Evangelicals' Answer to Newtown Should Be Evangelism
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As I survey the reactions of my fellow evangelicals to the Newtown tragedy, I have seen three strains of thought, each of which absolve us of any responsibility: (1) It would have been different if the principal or a teacher was armed; (2) If Americans care about the slaughter of innocent children, why don't they care more about abortion?; and (3) The secularization of school and society plays a role in these shootings. A few stray comments about mental illness have also floated around vaguely.
Absent from all of this analysis is any consideration of our own failure to do exactly what evangelicals should be all about: Evangelism, in the form of reaching out and giving meaning to lost souls like the loner kid who became the 20-year-old who committed these murders. If a relationship with God is what gives a young life a connection to community, a sense of humility and service, and a devotion to what is good, that is exactly what Adam Lanza needed.
I know that it is a hard thing that I ask — what kind of a youth group wants to attract troubled, isolated Goth kids? The answer, of course, is a Christian youth group. That's not what most of them do, of course — instead they are shaped and maintained to engage the well-scrubbed, fitting-in kids who already populate the church. Goth kids and others are likely to feel as much like an outcast in church as they do at school, a reality which lies in stark contrast to the example of Christ.
The emergent church has some elements that do reach out to the outcasts, and provide a model for the rest of us. It is a hard lesson to learn, but perhaps the deaths of 20 kindergarten students will be the inspiration we need. As we trouble ourselves with what-ifs ("what if he didn't have a gun? What if the teacher did have a gun?"), we should also ponder this: What if he was living a life engaged with the lessons of Christ?
In avoiding our own responsibilities, some look to the secular school as the problem, rather than the faith-hole that must have existed within the young Mr. Lanza. Public schools are secular because our government is secular. Home and church life, though, is something else — and it is there that we evangelicals should look towards as we work to heal a broken world. We need to broaden both to include people like the young Adam Lanza.
That simple shift of focus was made clear to me at lunch one day with one of my faith heroes, Randall O'Brien. Randall is now the President at Carson-Newman University, a Baptist school in Tennessee, but at the time we were teaching a class together at Baylor. While we were at lunch, someone stopped by our table and challenged me on an article I had written, which defended rules which kept the Ten Commandments from being posted in schools. The visitor railed against the sad effects these rules had, in "keeping God out of our schools."
Gently, Randall asked the man, "where do you have the Ten Commandments posted in your house?" There was, of course, no answer.
Evangelicals should look towards Newtown not with an eye toward blame, or to advance other agendas, but with a desire to make things better. If we profess that the message of Christ brings wholeness, the first people we need to bring it to are the broken children like Adam Lanza. It may not be comfortable, but it moves towards what Christ taught: That we must solve problems through love.
Mark Osler is a Professor of Law at the University of St, Thomas Law School in Minnesota. A graduate of the College of William and Mary and Yale Law School, Prof. Osler is a former federal prosecutor whose work has consistently confronted the problem of inflexibility in sentencing and corrections.
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