A week ago, I picked up the newspaper, looked at the header image, and stopped. I felt a sudden chill slip down my spine. “That’s the same uniform,” I whispered. In the photo, among parents and policemen stood girls with their hair in pigtails and braids. They were dressed in plaid skirts and red polos identical to the uniforms my sisters and I wore in our Christian grade school.
A detail like similar uniforms may seem slight, but it signifies a parallel: the children at Covenant Presbyterian School – some of whom were evacuated, some of whom were shot and killed, all of whom experienced a terrifying, life-altering morning on March 27th – are not so different from myself and my family. The school itself is not so different from my own grade school, which is, like Covenant, a Christ-centered and well-esteemed private school with a strong contingent of PCA families. Neither is it so different from our own Grove City College, where many students belong to some strain of Presbyterianism, and many attended Reformed Christian academies before joining this largely-Reformed learning community.
With that stomach-dropping chill, I recognized that evil exists, that it can happen here. “It” can happen to me, to my family, to my friends.
Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 cautionary tale It Can’t Happen Here imagines an authoritarian regime in America. In the days of Adolf Hitler, Lewis suggested that the rise of a dictator and resultant evil could indeed befall America, indicating that “it” – authoritarianism, in Lewis’s case – was not so remote as many had thought. The Nashville attack likewise reveals that evil is not remote possibility but a palpable “it.”
The communities of many Christian schools, including our own, aim not at isolation from the world but distinction from it, “building up fidelity in distinct community,” as Rod Dreher proposes in The Benedict Option. We aim to form hearts and minds in fidelity and fellowship around the Logos. But the Nashville attack reveals that despite the blessed distinction of the Christian school, no Christian school is removed from the sin and evil of the world. The sin of the world breaks into our communities with a gun as Audrey Hale did Covenant Presbyterian School. Not only that, but sin grows up within the walls of even the Christian school – just as Audrey Hale attended the school she later attacked. Sin both attacks and grows within our Christian communities.
In other words, “it” can happen to us, to our Christian schools, to our communities.
“It” of course refers to a much deeper violence than guns – a violence instigated with the passing of fruit and whispering of voices. Despite the typical rush of cultural critics and politicians to proclaim the “it” in question an issue of gun violence and legislation, the language of “gun violence” evades the moral weight of words such as “sin” and “evil.” “Gun violence,” too, creates a special case for shootings, setting them apart from any other instances of violence. The term avoids the clarity afforded by “murder” – all murder destroys the life of a human made in the image of God.
And, in fact, the Nashville attack represents more even than murder. Audrey Hale was not a mentally-ill teen randomly firing at a neighborhood school, but a vengeful, transgender 28-year old explicitly targeting the faithful Christian community of which she was formerly a part. Her detailed maps and manifesto reveal that she planned her attack. Though Republican Senator Josh Hawley characterized this attack as not “senseless violence” but a “hate crime” against Christians, President Biden has laughed and joked in response, and Democrats have termed Hawley a “fraud and coward.”
But the attack’s blatant ideological charge was pronounced by the lobbying group Gays Against Guns, who told the Guardian that such violence “cannot be separated from the efforts of the cisgender white supremacist patriarchy to keep us divided along lines of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexual orientation.” We can “expect many more incidents like today” until our society stops “hiding” from “reality,” the group said.
The Nashville attack, then, is inseparable from the fidelity of the church to biblical standards of sex and gender – specifically the fidelity of the PCA. The “it” in question, as such, cannot be fixed by gun legislation, contra recurrent straw-man attempts of gun-control advocates. “It” is instead to be expected: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).
Just before His death, Christ told us in no uncertain terms that “it” can happen here. As Carmel Richardson wrote regarding the Nashville attack, “The church’s very existence repudiates the idea that happiness can be found through psychological self-determination, the ideological crux of transgenderism. And like the children so wretchedly targeted in this attack, it is not only the church’s existence but her purity that makes her such a fixation for deathwork culture.”
The proximity of the Nashville attack to Holy Week ought not be dismissed: the church will be hated, mocked, and attacked as Christ was hated, mocked. and attacked.
Yet we ought remember that it was not only “the world” – some distant, ominous force of hatred – who attacked the Son of God. In a sense, we did, too, before we were his people. Our own sinful hands were, in Adam, raised against God. The Son of God suffered for our sin against him: “He himself bore our sinsin his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2: 24).
Christ’s people have been saved from the stain of sin by his death. We stand purified before God from the evil native to our post-fall human nature. But we cannot forget that we were once, in Peter’s words, “not a people” before we were called “God’s people.” As the hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” says, “it was my sin that held Him there.” It was “my mocking voice” that called for his death.
It – our sin against Christ, our hatred of Him – can happen here. And it did happen at the Cross. We must remember, therefore, that the problem of shootings is the fundamental human problem of sin, and that it is a problem we share in.
Holy Week testifies that we remember yet more. “How Deep” goes on:
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished…
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer,
But this I know with all my heart:
His wounds have paid my ransom.
More than “it” can happen here, for more than the “it” happened at the Cross. In fact, at the Cross “it” is finished. Christ paid our debts and, conquering sin and death, rose on the third day from the grave.
We “cannot give an answer” to this marvel. But we as His people must, as Covenant Presbyterian Church has done, stand firm against the distortions of our culture and know that sin and evil are real yet have been conquered by our Lord Christ, whose death and resurrection we remember and re-enact in lives of fidelity until He comes again.