Growing up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1980s and 90s meant that I was no stranger to violence. I remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of gunshots on my street. I remember being given instructions to avoid walking down certain blocks due to the presence of gangs. During my first year of high school, in the heat of the gang war between the Bloods and the Crips, we were instructed that we no longer had to wear our school uniforms for gym class. The uniforms included the color blue, the gang color of the Crips, and the administration was afraid that students would become targets for stabbings. I was a blond-haired Norwegian in an area that no longer looked anything like me. I went to schools where I was a significant minority, which often made me, and my few friends who looked like me, targets for violence.
As I moved into adolescence and tried to establish who my friends were and where I belonged, it was becoming more and more commonplace for kids to be divided by race. It was not about your socio-economic status, or if you were part of a team, or if you were in the school band together. You hung out with people who looked like you, so there was strength in numbers. It was about nothing more than survival. I remember the first time I was handed a flyer inviting me to an upcoming meeting about helping to preserve the white race. I experienced a wide range of emotions in that moment: I was tired of being afraid and was angry about the violence and hatred that had been directed at me from people of other races, but I also had people who looked nothing like me that were my best friends, that I had grown to love like family. Who was the enemy? Who was responsible?
Growing up in this setting, I became numb to violence. It was part of life. Inescapable. I felt helpless to stop any of it. Now this may not have been your experience growing up, but everyone sees the turbulent state of our world. Many of us experience tumultuous interactions in our communities, maybe even on a weekly basis. Frequently this is due to the differences between groups of people in our areas. So what do we do with our feelings about this? What do you do when the person who was a victim of that violence is someone you know? What do we do when that violence infringes upon our freedoms and dramatically changes our lives?
It was not until my early 20s that I learned the answer to my question of who (or what) is responsible. I was sitting in a hot church pew on a Sunday morning. As I learned the truth of the gospel, I discovered that the answer to the violence question was, and always will be, sin. Events like the mass shooting in Las Vegas, the violence in Charlottesville, the tragedy at Pulse nightclub, the burning of black churches in Louisiana, the Poway, California synagogue shooting, the continuous gang violence in Chicago, and the mosque shooting in New Zealand are all a result of sin.
Incidents such as these wrench our hearts. They are a brutal reminder of the consequences of sin. All of these tragedies are different, and in no way am I trying to lump them all together to say they are all the same thing. But the reason why all these things happened, when you get down to the root of it, is sin. At the fundamental level, all this has taken place because we have rejected and rebelled against God. As stated in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” Death is the by-product of this rebellion. And although this is all true, it does not bring us any comfort. The reason it doesn’t bring comfort is that it does not bring us any hope.
But there is hope. The tragedies we witness should drive us to ask the question: Where is my hope in the midst of all this despair and the reality of death? It is the same question that Job asks in Job 17:15, when he says, “Where then is my hope—who can see any hope for me?” Our hope resides in our faith in the accomplished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. As Martin Luther wrote in On the Bondage of the Will, “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where he is there I shall be also!’”
So the two ingredients that are needed to formulate a Christian response to the violence in the world around us are an understanding of the reality of sin and the message of hope in Jesus. How then should we respond to these tragedies?
We first should pray. Pray against the evil that is present in our world. Pray for understanding. Pray for those who are victims of these atrocities. Pray for your heart to respond like Jesus would in those moments.
Second, grieve with those who are grieving. “Mourn with those who mourn,” as we are called to do in Romans 12:15. It is not always about having the right words, but instead being willing to be present amid the tragedy.
Lastly, we should then love. We should love those around us, even our enemies. This has been hard for me to do at times, if I am honest. Loving those who do not deserve love seems impossible, until we recognize that we were loved while we were still sinners, in the midst of our rebellion. We didn’t deserve love either. When Jesus rescued us, we were still lost in our sin, unable to work our way out of it. But thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord! When we show unexpected or unwarranted love to those who don’t deserve it, for just a moment, we get a glimpse, a reflection, of what our Lord and Savior has done for us.
REV. KRISTIAN ANDERSON is East Campus Pastor at Triumph Lutheran Brethren Church in Moorhead, Minnesota.