Writings by Cole Huffman

The Violent Bear It Away

How would you answer the email below? It’s the Faith in Memphis question of this week:

“Sunday’s tragic mass shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, coming just a few days after the tragic mass shooting at the theater in Colorado, continues a deeply disturbing American trend.

“Since 1976, the U.S. has averaged 20 mass shootings a year – including 30 in 2003.

“Why is America such a violent place? Why are we experiencing so many mass shootings? Is this sort of tragedy embedded in our DNA? What should we be doing about it?”

My reply:

I’d like to answer these questions both philosophically and emotionally because the problem of violent acts is a subset of the problem of evil and its human sufferings.

Philosophically considered, the potential to act violently is embedded in every one of us. This is not to deny the existence of pacifists or otherwise peace-loving people. But violence is symptomatic of the malignancy infecting all of human nature. And if God doesn’t exist—if nature is all that there is—then nothing is more natural than violence. It’s how we got here according to Natural Selection: The strong eating the weak (which is violent!). So if there is no God, all there is nature and human nature, what’s wrong with violence? It’s perfectly natural.

People leap from the existence of violence to the nonexistence of God when tragedies rampage through their lives or others. All kinds of philosophical assumptions set the emotional thermostats. But removing God from the equation actually helps no one understand sufferings of any kind. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we only know what is just and not because God has revealed a higher justice, a higher law that is imprinted on our consciences, undeniable (King knew Romans 1-2), by which we recognize real evil as such. As Dostoyevsky wrote, and even someone like Sartre confirmed in his famous essay on existentialism, if God does not exist then everything is permitted. If there is no God, on what basis can one possibly object that the natural order of violence is unnatural? You’re still operating from personal preference if you try to appeal to “a universal” like no one should hurt others. But who says so if not God? If my personal preference is violence, how can you tell me I’m wrong?

Emotionally considered, most of us never act on our most violent thoughts or impulses, certainly not in any spectacular ways. We control them: count to ten, go for a walk, pop a Prozac, watch an old Schwarzenegger movie for catharsis. Then we sip coffee with our morning paper and read of those who do not suppress and subdue their baser selves. They sat in small apartments without a girlfriend, rehearsing their grievances until their ache justified their ideas, each one happening to be literally bullet-pointed. They numbed themselves with nihilistic punk-metal as they drove to neo-Nazi gatherings where the bratwurst were smoked and the beer cold and the hate hot. In fact, they were in the next aisle over from you in the grocery store. They even let you go ahead of them in the express line because you had 6 items to their 12—and you thought to yourself what a nice guy. They were free to live and move and have their being among us via freedoms Americans cherish; freedoms that were theirs to abuse because freedom defers responsibility to its beneficiaries, counts on everyone to make the right choices with our civic inheritance and play nice with each other. But not all the kids do, and we all know it. The freer a society, the tenser its tensions.

So what do we do? Take away their guns? They’ll find bows and arrows. Take away the arrows? They’ll learn to throw rocks at our foreheads with deadly precision. Close all the quarries, then? They’ll poison your marshmallows. There’s an infinite regress to the creative determination of violent actors. So we’ll emotionally struggle with the reality of violence and our unease with the insecurity of our safe places. We’ll hope we stay lucky. Who hasn’t walked into a movie theater in the last month and wondered what if…? Even for Moonrise Kingdom at the Ridgeway Four! Not even our worship houses are safe—and I know from my many trips to India that a Sikh temple is one of the most hospitable places on earth. My friend Nate Wilson captures it vividly in his Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, in a chapter entitled “The Problem of Evil and the Nonexistence of Shakespeare”: “The struggle comes when we look at ourselves in the mirror, a carnival mirror, a mirror that stretches our worth [to God] into the skies. Given my immense personal value, how could a good God ever allow me to feel pain? Our emotions balk at omni-benevolence” (pp. 109-10).

That is a struggle, and it’s not to be treated lightly. God Himself doesn’t, and didn’t—just because He is good. Look at the cross and what do you see? An act of violence perpetrated against a benevolent God by a benevolent God. Yes, as incredible as that sounds. When I encounter real troubling violence in this world, where do I look for philosophical solidity and emotional solace? The crossbeams of Jesus. Everything else in my field of vision is peripheral. At the center point of history, the voluntary massacre of an innocent God-man on Golgotha shows me that God has never stood aloof from human pain factors. He dove into violence, powerfully not powerless, subjecting Himself personally to the worst of it in order to mortally wound its actors Death and Sin, to ultimately fell them on their own swords and give me—who nailed Him there—mercy. It was the only way.

Redemption is dawn after a dark night of the soul. This is what I do about the unsettling problems about us, all I know to do really: Roust up the slumbering, lulled by freedoms that confuse as much as distract them, to not miss their sunrise. As one of the Psalms puts it, weeping endures for the night, but joy comes in the morning. This world right now is night. Don’t sleep. Endure, beautifully, as one who knows the ending already. Watch. Listen. Death and Sin, bleeding out, still have some kick in them. But it’s all they have, and they’re predictable. Curse the darkness, not the light. Morning is coming.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 11:59 AM
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