By Jeffrey R. Dickson, PhD
In response to the kind of tragedies recently witnessed in El Paso and Dayton Ohio, many people are left with questions. Why do things like this happen? Who/what is to blame? What can be done to prevent this? And, an especially important inquiry on either a conscious or subconscious level: what salvation, if any, is there from this broken world?
The answer to this question depends on how you define two principle terms: “brokenness” and “salvation.” Buddhists understand brokenness as the result of the gap between reality and expectations/desires. Salvation for them comes through the alleviation of one’s aspirations and is ultimately reached in enlightenment/nirvana. Muslims understand brokenness as the result of personal disobedience to Allah’s commands. Salvation from such is achieved through perpetual repentance and personally atoning for these grievances through a program of good works. Their salvation is realized in a future paradise. Though these and so many other worldviews differ on the specifics, ultimately they endorse a works-based salvation program (be it five pillars, an eightfold path, etc.) in which human effort plays a significant role in accomplishing what these define as a preferred destiny.
However, salvation, particularly of a works-based variety, is not limited to theistic or spiritualistic worldviews. Though not couched in spiritual terms, atheists and/or agnostics provide their own interpretations of a preferred ultimate destiny. These also endorse a works-based program to that end. Some, for instance believe that economic inequality is the underlining source of the world’s problems and look to things like redistribution and other political/legislative measures to provide a balancing of the scales. Others believe that ignorance is the cause of pervasive strife and look to the education to provide relief. However, I want to focus on a particularly radical understanding of brokenness and even more radical solution that was entertained in a most horrifying way last week in El Paso, TX. The mass shooter responsible for this tragedy published a manifesto that attempted to explain the unexplainable and provide what (at least in his own disturbed mind) might be referred to as reasons behind the unthinkable acts that were committed. One excerpt of this manifesto is especially telling:
“The decimation of the environment is creating a massive burden for future generations. Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment by shamelessly overharvesting resources. This has been a problem for decades. For example, this phenomenon is brilliantly portrayed in the decades old classic ‘The Lorax.’ Water sheds around the country, especially in agricultural areas, are being depleted. Fresh water is being polluted from farming and oil drilling operations. Consumer culture is creating thousands of tons of unnecessary plastic waste and electronic waste, and recycling to help slow this down is almost non-existent. Urban sprawl creates inefficient cities which unnecessarily destroys millions of acres of land. We even use god knows how many trees worth of paper towels just wipe water off our hands. Everything I have seen and heard in my short life has led me to believe that the average American isn’t willing to change their lifestyle, even if the changes only cause a slight inconvenience. The government is unwilling to tackle these issues beyond empty promises since they are owned by corporations. Corporations that also like immigration because more people means a bigger market for their products. I just want to say that I love the people of this country, but …. most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.” — Excerpt from the manifesto of the El Paso, TX shooter
Though there are still many questions concerning the motivations of the mass shooter and though he certainly (and thankfully) does not represent everyone beholden to any one worldview (nor all environmentalists, nor all conservationists, etc.), there is a familiar logic present in this passage that demands attention (dangerously twisted logic, but logic nonetheless). If brokenness is delimited to unsustainability caused by a misappropriation of resources and overpopulation, then measures taken toward sustainability and controlling, even shrinking, the population are not beyond the scope of work that is necessary to achieve a preferred end—i.e. a thriving earth that lasts forever. Though this troubled individual worked toward his own view of salvation in a most radical and tragic way, his manifesto reveals that he believed, at least in part, that his work was necessary to reach an ultimate goal.
In this way, the horror of the mass shooting in El Paso is a particularly vivid illustration of what happens when salvation by works is attempted—it fails. It fails for the Buddhist who disenfranchises his/herself from that which was created to be enjoyed and celebrated. It fails for the followers of Islam who never know this side of eternity whether or not they have done enough to appease a frustrated Allah. And it failed for the El Paso shooter who accomplished nothing toward environmental stability and instead brought only more chaos and brokenness into an already volatile world. Salvation by works doesn’t work, no matter who tries it, and can prove especially dangerous in the hands of the troubled and misinformed.
Thankfully, there is an alternative to the myriad of iterations of the same tired model explored above. Christianity, rightly understood, teaches that the brokenness of this world is a result of human sin that infected not only the human race and all of her capacities (both personal and corporate), but all systems at work in the universe. This brokenness created, among other things, a separation between humanity and the Creator. Salvation is the alleviation of this gap and all of the blessings appertaining thereunto—forgiveness, justification, transformation, eternal life, etc. This salvation is not achieved through works done on the part of broken sinners, but bestowed by God Himself. God made flesh entered our broken world, was himself broken under the weight of sin upon being put to death, and then rose again three days later, demonstrating his victory over the problem of brokenness in the world. Those who turn from the broken world and their broken selves and trust in the one who was broken on their behalf are granted the salvation they desperately need.
Because the responsibility of providing salvation from brokenness lies not in the human person or in human systems, but in God Himself—an impeccable and unbroken being—this program (among other things) cannot be as easily abused, manipulated, or twisted to justify dangerous, self-serving, or misinformed pursuits. Not only is it a safer salvation method, but it is more effective at yielding what is sought. After all, anyone who attempts salvation by works is himself/herself part of the problem they are seeking to remedy (after all, how can that which is broken be used to fix anything, let alone itself?). If we can learn anything from the ravings of a crazed lunatic published in a rambling manifesto, may it be that works-based salvation programs—whether endorsed by the theist, spiritualist or the atheist—are not only ineffective, but potentially dangerous if pursued by those who are especially troubled.
Jeffrey Dickson is an adjunct professor of theology and Bible at Liberty University School of Divinity and serves as the senior pastor of Crystal Spring Baptist Church in Roanoke, VA. Jeffrey has a wife and four children.