What Mennonites Could Learn From Brandon Smith

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His name was unknown.

He is a walk on linebacker on a college football team who started this season as a backup to a backup.  But, undaunted, he practiced and committed to being ready for that moment.

That moment came last Saturday when this unknown finally had his number called.  Brandon Smith, a number 47 on his iconic ‘no name’ blue and white jersey, finally got his chance. 

After yet another injury in a season plagued with injuries he was called upon and took the field.  He used the opportunity to lead a bruised and battered defensive unit and preserve a win for the team.

Smith, despite only having a few snaps at a college level until last week, was no bench warmer.  

Smith, a humble soft-spoken leader, was on the most successful high school football team in Lewisburg Green Dragons history, a team that advanced all the way to the state quarterfinals in 2010, and the backbone of an outstanding defense.

But more significantly than all of that, Smith was active in the local church and is by all accounts a young man fully committed to using his talents for the honor and glory of God.  He even turned down two scholarships to prestigious universities to walk on and suit up for Penn State because that is where he believed God wanted him.  

The reason why Mennonites do not show up to play ball.

The Mennonite tradition I was born into has a long list of activities that are not encouraged.  And, of those activities restricted or outright banned, one being participation in organized competitive sports and football was considered especially intolerable.

The reason for this is an idea called ‘non-conformity’ that is common to Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups.  It is based on a statement “be not conformed to this world” found in the book of Romans and in other Scriptural teaching about separation from the world.

This idea of non-conformity usually amounts (ironically enough) to conformity to a religious standard that is enforced primarily by church leaders.  The standards are different from group to group, but generally apply to technology usage, clothing style and entertainment.  Through their idea of non-conformity various Anabaptist groups have maintained their cultural distinctiveness in an ever changing world.

Unfortunately too often it seems the focus is on preserving a religious heritage and an ‘Anabaptist identity’ rather than a radical pursuit of God.  Wearing black socks or using a horse named Fred as transportation rather than a Ford does not change a person’s heart.

The problem is when non-conformity is nothing more than a human effort to please cultural expectations.

Conformity without transformation misses the point entirely and will keep us spiritually sidelined.

The bigger problem with Mennonite non-conformity and separation teaching is that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place.

Read the context:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

The ‘be not conformed’ above is not a standalone statement.  Paul doesn’t leave us to guess his meaning and quickly follows with “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and is basically describing the need for something transformative to happen within us.

The word “transformed” is translated from a word “metamorphóō” (μεταμορφόω) that looks like metamorphosis and basically means the same thing.  It is a word used four times in the New Testament, twice it is translated “transfiguration” in reference to Jesus and twice (including Romans 12:2 above) to describe the change that takes place in a believer.

Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) is a very significant event, the “greatest miracle” according to Thomas Aquinas, thought of as a bridge come between heaven and earth or perhaps what modern science would describe as a portal between dimensions.  It is where Jesus is seen by his disciples talking to Moses and Elijah and a voice proclaims Jesus as son.

The other time this significant word is used is in this passage:

“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18)

It is quite clear in contextual usage that this word “transformed” is something spiritual, something God does, and not a matter of human effort.  In the passage from 2 Corinthians above it is about having a “veil” removed by the Spirit that allows us to be able to understand Scripture that leads to transformation.  In Romans 12:2 it is about a transformation that leads to renewal of mind.

What is renewal?

The word “renewal” as in “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” is translated from a word “anakainósis” (ἀνακαίνωσις) and describes a process.  In Romans 12:2 it is about the mind being changed through this transformative thing.  It is also a word used one other time in Scripture:

“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)

Again we see a process in which God intervened on our behalf while we were still lost, hopelessly blind to spiritual reality, and did something to change us.  It is not something we do for ourselves or a list of do’s and don’t’s passed down from generation to generation, it is something spiritual done in us by God’s grace.

Why Mennonites should stop playing for fun only and need to get serious about using their all for God’s glory.

Should I be brutally honest?

Our idea of non-conformity is more often a path to complacency rather than spiritual renewal.

