In the wake of yet another tragic mass shooting, this time affecting another church, we’re called to reflect again about how to process these events. Many writers have discussed how to grieve, heal, and avoid living in fear following heartbreaking tragedies. Today I want to advocate for a marginalized group often indirectly hurt by the public response to these events: those who struggle with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other emotional difficulties.
I’m not thinking of the shooter, although surely he had many personal problems, but rather our vulnerable friends, brothers, sisters, uncles, and grandmothers with these challenges. They’re often victims caught in the rhetorical crossfire.
Often after a senseless mass murder like the one our nation just witnessed at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, the shooters are quickly written off as having “mental health problems” or being “deranged.” But as a Christian psychiatrist who works daily to alleviate suffering for those with emotional struggles, I plead with my fellow Americans to stop making these offhanded assumptions about killers being “crazy” or having mental health problems. These comments neither illumine nor edify.
Depraved, Not Deranged
First, it’s extremely rare for someone to be found “not guilty by reason of insanity” in a U.S. courtroom. There are few mental conditions in which someone might completely lose touch with reality, such as a psychotic episode, and commit a crime during one of these episodes. Thus, declaring that someone is clearly mentally impaired because of their actions without any medical or psychological basis is actually a worldly trap—we’re assuming they’re deranged rather than depraved.
Few crimes are committed by someone who doesn’t understand right and wrong. Most harm inflicted on others, including in my own humdrum suburban life, is the result of sin. Outside of Christ, all humanity lives “indulging the desires of the flesh” as “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) and slaves to sin (John 8:34). Unfortunately, unrestrained sin sometimes reaches catastrophic proportions and brings death and devastation to innocent bystanders. We shouldn’t imply or assume shooters are ill and unaware.
My second and larger concern is that our country’s eagerness to write off someone committing a heinous act as an emotionally troubled person is that it makes our brothers and sisters with emotional hurdles feel that much more rejected. “This is what society thinks of me—I’m a screw-up, I’m damaged goods. No one would ever love me, and no one wants to help.” Flippant comments about murderous gunmen actually make people with emotional difficulties feel further marginalized and misunderstood.
It’s no wonder people are afraid to seek help; they’re afraid their family will think they might turn into “the kind of person who might do this sort of thing.”
So how do we respond to these comments, as well as to our friends who are hurting?
First, we shouldn’t write off disastrous events as inevitable. Yes, there is a lot of sin and brokenness in the world, and our laws are far from perfect in restraining evil. Yet we must pray for revival in our land. Pray for wise legislators. Pray for the spread of the gospel even in the face of terror and persecution.
Second, as we read in Proverbs 31:8–9, you and I must “open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” We must lock arms with our emotionally struggling brothers and sisters in gospel community, seek to gain understanding of their experience, warm them with the Word of God, and, when appropriate, encourage them to seek health from professionals who specialize in addressing these types of issues.
Finally, we must remember that without sovereign intervention, we’re all heading to a death penalty because of our sins, whether they seem big or small. But the good news is that Christ has given his life for his church—all those who trust in him—“having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word . . . that she would be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:25–27). Thus our one-track mind bent on destruction is diverted, and we are reconciled to our faithful Creator. This is the greatest of news.
Brothers and sisters, don’t let your neighbor suffer in silence. Reach out to them. And rejoice that Jesus has done the same for you.