Twenty one years ago, Karen and I served a 6 week pastoral exchange with the Rev. Peter Good of the Omagh Methodist Church in Northern Ireland. We wanted our kids to see the beauty of Ireland and meet the wonderful people we’d grown to love during my student pastor internship there more than a decade earlier. On a busy Saturday morning August 15 a 500 lb car bomb tore open the shopping district full of pedestrians. In the end 31 people died and more than 300 maimed for life. It was the single worst act of violence in the modern history of Northern Ireland. We spent a week attending multiple funerals each day.
The thoughts and feelings of that awful day come rushing back each time the news breaks of mass violence: Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton. For a moment, it’s like we never left it behind.
Terror does not surprise God. God is not up in heaven scratching his head and saying, “I never saw that coming!” The condition of the human heart and the motivations of others are concealed to us. But God reads hearts like an open book. And most of the time God doesn’t like what he sees. He warns us about it time and again in scripture:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5)
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Human freedom is the miraculous gift of God. No other creature on earth gets to choose its behaviors, habits and practices like humans do. This freedom is what makes love possible. But freedom has a dark side. Humans are ultimately free to curse and reject God and all his ways. Humans are free to cast off all moral restraint and seek their own good. When they do, it doesn’t surprise God.
We shouldn’t live in denial about the spiritual corruption of human nature. Our watch words should be the ones God gave to Cain, “Sin is crouching at your door. It’s desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7)
We need to do everything possible to keep weapons away from the mentally ill. The Irish have long been strict in the regulation of firearms. Yet this alone did not contain the human capacity for violence. If our aspiration is for an enduring sense of personal security when we work, shop or go to concerts, we need to look elsewhere. “Trust in the LORD forever; for the LORD God is an everlasting Rock.” (Isaiah 26:4) Looking for security in a secular age, is like searching for cherry blossoms in January.
It's time to move from defense to offense. The twenty first century has brought us two new forms of violence: the suicide bomber and the mass killer. They are closely related as both have their roots in the rising spiritual emptiness around us. This is hopeless violence. The perpetrators expect to destroy themselves. Where does such despair come from? It is nurtured in the toxic, grievance-obsessed discourse of the internet. When this is added to a culture that no longer believes in God, truth or moral law, some cast off all restraint. The spiritual crisis of America is intensifying. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers…against the spiritual forces of evil…” (Ephesians 6:12)
The church is not just another anodyne civic gathering. It is a mission of the Holy Spirit to come against the darkness of this world. It’s time to recover passion and urgency for we are in a spiritual war.
One week after the Omagh bomb a memorial service was held in the center of town. Fifteen thousand people crowded into the streets shoulder to shoulder for a 90 minute worship service—Protestants and Catholics together declared these words, “In the name of Jesus Christ, we take back our town!” It was the most remarkable confession of faith I’ve ever seen—fifteen thousand people speaking the name of Jesus Christ. There has never been an act of mass murder in Northern Ireland since.