We are doing it wrong…

We have become as the Pharisees who were obsessed with details, considered themselves to be the experts on all things Biblical, yet despite their diligent study of the book they rejected Jesus as savior (John 5:39-40) and totally missed the point.  They were “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24) and we are there with them.

Instead of seeking after true transformation, and using everything in our life to bring glory and honor to God, we attempt to carefully divide up our activities into categories of “worldly” and spiritual.  Instead of integrate all areas of our life into our witness, we compartmentalize and become ineffective.

When we do participate sports, rather than see it as a way to a witness, we play for fun only.  In similar fashion, when we work we do it for money only, when use social media we use it exclusively for recreation only.  We think missions is only something that happens when we join our earnest religious peers on an airplane ride to Africa and otherwise arrange our lives in such a way that we miss opportunities staring us right in the face.

Instead of seeing athletic pursuits as a means a greater end, a chance to display Christian character to others, we see only the frivolity of sports.  Instead of seeing business as a mission to our customers and employees, we take a worldly approach by make profits a higher priority than people—then excuse it because it will give us more spices to tithe on Sunday or an opportunity to “travel over land and sea” as Jesus said (Mathew 23:15) the Pharisees did while calling them hypocrites and blind.

It is a problem called functional fixedness. In problem solving functional fixedness is when a person can only see things one way and therefore miss better solutions.

Could it be possible that this is because we got our poles reversed and have put our effort to achieve righteousness before real faith in God?

Could it be because we are non-conformed in outward appearance through artificial religious means, but have the same ‘worldly’ attitudes in our hearts and are not truly transformed through a renewal of our mind?

If so, we should stand up against our own hypocrisy like Jesus…

Jesus defied the religious expectations that he was supposed to conform to and so should we.

Jesus infuriated the adherents to the Bible-based religious tradition of his time.  He broke their rules of do’s and don’t’s as a way to point out their hypocrisy and true lack of faith.  Jesus, while they were busy arguing the theological minutia and details of application, was out healing and showing love.

Mennonites, like many other Christian denominations, are often so distracted by their own doctrines and dogmas that they fail at being actually faithful.  We are so concerned with preserving our own fundamentals that we neglect the larger matters of following after God’s way and the largest being genuine love for the world.

The truth is that we are never told by Jesus to physically separate ourselves from the world.

We should be in the world and not of the world, set apart in our attitude and approach to life rather than in outward appearance only. To truly follow after Jesus we need to be in the world, in places where the real people are and in the places that religiously self-righteous people avoid.

We need to consider the example of Paul:

“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)

It is interesting to note that Paul, directly after telling us that for sake of the Gospel he has “become all things to all people” in the quote above, uses an analogy of an athlete preparing for competition.  It reminds me of the dedicated preparation of a faithful young man named Brandon Smith.

Smith was not only ready to take the field in terms of physical preparation either.  This week, after his debut on Saturday, his wife, Andrea, posted a status update on social media from her personal prayer journal.  It was an entry from exactly a year before and asking that her husband would have the opportunity to take the field:

That, my friends, is where it gets real.

We do not battle against flesh and blood, our battle is spiritual.  We do not win victory by artificial conformity and meaningless arbitrary rules either, we are fighting an unconventional war using asymmetrical tactics, we need the mind of Christ:

“The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’  But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)

Do you have the mind of Christ?  Have you been transformed by supernatural means of the Spirit?  Or are you just outwardly and artificially non-conformed through human efforts?  Whatever the case, do not bury the talents God has given you for fear of what others may think.

Smith is expected to get his first college start on Saturday afternoon against Michigan.  And, win or lose, I know #47 is playing for the right reasons.  I pray God blesses him and his wife as they serve.  I hope we all are prepared to serve wherever and whenever our own number is called.

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Missionary Or Imposter? Pitfalls and Potential of 21st Century Evangelicalism.

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If any of my travel companions shared my disquietude it was not outwardly evident. It was an exciting break from routine and adventure, a chance to travel with a group of peers. Better yet, the ‘missions trip’ label gave it full religious sanction.

