For the second time in as many weeks I was within miles of a possible terrorist threat. On November 21, when I and thousands of my colleagues were gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, for the annual academic conferences in biblical and religious studies, we received word that there was a rumored ISIS threat against the Philips Arena, just blocks away from where the conferences were being held. As it turns out, there was no credible information that corroborated the rumors and thankfully nothing came of it. So I don’t want to overdramatize this. I was never in imminent danger. But once you allow yourself to think through the possibilities of being in a city under attack, the scare is still there. I know I felt it, especially as I hung up the phone that night after speaking with my wife and children, who were thousands of miles away back home. What if the threat is real? What if what happened in Paris just days earlier happens here as well? What if something happens to me? What if this is the last time that I speak to my family in this life?
Unfortunately, the threat that confronted those in the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, this week was no mere rumor. No matter how officials end up classifying the motives of the shooters, the horror that they unleashed was all too real for the victims and their families. I heard about the shootings from my office in Riverside, which is just about 15 miles away from San Bernardino. When I heard that the killers were still on the loose, I followed my instincts and headed straight home to be with my family. A co-worker’s heart sank when he heard the report because his wife works in San Bernardino, but he was relieved to discover that the shootings weren’t near where she works. The rest of my day was pretty much gone, as I was glued to Twitter and the television waiting for more news on the manhunt.
Again, I don’t want to overdramatize my own experiences here. The victims and their families deserve our undiluted sympathy. In fact, if you are reading this, I would urge you to stop and pray for them right now. At the time that I am writing this, the death toll is 14, and the police are saying that a total of 21 were wounded in the attack. Pray that God would grant his grace and peace to these grieving families. And pray for those who would perpetrate these kinds of horrendous acts that they would be delivered from the power of Satan and brought into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. Religious groups in our area have organized prayer vigils to remember those who have died. My own church home group took some time last night to pray for the victims and their families, for justice for the perpetrators, and for the safety of our community. Prayer is not an excuse for inaction but neither is it a pawn in some political debate. As followers of Christ, we know that prayer is the very heartbeat of our lives coram Deo, and that it is our duty to pray, “Thy will be done,” even in the face of death and great evil (Matt. 6:10; 26:42).
But I share my experiences here because I think they are indicative of an increasingly common state of mind in our culture. We are terrorized by violence. Mass shootings and terrorist acts seem more frequent, more imminent, and more immanent—that is closer to where we live and work and play. We are beginning to experience in some measure the kinds of violent threats faced by millions worldwide, including millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ. The illusion of safety and security in our own backyards is being exposed. We are all one lone gunman or one sleeper cell or one crazed couple away from a violent death. And even if the vast majority of us escape a violent death, none of us will escape death itself. Its certainty looms not merely as the punchline of some clichéd joke (death and taxes, am I right?), but as an existential threat to each of us and to each of our friends, neighbors, and family members.
So what is the solution? Well, many solutions to gun violence and terrorism will be offered in the coming days. We will debate gun laws, no-fly lists, security measures, surveillance, and so on. Christians need to be vigorously and thoughtfully engaged in all of these debates. Right prayer is always accompanied by right action in a biblical ethic (see Nehemiah, for example). We ought to debate these matters charitably, knowing that people of goodwill often reach different conclusions about the most effective solutions to the problems we face. But we also should debate these things knowing that the ultimate solution to violence—indeed, the ultimate solution to death itself—lies beyond the power of political machinations. This is not defeatism or quietism; far from it. Instead, it is a kind of eschatological triumphalism. As believers in Christ, we know that death’s days are numbered. Its back was broken one Sunday morning in a garden tomb near Jerusalem. And its final death rattle will be heard when the trumpet sounds and the King returns to raise the dead to imperishable life (1 Cor. 15:50-57). And so in the meantime, we work, knowing that our labor is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58), but we do so in humble dependence upon the God who saves us from terror and makes us immovable for sake of the work he has given us to do.