My good friend J John has shared with me his reflections on the appalling tragedy in Cumbria – and gave me permission to share it with you.
Few recent events have grabbed public attention in the UK more than the appalling random and brutal shootings in Cumbria in which Derrick Bird killed twelve people and wounded another eleven before turning his gun on himself.
These tragic events have shocked and perplexed us; the papers have been full of analysis in which the word evil has been unusually prominent. No attempt to deal with these events can avoid this aspect and so I offer some comments of my own. But before I do, let me offer a caution. Something in all human beings seeks explanation; indeed, the press has excelled itself at asking ‘Why?’ – and in not really providing an answer. Yet our first duty in such cases – however dramatic, however curious – is to show concern to the injured and bereaved. Showing compassion must come before seeking comprehension.
Let me say three things about evil in the context of the Cumbrian killings. The first is that this reminds us of the universal nature of evil. What has grabbed public attention on these killings has been the almost bizarre juxtaposition of brutality with normality. Evil struck in a very ordinary town, in a part of the world known to most Britons – if it is known at all – as a holiday location. It struck under the sunlit blue skies that supply the backdrop to our happiest memories. It struck down ordinary people who could easily have been our neighbours, friends or even family. The agent of evil was a man who was remarkable only for being unremarkable; an undistinguished taxi driver with friends, family and hobbies. Equally, none of those factors seem to have been present that we are told trigger violence: racism, poverty, unemployment and persecution were all absent. It was a crime with a single killer, a score of victims and no obvious motive. For these reasons, it was shocking. Yet for me as a Christian, while this eruption of evil into the world might be shocking, it is not surprising. The Bible teaches that evil is both so real and universal that all human beings are subject to its influence. The press has echoed this: the headline on one paper read ‘There is evil in all of us’. One of the great errors of the modern West has been to deny, despite abundant evidence, the fact that all human beings are flawed in the area of morality. We are all ‘sinners’ and only grace keeps evil in check. In life’s journey, we all travel closer to the precipice than we care to admit and on such a road it is wise to cling tight to God.
Secondly, evil is not the whole story. It has been said of certain people in business that they create their own ‘reality distortion field’ so that those close to them are no longer able to see accurately how things really are. I don’t know how true this is of individuals, but such killings certainly distort reality. Such random evil is so stunning and so sensational that we become focused on it. Through his murderous rampage of a few hours Derrick Bird managed to get page after page of press coverage for himself. In what is almost a parody of our celebrity-obsessed culture, violence made a nobody into a somebody. With evil and tragedy staring us in the face we need reminding that good is at work in the world too. Such things as the nurturing of children, the mending of bodies, the education of minds and even the planting of trees, are good things but they only whisper while evil shouts. Evil and violence draws the crowds and sells the papers, but we who are Christians and those who sympathise with our values should praise good in the world, however little and however unspectacular. One of the lesser joys of heaven will be the fact that evil is not only absent, but totally forgotten – what a relief.
Finally, let me encourage you to remember that evil is not the end of the story. One of the many blessings of being a Christian is that you are able to have a very different perspective on events such as this. If you hold to the view that this life is all there is, then the events in Cumbria are an utter tragedy without any redeeming feature. There is neither redemption for the sufferers nor judgement for the guilty: death obliterates both victim and perpetrator alike in the ultimate travesty of justice.
John Lennon’s ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ is a notion with a bitter downside: the universe is utterly unjust. Yet as a Christian l am able to believe that the universe is indeed just, that there will be a final reckoning and that in Jesus Christ God’s grace triumphs over evil. In our grief and perplexity, let’s remember that evil doesn’t have the last word – God does.