“Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4)
On Mar. 27, a mass shooting occurred at the Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. The private Christian academy is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), an evangelical Protestant denomination.
The victims were 9-year-olds Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, William Kinney and staff members Cynthia Peak, Katherine Koonce and Mike Hill. Koonce was the head administrator of the school.
The motives for the shooting aren’t completely clear at this time, although the school was targeted. According to the Nashville Metropolitan Police Chief John Drake, it may have been driven by resentment as the shooter was a former student, and had a detailed manifesto outlining her plans to target the school, her family members and at least one other location.
It is easy to trivialize or lessen violence when it does not affect you, but this week, all Christians deeply felt the loss of six of their own, all of whom shared in a common baptism, finding their identity in the hope and joy of salvation and renewal of all things coming through Jesus Christ.
“Through tears we trust that she is in the arms of Jesus who will raise her to life once again,” said Chad Scruggs, the father of Hallie and pastor of the church associated with the school, shortly after the event had occurred.
Even though we firmly believe we will be reunited with those who have died, it does not take away the pain and the grief. Certainly not for those who out of nowhere are struggling with the loss of their beautiful children.
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” (Psalms 116:15)
As with all mass shootings, it’s tempting to make it political, and forget about the actual people who died.
I happen to agree that we need stronger gun laws. We can and should do something, anything to address this. Norma Hale, the mother of the shooter, Audrey Hale, has also advocated for gun control.
I think it is foolish, however, to make it seem like a black and white issue. The statistics tell a more complex story.
However, considering the shooter passed by a school that had “too much security,” a good, bipartisan first step might be to provide more funding for armed security in schools.
Additionally, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA), the more historic Presbyterian denomination in the United States, has long advocated for some pragmatic policies to address gun violence.
Universal background checks at all points of sale including through private sellers and mandatory waiting periods are reasonable laws that prevent someone from impulsively purchasing a gun to commit violence soon after. Restricting multiple gun purchases, further regulating firearms dealers and requiring that people report lost or stolen guns are some other ways to address illegal trafficking.
Personally, I can see no reason why the kind of assault rifles Hale purchased would be needed for self-defense purposes, either.
“The tyranny of the individual is far more terrifying to me than the hypothetical tyranny of the government,” said Nicholas McDonald, pastor of connections at Redeemer Presbyterian in the Old Northside neighborhood of Indianapolis, which is known for their motto of “bringing wholeness to the city.”
Redeemer is also affiliated with the PCA. Some staff members at the church used to work in the same ministry as the Scruggs or are otherwise connected with the Covenant School. Such close connections are not uncommon, as the small denomination only has a little over 5,000 ministers and a little less than 400,000 congregants.
Recently, some states, including Indiana, have moved towards “Constitutional Carry,” repealing firearms restrictions in favor of red flag laws, which give greater leeway to authorities to take firearms away from individuals who are deemed a threat to themselves or others.
However, according to Dr. Ragy Girgis, MD, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, that might not help.
“Half of all mass shootings are associated with no red flags,” he said.
Relying on law enforcement to even act on known red flags is naive at best, especially considering the FedEx shooting in Indianapolis two years ago. Red flag laws show inconclusive evidence of effectiveness in other cases as well.
I think we can all recognize, however, that the problem is much deeper than gun laws or mental health. The anomie, a word used by French sociologist Émile Durkheim to describe normlessness, infecting our society runs deep.
This is very important when we are talking about suicide (which makes up more than half of firearm deaths), and we know this particular example was suicide by cop, as more than half of all mass shootings are.
Nihilism, or the belief that life is meaningless, actually plays a far greater role than mental health in precipitating many mass shootings (at least in men). Even the PCUSA’s recommendations address this.
“The data suggest that while it is critical that we continue to identify those individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders at high risk for violence and prevent the perpetration of violence,” said Girgis, “other risk factors, such as a history of legal problems, challenges coping with severe and acute life stressors, and the epidemic of the combination of nihilism, emptiness, anger, [feelings of rejection and blaming society], and a desire for notoriety among young men, seem a more useful focus for prevention and policy than an emphasis on serious mental illness, which leads to public fear and stigmatization.”
Girgis also said that one underappreciated way to reduce mass shootings and copycat acts would be to stop publishing sensationalized headlines or speculating about their motives.
“Refraining from publishing any personal information about mass shooters may be one of the easiest, quickest, and most effective interventions for decreasing mass shootings, especially school and other public shootings, which comprise about 10% of all mass shootings.”
Former top FBI profiler Mary Ellen O’Toole has already warned that this particular act of violence could promote copycat acts.
Many people have speculated about the shooter’s motivation nevertheless, exploiting the violence that occurred to displace their anger at state laws and perceived injustices against the transgender community. This has provoked backlash by others who have blamed those people for creating the circumstances that provoked such violence, pointing to past examples of such.
Justifying, trivializing, or exploiting violence creates an unproductive cycle that avoids real solutions for our problems.
Answers rarely come that easily. Sometimes people, drowning in anger and isolated from others (as the post-COVID era has made so common), do evil things. We can look for rationalizations like they often do for the evil within ourselves and others, but the underlying truth is that we live in a fallen world, and we are fallen people. Looking inside ourselves for identity will always leave us disappointed and wanting more.
If we want to begin to address the underlying anomie that drives this violence, we absolutely need to rebuild the bridges of community that we have destroyed and come to terms with the culture of death, fear, and isolation we have created.
We desperately need to return to the traditional values that have held us together for so long which have given us identity and purpose, and return to the “love wins” mentality, on all sides.
“We are all looking, desperately looking for someone to be enough for us. At the end of the day, all of our journeys are defined by the same impulse,” said Pastor Scruggs in a sermon just one day before losing his daughter. “We all want to be in the presence of a glory so powerful it can quiet all of our other hungers and then give us the courage to lay down our lives for something greater than ourselves. John is telling us this morning that you will never find that in the glory of man. You can only find it in the glory of God alone, in the face of Jesus Christ high and lifted up for you.”
If the families of those who have died can respond by looking to God, instead of looking for someone to blame, so can we.
If Christ, who did no wrong, could forgive, and cry “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” while on the cross, we can forgive too.
If not for the sake of others, for our own peace of mind.
“But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45)
Let that forgiveness lead you to hold those accountable who have chosen to govern by emotional manipulation and distortion. Let it lead you to stand up for those targeted by senseless violence, whoever they might be, and to stand up for a consistent life ethic in all you say and do, serving others in love.
“Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18)
Moreover, let us pray that our legislators would have the wisdom to act appropriately, and remember those who have lost loved ones in our prayers, even the parents of Audrey Hale, and the families of the many who have also lost their lives to gun violence.
The pain they are going through is unimaginable, but there will come a day when “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelations 21:4).
Jacob Stewart is a junior majoring in neuroscience, and the campus editor of The Campus Citizen. He is also interested in theology. One of his favorite songs was recorded at the church associated with the Covenant School, which can be found here.