This past week we’ve seen the fallout of yet another school shooting. Everyone agrees that they must end. But how? Many people are advocating for stricter gun laws. Others think teachers should be armed. And some believe we need to beef up our mental health institutions. Everyone wants to see an end to this tragic phenomenon. Let there be no doubt: these shootings are pure evil. Whichever “solution” America decides to try, the fact is Christians don’t put their faith in legislation. Their hope lies elsewhere. (Reflections on the First Sunday of Great Lent; the Sunday of Orthodoxy)
The Tragedy of School Shootings
I remember the first major school shooting in American history. It was 1999 and I was a sophomore in high school. Life was relatively simple. The most I had to worry about was getting my homework done, and finding time for my extracurricular activities. Then, in April, it happened. Two seniors walked into Columbine High School and murdered 12 students and one teacher. 21 others were wounded.
America was never the same.
Then, not soon after that, a threat happened in my school system. I suddenly lived in a reality where I could be shot at school. And this was a small rural Iowa community! I remember the day it was supposed to happen. We had armed police officers all through the building. Luckily, nothing happened. But none of us was the same after that.
Unfortunately, Columbine was not an isolated incident. We’ve had many school shootings since then. Among them: 33 dead at Virginia Tech (2007), 28 dead at Sandy Hook Elementary (2012), and 17 dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (2018). This year alone there have been 11 shootings – and it’s only the 2ndmonth of the year.
In fact, recently, a close friend, who works as a school teacher, was personally threatened by a student on social media. The student said he was going to shoot her. Glory to God, nothing happened and the student was arrested.
Our world is fallen and our response limited
Brothers and sisters, this is the world we live in. A violent, hostile, and dangerous world, where anything could happen. Including death.
But how do we respond?
Our primary response to all of this is political. Just watch the news and you’ll find all sorts of views about how to end these tragedies.
Some people advocate that we need tighter gun controls. This includes taking particular types of guns – including automatics and semi-automatics – off the market. This also includes stricter laws regarding who can buy guns. It’s argued that those with criminal histories, mental illnesses, or a history of violence shouldn’t be able to purchase guns. In fact, this past week many high students around the country staged a walkout to advocate for this sort of change.
Other people, though, advocate teachers should be armed and instructed in self-defense. I believe there have been incidents where a gunman was stopped by an armed civilian, and some politicians are suggesting this could be a model for a much larger program to try to end the violence.
After a shooting, it usually comes out that the shooter had a history of, or was struggling with mental illness. So, some people are keying into this statistic and pushing for changes in healthcare, especially mental health. The idea is that if we are better able to take care of those who struggle with this sickness, maybe we can make a change.
No matter where you land in this debate, the end goal is the same: to end the violence.
Governments cannot stop the violence
But, if you think the violence is going to end in this world, with our efforts, you’re fooling yourselves. Now, this doesn’t mean we aren’t called to continue to love one another. And it doesn’t mean that we aren’t called to do good in the world – doing what we can to make a change – but we can’t believe our efforts will bring about the changes we want to see: a world completely without violence.
In short, we can’t legislate a new world, one that’s free of violence.
Real change doesn’t dawn with us or with governments. It dawns with Christ – with the coming of our Lord, who has already sparked new life into a dead world. Christ’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection was a seed that will, in the end, sprout peace through new creation.
As Orthodox Christians, we live with this faith. We live with a hope where violence will come to an end in a transfigured world. There will be no more pain, sighing, or suffering.
We live in faith
But living in such a way is not easy. It requires us to live a counter-cultural life, one that is out of synch with the rest of the world. It requires us to pray, fast, and repent of our sins. It requires us to first make a change in our lives, turning our minds fully to God (this is the true meaning of the Greek word for repentance, μετάνοια). When our hearts are changed, then the world around us will begin to change.
It requires us to live in faith.
It’s this sort of life that we hear about in today’s Epistle lesson.
In faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing to be ill-treated along with God’s people rather than to hold onto a temporary enjoyment of sin… In faith he left Egypt… In faith he performed the Passover… In faith [the Hebrews] passed through the Red Sea… (Hebrews 11: 24 – 29 DBH)
Yet, living in faith was not easy for them. Many of them endured unfathomable cruelty, never seeing the promises fulfilled.
Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others, not accepting deliverance [that is relief from torture], were pounded like drum-skins [put on the rack and beaten to death] so that they might obtain a better resurrection… (Hebrews 11: 35 DBH)
They were willing to endure such sufferings – and St. Paul lists many more, including stoning, being sawed in half, and other such tortures – because they lived in faith. They lived a life consistent with the expectation of new creation despite the violence that raged around them.
The fight is difficult. Suffering and temptations are the price of a fallen world. But, the faith of these Old Testament saints shines all the more brightly when we find out that they lived their lives without seeing any conclusion.
And all of them, through reputed for their faithfulness, did not obtain the thing promised, God having foreseen something better… (Hebrews 11:39-40 DBH)
The promise: new creation
The promise, of course, is new creation – that transfigured world that Nathanael was told about in today’s Gospel lesson.
And [Jesus] says to him, “Amen, amen, I tell you, you shall see the heavens open and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:50 DBH)
At every Divine Liturgy, at every Presanctified, when we commune, we get a taste of this new creation. We participate in the renewal of our world, preparing our lives for life after death. We live in faith knowing that even if the worst were to happen here and now, in this world, we will be resurrected and inherit the new earth becoming citizens of the new Jerusalem.
So, what exactly is the Triumph of Orthodoxy we celebrate on this day? It’s the triumph of Christ over evil. It’s his victory over violence. It’s his victory over death.
Unlike those Old Testament saints that St. Paul spoke of, we’ve been given a glimpse of the new world. In icons, we see a God who took on our flesh in order to renew the world.
We’ve seen how it will all turn out. Evil and violence will try to do it’s worst by putting the Son of God to death, but, in the end, it backfires. Christ rises from the dead. This is the beginning of a transformation. The beginning of peace and new life… and it’s beautiful.
Having seen the end, let us now live in faith. Despite any sufferings or hardships we may endure, let us live as beacons of hope in a world that so desperately needs it. Let us live as signposts revealing a God who is already remaking our world for the better.