However, my guilt started weeks before. We had raised a large sum of money through fundraisers. In fact, we probably had enough cash to employ a team of Haitians for a year. But, to my dismay, most of it would go out the tailpipe as burnt jet fuel used to ferry us in and out. It seemed to me obscene that we were flying into that earthquake ravaged nation for only a few short days.

When I expressed my concern I was assured that this exposure would be a good opportunity for the young people to grow in awareness and compassion. I tried my best to accept that answer. But, finally on the ground in Port-au-Prince and throughout the trip my pangs of guilt would return, my concerns verified.

The most notable experience was when a young Haitian man, seeing our enthusiastic labors to paint a church interior, beckoned for my attention. In our short conversation he pled for work to feed his belly and said the obvious: “I can do that!”

It was true.

We were doing menial tasks. We did work almost any Haitian could do with a bit of supervision. We could have sent two people for a year and had a far bigger impact. Yet, here we were, playing in the paint, doing unskilled labor in front of pleading eyes, as if to taunt them with our privileged position.

What is Christian ‘missionary’ service about?

Young people in my church are encouraged to serve as missionaries. What this often implies is travel to some exotic locale to do work projects and possibly to share a Christian witness with the indigenous population before jetting away to the next big thing. Some commitments are longer, they stay years as teachers, nannies and doing a variety of other things.

We celebrate those who go elsewhere with prayer cards featuring their picture, a “serving in [insert location here]” tagline and a favorite Bible verse. When they come back there is often a report to the congregation; which usually includes some humor about cultural oddities, maybe an expression of how blessed they were through the experience and many pictures.

I have little doubt of the sincerity of those who have embraced this idea of Christian service. Images of men like Hudson Taylor or Jim Elliot have been impressed upon their young minds, reminders of the 10-40 window fill their thoughts and they go with strong feelings of obligation. To many church raised people the ultimate Christian example is doing something over there somewhere.

I am, on one hand, happy for enthusiasm and dedication to the cause of Jesus Christ. And still, on the other hand, I question the effectiveness and wisdom of the current effort. I also suspect there is a deeper problem, a fundamental difference between the Spirit that motivated the early church to act and attitude that propels many today.

There are many reasons why a person may travel the world. But, according to Scripture, not all who claim to represent God truly do and not everyone who does wonderful things in the name of Jesus is actually saved. In fact, Jesus warns specifically about those whom he will not recognize for their efforts:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:15)

And it was not just the non-Christian religious leaders and Pharisees whom Jesus warned:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

How can it be? How is it that some missionary efforts are flawed beyond mere ineffectiveness and are actually destructive? Why is the work of some rejected despite the outward appearance of faithfulness?

These are questions we should ask. I do believe this severe criticism and warning from Jesus applies to us today. I believe someone can spend their life in missionary work, can profess to have faith in Jesus, and—despite their dedicated religious effort—still not be doing the will of God.

Too often missionary efforts go unquestioned. It is easy to remain silent, because we know we ourselves should be doing more, and take a position: “Well, at least they are doing something…” But this reluctance to be involved is unfortunate and is what leads to wasteful or even counterproductive effort.

#1) True Missionary Service Must Be Spirit-led

I’ve talked to a young person who is determined to be a foreign missionary. I asked them how they knew it was God’s calling for their life and the reply (or lack thereof) did not convince me that they truly knew. It was simply something they wanted to do.

Others referenced Scripture, they quote the “go ye into all the world” of Jesus commissioning the disciples, dutifully applying it to themselves without considering context or chronological order. A case of proof-texting where a person can find whatever they want.

But this is not how Jesus started his ministry nor the way he told us to determine God’s will for our lives. We see instead that in his ministry Jesus was led directly by the Spirit:

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 3:16-17, 4:1)

Jesus was led by the Spirit. And that this is the exact same Spirit that was promised and is now made fully available to those who believe in him:

“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promise which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'” (Acts 1:4-8)

It is easy to skip around the Bible to defend an established dogma and find what suits our own particular religious agenda. But we should always remember that the Pharisees also diligently studied Scripture. Yet, without the Spirit to guide them in their study, they were way off base and seriously misled.

