This article was co-written by Ben Sternke and Matt Tebbe.
Twitter’s take on the Orlando shooting
Sunday morning, June 12, 2016. We became aware of the breaking news through our Twitter feeds:
Mass shooting. Nightclub in Orlando. 20 dead. Motive uncertain. No wait, 50 dead. It was a gay nightclub. A hate crime? Radical Islamic terrorism? All of the above?
Eventually the facts emerged: a young man named Omar Mateen had opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando. 50 people were dead, with another 53 injured in the shooting. Reports called this the “deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.”
And then came the responses, also served up in our Twitter feeds. All kinds of interpretations as to what this means and who’s to blame:
- People calling for greater crackdown on Muslims in America
- People calling for greater sensitivity and love toward Muslims in America
- People calling for greater protection for LGBT persons
- People comparing this to the transgender bathroom debate
- People calling for greater restrictions on guns and automatic assault weapons
- People calling for more guns to protect more people from these kinds of massacres.
The lesson for us that morning was that sometimes you have to step away from the Twitter.
How does a follower of Jesus respond?
That Sunday evening at our Missional Community gathering, people expressed grief, numbness, sadness, sobriety about sin in the world. As we talked the conversation moved inevitably towards the question everyone on twitter was trying to answer: What do we do?
What are we to make of these things as followers of Jesus? What does it look like to be the church in situations like these? Where is God in the midst of these kinds of tragedies? How do we proclaim and enact the kingdom of God?
The temptation to scapegoat
What we noticed on Twitter, not least of all within ourselves as we read and thought about what happened in Orlando, was the need to find someone to blame. The need to find a scapegoat toward which to channel our pain, anxiety, grief, and anger.
This temptation, to find an “other” to blame, might be the first of all of the satan’s temptations. We see it in the first words out of his mouth in the Garden in Genesis 3: “Did God really say…??”
With that tiny phrase, the satan calls into question the character of God and presents him to Eve as someone she cannot trust with her desire. The satan scapegoats God, “throwing him under the bus” by blaming him for keeping the really good stuff from her.
Later, when God seeks out Adam and Eve, the scapegoat cycle just gets passed around. Adam blames God and Eve (“It’s this woman you put here with me… She gave me some and I ate it!”), and Eve blames the serpent (“The snake tricked me!”).
Everyone gets in on the scapegoating
The scapegoating continues through the first few chapters of Genesis, and the result is always blame and violence.
- Cain scapegoats his brother Abel and kills him (Gen 4:1-16).
- One of Cain’s descendants, Lamech, brags about his violence and how retribution and revenge are spiraling out of control (Gen 4:23-24).
- God sends a flood to cover the whole earth. Why? Evil had infested in humanity’s hearts and minds and manifested in corrupt violence (Genesis 6:5-12).
Scapegoating always leads to violence and retribution. This is the natural, logical result of the fall of humankind. We find a “them” to blame and offload our guilt and fear onto them. The inevitable result is always violence.
Jesus reveals the futility of scapegoating
Jesus came, in part, to save us from this endless cycle of finding a scapegoat on which to do violence.
In Luke 13, Jesus brings a warning about how in his day the socio-political firestorm was nearing a boiling point. Some people mention a recent tragic event, where Pilate killed some Galileans while they were worshiping in the temple. They are trying to get Jesus to react to the latest salacious TMZ news report.
Jesus’ response is interesting:
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinner than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:2-5).
In one sense, what Jesus says can be interpreted as, “We are all sinners who need to repent.” But on another level Jesus is speaking directly to the scapegoating tendency that is alive and well in every human culture.
Jesus is telling us that finding a scapegoat to blame will not solve our problems. Jesus spent his entire earthly ministry pursuing and being present with those who were scapegoated during his day: lepers, the demon-possessed, people from “the sticks” (Galilee, Samaria), sinners, the unclean, women, children.
The religious leaders blamed these people for Israel’s problems. Jesus radically embraced and included them at his table.
He welcomed, served, received, and blessed the scapegoats.
Ultimately, Jesus became the ultimate scapegoat when our sin was laid upon him on the cross. John’s Gospel goes out of its way to indicate this was a primary force at work in his death (see John 11:45-53; 18:12-14 ).
Jesus reveals and unravels the endless cycle of blame, retribution, and violence by becoming the only blameless scapegoat. This is the ludicrous endpoint of scapegoating: we killed the only Perfect Human who ever lived.
Jesus became the scapegoat to end all the scapegoating.
It’s still easy to find a scapegoat
What has stood out to us in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting is how quickly we move from tragedy to blame, how easy it is to make enemies, to pounce on the guilty, to leverage suffering for our own agendas, and to do it all as a means to secure our own self-justification.
This particular event has no shortcoming of scapegoats: Islamic terrorists, Muslims in general, gun advocates, the NRA, politicians, lobbyists, Trump supporters, Obama supporters.
Can you think of any others? We’re sure you can. We are infinitely creative in making enemies and finding people (and groups of people) to blame.
