The Sandy Hook shootings...a look back

 Gina Jacobs/Shutterstock.com

Gina Jacobs/Shutterstock.com

We commemorate today the fourth anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT in which 20 children and six adult staff were brutally murdered by a young man who had been diagnosed at various times with an autism spectrum disorder and several mental health disorders. The young man murdered his mother prior to leaving for the school, and committed suicide prior to police arriving on the scene.

This topic touches upon a number of areas that our ministry addresses...mental illness, developmental disabilities, families impacted by disability. Nevertheless, the words we shared four years ago in the aftermath of the massacre still ring true today. Below is a gently edited version of the post that first appeared on the Sunday following the tragedy...

It’s impossible without being intellectually dishonest to ignore the reality that most perpetrators of the horrific mass murders in America in the past few years have experienced symptoms associated with mental illness. While the vast majority of persons with mental illness never become violent, traits often associated with mental illness are among many predisposing factors seen in children and adults who exhibit aggressive or violent behavior.

As Christians, we recognize the reality that the world we live in is broken. When sin entered into the world, our bodies became broken. Given enough time, the organ systems that comprise our bodies break down to the point that we die. Our brain is arguably our most vulnerable organ and the organ most susceptible to the toxic effects of the world in which we live.

We know that a variety of traits associated with functions taking place within our brains may predispose a person to violent or aggressive behavior, or perpetuate patterns of violent behavior. Some of those traits include…

  • Weaknesses in brain pathways modulating impulse control and/or emotional self-regulation
  • Exposure to traumatic events or experiences
  • A propensity to misinterpret the level of danger in one’s immediate environment
  • Difficulties with language/communication, including non-verbal communication. To some degree, our ability to effectively problem solve and tolerate frustration is grounded in our ability to think by using words
  • Difficulty diverting focus and attention when “stuck” on distressing thoughts or one's inability to have desires or needs met

The most common pattern I've observed among the perpetrators of the shootings that have rocked our country is the extent to which they experienced significant social isolation.

From a Christian standpoint, this social isolation points to another quality of our broken world. To quote Rick Warren, we were created for relationship. We were created for an eternal relationship with God…our loving Father. We were created to be in relationship with one another. I’d argue that in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the shepherd’s (Jesus’) pursuit of the lost sheep wasn’t simply because the sheep needed its shepherd, but because the lost sheep needed to be part of the community made up of the 99 other sheep. The herd needed their lost brother or sister.

Kids I see in my practice who have a propensity to get stuck on distressing thoughts don’t do well with social isolation. I see kids like this all the time who may function reasonably well during the school day because of the cognitive stimulation associated with learning and the need to interact with teachers and peers serve as distractions from their obsessive thinking and rumination. They often become irritable and violent at home in the absence of mental stimulation to distract them from their most troubling thoughts. I wonder about the degree to which social isolation provided fertile ground for the twisted obsessions common among the mass murderers to germinate.

The events of the past week, having occurred in an outer suburb of the nation’s media capital, will lead to calls for increasing access to mental health services or limiting access to firearms. Neither intervention will result in a safer society for our children and families.

An inconvenient truth about America’s mental health services is that we don’t have nearly enough qualified mental health professionals, and too many of the professionals and agencies we have aren’t very effective at helping the kids, adults and families who come desperately seeking help. We don’t have the money to provide everyone with potential for violence the intensity of service or supervision necessary to eliminate the risk to society, and even if we did, such an effort would involve an unacceptable intrusion into civil liberties.

As for firearms, laws against murder didn’t serve as a deterrent in any of the recent mass killings, and bright, determined individuals intent upon mass murder find other means to kill. Consider the Oklahoma City bombing, or the 9/11 terrorists. The Aurora, CO theater shooter had rigged explosives and gasoline to kill police coming to search his apartment. On the same day as the Newtown massacre, a man in China (where they have knife control laws in place) stabbed 22 children at an elementary school, three critically.

Efforts to reduce the danger present in our society through gun control or mental health services represent futile attempts to employ collective defense mechanisms to assuage our anxieties and enable our avoidance of the real issue…Evil is present in the world, NONE of us is good, and we as individuals and our society collectively are powerless to do anything about it. Ask the parent of any two year old…Nobody teaches their kid to punch or kick or bite when another kid takes their toy away. We’re wired that way. It’s our human nature. We as Christians describe it as our sinful nature. But we don’t want to face that reality, or the reality that there are absolute standards of right and wrong established by the Creator of the universe and when those standards are violated, pain and heartbreak are the inevitable consequences.

We need to appreciate our place in a larger story. We live in a fallen world. In a little over a week, we’re commemorating the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who came to deal with our separation  from a pure and holy God resulting from our sinful nature. We as Christians believe that through His birth, death and resurrection, Jesus made possible our reconciliation with God.

When He was born in a Bethlehem manger 2000 years ago, Jesus also began the process of re-establishing His Kingdom here on Earth and restoring the world to how it was meant to be. During this era in human history, those who identify with Christ continue the process of re-establishing the Kingdom until Jesus returns to complete the process. We’ve been offered a role to play in the ultimate battle for the universe…the battle between good and evil. This battle is WAY bigger than any of us. Recently, it’s felt like we’re losing a lot more than we’re winning. So, what are we to do?

Jesus gave us our marching orders…”Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” We’ll never finish the job-it’s up to Jesus to do that. But the root cause of the massacre in Newtown…as well as the massacres in Chardon, Aurora, Virginia Tech and Columbine is a fundamental problem of the evil in the human heart. You’ve never seen anyone who displays the fruits of the Spirit shooting up a school or crashing planes into buildings.

Those of us who are Christ-followers have abdicated our responsibility to be salt and light in the world. You want to reduce the senseless violence in the world? Get intentional about allowing Jesus to use you as his instrument for making more Christians!

One last thought to our readers…and this will be the topic of my next post…Families who have kids or grown children who demonstrate some or all of the traits above who are predisposed to violent or aggressive behavior are in special need of the love of Christ, and represent a great place to start if we’re going to change the world. Nobody should feel like an outsider in the church. And yet, we’re not very good at creating environments that are welcoming to those with mental conditions that leave them isolated and friendless…and vulnerable to the effects of the evil in the world.

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Our team at Key Ministry appreciates the prayers and support of all our followers, but at this time of the year, we find ourselves very much in need of your financial support. It will cost approximately $80,000 to maintain the free training, consultations and support we offer to help connect churches with families impacted by disability. We're currently $30,000 short of covering our expenses for 2016. Please consider making a personally significant gift to supporting the work of our ministry.

Best Wishes for a very Merry Christmas and a Blessed New Year on behalf of the entire Key Ministry team!