If we do things our own way we end up like Abraham who had two sons, one of the bondwoman and his own human effort, the other of the promise God had given. (Gal 4:21-31) We are the same, we do not trust God, we get impatient and take matters into our own hands.

Instead, rather than go out on our own understanding and effort, we must wait on God’s timing and Spirit.

#2) True Missionary Service Starts Here, Not There

It is interesting to note, the author of a popular quote about every Christian being either a missionary or an impostor spent his years preaching in his native England and not overseas. So was he, by his own words, an impostor?

The full quote, from a sermon Charles H. Spurgeon preached, sheds light on what Spurgeon actually meant in his usage of the term missionary:

Every Christian here is either a missionary or an impostor. Recollect that you are either trying to spread abroad the kingdom of Christ, or else you do not love him at all. It cannot be that there is a high appreciation of Jesus, and a totally silent tongue about him. Of course I do not mean, by that, that those who use the pen for Christ are silent; they are not. And those who help others to use the tongue, or spread that which others have written, are doing their part well; but I mean this,—that man who says, ‘I believe in Jesus,” but does not think enough of Jesus ever to tell another about him, by mouth, or pen, or tract, is an impostor.

What Spurgeon is actually saying is that everyone who truly believes in Christ will share that with other people. He is not saying that we need to travel further than our next-door neighbors and hometown to do that. He is saying that a person is missionary wherever they are or they are an impostor.

It is true that some men in the early church traveled far and wide to spread the good news. We can read much about Paul’s missionary journeys and of other men sent out. But not all went. Not all traveled over land and sea. In fact, few probably did. Many others were needed to establish and serve in their local congregations.

All missionary work is local whether it takes place here, over there or in Jerusalem:

“…repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47)

The idea that Christian missions is a trip overseas and something over ‘there’ is plain wrong. In our age of internet connectivity and social media, a person can be an evangelist—literally speak to people on the other side of the world—from their bedroom. So start in your own Jerusalem, stay busy where you are and then if you are called elsewhere you will be ready to serve.

We must be faithful where we are, because changing addresses will not change who we are and the need is everywhere. We need to start serving our neighbors here where we are or we are an imposter.

#3) True Missionary Service Glorifies God, Humbles Us

Many parachurch organizations exist today to support the evangelical efforts of others. American missionaries to foreign countries are often well-supplied with their own plans and material support. But in this there careful planning can be a dependency on ourselves and our own efforts rather than God.

Sending people out as Jesus did would be unthinkable. Try to imagine this:

“He told them: ‘Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:3-6)

It was total dependence on God. There are no five year plans. There’s no walled in compound or institutional support structure—not even so much as a change of clothes, a bag of personal hygiene supplies or packed lunch for the journey.

These men went out literally with nothing but the clothing on their back and the message of the Gospel. I can imagine that there was a bit more urgency to get to know people and make friends when your next meal depended on it. I wonder also if their total dependency and vulnerability is what was required for miracles to happen.

We can make Christianity look more like a profitable enterprise than a walk of faith. When we go out with obvious advantage over those we are trying to reach it should be no surprise that some seek our wealth rather than our Jesus and ‘convert’ for the wrong reasons. When we go out with our big checkbook or provide for needs (based in our own abilities to raise funds) it quickly can become about us rather than God’s glory.

Jesus gave a different example:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:5-7)

If we wish to present ourselves as entitled recipients of American prosperity then we ought to bring it with us. If we are cultural imperialists selling Capitalism then we need to display those wares. But, if we want our faith in Jesus to be be the focus then we must live it and leave everything behind.

People are not completely dumb and many can see through a religious act. If we wish to be effective we must “become all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22) and lower ourselves. Our hiding behind walls (necessary to secure our possessions and keep people at a safe distance) will likely speak louder than our words when or if we finally do get around to speaking.

