July 31st, 2012 – by Jeremy Yoder
– “Little Sadie,” Traditional American folksong
On the early morning of July 20 in the Denver suburb of Aurora, twenty-four year old James Holmes fired hundreds of rounds in a crowded movie theater during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. The details sound like an action movie, except this time, the victims weren’t stunt people who got up as soon as the camera stopped rolling. Soon after the film started, Holmes entered into the theater through an emergency exit door armed with an assault rifle, a shot gun and a handgun. He dropped a canister of tear gas and fired into the crowd. These acts of evil left twelve dead and fifty-nine wounded.
The Dark Knight massacre is a moment where art and life intersect. The three Christopher Nolan Batman movies are grim mediations on the darkness of the human heart in which violence and chaos threaten to destroy the veneer of civilization. During his arrest, Holmes reportedly referred to himself as “the Joker” – the homicidal, nihilistic character played by the late Heath Ledger in the last movie. While I don’t believe that cultural artifacts like movies cause individuals to commit mass murder, I do believe that beneath the veneer of our shopping malls and cul de sacs, beats the dark heart of a violent, broken and desperate society. After all, the Century Cinema 16 is only a twenty mile drive from Columbine High School.
How do we live faithfully in a world like this? It’s been a tough summer for Colorado. It’s emotionally exhausting and difficult to find hope when faced with oppressive heat, devastating wildfires and the continual economic decline of the rural town I pastor in. It’s easy to throw up our hands and to cry out to God, “Why are you doing this?” “Why aren’t you protecting us?” “Why aren’t you keeping us safe?” As a minister, I struggle when people ask me these impossible questions because I don’t know how to answer them in a way that does not sound trite or dismissive of the suffering that people experience.
Perhaps these questions are not the right questions. One of the lies that we tell ourselves is that we receive what we deserve. If we work hard enough and make the right choices, we will receive material success. If we have enough faith, then God will bless us with health and wealth. We believe that we are in control of our lives and that we direct our destinies. Most of us believe at our core that we are entitled to comfort and happiness.
The massacre in Aurora exposes this lie. None of the victims deserved to die. Nobody deserved Holmes’ violation of their sense of safety. And yet it happened anyway. This violence was senseless. These murders didn’t happen because God had some greater plan. I don’t believe that God only gives us as much suffering as we can handle – I believe that bad things happen in this broken world that are outside the will of God. As Matthew 5:45 puts it, God makes the “sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
The heart of Christianity is suffering. Each Sunday, we gather together in our congregations to worship and remember the God that suffered. While we believe the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story, we also symbolically dwell at the foot of the cross. Communion expresses the unity and communality of the church through elements that recall Christ’s sacrifice – “body” and “blood” that we consume together not only remembrance of what Jesus has done, but also to anticipate what Jesus will do. Suffering and hope are intimately tied together.
We often move too quickly from the suffering of the cross to the victory of the resurrection. We don’t want to linger in the unsettling presence of death and remember that life – and our lives in particular – are fragile and easily snuffed out by forces we cannot control. Tragedies like the Aurora shootings bring these anxieties out into the forefront and our temptation is to stuff our fears back in so that we don’t have to confront these realities. Perhaps when the darkness rises in this broken world, we should resist the temptation to look away. After all, our faith only looks to the hope and promise of New Jerusalem after first confronting the suffering and death of the cross.
Jeremy Yoder is the pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church in La Junta, Colorado. He is a 2010 graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and was a founding editors of Work and Hope.