The basic facts were still being sorted out on the afternoon of the Virginia Tech shootings when we received the first press release from a Christian organization with an agenda to promote.

The deaths, we were informed, were "the result of gun control." This despite the fact that Virginia is among the least restrictive states in which to acquire firearms.

The agendas and self-promoting commentaries continued to pour in. The massacre was the fault of violent video games, several activists claimed—though there was no evidence that Seung-Hui Cho had ever played Halo 2 or any of its many cousins.

Others blamed the massacre on demon possession. That's not unthinkable, but it's also completely unfalsifiable.

News organizations were also eager to assign a cause for the tragedy. Stories and op-eds multiplied, calling for greater government expenditures in mental health, tighter government restrictions on guns, and increasingly elaborate security plans for public institutions.

But pronouncements like these fall short of answering the real question and invite us to look further. If it was mental illness that caused Cho's violent episode, was it because of some childhood trauma? Or a random twist in his dna? And if the episode was due to either cause, was it predictable or preventable?

Professionals had recognized Cho's mental illness, labeled it, and referred him for treatment. A judge had made it all official. Did that do any good?

The head of Virginia Tech's campus counseling center reportedly blamed the lack of a government social safety net for the apparent inability of campus officials to stop a disturbed person from acting on his violent fantasies. The propensity of some to locate responsibility for an individual's irrational acts on a government failure is appalling.

Indeed, the thought of implementing broad programs to prevent someone with a severe mental disorder from ever turning violent is both impracticable and prohibitively expensive. Solving yesterday's problem with tomorrow's social engineering is tempting. But focusing on yesterday and tomorrow keeps us from thinking about today.

Realism about Human Evil

We believe that CT readers—at least a significant portion of them—are focused on the present and on people's needs.

While the mainstream media were asking why and how questions, CT's online poll showed that relatively few of our readers (less than 10 percent) were interested in why Cho did it. Fewer still wanted to know how he could have been stopped, and only a handful were interested in political solutions that might prevent similar attacks in the future. Overwhelmingly, our readers wanted to know: How are Christians ministering in the aftermath?

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What does this tell us? It suggests, first of all, that Christians are realistic about human nature and the presence of evil in society. We tend not to invest ourselves in utopian dreams of eliminating evil. Tragedies are going to happen. The human heart is profoundly wicked.

"There is no one righteous, not even one," Paul wrote in Romans 3. And then he linked up a concatenation of clauses from the Hebrew Bible to make his point: "All have turned away; … their throats are open graves; … the poison of vipers is on their lips; … their feet are swift to shed blood."

The Bible teaches us that the evil we see in others exists (with terrifying potential) in our hearts as well. This insight is fundamental to understanding Jesus, Paul, and Luther—not to mention ourselves.

Second, the overwhelming interest in ministry suggests that we refuse to be paralyzed by questions about free will and determinism. Those questions are worth exploring—both in their classic theological form and in the modern equivalents handed us by behavioral science. But the conundrum won't be easily resolved. The realities of human misbehavior cannot be reduced to a handy, either-or proposition.

While social policy requires careful analysis of contributing causes, most ministry doesn't. Expressions of shared grief, comfort, and support are important in the aftermath of tragedy. They simply require presence and openness. Concrete deeds of kindness may call for more thought, but they still don't need an understanding of causes—just a helpful spirit and a willingness to respond.

Our focus on ministry confirms historian David Bebbington's observation that an identifying mark of evangelical religion is "activism." In his now-classic Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (1989), the University of Stirling historian documented how the evangelical wave of the 18th century transformed the life of a Christian minister from a leisurely calling to a vocation of unceasing service.

This dynamic spirit spilled over into mission activity, social reform, and—sadly—a tendency to regard learning as "a dispensable luxury." But immediate outreach in the face of need is clearly part of our evangelical dna. We are most ourselves when we are helping someone.

Tragic events call us to grasp opportunity without being opportunistic. Let us be known for active love—for blessing those who mourn—and not for promoting agendas.

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Related Elsewhere:

Philip Yancey tells about his experiences at Virginia Tech after the killings in "Where is God When it Hurts?" "A Gray Haze over Everything." "Nightmare of Nightmares" focuses on the Korean Christian community's reaction to the tragedy.

Our earlier coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings includes:

Asking Why | Christian fellowship helps survivors of the Virginia Tech shootings deal with larger issues. (April 23, 2007)
Peace in a World of Massacre | What Jesus calls us to when we're most frightened. (April 17, 2007)

Weblog has commentary and links to other news about Virginia Tech.

A video of one of the Christians killed during the shootings shows her speaking about her faith.

Christianity Today articles on the shooting at Columbine High School include:

Editorial: The Long Road After Littleton | There are no quick fixes for our culture of violence, but that's no excuse for doing nothing. (June 14, 1999)
Videos of Hate: Columbine killers harbored anti-Christian prejudice | Columbine killers harbored anti-Christian prejudice. (February 7, 2000)
Marketing Martyrdom to Teens | Merchandisers not only are banking on teenagers believing in God, but also on their desire to buy the T-shirt, do the Bible study, and wear the bracelet. (December 6, 1999)
Pop Culture: Elegy for a Jesus Freak | "These are the ultimate Jesus Freaks—the people who are willing to die for their faith." (December 6, 1999)
Cassie Said Yes, They Said No | The mainstream press unquestioningly accepted's flimsy debunking of the Columbine confession. (November 1, 1999)
'Do You Believe in God?' | Columbine and the stirring of America's soul. (October 4, 1999)
Previous editorials are available on our website.

The Onion, a satiric newspaper, posted, "Hey, Wasn't There Some Sort Of National Tragedy A Few Months Back?" about forgetfulness of the Virginia Tech shootings. (Warning: some bad language)

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