This Christmas season has been tragically scarred by a series of senseless violent acts. Shopping malls and churches are the latest venues for troubled individuals to take out their frustrations on the innocent.
Individuals who commit such acts are almost always suffering from some mental or emotional distress. Sulejmen Talovic, the Bosnian immigrant who killed five people in a Salt Lake City mall recently was said to have severe mental and emotional problems. Robert Hawkins, the teenager who killed eight people in an Omaha mall before taking his own life was reportedly neglected and abused as a child.
And the most recent, Matthew Murray, killed a total of four people connected with a Colorado church, two of them during a worship service. Murray was shot and killed by an armed volunteer security guard. The young killer was apparently angry when church leaders denied him the opportunity to go on a mission trip because they found him to be emotionally unstable.
But let’s be clear about what we are saying. It is not the violence that we connect to being mentally unstable. It’s the targets.
Violence is, sadly, a normal part of our lives–it’s everywhere, and often by our own choice. For instance, we regularly use violence to entertain ourselves. From boxing and football all the way to horror movies, violence features prominently in many of our favorite pastimes. And with interactive video games, we can actually become part of the story–we get to shoot and blow up the bad guys.
Violence is also part of the fabric of our daily lives. The United States has more murders per capita than any other industrialized nation in the world. Part of the reason for this high incidence of murder is the millions upon millions of firearms available in our country. But the main reason is our propensity to settle our differences violently.
And of course there is the daily dose of war. We have our own conflicts going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, but we are not the only ones fighting. There are shots fired in anger somewhere in the world every day–maybe every minute.
So it’s not the violence that we look at and say, “That guy is unstable.” It’s the targets. It is the inappropriate use of violence, violence against the innocent that troubles us. If a young man took his gun and shot up a crack house, he would probably be in trouble with the law, but culturally he would be a hero.
What is the source of these violent impulses? Is there something in our DNA that makes killing a natural part of our existence? Are we hard wired, pre-determined, pre-destined to be violent?
There are schools of thought in biology and psychology that would answer the question, yes. There are also schools of thought in theology and philosophy that would say yes.
But at least one biblical writer left open the hope that maybe violence is not inevitable. Isaiah seemed to think that our tendency towards violence was something we were taught. He dreamed of a day when human beings would “learn war no more.”
As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, it is my prayer that we take Isaiah’s words to heart and stop teaching our children that violence, when used against appropriate targets, can bring about good. It doesn’t. Violence only serves to make an already dangerous world more deadly.
James L. Evans, a syndicated columnist, also serves as pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.