Dylann Roof, a white young adult, was convicted last month of murdering nine African American churchgoers, murders motivated by Roof’s intense racial hatred. This past week, four black young adults, were arrested for kidnapping, torturing, and battering, a white, mentally disabled young man. What causes this kind of behavior? What does God have to say about all this?
The kind of racial hatred displayed by Dylann Roof and these four Chicago young people seems inconceivable to us. What causes it? Some have suggested that all these young people acted so terribly because they had never been taught right from wrong, they had no moral instruction. But, according to Scripture, we don’t need instruction to discern the difference between right and wrong. People actually know the difference between good and evil because God has created all of humanity with conscience. That’s why Paul wrote, that “the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences testify in support of this, and their competing thoughts either accuse or excuse them (Romans 2:15). Beyond this, after a judge denied bail for the four young people charged with torturing this disabled person, the grandmother of the two young women charged appeared outside of court, she apologized as she hustled past the reporters, and then said, “I didn’t raise them like that.” I believe her. She probably did teach these two young women right from wrong, and still they chose to participate in these wicked actions. This kind of racial hatred does not come from lack of moral instruction.
Others have suggested that these kinds of evil actions are a result of society. We’re all to blame. We have so ratcheted up our political discourse, that it encourages young people to act viciously and violently. It’s as if they have no choice but to act this way. But we all have a choice. Proverbs 1 reminds us that “if sinners entice you, don’t be persuaded. If they say—“Come with us. Let’s set an ambush and kill someone.” or “Let’s attack some innocent person just for fun . . . don’t travel that road with them or set foot on their path” (Prov 1:10-11, 15). Even if some are encouraging evil actions, no person has to act on it. The hate speech of our society is no excuse for acting in a hateful way. We are warned not to listen to them.
So what is the real cause of racial violence? The answer came to me in my reading of Scripture Friday morning. As I read Psalm 53, I was struck by this truth:
The fool says in his heart, “God does not exist.” They are corrupt, and they do vile deeds. There is no one who does good. God looks down from heaven on the human race to see if there is one who is wise and who seeks God. Everyone has turned aside; they have all become corrupt. There is no one who does good, not even one. (Psa 53:1-3)
These verses reminded me of a time when I was giving a talk about terrorism, and in the question period, someone who was seeking to justify terrorism because of suffering, asked me if I knew why terrorists blew up buses or killed people. I answered, yes, I did. It was because of depravity. That answer was not what she wanted to hear about poverty or mistreatment but depravity is the correct answer. People hate, torture and kill on racial grounds because of human sinfulness. Total depravity does not mean that we are all as sinful as we can be, but that sinfulness grips every person. If we don’t restrain ourselves, and instead give ourselves over to evil, we will get worse and worse, and do the unthinkable. I once heard a theologian, speaking of the Holocaust say, If we allow it, there is an Eichmann in every one of us, desiring to come out.
So if depravity is the problem, then the only hope we have for anyone is the message of Jesus. We’re all sinful, whether big or little sins, and we need a Redeemer. Jesus died, taking the punishment for our sins and was raised to give us new life. Unless we trust in Him, our society, our culture, ourselves, are all doomed. But if we do trust in Jesus, we can experience forgiveness of sin and transformation into a new person. That’s the promise of the good news: If anyone trusts in Jesus, “there is a new creation. Old things have passed away. And look, new things have come” (2 Cor 5:17). And that’s the only hope for our world, our country, our cities, and ourselves.