The world was focused last Saturday on the tradition-steeped coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, and sports fans were watching fifteen-to-one longshot Mage rally from the back of the pack to win the Kentucky Derby. Meanwhile, those of us who live in North Texas were horrified as another mass shooting erupted, this time in our backyard.
A gunman opened fire at the Allen Premium Outlets Saturday afternoon, killing six people at the mall and injuring at least nine others. Of the nine who were hospitalized, two later died. Three others are in critical condition at this writing. The gunman, identified yesterday by police as Mauricio Garcia, was “neutralized” by a city police officer who was responding to an unrelated call at the mall. Authorities are reportedly investigating the gunman’s possible links to white supremacist ideology.
Allen is a city twenty-five miles north of downtown Dallas with a population of 106,874. I have been there several times over the years and have friends who live in the area.
There is something about the proximity of tragedy that makes it feel more real. For example, more than four hundred people are dead and many more are missing after flooding in eastern Congo; I confess that if these floods had happened where I live, they would feel even more tragic to me.
Our omniscient and omnipresent Father is not constrained by such territorial compassion. He loves the entire “world” (John 3:16) whether we requite his love or not (cf. Romans 5:8). As St. Augustine observed, God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.
How, then, should we respond when he allows horrific tragedy? Consider two options.
“Let our might be our law of right”
One answer is to view the character of God through the prism of human suffering. Many who do this decide that God, if he exists, is certainly not love (1 John 4:8) or worthy of our love (Matthew 22:37). In this view, because we are fragile people living in a broken world, we should make the best we can of life, knowing there is no larger purpose to guide our days or redeem our pain.
In the Book of Wisdom (one of fourteen apocryphal books included in the canons of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches), we read that ungodly people “reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life. . . . we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been, for the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts; when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works’” (Wisdom 2:1–4).
As a result, they say, “Let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless” (v. 11).
However, “They were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls; for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity” (vv. 21–23).
“The essential activity of life”
Our other option is to view human suffering through the prism of God’s character. Many who do this believe that God grieves with all who grieve (cf. John 11:35) and calls us to join him in acting on our compassion in redemptive ways (cf. Romans 12:15).
In a brilliant new essay for the Atlantic, columnist David Brooks identifies two ways of approaching life: autonomy-based and gift based. The former stands on “one core conviction: I possess myself. I am a piece of property that I own. Because I possess property rights to myself, I can dispose of my property as I see fit. My life is a project that I am creating, and nobody else has the right to tell me how to build or dispose of my one and only life.”
Autonomy-based living is the basis for elective abortion, the sexual revolution, gender redefinition, “death with dignity,” and all other “rights” our secular society believes we deserve. According to Brooks, the consequence is a world in which “the purpose of my life . . . is to be happy—to live a life in which my pleasures, however I define them, exceed my pains.”
Gift-based living, by contrast, “starts with a different core conviction: I am a receiver of gifts. I am part of a long procession of humanity. I have received many gifts from those who came before me, including the gift of life itself.” As a result, “The essential activity of life is not the pursuit of individual happiness. The essential activity of life is to realize the gifts I’ve been given by my ancestors and to pass them along, suitably improved, to those who will come after.”
A child shielded by his mother
A mass murderer is a horrific example of autonomy-based living, but we should not let such gruesome sin blind us to the allure of the “will to power” for the rest of us. When I claim to “possess myself” in a “project that I am creating,” I feel justified in treating people as a means to my ends, whether I treat them well or mistreat them cruelly.
Nor should we allow the unfathomable scope of human suffering to blind us to the power of gift-based living for those who receive our gifts. Scripture commands us: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Every grieving person we serve is someone whose life may be forever changed by our compassion.
For example, one of the first people who arrived at the scene of the mass shooting in Allen found a child covered by his mother, who died protecting him. That boy, as long as he lives, will always know how sacrificially he was loved.
Every time you see a cross, remember that the same is true for you.
How will you pay forward such sacrificial grace today?