On Wednesday seventeen people were killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Three adults. Fourteen teenagers. The assault rifle-wielding killer is nineteen.
In addition to being Ash Wednesday, it was Valentine’s Day. The massacre in Parkland is the eighteenth mass shooting and the eighth school shooting this year.
And here is the ghastly and pivotal phrase I omitted from the previous sentence: so far. Parkland suffered the eighth school shooting this year so far. My heart is throbbing and my stomach is churning.
The source of my spiritual nausea is not only the sorrow I feel about lives cut short by automatic gunfire. Neither does my illness come solely from the compassion I feel for parents and siblings and friends crushed by unimaginable grief. My soul sickness comes from the dreadful realization that we will be here again. Sooner rather than later.
The Parkland shooting is not an isolated incident. A one-off. It forms part of a deadly national pattern. That pattern reveals a dimension of our character. We are a violent people. Violence, like a computer virus, has infected the operating system of our common life.
Like the majority of Americans I support sensible gun legislation. I also advocate strongly for making mental health care available to everyone. But my focus today is on the state of our souls and what we can do to be healed. Again and again the Scriptures teach us that the key to healing our souls is changing our mind about God.
An Ancient Greek philosopher named Xenophanes once said that horses would paint gods that look like horses if only they had hands and the ability to paint.
His point was not that the divine is a mere figment of our imagination. Instead, he is observing that we humans frequently make God in our own image instead of letting God’s true nature remake us.
Before you rush to accuse me of atheism or secularism or something-ism, remember that the Bible says much the same thing. For instance, in Exodus, while Moses lingered on Mt. Sinai waiting for God to chisel out the Ten Commandments, the Hebrews were getting restless down below.
In Moses’ absence the Hebrews melted down all their gold jewelry. Craftsmen shaped the precious metal into a golden calf and the people broke into idolatrous worship. They had reduced the infinite God down to the size of their own avarice and lust for control.
As I said, Scripture repeatedly seeks to counter our tendency to create God in our own image. The story of Noah and the flood is an especially apt example for the post-Parkland world. It seeks to free us from the violence infecting our souls by teaching us that God is loving and nurturing.
Flood myths arose in many ancient cultures. The Hebrew story of Noah has counterparts among the nearby Babylonians as well as civilizations as faraway as India and China. In North America the Ojibwa tribe passed down a deluge myth. Aboriginal peoples of Australia did so as well.
The structure of all the other ancient flood narratives is the basically same. God creates the world. People run amok and make a wreck of the place. God gets angry about human wickedness and decides to start over. The first step for God is to annihilate God’s crummy first draft of a creation.
This is exactly how you would expect violent cultures to interpret a natural disaster. Since they habitually seek to fix problems by force, they assume that God must use the same strategy. They have created God in their own image, and their idea of God justifies and reinforces their destructive behavior.
The Noah story seems initially to follow the same pattern. God finds the one good guy in the rotten pile of humanity, warns him to build a big boat, to stuff it with his immediate family, and to make room for reproductive pairings of every species. Once the boat’s full, God drowns every last human baby, raccoon, puppy, and aardvark.
It’s unspeakable, really. Nothing and nobody outside that ark survives. Well, except I suppose, aquatic creatures. Still, it’s important to recognize the immense misery that such an event would cause.
But as it turns out, the editors who passed along the Noah story were setting us up for a major plot twist. It is precisely this violent concept of God that they intended to disabuse us of.
The theological turn occurs after the floodwaters have receded.
God sizes up the spiritual condition of Noah and his family. God realizes that, despite this destructive display of anger, the human heart has remained utterly unchanged. So, God repents and promises never again to respond to human messiness with destruction. The rainbow is left as a reminder of God’s pledge.
But here’s the thing. The editors expect us to read literately. In other words, God did not change God’s mind. The story is designed to change the human mind about God.
Other deluge myths unflinchingly portray the divine as violent and vengeful and even capricious. Faced with a deity like this, most human beings would scurry to do whatever it takes to placate and appease such a being.
The Noah story is meant to show us that the true God does not resemble the fearsome, violent tyrant imagined by other ancient cultures. Our God recognizes that violence is what broke the creation in the first place, and violence cannot be relied upon to make it whole again. Only love will do that.
The editors of the Hebrew Bible gave us the Noah story to change our minds about God.
When we experience God as loving, we begin to respond by inhabiting the world with love. That love can liberate us from the violence that infects our souls and empower us to do the hard work of bringing justice and peace to our world.
My prayer is that I will have been wrong to say that the mass shooting in Parkland was the eighth so far this year. That it will be the last. Ever. But my prayers will be empty, even false, if I fail to act.