Jesus left his privileges behind. If we are to be of the “same mindset as Christ Jesus” we should mimic that example.

#4) True Missionary Service Is About Them, Not Us

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Why else would someone travel besides love for those they seek to reach?

If you don’t see a reason why a person would choose to be a missionary besides sincere faith here are some alternative explanations:

  • They love adventure. You do know that the millennial generation prefers experience and travel, right? It has nothing to do with faithful sacrifice and everything to do with seeking pleasure.
  • They want to escape. We do not send missionaries like the early church. Sure, those who wish to go may get a rubber stamp blessing from a church. But, in this age of individualism, people today decide for themselves and might do it to be further independent from accountability.
  • The ‘cool’ people do it. Positive peer-pressure is good, right? Well, yes, assuming that going into missions is merely a group bonding experience, a chance to be with age-group friends and maybe find a mate. But, if that’s not the missionary position we want to produce, it could be a concern.
  • It is self-gratifying. Some people really feel good about themselves and simply like to crow about it to vulnerable people. A missionary, especially supported by others, has power over those who are needy and can enjoy a near celebrity treatment as a foreigner.
  • They are duty-driven and fearful. I recall this guy named Jonah. He finally did what God said because he didn’t like being fish food. But, despite the grace he received getting spit out alive, he lacked any love or compassion for the people he was told to reach.
  • We like praise. Who doesn’t want a few feathers in the cap and ‘mission accomplished’ signs to welcome them home? Well, Jesus told us that those who act righteously for the praise of others have their reward.
  • We like projects. It takes some discipline and focus to do missionary work. Unfortunately, real love is something that does not fit a formula or schedule and people do not like being your project.

All of those things aren’t necessarily bad in their right place. We should enjoy ourselves with good friends. The less materialistic focus of the millennial generation is one positive thing about them and a potential strength. Confidence is great too and so is a sense of accomplishment or being recognized for the right things and encouraged.

Yet the purpose of missions is not our own pleasure. If it is not primarily for the good of those we claim to serve then we might be better staying home until we mature spiritually and love genuinely.

My caution is that our priorities be in the right order. Missions is about having true love for our neighbors. If you are not willing to serve your next-door neighbor, then you probably have no business traveling over land and sea on a religiously sanctioned trophy hunt. We need to go in genuine love for the people we are serving or it is going through the motions and it is spiritually empty.

#5) Missionary Service Is About Faithfulness, Not Dogmatism

In the book of Acts we have the interesting account of Philip and an Ethiopian. We are told Philip was promoted by an angel to take a walk. It was on that walk Philip encountered an Ethiopian eunuch on a chariot (the Bentley or Rolls Royce of their day) and an important man. Philip was directed by the Spirit to go stand near the chariot.

So Philip obeyed.

The man was perplexed about a passage from the book of Isaiah the prophet. Philip asked the man, “do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian admitted his need for help interpreting the meaning of the passage and Philip explained. The result was an on-the-spot Baptism (no mandatory background check or ‘young believer class’ waiting period) and the two never crossed paths again.

Philip was faithful. He was willing to adapt to circumstances and do what needed to be done without much hesitation. Faith is creative, it is free, it adapts as need be, and motivates us to become all things to all people, like Paul:

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Religious dogma, by contrast to Spirit-led faith, is rigid and inflexible. It tries to make every situation conform to a predetermined ‘cookie cutter’ mold or established mode and becomes easily frustrated when things do not fit the prescriptive ‘one size fits all’ solutions. It is confining rather than empowering and is often confusing or confounding in practice. It is limiting of full potential.

The front lines of evangelicalism have shifted dramatically. The internet has opened a new front and can get us beyond ‘enemy lines’ much like the invention of the airplane revolutionized warfare. Unfortunately many Christians are stuck slugging it out in the trenches, too fixated on established fighting methods, blinded by missionary dogmas built in the 1800’s, and unable to take advantage of the opportunities right in front of them.

