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How should Christians respond after a mass shooting?

Police on the scene of a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California on Wednesday, November 7, 2018.
Police on the scene of a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California on Wednesday, November 7, 2018. | (Screenshot: YouTube/ABC News)

After shooting and killing a security guard outside the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks, California, a man entered the bar and proceeded to gun down security guards and employees. He then opened fire on the crowd that had gathered for college night. This attack comes on the heels of the mass shooting on October 27th at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh during their Shabbat morning services.

The Thousand Oaks shooting is yet another senseless act of mass violence which has left communities and churches around the country asking how they might respond to their family, friends and neighbors who are experiencing unimaginable loss from these events.

In the wake of the 2015 Umpqua Community College mass shooting in Oregon, Reverend Steve Walker, lead pastor at Redeemer's Fellowship in Roseburg, Oregon, played an important role in the community's recovery process. I spoke with pastor Walker, in search of insights about how the Christian community can best extend support to those who suffer in the wake of mass shootings like the Thousand Oaks, California tragedy.

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Aten: How should Christians, and pastors in particular, respond—and lead their communities—after a mass shooting?

Walker: When a tragedy occurs in your community, it seizes their hearts and minds. The first decision most pastors had to make was whether or not to address what happened, and how much time to give to it. Since the mass shooting at Umpqua occurred on a Thursday, many pastors chose not to scrap what they had already prepared, but simply to acknowledge the event through a prayer for the victims and families. But I think most people could not tear their attention away from what had happened—an event so troubling and out of the ordinary that people weeks from that time were still trying to believe it had really happened. So, Sunday being three days away from the event, I doubt if anyone was listening to anything any pastor said if they weren't addressing the event.

I gathered our Lead Team together and after some prayer and pondering, we decided to cancel our Men's Retreat scheduled for that weekend, cancel the normal services (we have four), and start from scratch to create a service to address the tragedy.

Aten: What kinds of questions are people asking after an event like this?

Walker: One of the NBC reporters wanted to get my take on the shooting and what I was going to say. As we walked down our main street downtown with cameras rolling, I simply said, "I'm going to answer the questions everyone is asking." He jerked his head around and asked, "Which are...?" I said, "Why did this happen? And how should we respond?"

When tragedy strikes, we should articulate the questions to shape the public discussion. The discussion isn't about guns or gun laws, or the motive of the shooter, or the security of the Umpqua Community College Campus, but of the broader and bigger questions of life: why do these things happen? If there is a God, and if he is good and powerful, why would he stand by and watch a kid shoot innocent victims in a classroom?

Aten: Does the church have any helpful answers when so many people are asking these kinds of philosophical questions, and also personal questions about how to respond?

Walker: There are biblical answers to both questions, though they may poke people who hear them. I don't think a crisis is a good time to teach apologetics, but it is a wake-up call to realize evil exists, and we can't exile God from our lives and then wonder where he is when life falls apart. We need to say these things lovingly and clearly to show that bad things happen because we live in a broken world, and we have seen it first hand.

Church shouldn't be the place where people come only to hear how terrible things are. It ought to be a place where people meet the Living God, and hear His promises of hope for a new world. In between the tragedy and the Kingdom are days where we need His help and strength, his love and forgiveness, his perspective and hope.

Aten: I suspect some Christians are tempted to offer easy answers. But what's the alternative?

Walker: The last place in the world I want to be in the midst of a tragedy is putting on a show where everyone wants to cry and no one dares to do so. If I—the pastor or helper—am real, if I am vulnerable and transparent, if I can acknowledge what I know and what is confusing and don't know, it allows others to process and be real too.

Jamie D. Aten, PhD, is founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute(HDI) and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is a founding signer of the Prayers and Action petition, and a disaster psychologist and disaster ministry expert. His latest books include the Disaster Ministry Handbook (InterVarsity Press) and A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience (Templeton Press, forthcoming January 2019). In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House.

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