On Valentine’s Day, a teenager named Nikolas Cruz walked into his high school with a gun and murdered seventeen people. If you watch even the tiniest bit of news on TV or listen to the radio, I probably don’t need to elaborate any more on the details. The Nikolas Cruz story, and everything his shooting has stirred up in the country, has continued unabated the last few weeks. There’s been an international march against what many feel are inadequate gun laws and a dialogue has been opened up all over again about what we as a country need to do to help our troubled youth.
One story in particular, however, caught my eye in the middle of all of this. A CNN correspondent reported that Nikolas had been receiving what she described as “fan mail.” The entire segment, she had this air of disgust, and I found myself agreeing with her sentiments as she mentioned that women had been sending pictures of themselves to Mr. Cruz in, let’s say, clothing and postures that would not be appropriate to mention on a holy Catholic website.
But as the correspondent went on, the content of the letters being described shifted. Some of the letters were from other troubled teenagers. They were writing the gunman trying to reach out to him. Some of them recounted how difficult it had been for them in high school with mental disorders of their own. Some of them wanted to be his pen pal. A Girl Scout troop in New Jersey actually sent a letter saying this:
“Dear Nikolas, Know that you are prayed for…. May you realize the wrong you did. We will lift you up and all those that you changed their lives on that day. May God Forgive.”
At this point, I began to wonder, why exactly was this correspondent so disgusted? If we agree with her emotions, why are we?
In my conversations with atheists about Jesus, I’ve found that often what bothers them is the idea that the Christian God is so “vindictive” as to cast unbelievers into Hell forever. This hit a lot closer to home when I was a Fundamentalist Protestant because, if I were honest, that was exactly what I believed. The believers went to Heaven. The unbelievers went to Hell. And both were forever. The Catholic view is a little more nuanced than that. You can’t really pin that accusation on us quite as easily.
But on the flip side, a view that you can pin on us Catholics (and another difficulty for many atheists) is the problem of God’s overwhelming willingness to forgive and forget. How can God allow into eternal paradise a serial rapist and murderer, for example, who lives his whole life in iniquity but then repents on death row? Isn’t he literally getting away with murder? How is that fair? How is that just? What is the rational explanation for this?
The truth is, there isn’t any. The thing about God’s love is that it isn’t rational. It’s downright scandalous. It’s like a Girl Scout troop sending a message of love and consolation to a school shooter. It doesn’t make sense.
One of the most well-known and beloved stories Jesus ever told was the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you don’t know it, it’s a cautionary tale about this younger brother in a family who, instead of waiting for his father to die before getting his inheritance, asked for his inheritance while the father was still alive – which, when you think about it, is just about the most insulting thing a child could ask of his parent. The father gave him the money anyway, though, and the child went off and squandered it on prostitutes and wild living.
However, at this point, a famine hit the land. After the young man had spent every last penny his father had given him, he became desperately poor and realized how stupid he was to leave home. So he decided he would return home to his father, expecting to be an outcast to the family but maybe, if he was lucky, a servant in his father’s house. But the father, being terribly worried about his wayward son and loving him dearly, when he so his son walking towards home, did the exact opposite and ran to meet him before he even got to the door. He dressed him in a fine robe, killed a fatted calf for him, and threw a party celebrating his return.
The older brother, however, who hadn’t left his father and hadn’t squandered his father’s money, saw how everyone was celebrating his younger brother’s return. And he became so bitter that he refused to join the party. The father went outside and tried to convince him to come in and celebrate. “We have to celebrate,” the old man said. “My son was lost and now is found – was dead and is now alive.” Jesus, at that point in the story, left it up in the air as to whether the older brother actually came in or not.
For most of my life, I thought that that story was told to help the wayward sons and daughters of this world – to help them realize that God can forgive them even if they’ve gone so far from Him they think He could never take them back. And yes, you can pull that message from the parable. But that’s not who the parable was originally for. If you read the parable in it’s larger context, you’ll realize Jesus was telling the story to the religious leaders who were indignant about the fact that He was hanging out with the scum of society – the corrupt tax collectors, the prostitutes, the sinners. The story was an attempt at calling the religious leaders – the “older brothers” – to come in and join the party.
Nikolas Cruz’s lawyers describe him as a broken person. An article recently said he had been put on suicide watch. I don’t mean at all to downplay the rightful sorrow and outrage of the friends and family of the seventeen people who were killed by him, and God only knows what’s really going on in his head.
But if we find ourselves disgusted at the fact that God would love both the sinner and those he has sinned against, it won’t bring those seventeen lost back from the dead. We’ll probably only add one more to the list: Mr. Cruz himself.
© Jon Holowaty 2018
Image: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (Spanish, 1617 – 1682 ), The Return of the Prodigal Son, public domain