How Christians Should Respond to Distant Tragedy
Satan's Work After Tragedy
Last week, I read a headline, stirring a familiar nausea in my stomach. A number of students and two teachers from a Texas high school have been murdered in another shooting. There’s a sense of helplessness for most onlookers in these kinds of events. That helplessness is compounded, I think, by disconnectedness. Tragedies are dreadful to those within them, but most of the world only feels the grief induced by a well-crafted headline, generating a moment of pause, after which life pretty much continues unchanged.
This continuance of business as usual happens for a couple of reasons, neither of which are appropriate: (1) Perhaps we acquiesce to helplessness because, of course, nothing we do could reverse the situation of distant people, whom we don’t know, who’ve lost the dearest possession in life; or (2) we don’t care. The latter is a minority, surely, but it certainly has representation. And the former is more digestible, but Christians are called to herald reason amidst the chaos of society. If a people, who’ve supposedly spent time with God, have nothing to say and are lost on what to do, then to whom should the world look?
Hear Peter’s admonition to Christians: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).
You are these things—chosen, royal, holy, belonging to God—not that you may hoard them but that, by your royal status, you may authoritatively declare the power of God into darkness. Therefore, Christians should have something to say about school shootings, and we should have a spiritually formulated, deeply considered idea of how to respond to them and events like them.
I’ve thought about it considerably, and only two pursuits surface as feasible and representative of Christ for those who observe tragedies from a distance; namely, prayer and remembrance. A Christian's duty near a tragedy is, of course, easier to apply (visitations, meals, attending funerals, and so on); however, the vast majority of Christians are so isolated from the event that, by necessity, applications are more subtle and, perhaps, resemble something greatly inadequate.
Consult the Authority
By virtue of the apparent inadequacy of these kinds of service, I think Satan capitalizes on genuine feelings of helplessness. However, by his capitalization, we forfeit what he knows to be the most powerful form of Christian service anywhere—prayer. Sure, face-to-face contact with grieving families is a source of great influence; and if we were near to them, God would expect that; but prayer is no less potent.
The Bible is replete with instructions to pray for fellow Christians, whether they be sick, spiritually ill, or grieved about some matter (see James 5:14; 1 John 5:16). Paul prayed constantly for the countless saints he could not see face to face (Phil 1:9; Col 1:9; 2 Thes 1:11). So the precedent is to pray hard, especially when you’re at a distance.
Prayers are not just for fellow saints, though. Jesus said, “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)—like Dimitrios Pagourtzis (1). Paul said elsewhere, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.” Emphasis on all. By these commands, a principle is established—God wants us to pray for shooters and those affected by shooters, even if we are passive observers at a great distance.
If God saw fit to give these instructions so consistently through the Bible, why do we consider prayer trivial? When the devil says a distant prayer is impotent, he’s lying.
What to Pray?
Sunday school prayers are generally of the physical sort—help us drive safe; be with grandma Peggy’s leg; make it stop raining, and so on. Those prayers are fine, and they have a place, but a cursory look at the kinds of prayers most characteristic of Biblical men yields a different focus.
Paul’s prayer for the Colossians was that they may “be filled with the knowledge of [Jesus’] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col. 1:9). For the Philippians, he prayed that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Phil 1:9). In his letter to the Ephesians, he prayed that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ…may give [them] the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of [God]” (Eph 1:17).
Epaphras prayed that the Colossians would “stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God” (Col 4:12). And the generic command to pray for “all people,” as stated in 1 Timothy 2, was undergirded by the Divine desire for all people to be saved and to know the truth (2:4).
So, for Dimitrios Pagourtzis, his family, and the families of his victims, Kyle McLeod, Angelique Ramirez, Kimberly Vaughan, Cynthia Tisdale, Sabika Sheikh, Chris Stone, Jared Black, Shana Fisher, Glenda Ann Perkins, and Christian Riley Garcia, bring many prayers before the Father of lights. Let them be of the sort that pleads on their behalf for spiritual wisdom, Godly insight, peace, strength, the perpetuity of love, and that by such blatant darkness, the goodness of God’s glory may be exhibited in striking contrast.
Pray for fellow Christians near to the tragedy—that they may have wisdom and understanding and insight to reach out and shine God’s light to the families who’ve lost much; and pray that by such service and empathy, all of those who don’t yet know the peace of God and his salvation will come to know it amidst this tribulation.
Seeing Affliction Like God Sees It
Unfortunately, tyrannical mass-killings are historically common. Many western nations have prospered peacefully for, perhaps, a century or more, but the kinds of things westerners are seeing on CNN have been happening as far back as the earliest recorded history and as recently as much of the 20th and 21st century—only on a much larger scale.
Some good friends of mine from Rwanda literally suffered through the 1994 genocide, where, over the course of 100 days approximately 800,000 men, women, and children were murdered (2). At the Treblinka concentration camp alone in German-occupied Poland, 780,863 Jews were murdered. Hitler’s regime, however, wiped out a staggering 11 million people in total—and that was only between 70 and 80 years ago. And some say Stalin’s Soviet-responsible deaths were significantly more than Hitler’s (3), (though some estimate less ).
Biblical records recount the brutal conquests of Israel by Assyrian ruler, Tiglath-pileser III, and the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. The Exodus narrative begins amidst the oppressive and murderous rule of a certain Pharaoh (1:8-22).
And from that Pharaoh and his hard-driving slave labor and mass murdering of children, we gather some things from the perspective of God. As Israel suffered by that Pharaoh and his successor, the people cried out to God for deliverance, “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25).
Prior to the development of a leader by which Israel would find deliverance, and prior to the punishment of Egypt for her sins and Pharaoh for his tyranny, God had his people—his creation—in mind. God saw them, considered them, and knew their misery.
Therefore, it is the nature of God to think about his suffering creation and to consider them. At times, his presence may feel distant, “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27), and he has ordered history to the advantage of each soul “having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that [we] should seek God, and perhaps feel [our] way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27).
Thus, God remembered the Jews under Pharaoh, and he remembered the Jews under Hitler. He remembered his people under Nebuchadnezzar, and he remembered his people in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. He remembered his people under the oppression of Rome in New Testament times, and he remembers, even now, the many souls in great tribulation because of another school shooting. If only we could see beyond our human scope to how God works in his perfect, sovereign reign.
Don’t think it a small thing to take time to consider the misery of distant people. If I were to undergo a similar calamity, I’d much rather a world of distant empathizers who considered my pain and imagined my sorrow, than a world where everyone forgot and I was left to suffer without consideration.
Imagining their pain creates empathy. Empathy propels service. Service-mindedness prays and reaches out to help in whatever way is possible.
In the many days to come, pray for those affected this past week in Santa Fe, Texas. Pray for their peace. Pray for their souls. Pray that, if they don’t know God, they might come to know him. Pray that, if they do know God, they might cling tighter to him.
Pray for Dimitrios Pagourtzis, whose current faithless and depraved condition is subject to the wrath of Almighty God.
Consider those who have suffered greatly, and remember them. These are two very appropriate Christian responses to distant tragedy.
1. Press, Associated. “Santa Fe Shooting Suspect's Father Thinks Son Was Bullied.” Time, Time, 22 May 2018, time.com/5287943/santa-fe-shooting-dimitrios-pagourtzis/.
3. “How Many People Did Stalin Kill?” History of Russia, historyofrussia.org/stalin-killed-how-many-people/.
4. Snyder, Timothy. “Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Killed More?” The New York Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, 10 Mar. 2011, www.nybooks.com/articles/2011/03/10/hitler-vs-stalin-who-killed-more/.
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