"Now I'll be famous." These are among the last words written by the young man who killed himself after having murdered eight people and injured five others when he fired a rifle in a mall in Omaha, Neb. He isn't the only such shooter to expect a violent act to redeem his life or bring fame, but that didn't make his actions easier to understand.
I found an answer in something Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, wrote of a time when she visited the man who assassinated US President Garfield: "I ... found him in the mental state called moral idiocy. He had no sense of his crime; but regarded his act as one of simple justice, and himself as the victim" ("Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896," p. 112). Speaking further of moral idiocy, she said, "... it ends in a total loss of moral, intellectual, and spiritual discernment ..."
That seems to describe more than one of these violent shootings. But the questions arise: What can be done to prevent them? How can you stay safe during them? One answer that gave me comfort is to develop spiritual intuition, which helps reveal if something is amiss and what to do about it.
Prayer and a commitment to thinking of individuals in spiritual terms – as the cared-for children of God – help sharpen such discernment. Looking at others as spiritual doesn't hide dangerous tendencies. Rather, these characteristics tend to stand out more because they aren't in accord with the spiritual man or woman one is expecting to see.
Since each of us truly is spiritual, no one actually wants to be destructive or harmful. God didn't make us that way. We are made to love and to be loved. So to best help such an individual, we need to love him or her deeply, spiritually.
This isn't a matter of humanly willing someone to behave in a certain way or ignoring dangerous faults. Rather, it's a conviction that the love of Christ, God's message of redemption for humanity, will transcend the downward, destructive tendencies and lead the individual toward healing.
Sometimes that journey to healing comes gradually through loving friends or family. Other times, some kind of professional care may be needed. Each of us can cultivate the spiritual skills to perceive clearly what will best help a troubled friend and keep others safe.
This prayer for discernment can also include prayer for guidance in the middle of a violent situation. I once worked in an office located on the top floor of a small house in New York City. We were having security problems because a man who appeared to be mentally unclear kept getting in and harassing employees.
One night I was in my office, and a great wave of fear came over me. I felt that I should leave at once. Since the lights on the first floor were off, I had to walk down three flights of stairs into the darkness. I did so, praying as I went, but instead of praying for my own safety, I found myself much more vigorously affirming that no one could be tempted to commit an evil act that would harm me and also be bad for him. I was so scared that I was shaking as I went, but I continued to pray.
When I reached the front door, I felt a strong intuition to stop, which I obeyed. As I looked out, I saw the man leave the building through the basement exit. With great joy, I left a few minutes later. Neither of us had become the victim of evil.
This is a small example of how God's love can protect all parties to a potentially violent encounter. For me, it affirms that this verse from the Bible is true: "The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore" (Ps. 121:8). It's a promise we must prove for ourselves, but it's a promise filled with hope.