Likewise the Pharisees did everything right outwardly, in their own minds (and that of their religious peers) they had righteous living all figured out to the last detail, but they lacked the mind of Christ. Nothing in their religious devotion or diligence in studying Scripture revealed the truth of God’s word (John 5:31-40) to them. They thought of themselves as gatekeepers and in reality they themselves would not enter in.

We have been warned about the false security of religion, but do we have the faith to change where need be? Do we have the imagination or vision for today? Are we like Philip who followed the Spirit and improvised? Or are we stuck fighting trench warfare in an age that may require a different approach?

A Community Perspective of Mass Murder

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Another well-armed angry young man goes on a murderous spree and again political ambulance chasers jockey to take advantage to win points for their pet projects.

President Obama used the recent massacre at an Oregon college as an opportunity to campaign for gun control measures that would not have prevented it.  Militant 2nd Amendment gun rights advocates responded with the tired ‘good guys with guns’ arguments and arming teachers as the solution.  Others ranted about correlations between pharmaceuticals and deranged minds.  (Well, duh?) 

Those using the issue for their various (political) causes seem to be vastly misunderstanding the actual issue.  Their response is a knee-jerk reaction rather than a careful analysis of fact and their canned solutions show the functional fixedness in their thinking.  There are too many assumptions that steer the current conversation and could be distracting us from addressing the real problem.

Many seem to assume that killers are simply incurable killers and we simply need to better secure ourselves (with more guns or gun control laws) against this inevitability of angry men.  But could a killer be stopped before they stockpile weapons and act out their violent fantasies against those who they blame for their unhappiness? 

Perhaps more guns, curbs of liberty and drugs (more or less) are not the solution to the real problem?

The root issue is that a young man made a choice to act violently.  He had reasons, rational or irrational, for the choice that should be understood.  (Note, I am not saying that the choice was justified, I believe murder is always immoral and a sin.)  We should acknowledge the choice as a choice and at least explore the possibility we can help those who are tempted by violence to choose rightly.

#1) Understand the Problem is a Person

I think often there is an urge to sanctimoniously distance ourselves from the bad actors of society.  Simply labelling the perpetrator of violence as a “thug” or “monster” or “animal” allows us to build emotional wall of separation between ourselves and evil deeds.  If we were to acknowledge the humanity of the person doing the evil act we would be tying our own humanity to the evil and in a sense making ourselves responsible.

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Fundamental attribution error or correspondence bias is an assumption that another person’s behavior is all a product of their defective character.  (And, again, I do absolutely believe in personal accountability and responsibility for choices.)  But then, what it comes to our own bad choices we always have an external excuse or justification and blame circumstance for our choices.

Killers do what we do.  Killers often feel justified in what they do like we do because they were cheated or mistreated.  They take out their jealous rage against those who they blame for their unhappiness.  It is actually their humanity, the fact that they have emotions or just desire for significance—like we all do—that they act.  The difference is that they choose to turn to acts of violence rather than grace.

The answer to the perceived offenses we endure is not hate or vengeance and love for our enemies needs to be encouraged.  We need to fight against our own urge to be consumed totally by securing our own rights and love others as we would like to be loved.  We should distance ourselves from using their evil choices to justify our own.  We must love the hurting person behind the choice before they make it.

#2) Recognizing that Social Needs are Real

The elephant in the room is the vast changes in American culture and lifestyle that correlate with the trend of mass murder.  We are linked with more and more technology, but are actually less connected (in flesh) than generations prior.  Community has been replaced with increasing individualism and isolation.  It is not a change without consequence.

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People are not good in isolation, people have social needs and can be damaged by lack of adequate human interaction.  Just a bit of research into solitary confinement or extreme cases of child neglect quickly show the psychological consequences are profound when social needs are not fully met for extended periods.

Perhaps the ideal of suburbia is not so ideal after all?  Suburban life is not extreme isolation.  But, in many cases, it is an environment deficient of social interaction—and especially in the case of single child homes.  A child without brothers or sisters and separated from regular intimate interaction with other people is probably going to feel a deficit.