Who would Jesus blame?
But here is the reality for those who follow Christ: we have been set free from this satanic impulse to divide and blame.
Christ’s death has broken down all hostility between groups of people who would otherwise scapegoat each other. In fact, much of the New Testament was written for Christians who were trying to figure out how to live in this New Creation reality of “one in Christ Jesus” (for example, Eph 2:11-22; Gal 3:26-29; Gal 5:19-26; Romans 8:9-21; Matt 5:21-16)
Being in Christ means that we no longer have to participate in enemy-making, hostility-inducing, toxic rhetoric about who is bad, dirty, wrong, etc.
The world offers us a seemingly endless smorgasbord of scapegoat games:
- Muslims vs Christians
- Progressive vs conservative
- Gay rights vs religious liberty
- America vs ISIS
- Trump vs Hillary
- Gun owners vs Obama
If we think there is a right side to these binary, zero-sum game antagonisms, the cross of Jesus Christ still has work to do in our life, because we are still caught up in the scapegoating polarity of the satanic system of the world.
The good news is that we are free in Christ, not to pick the “correct” scapegoat, but to refuse to scapegoat anyone!
So how do we respond?
So if we refuse to scapegoat, how do we respond? We repent, lament, and connect.
The first move for the Christian is almost always to repent. Jesus tells us this in the passage quoted above. Instead of looking for the “right” person to blame, we pause to reflectively ask what “us vs. them” antagonism am I caught up in? Who am I tempted to distance myself from? Who do I want to scapegoat?
Is there a person or group of people you tend to roll your eyes at? That’s a clue!
Maybe no specific group of people comes to mind for you, but you experience a temptation to distance yourself from it all by saying, “Well, we live in a sinful world…” and offer up general prayers for all the sinful, broken people out there.
But this impulse can become a scapegoat because it keeps the guilt and fear and brokenness “out there,” away from me, other than me. We distance ourselves from the “broken world” and thus unwittingly play into the systemic sin of scapegoating! With the best of intentions, we participate in violence.
So the first response for a follower of Christ is simply to repent. Repent of getting caught up in the antagonisms, and repent of “opting out.”
In essence, we confess that we are all Omar Mateen. We all foster murder in our hearts. We all find someone to blame. We are all complicit in this system of blame. We don’t attempt to offload our guilt. Instead we own it, right where we notice it.
What “us vs. them” antagonism am I caught up in? Who am I tempted to distance myself from as unacceptable, evil, or ridiculous? We confess this scapegoating: the same sin at the root of the Orlando shooting.
Another move for the follower of Jesus is to pray, especially prayers of lament.
If you grew up in the United States, you almost certainly don’t know how to lament well. Our normal M.O. is fixing problems, not lamenting. We get up and take action, we don’t sit in the dust and weep.
We avoid lament like the plague because it is an embodiment of weakness and vulnerability. It’s an expression that something is wrong and we can’t do anything about it, and there’s nothing we fear more than this.
For the Christian, part of participating in the sufferings of Christ is to allow the pain of others to touch our own hearts, allow it to bring us grief, allow the tears to fall.
Lament is also part of our repentance: it quells the inner terrorist in all of us. One of the stories that’s emerging now is that Omar Mateen may have had a profile on a gay dating site, and frequented the gay bar he eventually shot up.
Facts are still emerging, so we can’t make definitive statements about it, but it wouldn’t be surprising if this were true, because the scapegoat mechanism is often a way for us to avoid seeing what we most fear within ourselves.
Lament is a way for us to see and name the things within us that we fear. God will meet us in that place.
The Psalms are full of good lamenting. Start there if you need some words to get you going.
Finally, as followers of Christ, we connect in love.
It’s natural in times of fear and anxiety to protect ourselves, separating ourselves from those who are strange or different. It’s also natural to try and convince people to change their minds about things that are important to us.
But Jesus shows us a different way. Jesus hardly ever tried to convince people of the error of their ways, and he certainly didn’t separate himself from those who were “unclean.”
Instead, he connected with the weak, the vulnerable, the outsiders, the misfits. In other words, he moved toward the people most likely to be scapegoated in his culture!
This is the flip side of our repentance, and how we’ll know if it’s genuine: we will move toward those who we are most tempted to make our enemy.
Who in your life is afraid or lonely? Who feels under attack? How can you move toward them in listening love?
- Maybe it’s the Muslim family down the street. What will be said to their kids on the school bus tomorrow morning?
- Maybe it’s your gay coworker. How will he feel going out for drinks this weekend with friends?
- Maybe it’s your neighbor with the Trump sign in her yard. She’s just trying to make ends meet and feels betrayed by politicians and those in power.
Whoever it is, reach out and connect. Ask questions, create space for people to share their stories, their hopes and dreams, their fears and wounds.
You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to argue or convince. Just listen and try to understand. There will come a time to share good news, but first, connect and make space.
It’s amazing what God can do with a repentant heart and a little space.