Can We Make Sense Out of the Colorado Tragedy?

bob fells's picture

When bad (tragic) things happen to good (innocent) people, a barrage of questions and doubts are always unleashed. Until just a few days ago, a movie theater was considered a safe harbor where we could escape our problems for a couple of hours and join the likes of James Bond, Indiana Jones, or more recently, Harry Potter. History even bears this out. When notorious bank robber John Dillinger sought a refuge back in 1934, he went to the movies. Just minutes after he watched Clark Gable go to the electric chair in MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, he stepped out of the Biograph Theater in Chicago where the police were waiting for him and promptly gunned him down.  In 1963, when Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated JFK, then gun downed a police officer who stopped to question him, Oswald sought refuge in a Dallas movie theater where he was found and arrested.  But as of last Friday, going to the movies has acquired a new dimension as risky behavior.

There are many questions that may or may not be answered in the months ahead concerning the motives of the gunman, a former PhD. candidate in Neuroscience. Clearly, this James Holmes was not some ragtag malcontent or nutjob. The reason for his motives, if they are ever known, may be more startling than the current conventional wisdom ascribing his actions to some form of insanity. If this diagnosis holds up, many of us may find it more comforting than the alternative: that he is quite sane and acted out of pure evil. A lot of us will find this conclusion much more troubling because we live in a world that tells us that evil is just an invention by the same people who invented the devil - you know, he's that funny looking guy in the red longjohns. People might do things that are illegal or unethical, but to do something because it is evil? Nah. Even the characters in THE GODFATHER movies didn't think of themselves or their actions as evil. They were just taking care of "business." They might get arrested because they broke the law, but not because they committed evil.

There was a time when Man's Law and God's Law ran parallel paths. Back in a simpler time what was immoral was also illegal, and vice versa. And everybody seemed to understand why. Then we got into pyschoanalysis, which great for identifying symptoms but has not been helpful in identifying their cause. Scientists couldn't quantify this thing called Evil and so they eventually dismissed it. That was very convenient - evil can't be measured or weighed, so objectively speaking how can such an intangible thing exist? Our popular culture bought into that and we can see it in our movies. Ever watch James Cagney in his breakthrough film, PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)? [Note to non-film buffs: this movie is on dvd and can be streamed too]. Cagney became a big shot gangster for no other reason than that he hung out with bad guys as a kid. He grew up to be a guy who was just no good - simple as that. Almost two decades later, Cagney revisited his gangster character in WHITE HEAT (1949) but by then his criminal, indeed homicidal, habits were ascribed to an Oedipus-type mother fixation. Evil had nothing to do with.

This brings us to the horrific tragedy of last Friday in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater. Already we are hearing, not that evil really does exist, but if the next world has anything to do with it, it's God that's the problem. The observation is simply stated as, "If God exists, why does He allow such terrible things to happen?" A variation on this question is, "If God loves us and cares about us, why does He allow such terrible things to happen?" Both of these are "quick questions" that presume a quick answer. Failing that, the questions become statements of fact. Of course, we know that entire books have been written in response to these questions but our "Instant" society demands a quick answer to a quick question - not a book or even a sermon.

Frankly, this has bothered me for a long time. Professionals know that a quick question can in fact raise a variety of complex issues that defy a quick answer. As a lawyer, I am asked quick questions all the time. I've learned from experience that my best "quick answer" is to explain how the question is excellent because it adroitly raises some profound issues that require a detailed response. You can't insult anybody by telling them that they've asked a terrific question. So when a tragedy like Colorado happens, we should expect that a populist comment will ask how God can let this happen.

It finally dawned on me that this profound question can be given a quick answer – a very quick answer in the form of another quick question. My answer has an edge to it but so does the question. My reply goes like this: Where did you get the idea that God’s job is to stop bad things from happening on earth? It’s true. There’s nothing in the Bible, or in oral tradition, that even suggests that God is supposed to protect us from catastrophes, whether natural or man-made. The New Testament even makes the point that Jesus will be with us through our crises and troubles, not that He will shelter us from them. So how did this impression gain currency? My guess – and it’s only a guess – is that people like to invent a version of God that works for them, and then convey their imaginary god to others. If you don’t believe in God, then you’ll never ask this question in the first place. But for some believers and for those who want to believe in God, this concept of God as our protector can be very seductive but you can't criticize something that was never promised.

A better question might be: since God is all powerful, then why doesn’t He want to stop these bad things? But there has always been a quick answer to this one: God gave us all the gift of free will – even most governments don’t grant their citizens free will, but God does. And when people have free will, God will not intervene to stop those who misuse it. Yes, there will be consequences, aka Hell, but remember that God doesn’t SEND anybody to Hell, we send ourselves there based on our use of free will. Perhaps the most chilling outcome of the Aurora tragedy would be a finding that James Holmes was sane and used his free will for evil to destroy so many innocent lives. God had nothing to do with it.

NOTE: I've published a modest volume dealing with this issue and related questions titled, GOD EXISTS - HE TOLD ME SO HIMSELF: WHY PEOPLE BELIEVE IN GOD BUT NOT IN RELIGION. While this book is available in paperback and as a Kindle/Nook ebook, I'd be happy to send a pdf of this book w/o charge to anybody who requests it.