The problem is exacerbated for those who are socially awkward or shy.  Some people are able to make friends everywhere, they are outgoing, easily put others at ease and popular.  Other people struggle getting past that initial barrier of first contact, they watch frustrated as others interact with ease and feel ignored.  Nobody wants to be marginalized.

We need to start recognizing that society and lifestyle do have a part to play in the choices of individuals.  We need fewer fenced in yards, fewer spiritually empty McMansions and more opportunity for inclusion for those who would otherwise be marginalized by their natural dispositions or disabilities.  We need less individualism and more community spirit.

#3 Bringing Outliers into our Community

There are some people who are probably gone beyond hope unreachable.  There are some who have a defect that makes them almost impossible to relate to and interact positively with. 

However, I do not believe that is the case in all cases or even most cases and we could do better at finding a place for those who need a place to belong.  There is no amount of entertainment or material wealth that can fill the void of purpose caused by social isolation.  We should not underestimate the role of community in shaping individual attitudes and mental health.

I see a solution in intentional community.  A friend recently posted a story about a preschool in a nursing home.  It was a beautiful example of the social needs of elderly being met by their inclusion with children.  That is the type of mindset that could be applied more broadly. 

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But intentional community doesn’t need to start with a collective managed structural change like melding elderly and child care.  It can start with how we as individuals interact with the outliers among us.  It starts with our being aware that there are those who are marginalized and suffering from social isolation.  If we look for it we can be a help.

It takes a change in perspective.  Perhaps the weirdo is weird only because they have no friends to help them assimilate?  Are you willing to be that weird person’s friend and bring them into your circle of friends?  Forget mass killers even, what if we could prevent one suicide by being more proactive and inclusive?  What if we could make one person’s day better?

#4 Know the Individual Power You Wield

I believe many of us underestimate our own influence.  We turn to solutions like guns and laws because we feel too small to fight the demons of our culture without them.  We look for ‘silver bullet’ solutions (pardon the expression) and forget that people are complex social creatures.  One-size-fits-all solutions are not the best answer.

We need to fight back against evil, but not with superior firepower which is often misused or increased enablement of governments that often ends in abuse.  We need to overcome evil with good.  We need to fight isolation with inclusion, beat social awkwardness with understanding and prevent the seeds that lead to violence from ever taking root.

It takes a community of willing individuals to solve community problems.  Violence against the community is intended as an attack on the community and must therefore be addressed as a community.  But the community is not those we elect to represent us, the community is us and the problems of community require us as individuals to take part in being the solution.

Stop looking side to side or over your shoulder waiting for someone else to save society from its own destruction.  Instead use your own unique talents and abilities, search out the needs in your own community and fill them.  As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and maybe even just a hug or smile can make a life changing difference.

#5 The Example of a Social Physician

Jesus was an advocate for unpopular people.  The religious people of his day criticized him for what they perceived as his lack of judgment for his inappropriate mingling with women and men who they saw as inferior.  Jesus turned the tables, he condemned the socially powerful and popular, he spoke for those marginalized by society.

There are many Gospel accounts like this…

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples.  When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

We don’t like the IRS today, but tax collectors in Jesus day were traitors who had sided with the Roman occupation of Palestine and were hated by the Jews.  In the eyes of his accusers he was guilty by association.  How could a great man find company with traitors, prostitutes and other sinners?  But what is greatness without mercy to those who need it most? 

Jesus was greater because he was merciful to all people, even the least of society and we should follow the lead he offers.  We should be doctors of social ailments.  We do not excuse or offer justification for sin anymore than a doctor is an advocate for disease.  No, we, like a doctor, need to diagnose the true problem and provide the right cure.

We can exercise the same power to heal as Jesus did.  We have a choice to create a better society.  We can choose to respond to problems with love and not fear.  We need to be the solution in the same way as Jesus, by overcoming prejudice through self-sacrificial love and love for the enemies we face every day.

God bless.  Be strong.  Be a solution not a spectator.