Who made James Holmes do it?

I like the balance in this piece.  The NRA didn’t turn James Holmes into a killer.  The Tea Party is not to blame.  Batman didn’t make it happen and neither did the ACLU or the liberal churches of America.  When tragedy strikes, we want to make sense of things, we want to blame somebody.  But as the Joker explained to Batman in an earlier Dark Knight film: “some men just want to watch the world burn.”  AGB

Did Liberals Make James Holmes a Mass-Murderer?

Any suggestion that a cold-blooded killer is God’s agent to punish a wicked land is simply wicked.

By Greg Garrett, July 25, 2012

When tragedy strikes, we always, always, want to know why. If there’s a reason, some one to blame, then tragedy is not mindless.

It fits into a pattern.

It makes some kind of senseless sense.

Why did James Holmes shoot 70 people last Friday?

I don’t know why, and neither do you. The words of Alfred (Michael Caine) in The Dark Knight (2008) in relation to the Joker (Heath Ledger) have been bouncing around the Interwebs as we wrestle with the question: “Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Why? We don’t know why James Holmes did what he did. But we sometimes suspect that really terrible things happen because of people who are not like us, those people we don’t like, the ones we have become convinced are f-ing up the universe. As we often do in trying to make sense that makes sense to us, some of us have begun to co-opt this tragedy to make it our own, have decided to ride this particularly violent hobbyhorse in spirited defense of our own particular hobbyhorses.

Liberals like me do this, of course. Bill Moyers and others jumped to blame the National Rifle Association for the attacks. Certainly the NRA’s defense of nearly-absolutely freedoms to bear arms enabled Mr. Holmes’ actions: it was easy for him to get his hands on the guns he employed in the attack, to order 6000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet, and to use an ammo clip that held 100 rounds and that has no useful application in hunting or target shooting.

But while I disagree with the NRA’s insistence that legal restrictions are a slippery slope, the NRA did not encourage or brainwash Mr. Holmes into shooting those theatre-goers, and I know many hunters and other gun owners who use guns responsibly. If he hadn’t gotten his hands on guns, Mr. Holmes might still have blown people up with those bombs he seemed to be so proud of.

The NRA may have contributed to, but they did not cause this tragedy. Neither did politically-conservative Evangelicals and Roman Catholics, members of the Tea Party, homophobes, hellfire and brimstone preachers, self-appointed spokesmen for God, or any of the other Americans with whom I sometimes have disagreements.

Some of them, though, are sure that they know who and what caused Aurora.

I did.

Fred Jackson, news director for the American Family Association, opined that liberals, liberal Christianity, the liberal media, and the supposedly-liberal American Civil Liberties Union are to blame.

(A necessary correction: while “ACLU” is often used as shorthand for “liberal,” the ACLU is a nonpartisan organization that over the years has defended the freedom of all Americans to exercise unpopular liberties, including far-right institutions like the American Nazi Party, Rush Limbaugh, and the Westboro Baptist Church).

By the reasoning of some social conservatives, Liberal Christians like myself and my Episcopal denomination have created a climate where such horrific acts of violence happen because they believe we have de-emphasized the teaching of God, judgment, and Hell that could prevent this sort of behavior. As Mr. Jackson put it,

I have to think that all of this, whether it’s the Hollywood movies, whether it’s what we see on the internets [sic], whether it’s liberal bias in the media, whether it’s our politicians changing public policy, I think all of those somehow have fit together-and I have to say also churches who are leaving the authority of Scripture and losing their fear of God-all of those things have seem to have come together to give us these kinds of incidents.

It’s a little different than Jerry Falwell blaming pagans, feminists, and gays because America was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists on 9/11. But not much.

Now I will admit that I got miles away from any religious institution that foregrounded Hell and judgment as the reasons we serve God, but I know of no liberal Christianity that excludes God from our prayers and service. Although we may focus less on a God of judgment than on love, justice, compassion, and service, I would be so bold as to suggest that these are qualities that should also make it less likely for people to kill each other in mass numbers.

