Tuesday night we were watching Law & Order: SVU and I was intrigued by part of the defence. The claim was made that witnessing an act of gun violence made one far more likely to commit such an act. The claim was made that it is like catching a disease.
Now, at its heart there is nothing new here. It is the same logic which claims that violent movies/TV shows/video games make children more violent. And in part I agree. Desensitization is real. WE can easily become so inured to these things that we don't feel the outrage anymore (the TV news being a prime example). But there is something missing. Correct me if I am wrong but aren't we still responsible for our actions?
The argument made on SVU was essentially that the defendant (a child who killed his mother's murderer) was fated to act violently, that he had lost the ability to choose otherwise because he had become infected by this disease. When the expert witness was asked about others who witness gun violence and don't shoot someone his response was "your body is exposed to millions of viruses but you don't always get sick". Here I have a problem. We are still responsible for making choices. The defendant in question was told by the detectives "we'll get him" but still acted on his anger (and some guilt) to engage in an act of vengeance. Understandable yes, worthy of a plea-agreement, but not an chance to escape responsibility.
This stayed with me because I am working with John the Baptist for Sunday. John is an uncomfortable fellow. Uncomfortable because he pushed people to repent. He pushed people to name and face what they had done (although we are reading Mark, and he omits the "brood of vipers" language used in Matthew and Luke) and that is something that we don't like to hear or do in the church as I have experienced it. We seem to have forgotten that judgment and justice are part of the life of faith, choosing instead to focus on grace and mercy. And that we do at our peril. A society that has lost the balance between justice and grace, judgment and mercy, is a society that will never find true just-living.
Do aspects of our world lead, or even push, us to act in certain ways? Undoubtedly. Is it possible for us to lose sight of right and wrong? Of course (for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways). Does that mean we have a "Get out of trouble free card"? NO. We still have the ability to choose and the responsibility to choose wisely. As a part of a community we also have the responsibility to help others learn to make wise choices. Sometimes that means calling them to account for the choices they have made before.
God is gracious and merciful. God is also just. We need the John's in our world to remind us of God's justice.