by Jeff Munroe
We want a motive, because we want the senseless shooting in Las Vegas last week to make sense.
We want there to be some reason, however perverse, that those innocent people were massacred. But there isn’t a motive. There won’t ever be a definitive motive, because Stephen Paddock was not making a statement. He wasn’t a one-dimensional evil villain drawn from the pages of a comic book. Instead, he is a symptom of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of our materialist, consumption-oriented, gun-crazed, violence-loving culture.
Paddock had it all, yet he had nothing. He was rich, a nomadic high-roller VIP at casinos in several states, wagering a million dollars each night on video poker, while he legally amassed a small arsenal. He had no particularly close family relationships, no career direction, a girlfriend but no other close friends, and no faith community. Las Vegas police are following up on 200 reported sightings of Paddock – the common denominator in each is he was alone. He was unmoored, and became unhinged.
Christians use a very unfashionable word to describe this sort of life: sinful. Not sinful in a holier-than-thou way, but sinful in a violation of God’s purpose and design for creation way. It isn’t just Stephen Paddock’s sinfulness I lament. It’s our sinfulness, because as twisted and sad as the final act of Paddock’s life was, the uncomfortable question we should be asking is not “What was wrong with him?” but “What is wrong with us?”
The weapons he’d accumulated were purchased legally. We tolerate the biggest gun culture in the history of the planet, and shrug our shoulders saying, “There’s nothing we can do” whenever someone shoots up a high school, or elementary school, or college campus, or nightclub, or music festival. Why do we tolerate it? As of Monday, there had been 278 mass shootings in the US during the 282 days of 2017. We could change this. Several countries have shown us how. But we look at the endless gun violence on the streets of places like Chicago and hide behind bumper sticker slogans like “When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” We defend our constitutional right to bear arms like it was written in the Bible. What the Bible says about weapons is quite different: our Lord said those who live by the sword will die by the sword, and the Bible envisions beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks in a day when we will study war no more. We don’t listen, and put our faith instead in “horses and chariots” and an ill-reasoned assertion that the good guys need to have guns to protect themselves from the bad guys.
We fail to appreciate the wisdom of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who said the line between good and evil runs through the center of every human heart. The world isn’t divided up into good or bad people. It’s just people. By all accounts, Stephen Paddock was a decent person until October 1. He was one of us. To make him into something evil is to make him into a thing, an object or monster we can dismiss as something different and less than the rest of us. He wasn’t. And attaching the label evil only to Paddock denies the evil in our culture.
What about the way we live leads some of us to shoot each other? We entertain ourselves with violent video games, violent movies, and violent sporting events. But is there more? Is there something about how we define meaning and purpose through consumption at play here?
Perhaps seeing what is happening in a non-Western culture will help us look at ours. There is a phenomenon in Japan called hikikomori syndrome. As many as a million young people, mostly men, suffer from it. The hikikomori refuse to go out, refuse to work, refuse to go to school, refuse job training, and often seclude themselves in their bedrooms, closing their blinds, and shutting themselves away from the sun. Makoto Fujimura describes the problem in his book Silence and Beauty. “There are only two paths for Japanese youth: to live in stoic resignation or to run toward hedonism.” Those who resign themselves stoically accept lives of quiet desperation, working long days in unfulfilling jobs and binge-drinking to bond with bosses and coworkers. The hedonists line up on New Year’s Day to get the latest Louis Vuitton handbag, following a path of futility that creates envy instead of relationships. The hikikomori reject both paths, but can’t find another path. They are immobilized, and remain in darkness.
“I do not do sun,” Paddock said in a 2013 deposition, echoing the hikikomori. The deposition is startling: 14 hours of video poker a day, 365 days a year, up all night, and sleeping all day. Devoid of meaning, the way to know you are alive is through sensation and stimulation. Eventually, a million dollars a night in a casino wasn’t enough. He moved on. Like many others weighted with the boredom and ennui of affluence, he decided to take his own life. Because of the tools readily available, he chose to try to take several hundred others with him.
What was wrong with him? Nothing but the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of the materialistic, consumption-oriented, gun-crazed, violence-loving United States of 2017.
Jeff Munroe is the Vice President for Advancement and Operations at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.