But even if we agreed (we don’t) that the only thing reinforcing decency is the fear of eternal punishment, does James Holmes seem, by any standards you recognize, sane? Even if he had been exposed regularly to “the God of the Bible,” judgment, and Hell, would he would have acted differently?

Almost certainly not. The mentally ill do not think of consequences; they do not weigh outcomes.

What about other liberal institutions? A Charlotte minister suggested that Mr. Holmes may have been affiliated with the “Occupy” movement, which appears in a critical light in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night Rises:

James Holmes, an Occupy Wall Street guy, murdered 14 and wounded 50+ at a midnight showing of the Batman movie that portrayed OWS’ers in a bad light. Perhaps there is a motive here.

This Internet speculation, by the way, is still unproven as of this writing, and it is probably important to note that the Occupy movement was also not simply a liberal cause (anecdotally, I know of conservatives, moderates, and anarchists who also participated), but even if we did consider it liberal, the movement’s demand for economic fairness was generally expressed through nonviolent civil disobedience (unlike the occupiers in the new Batman film). We certainly have not heard of other Occupy protestors anywhere in the world who dyed their hair orange, armed and armored themselves, and after attacking other human beings, compared themselves (as Mr. Holmes reportedly did to the arresting officers) to agents of anarchy like the fictional Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight.

Our liberal culture is called one of the culprits for the Aurora shootings, but Batman did not make Mr. Holmes murder a dozen people and shoot 58 others. He had not even seenThe Dark Knight Returns, which was of course just opening, and if he had it would have taken an egregious misreading of that film to imagine as heroes anyone other than those trying to stop the violence and stem the chaos. As Lisa Schwartzbaum points out in her review, the film explores difficult themes, but moves in a very different direction than he did: “societal upheaval, urban unrest, class warfare, personal sacrifice, and spiritual salvation.”

All three of Mr. Nolan’s Batman films, carry, at their heart, the messages that a life lived in service of others, a life lived seeking justice, is the highest and best life that can be imagined. Mr. Holmes did not choose the Batman films because he resonated with anything other than surface elements.

No, as Anthony Lane points out in the New Yorker, the use of Batman was convenient, not prevenient:

Whatever we learn of the Aurora murderer, whatever he may profess, and whatever the weaponry, body armor, and headgear that he may have sported, and however it seems like a creepy match for what is worn, by heroes and villains alike, in the Batman movies—despite all that, he was not driven by those movies to slaughter.

What we can say, for now, is simply this: he took advantage of those movies. He knew that “The Dark Knight Rises” was not just a film; that it had become, as the studios like to say, and as the press is only too happy to echo, a “movie event.”

So Batman didn’t cause this atrocity. My liberal church, preaching love, compassion, and self-sacrifice, didn’t cause it. I don’t have an alibi for my whereabouts all of Thursday and Friday, but I’m also pretty sure that I didn’t cause it.

Mr. Jackson of the AFA went on to suggest that what we were seeing in Colorado was God’s judgment on a society that rejects his tradition’s teaching about morality and denies “the God of the Bible.” I’m going to claim my liberalism proudly here and disagree with this strain of conservative Christianity entirely. This is just bad theology–and hateful, as well.

Whether or not you believe in punitive substitution/substitutionary atonement (the idea that Jesus had to die to propitiate God for the evil acts of humankind), the ultimate truth of that theology is that Jesus has completed it already. Even if you actually believe in an all-powerful deity so angry he demands blood and violence for human disobedience, you at least need to realize that that train has left the station.

Jesus does not need to die over and over again—nor does anyone else—to appease an angry God. As Augustine noted in On the Trinity 4.17, “By His death, that one most true sacrifice offered on our behalf, [Christ] purged, abolished and extinguished . . . whatever guilt we had.”

Any suggestion that Mr. Holmes is God’s agent to punish a wicked land is simply wicked.

We may never know why James Holmes opened fire in that crowded theater. He may never know why. But I am sure of one thing: I didn’t cause it, and I don’t think you did either, whoever you may happen to be.

Some men just want to watch the world burn.