Columbine, Newtown and the culture of death

BY TERRY MATTINGLY Modified: December 31, 2012 at 11:53 am •  Published: December 31, 2012

Blame it on the guns.

No, blame the judges who banned God-talk in schools, along with most lessons about right and wrong.

No, our lousy national mental health care system caused this hellish bloodbath.

No, the problem is the decay of American families, with workaholic parents chained to their desks while their children grow up in suburban cocoons with too much time on their hands.

No, it's Hollywood's fault. How can children tell the difference between fantasy and reality when they've been baptized in violent movies, television and single-shooter videogames?

Why not blame God?

These were the questions in 1999 when two teenage gunmen at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., killed 13 people and themselves in the massacre that set the standard for soul-searching media frenzies in postmodern America.

All the questions asked about Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are now being asked about Adam Lanza after he gunned down 20 first-graders and six employees at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., before taking his life.

He began his rampage by killing his mother in the suburban home they shared after the 2008 divorce that split their family.

After Columbine, Denver's archbishop wrote an agonizing reflection that looked toward a future after all of the headlines and endless cable-news coverage. Recently, the staff of Archbishop Charles Chaput, now leader of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, circulated those words once again.

What has changed?

"The media are already filled with sound bites of shock and disbelief; psychologists, sociologists, grief counselors and law enforcement officers -- all with their theories and plans," he wrote.

"God bless them for it. We certainly need help. Violence is now pervasive in American society -- in our homes, our schools, on our streets, in our cars as we drive home from work, in the news media, in the rhythms and lyrics of our music, in our novels, films and video games.

"It is so prevalent that we have become largely unconscious of it. ...

"The causes of this violence are many and complicated: racism, fear, selfishness. But in another, deeper sense, the cause is very simple: We're losing God, and in losing Him, we're losing ourselves.

"The complete contempt for human life shown by the young killers ... is not an accident, or an anomaly or a freak flaw in our social fabric. It's what we create when we live a contradiction.

"We can't systematically kill the unborn, the infirm and the condemned prisoners among us; we can't glorify brutality in our entertainment; we can't market avarice and greed ... and then hope that somehow our children will help build a culture of life."

Columbine unfolded in the Easter season, noted Chaput, a time in which believers are reminded that even the Son of God was not spared the reality of death.

"The Son of God descended into hell and so have we all, over the past few days," noted the archbishop. "But that isn't the end of the story."

Now, the Newtown massacre has shattered the season of Advent, the days preceding the 12-day season of Christmas -- another biblical event that included violence and the deaths of innocents, as well as the singing of angels and signs of ultimate hope.

Little has changed.

Death is real and life is precious. Innocence is fragile and sin is terrifyingly real. The violence that haunts our culture is real and at times impossible to prevent. America is blessed and cursed with charge cards, computers, cellphones and many other gifts of modern life.

Chaput and other clergy faced familiar questions this week. The only option, he said, is to look in the mirror.

"God is good, but we human beings are free, and being free, we help fashion the nature of our world with the choices we make," he said in a new letter. "Every life lost in Connecticut was unique, precious and irreplaceable. But the evil was routine; every human generation is rich with it. Why does God allow war? Why does God allow hunger? ...

"We are not the inevitable products of history or economics or any other determinist equation. We're free, and therefore responsible for both the beauty and the suffering we help make. Why does God allow wickedness? He allows it because we -- or others just like us -- choose it. The only effective antidote to the wickedness around us is to live differently from this moment forward."

(Terry Mattingly is the director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and leads the GetReligion.org project to study religion and the news.)

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