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There have been a lot of big news stories in the past week or so—devastating storms in California, anti-democratic riots in Brasília, Kevin McCarthy’s exhausting bid to become Speaker of the House, the disclosure that President Biden’s staff found classified documents at his former office, Russian victories and Ukrainian resistance in that nearly one-year-old war—but the incident I can’t get out of my head is the shooting of a teacher in Newport News, Virginia, by a six-year-old student. It’s a story that is hard to credit and that raises more questions than answers.

When small children get shot and killed, as in Uvalde, Texas, last year, it’s a nearly unspeakable tragedy. But this episode in Newport News brings a new and disturbing twist to the narrative of “school shootings” that has become so depressingly common in recent years. I know it can be like strolling through a minefield to bring up controversial political topics in a church setting, so to address this event I will stick to the questions that have come to my mind in its wake. I believe we as followers of Jesus must face these difficult questions, and I hope we will find the courage to share our thoughts and reactions openly and frankly but with grace.

  • What possible reason could a six-year-old child have for shooting his teacher? This was not an accident; it was a deliberate act. Even if the reports are true that there had been some kind of altercation between the two, what could have led this boy to decide that firing a gun at his teacher was an appropriate action?

  • How did the child get his hands on the weapon? Virginia law makes it a misdemeanor to store a firearm in a location accessible to children under age 14, but it does not require guns to be stored in a gun safe in the gun owner’s home.

  • What sources influenced this child and convinced him that shooting someone was the way to solve whatever problem he may have been facing? It’s common practice to dismiss the “usual suspects” of violent video games, TV, movies, and music that glorifies violence as possible causes, but it is less often suggested that we and our children are immersed in a culture of violence that pervades almost everything we do. Even in church it’s possible to paint God as violent or abusive, and many Christians hold to a theory of the atonement that places divine violence at the center of their salvation faith. Could it be that events like this one are not aberrations but are a natural outgrowth of the way we are socialized from the cradle to the grave?

  • How can we begin to balance the legitimate rights of gun owners to “keep and bear arms” with the right of others to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Is there any way around the impasse that prevents legislative bodies—from borough councils to Congress—from enacting reasonable reforms that will keep guns out of the hands of criminals, mentally unstable persons, and irresponsible parents without placing an undue burden on law-abiding citizens who want to hold onto their shotguns and are leery of government intrusion? Can we find an option based on compromise and common sense that skirts the all-or-nothing gridlock we find ourselves in now?

  • Where were the parents? What kind of environment did they create in their home that allowed their first-grader to get his hands on a pistol and take it to school? This seems like criminal neglect to me—an attentive parent would have stored the gun more securely and would have known what was in the child’s backpack before he left for school. Whatever else happens in this case, there have to be consequences for these irresponsible “adults.”

  • And finally, the question that hits us where we live: what is the role of the church? Opinions may differ, but I think at a bare minimum we have to develop and nurture a culture of peace to counter the broader culture’s fascination with violence. We need to model appropriate and responsible behavior, teaching both children and adults how to handle conflict and settle disputes using words instead of fists or weapons. And we need to overhaul our collective image of God—from that of bloodthirsty tyrant and aggrieved judge to loving parent who wants to guide us into the way of life.

Grace and peace,