For the third time the state of Colorado has witnessed a murderer run amok. The first occasion took place in 1999 at Columbine High School. The second occurred in 2007 at the offices of Youth With A Mission in Arvada and in the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. The most recent, and the bloodiest, has just taken place in the Century 16 Theater in Aurora. Given these episodes and others like them, certain lessons are worth pointing out.
The first is that human suffering is real. The mayhem within the theater was only the beginning of the anguish that will result from one individual’s sinful choices. The pain of this event will scar many people for many years. Individuals who were not touched by the bullets were nevertheless touched by the trauma. The victims include loved ones who were not even in the theater but whose lives will never be the same because of the terror that was let loose. In the face of such suffering, no feeling person can remain unmoved. Our hearts go out to those whose lives have been ended or forever altered by this crime. Our souls yearn for the appearance of the One who will bring true and lasting peace and righteousness to the earth.
The second lesson is that evil is real. The murderer has already been characterized by many as a psychopath, but even psychosis does not have to result in this kind of slaughter. An individual made a choice to unleash horror. He did not accomplish this deed in a moment. He had a bright mind, he planned carefully, and he acted in ways that were calculated to bring maximum hurt to people who had never harmed him. Whether or not some pathology was involved, this act was vicious and malevolent. The right word for this man and his deed is evil. In a fallen world, the existence of evil must be taken into account. Christians should allow no naïve utopianism to stand unchallenged. Evil is alive and well on planet earth.
Third, governments cannot stop the sort of evil that occurred at Century 16. They have only a limited ability to defend their citizens from this kind of violence. Officers of the law despair of being able to stop such crimes. Commenting on this kind of event—random shootings perpetrated by lone gunmen—former FBI agent Peter Ahern said, “There’s no way you can prevent it. There’s absolutely no way.”
In a sense, Ahern is too pessimistic. There are ways to strongly tilt the odds against another mass shooting. For example, the government could outlaw public gatherings of more than three people. Or it could release squads of police officers to conduct random searches in homes and on the streets, arresting anyone whom they suspect might commit a crime. Such measures, however, are so draconian that they would actually produce greater harm than good. The liberties that citizens would surrender are far more important than the risk of being caught in a random shooting.
Fourth, when governments cannot protect their citizens, it becomes prudent and even necessary for citizens to attend to their own protection. People have no obligation to permit themselves to be struck down by predators and evil men. On the contrary, they have a right to defend their lives, limbs, and property. They also have a duty (when it is within their power) to defend the innocent.
Fifth, sometimes the restraint of violence calls for violence. The cliché that violence always begets violence is an affectation of navel-gazing mystics and the Woodstock generation. Sometimes violence, when it is rightly administered, brings an end to violence. Sometimes the just exercise of violence is the only way to end unjust violence. Sometimes peace is achieved through strength. No qualitative difference exists between calling on someone else (such as the police) to exert force in one’s behalf and exerting force for one’s self. If they were consistent, people who object to using violence against violence would never call for the police when they were being assaulted.
Incidentally, the allowance of violence in the exercise of justice is one of the principal differences between Baptists and Anabaptists. This is not the time to revisit the arguments (though they should be reviewed, perhaps in a future essay), but Baptists have believed that Scripture supports the right of just authorities to wage war and to execute certain criminals. Together with other Christians they have also believed that, under most circumstances, Scripture allows for the use of deadly force in the defense of one’s self and the lives of others. Baptists have been willing to serve as magistrates, to fight in just wars, and to take (predatory) life in the defense of (innocent) life.
Sixth, if the defense of life is ever a right—let alone a duty—then any law that deprives people of the necessary means of defense is an unjust law. It is a law that moral people may disregard. When a government forbids the means of self-defense (as distinct from state defense, which requires weapons of war), then it is overstepping its licit authority. From a biblical point of view, it may and often should be safely disobeyed.
Seventh, one of the worst ways of exposing people to violence is to herd them into zones in which they are publicly labeled as defenseless victims. This is precisely what happened at the Century 16 Theater. The state of Colorado allows its citizens to carry the means of defense, but both Century 16 and its parent company, Cinemark Century Theaters, disallow it. The predator (a bright guy from all accounts) did not plan to shoot up a police station. He planned his assault for a location filled with disarmed, defenseless victims. If the Century 16 Theater had permitted the necessary means of defense, the result would have been much the same as if the shooting had occurred in a police station. The death toll could have remained as low as two: the first victim and the perpetrator. Century 16 and Cinemark bear part of the responsibility for this catastrophe.
To understand this point, one need only consider the disparity between Colorado’s three recent shooting sprees. The Columbine shooting and the Cinemark shooting both occurred in disarmed-victim zones, and in each episode the death toll was staggering. The other shooting spree (the one that began at YWAM and ended at New Life Church), however, was cut short when a church lady, Jean Assam, applied the necessary means of defense to the shooter. This is the spree that fewer people remember, probably because it hardly began before it ended.
Some have suggested that a believer should willingly exchange his life for the life of an assailant. They reason that the believer, if killed, goes straight to heaven, but if the assailant is killed he loses every opportunity for salvation. This theory may work when the believer is entering an assailant’s territory and no other good is being risked (e.g., Jim Eliot and Nate Saint refusing to fire upon the Aucas).
Imagine the chaos that would result if every Christian police officer tried to live (which is to say, die) by this theory. No, the theory is terribly myopic, in part because it takes no account of further harm that the assailant will do, both to believers and unbelievers. Granted, application of the means of self defense within the Century 16 Theater may have ended the assailant’s opportunity for salvation. Not being able to apply that means, however, ended the opportunities of many more people. Given a choice, it would be better to see the perpetrator being carried out and a dozen others granted the chance to repent.
Two Went up into the Temple to Pray
Richard Crashaw (c. 1613–1649)
Two went to pray? O rather say
One went to brag, th’ other to pray:
One stands up close and treads on high,
Where th’ other dares not send his eye.
One nearer to God’s altar trod,
The other to the altar’s God.