The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. —John 1:5
Mass shootings are always and everywhere perverse and twisted events. But the Kansas shooting Feb. 25 that left three victims plus the gunman dead and 16 others injured possessed a few additional layers of perversity.
For one, when I tuned into the GOP presidential debate shortly after hearing news of the shooting, I expected CNN’s debate team to make mention of this newest spasm of random and brutal violence, and maybe even ask the candidates to address the issue. That was, unfortunately, not the case.
In addition, both Hesston, Kan., home of the lawnmower company where all the fatalities occurred, and Newton, Kan., where the shooting began, are home to sizeable populations of Mennonites, as evidenced by the local presence of Mennonite colleges Bethel and Hesston. Hesston College, in fact, is less than a mile away from Excel Industries, the lawnmower company and shooter’s workplace.
Mennonites are a denomination of Christians descended from the Radical Reformation, Protestants who carried the equality of all believers to an even further extent than did Luther or Calvin. Like other denominations from that tradition, such as the Amish and the Society of Friends (Quakers), Mennonites tend to emphasize simple and communal living as well as a commitment to pacifism.
The wanton destruction of human life on the evening of Feb. 25 serves as a grim reminder that the nonviolent witness of Mennonites and others working for peace shines as a light, but one that shines only in the presence of profound and almost stifling darkness.
Australia and the United Kingdom have both had success in cutting down on gun violence in the wake of mass shootings. It remains unlikely that the United States will know whether those tactics could work here, as news of mass shootings seems to penetrate our popular consciousness with decreasing power the more it occurs, as the CNN debate’s silence shows. Nevertheless, St. Augustine of Hippo, the most influential theologian in the history of Western Christianity, warned us of ever thinking that the darkness will overcome the light.
Arguing that the world is composed of two “cities,” one oriented toward human pride and one toward God’s glory, St. Augustine said that Christians have “the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of [their enemies].”
Even the violent may yet be brought into the city of God to be healed by the leaves of the tree of life, leaves produced “for the healing of the nations,” as John writes in Revelation. The temporary triumph of darkness, a perverse victory for the city of human sin, however, should not surprise us.
“In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effect their separation,” St. Augustine writes. For now, darkness makes it home next door to light.
Luckily, John’s Gospel is written in the past tense, so we already know the end: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The peace of the city of God — the peace attested to by Mennonites and their brethren of the Radical Reformation — will win out at long last. For now, we must keep the light shining.