Our country is still reeling from the devastating attack in Las Vegas two weeks ago that left 58 people dead and nearly 500 wounded. The staggering dimensions of this tragaedy can hardly be grasped, and investigators are working tirelessly to try and answer the question we all have: Why?
What is it that drives someone to madness on this scale? How do we even begin to wrap our minds around such a thing? There is a real possibility that we may never fully know the answers to these questions.
But even as we ponder these things, we need to pause and reflect on how indifferent our culture has become to violence and the taking of human life. Yes, 58 people died at one time, but almost the same number were gunned down on the streets of Chicago in September alone. Across the country, there are almost 34,000 gun-related deaths annually, which exceeds traffic fatalities. (It’s worth noting almost two-thirds of gun deaths are suicides.)
While politicians debate over gun control, we have to acknowledge the real problem lies within the human heart.
I was in high school back in the early 1970s and in my south Georgia hometown, it was customary during hunting season for guys to have a shotgun or rifle in the truck they drove to school, in case you wanted to slip off to the woods after class. It was also customary, when fights broke out, for the parties involved to punch each other in the mouth a couple times before a teacher broke it up. Then they would be made to shake hands and that was the end of it. It didn’t cross anyone’s mind that the thing to do would be to retrieve your weapon from your vehicle and blow someone away.
The impulse to deathly violence has been nurtured by our indulgence for rage. Where keeping a rein on your temper and holding your tongue were once considered natural components of civilized society, now we celebrate anger and vulgarity, expressed at the top of our lungs. Social media such as Facebook and Twitter facilitate not only the instantaneous communication of whatever filth we spew out, but also communicate it to the whole world. Which, of course, immediately responds in a perverse merry-go-round of crudity and hatred.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22) Jesus’ point is that murder starts in the heart, with a spirit that yields to anger. By his definition, it’s probably safe to say that at one time or another, all of us have been guilty of murder.
That underlying condition cannot be cured with legislation, or by the attempt in our schools to teach “character,” although common-sense measures can reduce the opportunities for a repeat of the Las Vegas scenario.
Many people mock the appeal for prayer at times like these, saying we need to focus on “real solutions” to these problems. Prayer, however, connects us to the Spirit of God, which offers the only hope we have of true and lasting change. We don’t need to wait for another tragedy to pray for revival and renewal in the human heart – we need to pray fervently and frequently, and the first heart to pray for is our own.
The Rev. Ed Rees is pastor of St. Andrew Presbyterian Church.