How do Americans deal with tragedy? The recent murders in Connecticut offer an unfortunate insight. Both before and after the most basic facts were in, a familiar set of cries arose: “Ban guns!” “Ban violent video games!” “Put an armed police force in every school!” If only there were no guns, no violent expressions, and/or total security, then these kinds of massacres wouldn’t happen anymore! Similar reactions could be seen when two young girls from Iowa disappeared last year while riding their bikes near a lake (later found dead). Within days, people on the news were calling for security cameras to cover every inch of the area around the lake or talking about putting tracking devices on children. If we could only have seen everything that happened or followed the children wherever they went, then this tragedies like this would never happen again!
“Never again!” seems to be our most basic response to tragedy in America. It’s part of our pull-ourselves-up-by-the-
Of course, embracing such a task presumes quite a bit about humanity’s character and ability. Even from a purely secular perspective, the data on humanity doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence in mankind’s ability to fix all evil. But Christ provides us with even sharper insight when he tells us that “what comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23) Just as ritualistic systems didn’t make the Pharisees any holier, social systems won’t make us any holier. Evil does not come from without (from guns, video games, criminals, etc) but from within. Even God doesn’t systematically repair our fallen human nature–He instead slays it and raises it anew. There is no system man can devise that will fix people or make us safe to be around.
We all want to save the world, but not only is such a task beyond us, nobody has asked us to save it in the first place. If that impulse is our response to tragedy, then maybe it’s not an appropriate one. Perhaps it would be wiser to simply mourn and renew our efforts to love our neighbors. Perhaps the world doesn’t need us to re-engineer it. Perhaps it only needs us to play our own small roles rather than the large ones we perceive to be truly important.
Consider how many ways we’re actually instructed to help each other: honor your parents, love & discipline your children, be a faithful spouse, submit to your husband, sacrificially love your wife, provide for your family, be generous to the poor & needy, submit to authorities, be chaste, don’t covet, don’t divorce, and so much more. And yet, regardless of how much pain and misery we might avoid and heal by actually doing what God has given us to do, we despise these callings because they’ll never reach everyone–they’ll never save the world. Oh, we give lip service to most of these responsibilities in a “of course we should do those things” way that is always followed by a “but.” “Of course we should do that, but it’s never going to fix society.” “Of course we should do that, but helping where we can reach won’t help everyone.” And so our actual responsibilities are taken for granted and sidelined in favor of the kind of desperate gestures too many see as their real task: utopian schemes and other systems that will largely be carried out by others (government, society, etc).
How do you recognize a desperate gesture when it comes to public policy? It comes without a cost-benefit analysis. It holds up a lofty goal without considering the reasonably expected success towards that goal or the costs of pursuing it to its end. It presumes a perfection that would render costs and partial failure irrelevant. Take this example: “how many children have to die before Americans give up our silly gun obsession?” You hear a lofty goal (no more murdered children). However, it is not generally accompanied by an analysis of reasonable expectations (e.g. how many murders can gun control actually prevent?) or the costs in terms of liberty and lives of removing access (e.g. how many lives are protected from criminals and governments by the use and threat of civilian guns?) Our reaction to tragedy makes us vulnerable to these gestures. If you don’t look too closely, they seem like they could satisfy our “never again” impulse. But the satisfaction of our own impulses isn’t love; love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another. Discerning true good often means resisting our impulses long enough to look closely.
By all means, restrain wickedness, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the imprisoned–such things are the very substance of our love in this world. And yes, government and society are there for a reason. Inasmuch as we participate in those things, we should direct them towards the love of our neighbors. However, don’t try to replace these God-given tasks with the man-given tasks of winning wars on poverty, hunger, crime, and terror. If you exhaust yourself fixing this world, you’ll never have time to love your neighbors.