeling much more threatened. Another unpredictable act of gun violence, another undetected terrorist, one of us turned against all of us. “How long will it last?” we ask ourselves. Is this just how it will be for us now?
Terrorists, and especially religious terrorists, claim to be acting on God’s behalf, to taking God’s sword of judgment into their own hands. The shooter, Omar Mateen claimed to be an Islamic State loyalist. I don’t expect we will ever know precisely why he did what he did. He may have just been a bitter, self-hating young man. But the official ideology of the Islamic State is very apocalyptic, looking ahead to the day of judgement when God rewards and punishes. Violent acts like this, these fanatics believe, clarify the lines, and hasten the final verdict.
But this is not the judgment of our God, this bloody carnage and arrogant presumption of a man who cannot see into the heart. God loves all whom He has made. All people bear the stamp of his image, no matter their race or sexual orientation. All people possess inherent dignity, and God has clearly forbidden murder.
It’s the Evil One who works through violence and sows division between groups of people. It’s the Evil One who hardens hearts and dulls the conscience, and awakens that which is most savage within us. I have no reason to suspect that Mr. Mateen was not fully responsible for what he did last Saturday night. But events like these also lay bare the deep but mostly unseen struggle between our good and gracious God and Satan, the prince of lies, that shapes the course of this world. We’re frightened by this event, and with good reason, because it’s more than we can handle.
The mass shooting in Orlando quickly brings to the surface several deep rooted and long term social conflicts. They’re all what strategic planners call “wicked problems”—issues that are very complicated and seem to persistently deny consensus or solution. There’s the problem of radical Islam, and our frustrating inability to predict and control terrorist events. There’s the continual escalation of gun violence in our country, especially mass shootings committed by young men. Our continuing hostility towards sexual and racial minorities is another deep problem, a hatred for those who are unlike us, those we can’t understand. And there’s the question of how keep culture wars civil, how to prevent our disagreements about fundamental questions of human identity and common life from becoming violent.
We can’t create machines that will solve these problems. No grand theory will work them out. Some of them are based in issues that have always been at the heart of our culture: tensions between individual rights and social equality, a need for common values and a deeply diverse population. Working through these problems must involve insights from across the ideological spectrum, consensus developed through respectful and gracious relationships.
These are also all spiritual problems to one extent or another. We can only work at them by looking inward and seeking God’s help. Problems like these demand deeper patience and humility, greater compassion for the sufferings of others, love that reaches across divides and establishes true communion. It may be right that we have problems to solve as a nation. But we also have wounds to be healed, evil to be cast out.
Jesus went to the country of the Gerasenes, and he found a tormented and miserable man, naked and raving among the tombs. His neighbors had cast him out, this man who frightened them with his unpredictability and his tendency to show them a side of themselves they would rather forget.
Jesus recognized that the man was in the grip of evil spirits. He had compassion on the man, and drove them out, in a dramatic show of power. Jesus restored the man’s freedom and dignity. His neighbors came to find him clothed and in his right mind, ready to work and make friends, someone they had thought lost forever now fully capable of taking a place in their community.
They saw this wonderful work of healing and they feared the One who had performed it. They begged Jesus to leave their land. They surely had others who were sick. There were people in their community who needed to be reconciled to each other. There was so much that Jesus could have taught them, so much wisdom He had to share.
But they begged Jesus to leave. He’d set one thing right in their community, and maybe they just couldn’t handle more restoration. His healing threatened them. It opened up questions about what else might need fixing in their community. And they were afraid of what His kind of change might demand of each of them. Jesus comes to bring the healing we need, you see, but He also unsettles the ways we cobble together to make this broken world work.
I don’t know how your Facebook feed has looked in the days since the shooting in Orlando, but mine has been fairly agonizing. There were some heartfelt and generous words for the victims of the attack and those who loved them in the first few days. But how much anger since then.
“We could solve this problem,” one person says, “if only we got rid of those crazy people who support the NRA.” Another voice opines: “If we could just get rid of this spineless president and find one who takes Islamic terrorism seriously.” “If we could one eliminate all those morons who continue to oppose gay marriage.” “Muslims are far too dangerous to let into our country.” On and on it goes, hundreds of voices all saying in some way: “this is someone else’s problem.” We can bring peace and unity to America, if only we get rid of him or her or them. Let’s cast out the demoniac, and then at last, we can be free.
And Jesus stands on the shore of our land, as he stood that day by Genessaret. He points to the evil in the life we share together, revealed so graphically in the events last Saturday night. He offers to bind up our wounds, to give us freedom, to help us live together in peace.
But to be healed, we must recognize that this isn’t all someone else’s problem. Our anger, our harsh words, our arrogant impatience with those who we refuse to understand, they too have brought our nation to this dark and troubling time. He will heal us, but we must be willing to change. Will it be said of us, in this time: “Then all the people asked him to depart from them?”